Becky M. is a senior marketing manager in Boston, Massachusetts.
My father was diagnosed with cancer in the winter of 2008. He was in his late 50s and had just retired from a 30-year career as a science teacher. He was enjoying his newfound freedom when he began experiencing strange gastrointestinal symptoms. He went to see his doctor, and we learned his pain was Stage 4 colorectal cancer.
Immediately, my family and I had questions: What does this mean? What can we do?
A Rollercoaster of Treatment
We stuck by my dad as he began treatment. It was such a rollercoaster. I was in my early 20s at the time and had just finished college. My family struggled to make sense of it all, trying to support my dad through chemo and the pain that went along with it.
My dad was always a stubborn guy. He fought his illness for close to 7 years and refused to give up. He came out of each surgery with energy and eagerness to resume his life. Each time the cancer returned, he would square his shoulders and fight through another round of chemo, unwilling to lose to the disease.
Telling my father’s story is the first step toward having real conversations about my experience that can make a difference.
In August 2014, he had his annual CAT scan and got the message everyone hopes for: “You’re in remission, everything is contained.” A weight lifted off our shoulders with the promise of another 12 months of good health.
My father knew he wasn’t going to live a long life but at that time, he thought he had some good years left. That October, he started to experience symptoms that neither he nor his doctors could place. After multiple tests, pokes, and prods, he received the sobering news that the cancer had metastasized throughout his body in just three months.
My dad was given days to live.
The Final Month
Juggling a new job and grad school, I rushed from Manhattan to Boston to say my goodbyes.
But somehow, my dad made it through the weekend.
He asked us to find a quiet facility where he could spend his last days in peace. My sisters and I made pleading phone calls to find him a hospice center in Fall River, Massachusetts where he grew up. We brought him there when he wasn’t supposed to be alive for more than another week. We sat around my dad’s bedside as he gave his final wishes, said his loving goodbyes, and closed his eyes to rest peacefully.
But he did not die then. He lived another month. It was the worst 4 weeks of my life.
We had no choice but to watch his slow demise. He unraveled as a person, thread by thread. Articulate sentences turned to slurred words and then silence. His 6’3” frame once so strong eventually lay motionless in his bed. My dad was nothing but a shell of a person at the end.
He died just after Thanksgiving. His last Thanksgiving meal was served to him on a tray with us at his bedside. He was barely conscious by then, yet his body would not let go.
No one should lose every function they have. No family member should watch every aspect of their loved one disappear. My dad lost his ability to walk, speak, and eventually, eat and breathe. Though he died after Thanksgiving, the man we knew and loved had left us weeks before.
A couple of weeks into hospice, I turned a corner that left me feeling heartless. At first, I couldn’t stand the thought of my dad passing. But near the end, I was praying for his death. I was looking at my dad and wanting him to die because his suffering and our heartbreak was too great to stand. I thought to myself, “What are you saying? How can you have these thoughts?”
My dad was an old soul raised by a single mother and immigrant grandparents. He loved the land and working with his hands while the rest of society shifted to modern conveniences. He had a dream when he was a kid to finish college—he became the first in his family to accomplish this—and move to the country with a garden and fruit trees.
After he met my mom, they moved to Westport, Massachusetts, the home where I was raised. We grew a lot of our food and had apple, pear, and peach trees scattered throughout our property: exactly what my father worked so hard to achieve. You could always find him in the garden, AM radio blasting the Red Sox game.
Westport is on the Atlantic coast, and my sisters and I grew up on that water. My dad had an old gray wooden skiff that he worked so hard for. Every spring, he would spend days in the driveway, scraping down the seaweed and repainting the old wood. He loved that boat and we spent most of our childhood summers fishing, clamming, and getting rocked to sleep by the shifting tides.
Waves of Grief
I remember sitting in his room during those final weeks, staring out the window and thinking there must be an option for people like this who have a terminal illness and are struggling with terrible pain.
I started Googling, convinced I’d find an answer we could turn to. As I learned about end-of-life options, I realized Massachusetts had no death with dignity law. There was nothing we could do to help ease my father’s suffering. I promised myself that afternoon that my dad’s death would not be in vain. I would give anything to ensure no one else had to experience what he had.
Death with dignity means…passing away as the person you were, as much as you want to be remembered for.
A friend of mine once told me that grief comes in waves. In the beginning, the waves are crashing into you with full force, almost drowning you. Later in the grieving process, the waves only come up to your ankles, reminding you that the person you lost is reaching out, thinking of you.
Recently, a wave came, lapping against my ankles, making me think of my dad. I read an article on Facebook that talked about someone’s experience having the right to choose the way she died. It struck me so profoundly that it didn’t leave my mind for weeks.
Helping the Fight for Death with Dignity
I was lying in bed one Saturday morning, remembering the hopelessness I felt sitting in that chair in my dad’s room. I also reflected on the promise I made to do something to help the fight for death with dignity.
It was time.
Telling my father’s story is the first step toward having real conversations about my experience that can make a difference. But this isn’t it for me. I do this in my dad’s name for what he and my family suffered through and to help others understand the heartbreak I hope no one else has to experience personally.
I’ve wrestled with the idea of assisted dying on a personal and spiritual level. I was born and raised Roman Catholic. While I don’t go to church anymore, I still pray, and spirituality is very much a part of my life.
I understand why some people, including Catholics, could see physician-assisted death as suicide. But this isn’t suicide to me. These are people who have been given a death sentence. It’s a matter of aiding a person and allowing them to leave the world without pain or fear. For these individuals and their families, there are no other options left to consider.
Death with dignity means dying whole. It’s passing away as the person you were, not dying without the abilities and functions that make you human.
My dad’s final weeks felt like a disgrace to his character. Given his long fought battle with cancer, I know he contemplated his final days often. But the way he left this world was something he would never have chosen for himself or us.
I hope that others try to understand what it’s like to watch loved ones suffer at the end of life, and why it’s important to give them choice and control about how they want to die.
I hope for a day where my Massachusetts neighbors will find themselves with options at that bedside goodbye and can watch their loved one leave this world as a person and not a mere shell.
There is a choice. There is something we can do about this.