Note: Yesterday, California became the fifth—and most populous—state to pass an assisted dying bill. The California law, which was modeled on an Oregon law, will permit physicians to provide lethal prescriptions to mentally competent adults who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness and face the expectation that they will die within six months.
The following story relates how my mother’s terminal illness fortified my own views on the subject and led me to a greater appreciation of the pro-life view of death and dying.
“What if you die overseas and I’m not there,” my mom said when I told her I had joined the Marines. I laughed and said that even if I were a civilian and died in the United States she most likely wouldn’t be there. Still, she worried that she would one day get a call saying that I’d been killed or was dying far from home.
My mother worried for nothing. Instead, over a decade later, I was the one who got the dreaded phone call.
“Mom’s not expected to live much longer,” my younger brother said. “You might want to come home.” I had just arrived in Okinawa and had to fly back to mainland Japan. As I waited another three days for the next plane back to the United States, I began to wonder if I’d make it home in time.
Two years earlier, when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, my brother built a room onto his house so that she could live with him and his family. The past few months had been especially hard on them. The constant care, the weekly trips for the chemotherapy treatments to a Dallas hospital, two hours each way, the anxiety of watching her get worse, had worn them down.
When they picked me up from the airport they tried to be warm, but our meeting was strained. On the ride home they made clear to me—politely but unmistakably—that the prodigal son would be expected to take his turn shouldering the burden.
I hadn’t seen mom since she was diagnosed. The redheaded, vibrant woman had been replaced with a bald, weak shell of a human being. Our reunion was awkward and bittersweet.
I masked my discomfort by falling into a regular routine. At night I’d sit on her bed, prepare her medicines, including the morphine she needed for the pain, and then swab the shunt in her chest with rubbing alcohol. Concern about an infection seemed to be an absurd worry when the tumors were destroying her from within. But I performed the task with the utmost care and pretended that it made a difference. We would make small talk as she drifted in and out of sleep.
Four or five nights after I had returned home, I began loading the needle with morphine when I felt a strange impulse, similar to the urge to jump that overcomes you when you stand on the edge of a bridge. An extra dose, I thought. That is all it would take. My family would wake in the morning to a sense of guilty relief and the welcome release of dammed up grief.
There would be no autopsy, no questions. No one would know. An extra dose of morphine and the waiting and the pain and the suffering and the dying would all come to an end.
I sat with the syringe in hand, watching her labored breathing. My mother was dying, and dying in pain. And I could make it stop.
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