A personal reflection on death, dying and assisted suicide

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My 97-year-old mother-in-law, Ruth McCusker, is on hospice and in her final days. She is totally deaf, has Alzheimer’s, a gangrenous leg and a host of other health conditions that will soon take her.

During the last two weeks she has drifted in and out of alertness as family members sit by her bedside all day every day. We encourage her to eat and drink what she can. We hold her hand and kiss her forehead. At the first signs of pain, the nurses are there to provide her with another dose of morphine.

Everything is being done to keep her comfortable.

The irony is not lost on me that this current personal experience is coming at a time when the New Jersey Legislature is again attempting to pass an assisted suicide bill.

I reject all of the rationales and arguments that supporters use for assisted suicide: “She’s just a shell of herself,” “We euthanize animals, shouldn’t we be as compassionate for humans?” “Who wants to live this way?” “No one should have to endure pain.”

These so-called compassionate advocates are blind to the inherent value of every human life. They’ve been conditioned and deceived by the culture of death that society has nurtured and imbued in them for decades. Oh, how I wish they could sit next to me at Ruth’s bedside these days. What would they see?

— She still makes us all feel special, something she has done her whole life. The very few words she weakly utters are words of compliment: “Your skin is beautiful.“ “I love your blouse.”

The rare occasions that she opens her eyes and gives us a weak smile of acknowledgement as she mouths an “I love you.” are treasures beyond imagining.

— She strengthens my faith. Even in her daze and confusion, she blesses herself before each sip of juice. She fingers her rosaries day and night, once telling me “I forget how.” I assured her by writing on a notepad, “It’s OK. I’ll say it for both of us.”

— She teaches me even today. My whole life has been characterized by one speed — fast. In how I walk and talk. In how I work. In my expectations of others.

I enter a very different world at meal time with Ruth. I know the process will be at least an hour long, as I coax her to take just one more small spoonful, wait five minutes for her to complete the chewing process and be ready, maybe, for another spoonful or sip of juice. No fast motions, no attempts to shovel forks-full of food rapid fire into her mouth. It just won’t work. Ruth is teaching me patience.

If only supporters of New Jersey’s proposed assisted suicide law would truly understand what palliative care means. If only they understood what true compassion is, the root of which means “to suffer with.”

We are not horses with broken legs or cats that are not adopted to be euthanized. We are human beings with inherent value from conception to natural death. May we all have a “death with dignity” — at peace with God through the sacraments, surrounded by loved ones, comforted through palliative care, ready to meet our God when he is ready for us.

Tracye McArdle is a member of Mater Ecclesiae Mission, Berlin.