Last month, I watched as my father drowned.
There was nothing I could do. He begged for my help many times, but I was unable to throw him a line or extend my hand.
His misery lasted months, not seconds. I watched as he labored to breathe. His moaning took my own breath away.
His last words to me were barely audible: “I love you too.” Fortunately or not, I was spared the final, agonizing hours he had to endure, yet my mother and sisters were not.
My father did not drown in a lake, a river, or an ocean. He drowned in a nursing home in Hollidaysburg. He had ALS. He died as his lungs gradually filled with fluid over an eight-day ordeal.
He had a do-not-resuscitate order and a living will. The staff dutifully followed his prearranged orders: no IV fluids, only pain-management care.
He died slowly. He did not die peacefully. And he did not die with the dignity he wanted or deserved.
For two years up through the last week of his life, he asked me several times to help him end his life, for he knew the struggle ahead would be long and unkind, not only on him, but on our family. I researched his options, offering to move him to Washington or Oregon, even Switzerland, to end his torment.
He declined, choosing to stay and die in his beloved community, with his family and friends surrounding him.
The laws in Pennsylvania forbid any assistance to suicide, punishable by lengthy prison terms. In countless daydreams and restless nights, I developed elaborate schemes on how I could smuggle him sleeping pills by which he could overdose and die in a manner and time of his choosing, without being fingered for the crime.
Had I not had a wife and children, I would have provided for him in his time of greatest need, as he had done for me my entire life.
I couldn’t do it. My kids had too much to lose.
He was disappointed, but he understood my decision. I may never get over the fact that I feel I let him down when he needed me most.
As I sat at his bedside in the final hours, I was angry, quite angry to be honest. I agonized for an answer as to why this is necessary. How is it more compassionate to starve and deny water to a dying person for days than it is to end their misery, at their own request, with an injection of morphine by an attending physician?
At the very basic level, the end result is the same, yet infinitely and undeniably more benevolent and merciful.
Some say the answer to this question is complicated, rife with religious, moral and ethical concerns. I disagree.
The answer is straightforward: The choice of physician-assisted suicide is a basic human right, an option every person must have available to them at the time of their choosing, a resolution unimpeded by anyone or any institution. This is absolute, final individual liberty, a prerogative not to be denied by someone else’s opinions or beliefs.
I had mixed emotions when I read of Brittany Maynard’s private decision to end her life in Oregon, pensively appreciative she was able to end her own suffering with her personal, intimate decision, yet saddened by a young life that ended far too soon.
It is disappointing that many others do not have the same opportunity of emancipation when pain and anguish become too much to bear.
It is time that Pennsylvanians begin to discuss how we will make available the choice of death with dignity.
It can be done with compassion, respect and proper oversight, as has been done in the other states that have enacted this very personal option. It is a travesty and obscenely cruel not to fulfill the final wish of our loved ones in the hour of their greatest need.