Update: New Jersey’s Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act passed in 2018.
Joseph Halsey is a filmmaker in Robbinsville, New Jersey.
In February 2008, my father, James R. Halsey, decided to end his 30-year war with multiple sclerosis. At the time of his death, his bedridden, debilitated body bore little resemblance to that of the proud, energetic man who had once held three jobs, coached two little league teams, and had always been the first on the dance floor at any celebration.
A continual round of visits to and from the hospital characterized the year leading up to his death. As his lungs filled with saliva caused by the total breakdown of his swallowing mechanism, his body weakened to 90% of its healthy mass, with major weakening of his limbs and vital organs. After many years spent bedridden being cared for by others, he made the difficult decision to refuse medical treatment and enter hospice care.
My father did not make his decision with the thought of giving up or giving in. It was a courageous decision that reflected his unwillingness to live a half-life. He was fully alert and of sound mind when he decided that the yearlong cycle of surviving yet another episode of drowning in his own internal body fluids, only to be aspirated back to a state of awareness, no longer served his spirits and desires.
I did my best to care for my father and tried with everything I had to preserve his quality of life in a no-win situation. The only regret I have is not being able to offer him a more peaceful death.
As always, in making any decision, my father’s greatest concern was for his family. Even while being wheeled into the last room he would ever lay in, he was smiling and joking with the staff and his family. It was always second nature for him to make sure that everyone around him was comfortable and at ease, making light of his disability to spare others the emotional burden of his own physical pain.
There is nothing more horrifying than watching a loved one so bravely fight a losing battle, especially when you know your limited choices create a lack of humanity and dignity for the dying. Over the course of three weeks, I watched Pop’s smile and jokes disintegrate as his lungs filled with mucus that his body was unable to process. I can still hear the sounds as he mumbled words and struggled to cough while he faded in and out of consciousness. I don’t recall every detail of those 20 odd days I numbly spent on autopilot while he labored to draw every breath and a team of compassionate hospice staff tried to assure me that my father wasn’t in pain.
Three days before Saint Patrick’s Day, Pop’s breathing began to truly diminish. Those last days seemed like an eternity; watching my father’s 6-foot frame thrust forward and crash back to his hospital bed, as his body appeared to be in a losing boxing match with oxygen. He never complained or asked, “Why me?” Until the end, my father chose to find the positive side of life and faced his disease with unfailing pride and dignity.
I cannot tell you that I know for a fact what my father would have done if given the opportunity to choose how he would leave this world. But that is only because he was given no alternatives. What I do know for certain is that we discussed this topic in theoretical terms on multiple occasions over the years.
I can wholeheartedly speak on his behalf to say that if he were alive today, he would be at the forefront of any Death with Dignity bill proposed in the New Jersey legislature. The phones at the State House would be ringing off the hook; everyone would know it was James calling once again as soon as they picked up the phone. He would have dedicated his time to helping others die with the same self-respect and dignity with which he lived.
I am proud to say that, as a son, I did my best to care for my father and tried with everything I had to preserve his quality of life in a no-win situation. The only regret I have is not being able to offer him a more peaceful death.
By nature I am not an activist. I don’t like to impose my thoughts and beliefs on others. I am not a politician or a clergyman. I am the son of the late James R. Halsey, who hopes Death with Dignity laws can spare other sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters the remorse I am left with—of not having a choice.
This subject has become dear to my heart since my father’s passing. It has inspired me to create a series of short films about death with dignity. To find out more about Halsey Films and how we are bringing awareness to the subject, please visit our Facebook page.