My Right to Life Blog
By Kathy Reschini Sweeney
This one has been percolating for a long time, and I need to start writing again, so here we go.
If you are here for a discussion about abortion, forget it. I for one am sick and tired of the emotionally-charged issue of abortion eclipsing the entire concept of rights and life. As if life is more precious in utero than it is on terra firma.
I want to talk about your rights at the end of your life, not the beginning. I have some experience here - not on a battlefield. At home. Many people would rather come home to die, and if your family has the resources (personal, emotional, financial) to facilitate that wish, you should try.
But the most important thing about the end of life is the right to make your own decisions about how you want your body to be treated.
The death of a family member is awful. There is no getting around it. Even when one's theology (like mine) believes that eternal life is the miracle we celebrate our entire lives, the physical body's last breath is still a shock.
The only thing that made it bearable for my family - and we are two generations into this cycle during my lifetime - is that our loved ones made their wishes known ahead of time. At a time when they were cogent and rational, and in control.
Maybe there are some of you out there who don't have any control issues. Bless you. My genes run rampant with them - on both sides. Why do you think the Irish and the Italians party so hard?
No one can control their time of death - but you can control the way you die, and believe me when I tell you, it may be one of the only things that keeps your surviving family and friends sane. That and Hospice (VNA's Hospice Program is a gift from God - no kidding - and if you have the means, you should support them.)
The way you do this - the way you give the greatest gift to your family - is to create a Living Will. They are also called Health Care Directives. If you want a gentle, less legal one, go to Five Wishes: http://www.agingwithdignity.org/five-wishes.php
That particular website allows you to print out a document - be sure to check for your state of residence to see if there is anything special you need to do. Otherwise, google Living Will and [your state/country] and you will find tons of examples. You do not need to pay a lawyer to accomplish this - although if you are doing estate planning, a good lawyer will make you do one as part of the process.
As most of you know, my Dad died this month. To say that my Dad had control issues would be akin to saying the sun is kind of hot if you get too close. Most of his friends can tell you what he wanted at the end of his life on earth (he wasn't a shy guy, either). When he fell last summer, we talked a lot about what he wanted when he died. He was very clear from the beginning. I knew exactly what he wanted - and more importantly - what he did not want. I did not necessarily agree with him (another shocker) but I understood. He completed all the necessary legal documents to formalize his wishes.
When the time came, it was much harder to follow his directions than I thought. And it wasn't because we butted heads from the time I could talk. It was because I didn't want him to die. I wanted him here, to drive us all crazy, for a little longer.
The staff at Shadyside's CICU were wonderful. They supported his wishes and my duty to uphold them. (Except for one surgeon - yes, I get that they cut to heal but when the patient doesn't want that - back the hell off the family - it's hard enough, you jerk. I had to have him banned from the room because he was upsetting everyone, and frankly, it was hard enough for me and my siblings to stay tough without some insensitive stranger trying to guilt us into something we knew Dad did not want.)
We were able to get Dad home. We set him up in a hospital bed so he could look out his balcony windows on the town he loved so much. We would point out all the buildings he helped create, in one way or another. He recognized the very few of his oldest friends who came to say goodbye. We kept our promise to Dad that no one would see him at the end. Bad enough he wasn't in a suit and tie - but he didn't want anyone to see him unable to talk or sit up. I know we offended a lot of people by keeping them away, but that's what Dad wanted and that is what we did, and we are not going to apologize for it. If you care about someone, tell them now.
When one decides that the only measures they want at the end are relief from pain and to preserve one's own dignity, there comes a time when there is nothing to do but wait and pray. I am not going to sugar coat it - it's brutal. We found ourselves counting his breaths, then counting the seconds between breaths. I held my hand over his great heart and felt it falter and then pick up a strong beat. I held his hand and I grieved because I didn't want to lose him again.
And we waited with him. We promised he would not die alone. We promised he would not have pain. We promised we would protect him from anyone seeing him at what he considered his worst hours. We prayed and we talked to him and we assured him that he had trained all of us well enough to pick up his work. We promised him that his time for fighting was over - that we would continue to battle on his behalf so he could rest.
There are no words to describe how hard it was. If we had to settle arguments over his care, or his wishes, I never would have survived it without a total breakdown.
And in the end, the greatest way to show our love for him was to honor and respect his wishes. We could only do that because we knew exactly what those were. I found great strength in taking care of him the way he wanted, no matter how emotionally painful it became.
I am now asking you, my friends and family, to allow your loved ones to honor and love you in the same way. Nobody wants to talk about end of life issues. Tough shit. You have to do it any way, and you have to do it now, while you are healthy and rational.
It will be your last and greatest gift to your family. I know. I kept my promises. It was one of the toughest things I have ever endured, but I am proud that I didn't disappoint my Dad when he needed me most.