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When We’re Done

My dear friend E. emailed that she was carjacked at gunpoint and would phone when she was less shaken. A few days later, we talked.

“The first thing I thought when I saw the gun at my chest was death. Is this the way I’m going to die?”

I’ve thought of E.’s question plenty, changing it a bit, making it my own. Minus the gun to the chest, I’m wondering how I’ll die. I thought about this often after my husband’s death in 2008 and when my parents died.

A few days ago, I picked up the weekly paper, the food issue, in the lobby of my building, took it up to my tiny space, placed it on the countertop. There’s something a little incongruous—all the restaurant pieces, the recipes—just pages from the obituaries. I scanned the recipes but segued to death notices, looking for deceased whose ages were near mine. Someone fought a valiant, two-year battle with pancreatic cancer. Another braved a longer fight, six years. Breast cancer. “She died peacefully, her family at her side.”

“Jesus,” I said aloud, “I don’t want this—a long diminishment lasting years as a malignancy consumes, metastasizes, and invades my brain and bones.” And I especially don’t want my children to be burdened.

One of my best friends, a college roommate, whom I can’t think about without crying, died two years ago of leukemia. I talked with her frequently as she, in her ever-positive way, convinced me she would “beat it.” I see her as she was during college days. It’s hard to imagine a world without her. But my world is without her. Without many loved ones, because I’ve reached THAT age. And I’m wondering who will be next.

Over a year ago, I attended a death with dignity discussion panel. Keynote speaker was Barbara Mancini, representing Compassion and Choices. Read about her here, a harrowing and gut wrenching story, then Google her name for more information. Panel speakers included someone from Not Dead Yet Disability Rights, two ministers, ethics professors, Rep. Pricey Harrison, who’s sponsored the NC Death with Dignity Bill, and a representative from Final Exit Network (death with dignity), which I recently joined.

Back to E., the gun, her question if this would be the way she’d die. I said, “Quick, but messy.” Messy, yes, but anyone who’s had experience with certain cancers knows the disease can be horrifyingly nasty. I’ve written about my mother’s decision to have no more medical screenings after Daddy died, her illness, the choice she made to stop eating, the nine days it took for her to die—that right to die—as we the Sisterhood cared for her.
We should have a pop-up timer in our body, like the plastic device in a turkey or chicken, that announces when to be removed from the oven: done. Not another pacemaker. Not another stint. No more chemo, no more radiation. No more more.

Unfortunately, I don’t live in one of the states that has a death-with-dignity statute. North Carolina does however allow open carry of firearms. Insanity, huh?

Interlude: I began this article a few days before yet another mass murder. Before I endured yet another someone, on the radio, say, and I paraphrase, “There’s no place for this kind of violence in America.” I was driving when I heard this. And thought my ears would bleed—not only because it’s standard political opportunism, the posturing after each killing spree involving a nutter with an arsenal, but also a detachment, the unfuckingacceptable disconnect, from the carnage US foreign policy exacts on those the government pronounces objects—or unhuman.

Returning now to E. and her question: Is this the way I’m going to die? which lead to other questions and thoughts about death, about assisted suicide, and the relief that this option offers when one is DONE—it’s what I want. My children know. We’ve discussed it and continue to discuss it. They honor their mother. There is no greater love than this.

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Missy Beattie has written for National Public Radio and Nashville Life Magazine. She was an instructor of memoirs writing at Johns Hopkins’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in BaltimoreEmail: missybeat@gmail.com

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