reed magazine logonovember2005

A right to die, a will to live

In James’ comfortable fifth-floor unit in a Southeast Portland retirement community, Claire kept the living room neat as a pin. Don’s office, on the other hand, was a minor avalanche of books, papers, videos, and publications. He negotiated the stacks using his walker, while his computer printed out material on a possible new cancer treatment developed from the human reovirus (which in early tests has proven to be a potent killer of cancer cells). James tried to get himself into one of the drug’s clinical trials, but could no longer travel to any of the locations where they were taking place. Meanwhile, he looked for other possibilities, he networked, and he kept up his hope. When he could muster the strength, he was working on a novel based on the history of his family.

“I just thought one day, ‘You’re doing this wrong,’“ he said in an interview in mid-summer. He had just finished watching a videotape of a news story done about him by a T.V. station in the Midwest. A few days earlier, a film crew from New York had interviewed him. “I’ve given talks on the power of positive thinking, and here I was, not using it. I’ve been trying to fulfill other people’s needs: What does a guy look like who’s a few weeks away from getting the prescription to end it? But I feel inspired now to work in some more positive direction.

“I’m still a tremendous supporter of the Compassion In Dying organization,” he continued, “and I’ll continue to fight for the Death with Dignity Act. I want that option on the shelf should I choose to use it. But I’m not ready yet. Not yet. Threads keep being added to the fabric. You know, there’s a black minister in New York City whose congregation prays for me now? Isn’t that something?”

Claire then entered the room. The hands that typed her husband’s Reed papers a half-century ago to help him get through college, were now guiding his wheelchair just to help him get through the day.

“This is a decision we’ll make together,” he said. “I’m the one who carries the diagnosis and ultimately must lift the hemlock if it comes to that. If we use the Death with Dignity law, I will be relieved of pain. But Claire’s life perhaps becomes more difficult, managing alone with a reduced pension. We’ll think this through together.”

He sat down slowly, this man who was still alive past the expectation of the experts, who was now confronting his illness, his pain, and, ultimately, his death, the same way he had approached every other challenge in his life: with vision, optimism, and effort.

“Right now I have a tremendous will to live because I have a lot to do,” James said. “The world’s in a sorry mess and each individual who has some capacity ought to be doing something about it. The tilt toward a theocracy by this right-wing administration is agonizing, and we have work to do. This is not my Republican Party. And there are some fascinating new cancer treatment possibilities out there to explore. No, I’m not ready to go just yet.”

On the morning of October 22, Don James died peacefully in his home, with Claire and three of their children at his bedside. Like most terminally ill patients who obtain lethal drugs under Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act, he did not use them to end his life.

Todd Schwartz is a freelance writer in Portland.