A right to die, a will to live
Even before his illness, James had long been a believer in what he called “the power of visualization, the magic of belief.” Unexpected and mysterious things happened to him. As a teenager with no money and bad grades he saw himself at Reed — and made it. As a Reed student, he used to stand at the bus stop and watch the car he wanted, a grey ’49 Chevy, drive by. After moving into a rental house near his first job, the very same car was parked next door and James wound up buying it. When he was a young schoolteacher, he and Claire used to walk past a house on the corner that they both loved, but couldn’t afford. One day the owner knocked on their door and told them that he wanted them to buy his house, and that he would buy theirs.
“I think you can make things happen if you visualize them,” James said. “It works for yourself, but I think it’s even more powerful when the things you visualize are altruistic.”
So when they told him, on a January day in 2002, that the prostate cancer had gone to his bone and his liver and he would soon die, probably in great pain, and when he heard about then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft’s attack on the twice-passed referendum that made Oregon the only state in the nation to allow physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill, James saw himself fighting to save the law and many people’s chances — his own included — to die on their own terms.
In 2004, James signed on as one of 14 terminally ill plaintiffs in Oregon’s lawsuit against Ashcroft’s effort to use the federal Controlled Substances Act to punish doctors who prescribe lethal medication to dying patients under the Oregon law. He appeared on television and in print, echoing what he said in his declaration for the court:
“I do not wish to be forced to choose between being sedated to an unconscious state to avoid the pain and other intensely distressing symptoms of my illness, or forego sedation but suffer the pain and other symptoms. When I reach the point that my pain and symptoms are unbearable to me, I want to be able to hasten my impending death in a humane and dignified manner, in my home, in my bed, surrounded by my loved ones with whom I will be able to say a final goodbye. As a resident of the State of Oregon, I desire to have the option to control the timing and manner of death as provided in Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act. I do not want my wife and children to have to watch me suffer through the last, horrible stages of my cancer.”
James signed up for hospice, and initiated his request for assisted-suicide medication, wondering whether or not he’d live to see a ruling in the Oregon lawsuit. He worked to find a balance between medicating the pain and staying alert. He knew he intended to hang on as long as he could be productive.