One of the saddest essays I have ever read appeared in the New Yorker in May 1995, written by a young man, Andrew Solomon, who was coming to terms with his mother's death. She had been battling cancer—and lost. The week she was diagnosed with it, she announced that she was going to kill herself.

And she did, less than two years later. She picked the day (June 19, 1991) and the outfit (her nightgown with pink roses), and following the step-by-step instructions published in "Let Me Die Before I Wake" ("a less explicit precursor of Derek Humphrey's Final Exit"), she began the preliminary steps for "self-deliverance." She took the antiemetics followed with a light snack. The Hemlock Society recommends having a plastic bag (and a taut rubber band) on hand as well. Step 11 of a manual published by ergo! (the Euthanasia Research and Guidance Organization, started by Humphrey when he left the Hemlock Society in 1992) suggests that, in the event the pills don't do it: "Place the plastic bag (or bags) over the head and draw the elastic bands over the bag, securing it firmly around the adam's apple area. There must be no leaks."

After tea and an English muffin, Mrs. Solomon nestled into her bed, and, as her family gathered around her, she spilled some 40 Seconal tablets onto her bedspread, scooped them, and like a "virtuoso" swallowed them all, "two or three at a time."

"Surely this is better than your seeing me screaming in a hospital bed," she said. For the subsequent 45 minutes of her final moments of consciousness, she said all those things that a wife and mother longs to say. And she said this: "I'm sad today. I'm sad to be going… ."

Her son wrote in retrospect: "Euthanasia is a legitimate way to die, and at its best it is full of dignity. But it is still suicide, and suicide is the saddest thing in the world." He concluded, "How we die is, in fact, the least of it… . But when we die—this is a powerful business."

My father, like Mrs. Solomon, also had cancer and began his rapid decline last August. We thought the prostate cancer had been eradicated two years earlier when he had undergone surgery. In fact, my family and I were far more concerned about his other health problems—emphysema and heart fibrillations. My father heroically battled through each day as these ailments conspired against him. So it took my sisters, my brother, my mother, and me by surprise when it became clear that the cancer, not the spasmodic heart or damaged lungs, would be the death of him.

In mid-August he posted this, his last E-mail message, addressed to my husband:

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Date: Aug 15, 1995
Subj.: The Power of Prayer
Dear Bob: your prayers must have done it. Last nite i couldnt get in or out of bed without help. at 5 i woke up in wet sheets that were soaked from sweat. my pain was relieved almost entirely. it wont stay away but this is ok. thank you for your prayers. love dad.

We did pray—all the time—for my dad. We didn't know how to pray or what to pray for, but we rejoiced with him that day when his pain melted away into a bundle of wet sheets. But I knew, as my father did, that despite all the prayers in heaven and on earth, his pain would come back.

And it did. But in the course of these last weeks of his life, my father made a choice in the same way Mrs. Solomon made her choice. Apart from the bright yellow "Do Not Resuscitate" orders pasted undecorously on his bedroom wall for any and all to see, my father surrendered his dying into the hands of God, and we did, too.

The idea of "physician-assisted suicide" never entered his mind. So we waited and watched as he slowly left us: he stopped coming out to the kitchen table for meals; he stopped sitting up in his bed for meals; then he stopped eating altogether; then he stopped drinking. We saw him move from emotional connection to this life into quiescent assurance of his eternal destination, which gave way to paranoiac agitation, which gave way to delirium, to incoherence, and finally, silence.

He suffered. And we suffered, too. But neither he, nor we, took back that choice to let God have his way in this death, even when the pain and sense of powerlessness were so acute that we pondered the strangeness of God's way of doing things.

Mrs. Solomon's son explains in his essay that her intention to kill herself did not arise out of the desire to alleviate her symptoms ("she scarcely had any symptoms"). But rather, it was her way of "expressing a sense of outrage at the indignity of what lay ahead and a profound fear of losing control of her own life." He said, "It was as though she wanted vengeance for the snub she had received from nature: if her life could not be as exquisite as it had been, she would have no more of it… . 'I'm already dead,' she said as she lay in her hospital bed. 'What's here for you to love?' "

There are indignities that are inherent in the dying process, Mrs. Solomon is right about that. As the body weakens, functions that were once automatic suddenly become heroic. It is natural to want to avoid being reduced to these painfully humiliating exercises.

For a time, my father did the best he could to maintain his bodily functions on his own. This was not easy, even before the cancer weakened him, since he was so encumbered by his laboring lungs and the awkwardness of lugging around his oxygen tank.

But he pressed on. One night in particular, in late August, he awoke around 4:00 a.m. needing a trip to the bathroom. My mother had insisted that he should waken her in such a case, but my dad felt sure that he could make it on his own. He found his way to the bathroom, but on the way he discovered that the cannula, the tubing for his oxygen supply, would not reach the distance. He decided to remove it for the few minutes it would take, and he laid the tubing down and proceeded to the bathroom. When he came back out, he could not find the cannula.

So here is this grown, sick man—one-time inventor, artist, collector, philanthropist, and CEO of the successful company he started in his basement—crawling around on the floor, mustering every ounce of strength his decrepit body could rally, groping for his oxygen tubing.

He called for my mother. Then he looked up and he was someplace else. The train he was on came out on a different track. The man said, "Don't worry, you have a new job." And my dad picked out his new clothes—"the grubbies," he said later.

By then my mother had reached him and replaced the cannula into his nostrils. Life-giving oxygen "brought him back," and with my mother's help, he made his way back into the bed.

The next morning he was a different person. All my father could speak about was what he had seen and felt when the "different track" landed him in a new (wonderful) place where he picked out his "new clothes."

"I am not a nut," he said. (We knew that.) "But everything that happened seemed to me to really happen." He said that all "the fuss" with hospice care and the meds "really didn't matter."

He affirmed over and over again that "the promises of Jesus are true," and that "there are no empty promises." He told us that we didn't need to pray for him anymore because our prayers "had been successful—no more praying to keep me here," he said.

I visited my father shortly after this episode. During one of the devotions we shared, we read these Scriptures: "I shall be satisfied with thy likeness when I awake… . The night is far spent, the day is at hand. He shall be as the light of the morning … even a morning without clouds." My father's outlook, after his "heavenly journey" (we called it that, for lack of any more definitive vocabulary) was like that—like a morning without clouds. His countenance was changed—he was more intensely himself than I have ever known him. His face, though pale and sunken, unshaved and dry, looked to me like the face of an angel. To serve my father, to fill his cup with good things as he transferred accounts from this life to the next, this was to me a sacrament. To warm him, to cover his feet, to refresh his dry mouth with lemon-glycerin swabs, to me, was a privilege, and the most profound service one human being can render to another. What is there not to love? Dad's imminent death, to him, was not a snub but a promise. "No more praying to keep me here."

If you have never tried it or helped someone else through it, you cannot begin to imagine how difficult it is to kill yourself," wrote Andrew Solomon. But he adds, "We were among the lucky ones; we did not have to resort to plastic bags, or to watch my mother vomit over herself. It was that ideal death which plays out in Hemlock Society publications: the gentle, easeful death."

After Mrs. Solomon had lapsed into unconsciousness, it came down to Andrew and his brother and father checking in intermittently to see if she was still breathing. "Her breathing sometimes seemed slower, but it was hard to tell," he writes. "The discipline of not doing is usually more difficult than the discipline of doing, and of all the not I have confronted, the most painful was the not waking my mother as she slid by slow degrees from sleep to death… . In that room with her, I maintained a kind of empty silence, and wondered what stage of dying she had reached."

There was no turning back for the Solomons. Mrs. Solomon had made her choice.

"Just after midnight," he continues, "my brother, the most restrained and most reasonable of us, went to check and found that the breathing had stopped."

It took five hours, from the moment Mrs. Solomon scooped up and swallowed the pills to the moment when her heart beat for the last time.

My father's joyful acquiescence in response to his heavenly vision was interrupted when his pain management moved to a new level. He could no longer tolerate the pain with Vicodan only. It was time to introduce MSContin—morphine. By the end of the first week of the new drug, my father's behavior was dramatically altered. He woke up in the middle of the night another time, this time panic-stricken that he did not have enough oxygen. He wanted to call 911, which we as family had all agreed not to do under any circumstances, since, presumably, they would be compelled to begin heroic life-preserving measures—probably by putting him on a respirator—which contradicted his own desires. (We would call hospice instead, in the event of an emergency.) My bedridden, frail father, who under normal circumstances at this stage couldn't brush his own teeth, wrestled my poor mother for the phone and dialed 911.

Despite all apprehensions, my mother sang praises for the arrival of the paramedics, who immediately sedated my father (and, thankfully, didn't put him on a respirator).

"The diagnosis is clear," wrote my brother-in-law (a doctor) over the Internet the next day to all the family. "Delirium."

He said that the disorientation and hallucinations, the "waxing and waning sensorium," were the classic hallmarks of delirium. He said adjusting medication and "maintaining oxygenation" will help, but that some degree of delirium would probably continue. "There will be times of relative lucidity, though these times will be fewer and farther between as time goes on."

There was no turning back. My father had made his choice.

I stared out the window of the 737 as its wings and thrusters, my familiar friends and partners in mission, lifted me yet another time, up and away on what I was sure would be my final assignment in this ordeal: to pack my father off to heaven.

When I arrived that evening, he was asleep, on his side. My father had settled down, and the delusions had subsided, for a time anyway. He lay on his side of the king-sized bed. (The other side was reserved for family visits, fully equipped with an extra blanket, a study pillow, and plenty of tissues.) I immediately crawled up on the other side of the bed. The only light in the room came from the white Christmas lights on the Norfolk Island pine my sister had sent him, which we had decorated with hand-made picture/ornaments of all of his grandchildren smiling back at him. The quiet hum of the concentrator, the source of his oxygen, had a calming effect, filling the room—almost—with a sense of peaceful control. He knew I was there when I sat down on the bed next to him. He had no strength, but he did manage to lift his arm so that I would take his hand. His limbs were cold. I told him not to try and stay awake for me, to go ahead and sleep. But I prayed out loud anyway—I wanted him to hear how grateful to God I was for his life. His breathing was sporadic. He twitched a lot.

My brother-in-law was right: the delirium continued up to the last days of his consciousness. He still had paranoiac frenzies about not having enough oxygen, even though his concentrator was set at its highest setting within the bounds of safety. We found him once pulling on his cannula the way he used to pull our boat into the dock during summer weekends at the lake. "I'm docking the boat," he said. He wanted his wristwatch at all times, though he didn't know what day it was, let alone the time. He asked me another time how I could live with so much junk in my house. (OK, this may have been a coherent moment.) And when the minister came into the room once, he thought he was my mother.

But my brother-in-law was also correct that there would be lucid moments. When my three boys came to his bedside to greet him, he put his hand out to each one of them and called them by name. He called Ben "Jon," though, and Ben went along. But when Jon came up to hug him, he said, "Oh, you're Jon. Sorry, Ben!"

Later that weekend, sensing the fullness that a houseful of family elicits, he said he wanted a "family dinner" the way we used to have them, with him at the head, carving the beef Wellington he had prepared to perfection. This time, it was tapioca pudding. So we all—my boys, my brother, his wife, my mother, and I—took our cups of pudding and gathered around his bed and had "family fellowship."

He vacillated between moments like these and those scary spells when he wasn't himself. But it was not long before both tendencies lapsed into incoherence, and almost total unconsciousness. We still checked him regularly, about every half-hour, just to make sure his cannula was still connected, that he was covered—that he was still breathing.

Once, when I checked him, I found him awake, so I sat on the bed with him. "Is everything all right?" I asked.

"Everything's fine," he said coherently. He took my hand and squeezed it—he had strength. He said, "I love you, honey."

"I love you, too," I said rubbing his cold arm until he went back to sleep.

My plans to "see him off to heaven" fell through—I had to get back on the plane before my father died. But he died two days later. My mother was with him—the way it should be, I suppose. My sister was strangely awakened in time to see my mother holding his hand, and then, to hear his last breath. She went to wake up my brother in the next room, and my brother-in-law, the doctor, who pronounced him dead—to the family, anyway.

One of the last devotions I had shared with my father comforted him and me, too: "He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces—there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain."

A friend of Andrew Solomon's, who had also "assisted" in a loved one's suicide, told him, "It is a relationship that is not natural … you scar forever." But Solomon still concluded that in the light of the "simple logic of euthanasia in action," with its "comfort and control," it "astonished" him "how many people die by other means."

The "other means" had the better of my father. We could not choose the day of his dying—my plane reservations missed it by two days. And he had no clue what outfit he had on. There were moments when we all cried, and even laughed (what else could we do?) at what had become of this once unstoppable force of personality. We were cutting his T-shirts up the back at the end, to get them off and on him.

Euthanasia is logical, if comfort and control and a certain kind of "dignity"—the hallmark of the American psyche—form the defining paradigm of life. But when we seize that kind of control we are reduced to the outermost limits of human imaginings, which does not promise much.

Understandably, it is scary to relinquish control—it takes us places where we may not want to go, like bedroom floors, on our knees, crawling around, groping for oxygen. But God comes to us in those places. In fact, more often than not in those places is where he resides, and sometimes it takes our going there to find him. He surprises us there: he may take us to an imaginary dock to pull in the boat—or he may take us to the outskirts of heaven! Sometimes it is only in the dark places where our eyes can see him for who he is.

We are still left to wonder why death must be preceded by so many twists and turns before finally having its way with us. But in all the wondering, when we surrender how we die into the hands of the One who gave us life, we are freed from the limitation of human definitions of dignity, and worthiness, and beauty, and quality of life.

At one of the many crises we experienced in my father's decline, I felt utterly helpless, powerless, and cut off (living a thousand miles away did not help). I wrote in my journal this prayer: What can I give him now? It is only You he needs—only You can meet him where he is right now. That he would see You, even in the midst of his pain, that he could behold Your beauty in these dark moments, that is my deepest prayer for him now.

The Lord answered those prayers, in ways I did not expect or was prepared for. My father was right when he wrote that last E-mail to my husband: There is power in prayer. And my father's assurance of that spoke prophetically about what would be required of us all to get through this passage. There is power, but not control.

Mrs. Solomon's death and her son's grief carry all the sadness that a human breast can bear. My father's death does, too. Andrew Solomon is right: When we die is "a powerful business." But still, most of us, despite the conveniences of euthanasia, do not make that choice.

But how we die—"the least of it," in Solomon's words—makes all the difference in my mind. For the "night is far spent, the day is at hand" and when we awake we shall "be satisfied with thy likeness." How we die, with all its anguish, can be like "the light of the morning … even a morning without clouds."
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