A TERRIBLE FAVOR
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- When your loved ones ask you to help them kill themselves, rest assured that it's going to hurt you at least as much as it hurts them.
Twelve years ago, when my brother was dying, he asked me to do him that terrible favor. Today, my favorite aunt is asking me to do the same thing.
My brother was only 47 when cancer turned him into a bed-ridden, yellowing skeleton - far from the tall, handsome, charismatic man he once had been. Morphine kept away the pain, but he suffered terrible anxiety attacks when he wasn't cruising that opiate highway.
Always a clever man, he somehow managed to collect extra sleeping pill prescriptions. Then he sent me to the library to study the Physicians Desk Reference and find out how many pills it would take to end his life. Then he sent me to the pharmacy.
While I waited for the pharmacist to fill the prescriptions, I did some food shopping. I was standing in the meat section of the Woodstock, N.Y., Grand Union when my whole body started to shake and I burst into tears.
"I'm going to kill my brother," I sobbed as strangers walked past me and stared.
As it happened, my brother never used the pills. Two agonizing months later, his body simply gave out. Right after the morticians left, I searched his house for the pills. When I returned to Vermont, I wrapped them in plastic and tucked them away in my freezer; they're still there. I don't know if they're still potent, but they're my safety valve, just as they were my brother's.
Now my beloved aunt Sylvia, who is 87, wants to die. And she has every reason to - she's had a horrible streak of bad luck with her health.
A few years ago, a simple colonoscopy went bad and sent her into emergency surgery; she came out with a colostomy bag. For one reason or another, that first surgery had to be followed by five others. A malpractice suit might be lurking in this story, but no lawyer will take the case because Sylvia is not only old - she's poor.
At one point last year, she came so close to dying that I rushed down to New York to help her daughter decide if she should "pull the plug." We didn't know Sylvia's wishes, so, to her later dismay, she was saved.
Unfortunately, during her last surgery someone inadvertently poked a hole in Sylvia's internal plumbing. Her belly started filling with gelatinous fluid, and because she had already undergone so many operations, no surgeon was willing to open her up, find the leak, and repair it.
Bravely, Sylvia learned to function with a shifting, heavy liquid lap. She got around the nursing home in a wheelchair, making friends with residents and staff. She never lost her considerable mental capabilities, and as horrifying as her situation was, she always hoped she would someday get better and return home.
Last week, however, the fluid began to flow faster; it filled up her belly, pressed on her lungs, and she began to suffocate. She was rushed to a hospital and doctors pumped out the fluid. But they couldn't find the leak with imaging technology, and again they refused to operate.
So her life was saved, but what kind of life- that's the question. I went down to New York to visit her last week, and she asked me to bring her a gun.
More and more, it seems, people are reaching a time in their lives where, even though they don't want to die, they don't want to live in a rapidly decaying body, either.
A friend of mine, for example, has a 91-year-old father. He can't hear and he can't see. His once-sharp mind is almost gone, but it's not gone enough so that he doesn't know that it's going. He's weak, he's frail, and he's just recovered from a bout of pneumonia.
"I don't understand why I'm here," he says.
Certainly Sylvia is depressed, but she has good reason. Prozac won't change the fact that she has so many tubes in her that she's helpless. She can't walk, eat or go to the bathroom. It's clear that things aren't going to get better. Yet in a weird way, she's still healthy. Her heart, her lungs - all her vital systems - are working fine. She's trapped; she's looking at a lifetime sentence of helplessness, vulnerability and daytime television. If I were in her place, I might want to die, too.
While I was in New York, I ran into an old friend who had been in a similar situation with a frail old aunt.
"She said she wanted to die but she didn't know how," my friend said. "I told her, 'You've been going to the opera since you were 21. If you can't figure out how to commit suicide, you're hopeless.'"
My friend, I realized, understood that her job wasn't to help her aunt kill herself, but - with kindness, gentleness and humor - give her aunt a safe place to vent her very justified rage, anguish and despair.
I tried that technique with Sylvia. I pointed out that although she put a "Do Not Resuscitate" order on her chart after last year's emergency, when the fluid began pressing down on her lungs, she begged for help.
"When push came to shove," I said, "you really didn't want to die."
Then I offered to bring her my brother's pills. Horrified, she immediately reverted to being my aunt.
"Throw them away before you hurt yourself," she commanded. But in the next breath, she asked me to find out how long it would take to starve herself to death, and what she would have to do to make the doctors take out the feeding tubes.
I think she finds some comfort in knowing that she can have some control - if not over her life, than over the way it ends. That there's a safety valve for her, even if it's an unpleasant one.
The day after I got back to Vermont, Sylvia called and asked if I would be her medical proxy. She made it clear that case something else should happen and she loses consciousness, the doctors should let her go. I accepted the responsibility.
But now I can't stop thinking about that afternoon I spent in the Woodstock Grand Union.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.