mardi, mars 01, 2005

On Euthanasia

I received this email today regarding a friend who lives in Arizona and whose father is terminally ill:

When Kristine got to Texas she found out that her father had not actually passed away. The Dr. called her grandmother to tell her they had found no brain activity and that he was brain dead. The message was misunderstood and calls were made stating he passed on. Kristine flew out to Texas Friday on the 1st flight she could get. They had a family meeting with the Dr. on Saturday and decided to take him off Life Support. During previous attempts to take him off, he flat lined so Dr.'s only gave him 2 hrs to live once it was removed. This time he was able to breathe on his own and is still breathing on his own as of this morning but with some difficulty. He has been taken off all but one of his medications and has been removed from all monitoring machines. There is nothing more that the Dr.'s can do for him so they are looking to send him home for his final days, or find a facility for him.

Euthanasia is much discussed these days. It has been prominently featured in film since the days of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Terri Schiavo is a regular on the news. I have two personal experiences that bring the topic to mind for me. I just shared one, and now I want to tell you about the other. I want to tell you about my friend Paris.

Paris died on December 26, 2004.

I moved to Minnesota in August of 1990. I was a student at the University of Minnesota’s law school, and all of my friends were law students. Our conversations were all the same. “Professor Marshall is so brutal!” Do you understand the rule against perpetuities?” “What is the holding of Katko v. Briney?”

The first friend I made in Minnesota who was not an attorney or law student, was my friend Paris Bickharry. I learned his last name when I read his funeral announcement in the paper. It just so happens that Paris was the man who cut my hair. For 14 years, I would go to his shop. I would say nothing to him about what I wanted my hair to look like, he cut it just the way I like it. He cut my hair when I barely had money to pay him; he cut my hair once when I forgot my wallet. He was there when I graduated from law school. He was there when I passed the bar. He was there when my dog died. He was there when I lost a love. He was there when I got married. He was there when my daughter was born. “Paris, I need a haircut so that my new baby girl won’t see me looking all ruffed up.” My goodness, he was so happy for me on that day.

I hope I was half the friend to Paris that he was to me. Of course, I asked after his family and his life. He was an outstanding fisherman (his shop was full of pictures of him holding up a line of fish). His son goes to the University of Wisconsin. His daughter attends St. Bernard school in St. Paul. He was married to Kathy, and he loved his son, his daughter and his wife very much. I know because he told me all the time.

Paris was no fan of the Bush administration, and he would rail on against racism and classism at the slightest provocation. Is it any wonder I loved him so?

Paris was my favorite personal vendor (my brother in law taught me that term – we all have personal vendors and business vendors – when he explained the concept to me, he said “Paris is one of your favorite personal vendors”). The one thing I can say on my behalf is this: almost all of my Minnesota friends can tell you the name of my barber. “Looks like you went to Paris!” My friend Kelli would say that to me all the time. It was such a joke too…his shop (the name of it was “Paris’ Little Hair House”) was far from the glamour and grandeur of the city on the Seine.

Sometime in 2004, Paris found out that he had inoperable and terminal cancer. He would not tell me what kind nor would he tell me that it was terminal, and I never understood why until he died. He moved his shop from the familiar place close to the University and opened doors near his home (not far from my own) in the North End of St. Paul (he changed the name of his shop to “Paris’ North End Barbers”). It was a dream to open a neighborhood shop. It was his dream to have a neighborhood place where men (and women) of all races would get their haircut together. Twice, when he cut my hair there, I was sitting next to a white man who was getting his hair cut at the same time (something I had never done before (and I’m darn near 40). He cut hair there for 3 months. Man, I can’t tell you how happy he looked at his new place. As long as I live, I will never forget seeing him in that shop for the first time. I will never forget the look on his face, and I will never forget the hug he gave me.

Paris knew he was dying all along. He hired his replacement. He gathered his family around, and he said goodbye. I’m told he passed away peacefully in the company of his wife and his children.

If I found out tomorrow that I had the same cancer that Paris had, this is what I would do:

I would give thanks for my time on earth. My life has been a happy one for the most part.

I would gather my friends and enemies and coworkers and family near and tell them what I’m told hospice patients are taught to say –

First, I would say “thank you.”

Then I would say “I’m sorry.” I know I’ve stepped on toes. I know I’ve trespassed. I would apologize.

I would say “I forgive you;” I hold no grudges. I hate no one, but I would want everyone to know that there is nothing negative that I would carry with me.”

Last, I would say to everyone “I love you.”

I would go to California and play a round of golf at Pebble Beach, and Spyglass Hill and The Links at Spanish Bay (while there, I’d drop in on my friend Tim in the San Mateo area)

I would come home and have a big party. Then, I’d wait for death to come. I would not end my life (but I would want to).

And here’s why: I have life insurance that my family would need. Second, it’s illegal.

When one is terminally ill, it would be nice if they had the option to alleviate their suffering and make a decision to end their lives. I support euthanasia because it provides options for those who want them. Yes, it’s true, you can’t punish the dead, and (some) people can (and do) make their own decision to end it, but there is dignity in allowing the terminally ill some sanctioned control over their destiny. We have the capacity for this kindness, and we have the ability to determine (in many instances) that an individual is terminally ill and will (with certainty) die soon.

A quick thought on Terri Schiavo. I have no idea what to do there. I can only say this. Neither my wife nor I want to be kept alive using life-support or other heroic means. I once had a living will made, but I need to update it (my attorney reads this blog from time to time, and “hello dear, I need to update”). I respect and love my in-laws a great deal, but if (horror of horrors) my wife were in a PVS (persistent vegetative state – and I understand that is in dispute with Ms. Schiavo), knowing her wishes, I would challenge my in-laws if they wanted to employ heroic means. I would hope my right to assert her wishes would not be limited by any mistakes I made after she became comatose. The challenging part of the case for me is not whether she should have the right to die. It’s not even whether she is in a PVS or not. It’s definitely not whether or not her husband is a jerk. It’s determining what her wishes are. The moral of that story for me is: people should write things down.

I know for a fact that my friend Paris wanted to live. He did not have life insurance. He could have made the decision to end his life without financial repercussions to his family (if anything it might have saved his estate some financial hardships they face now), but he didn’t. By not doing it, he got to fulfill his dream and to spend a few more days with his loved ones. I hope he felt he had options, and I hope that if he did, he was glad for the decision he made.

Two families facing a difficult decision: In one case a family decided to hasten the journey. In another the family waited until the time arrived. My only point is this: there is no universally correct answer. What we want for all families who face these difficult decisions is options.