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Thursday, March 31, 2005 03:05 am

Matters of life and death


“No one’s death comes to pass without making some impression, and those close to the deceased inherit part of the liberated soul and become richer in their humaneness.”
— Hermann Broch, novelist (1886-1951)

I have been wondering about the impression Terri Schiavo’s life and death will leave on those of us touched by her parents’ battle to keep her alive. Many people who share their religious convictions believe that the Schindler family is right. Others believe that Schiavo’s husband knew that she would not want to live as she is and feel that he has the right to let her die.

This year both of my parents were close to death, and I faced the choice of trying to keep them alive or letting them go. Many people make such decisions every day. I’m willing to bet that they do not see the Schiavo case in the black-and-white way it appears in the headlines. If you had to pick a color to paint such moments, it would more likely be gray.

Last May my father was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia, his third bout that year. He was in the final stage of Parkinson’s disease, which had been diagnosed 12 years earlier. He could no longer walk. Talking was difficult, dementia common. No longer able to swallow properly, he aspirated food into his lungs. The doctor spoke to my sister and me, explaining that although our dad was very ill, the possibility existed that he could recover but the chances were good that he’d be back in the hospital in three or four weeks with the same thing. We could hook him to a ventilator, the doctor said, or let the illness run its course naturally. He said that if extreme measures weren’t taken, death would probably occur within three days.

My father was a stubborn guy. It took 10 days for him to pass, and we were with him constantly. After day five I began having second — and third and fourth — thoughts about whether we had made the right call. I believe in God, and I prayed — a lot. With the perspective of time, I know (as well as one can “know” about such things) that it was my father’s time to die. Prolonging his suffering by sticking a tube down his throat would have been wrong. But if it had been someone else’s father and they had chosen a different course, I would never say that they should have done as I did. Decisions such as these just aren’t that simple.

My mother was in the same nursing home as my father. At the time of his death, she weighed 92 pounds and was unable to keep any food down. Major surgery was followed by a bacterial infection. A feeding tube was suggested. My mother was lucid. She told me that she wanted to live but not if it meant lingering in a nursing home and being fed artificially. We agreed to try the tube feeding but promised that if it didn’t work — if she didn’t start to gain weight and recover — we would have it removed. The tube was inserted nearly a year ago. She started to improve. In late summer it was removed, and in October she went home. Today she is visiting my sister in Arizona and going to the racetrack.

Two lives. Two decisions. One happy ending. A lot of soul-searching, common sense, and prayer. I learned many important lessons from my parents’ illnesses. I know the importance of having an advance directive and of appointing someone to oversee your health care in the event that you are incapable of doing so.

I also learned that it isn’t easy to let go of someone you love.

I pray for Terri Schiavo’s parents. I pray for her husband, and I pray for her. I am not hopeful that the country will reach any kind of agreement on this issue in the near future. We have thrown it into the political arena, where it will be treated like the latest circus act. But perhaps this woman’s death will renew the discussion. And perhaps that discussion that will filter down to the dinner table, where we ask one another, “When the time comes, what do you want?” Talk about it. Then write it down.


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