Friday, May 27, 2011

How to Die in Oregon


As some of you may know, I'm writing a book about people who work with death in their professions.  While doing my research, I thought it would be interesting to meet someone who knew the day they were going to die.  There are only two people who know this date--people who choose to end their life and a person with an execution date on death row.  I chose to speak with someone on death row, as I felt it would be easier when their death might be "justified." Well, if you've read my blog or know me, that didn't exactly turn out as planned.  I was totally affected by this experience and am now totally against the death penalty.

Anyway, so last night I had the pleasure of watching a movie about terminally ill people in Oregon who choose to end their lives.  And yes, I said pleasure.  This is an important film, and although it was difficult to watch, I'm so glad I did.  Why?  Because anyone who watches this film will have a conversation about death and THIS IS AN IMPORTANT conversation to have.

The film, How to Die in Oregon opens with a home video of a terminally ill older man choosing to hasten his death by gulping down a lethal dose of Seconal mixed with warm water.  His family and a caseworker with Compassion and Choices are all present for his final exit.  It was quite an intro and I was startled to say the least.  It was kind of like that feeling when Drew Barrymore's character is killed in the first Scream.  If the director is going to kill off the biggest name actress in the first fifteen minutes of the film, nobody is safe. So if HTDIO starts right off with a death, I knew that I would inevitably be more emotionally invested in the characters as the film progressed. 
And I was.  There is a fairly large cast of characters and each person is struggling with end of life choices.  Something we all will do one day.

I don't want to give away the film, but the most difficult story line was that of Cody Curtis, a vibrant 54 year-old wife and mother of two who was diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer.  She is the "star" of this documentary.  We meet her family, her friends, and her doctor.  We get to witness her hopes and fears as her health declines.  The scene that really got me takes place in a beauty salon where Cody goes in for a final trim.  It was so hard to watch.  The film ends with the camera fixed on a window outside of Cody's house on the night she chooses to die.  We can hear what's going on inside the house.  The family sings, the drink is mixed and Cody comments about how "easy" it was. Fade to black.

I know I'm probably not going to get a ton of commentary on this topic, but I'd like for you to consider some of the thoughts that came into my mind as I watched this film.

Why should people have to suffer if they don't want to?  Heck, when we euthanize an animal, it's usually to end their suffering. 
Why does anyone have to "battle" a disease? Shouldn't they get to pick and choose their battles and surrender when they want to?

Dying is not a failure, it's an inevitability.  I talked to my 78 year-old Dad yesterday and we talked about his sister who died recently.  I asked him if he had any end of life wishes.  He said that when his life stopped being "fun" he'd drink a bottle of bourbon and go into his garage and start his car's engine.  Knowing my dad, he's not just being dramatic.  How sad is that that he wouldn't be able to exit his life in a more dignified manner?  A neighbor will inevitably discover him.  They will be traumatized.  His family will be traumatized.  So, how did I respond?  I said, "Dad, could you at least let me know if and when you plan on doing that so I can at least say goodbye and make sure you get cremated?"  He said he would.  Hey, I know it sounds weird, but at least it's a start.

I sincerely hope that everyone checks out this wonderful film.  It is currently playing on HBO till mid June.

4 comments:

  1. I think you'll definitely like The Sea Inside, as it deals with the same issue: a paraplegic who engaged in a thirty-year fight with the government over his right to die. One scene in particular sticks with me, in which he asserts that life is a gift, but not an obligation. I neither agree nor disagree with the general principle, but I do think that honoring people's choices, especially when they are of sound mind, is an issue that merits more regard than it usually receives in these circumstances.

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  2. Thanks for stopping by Claire and commenting. You're cool like that.

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  3. Just watched the documentary to write a critical review on it for my documentary lecture at university. I thought it was a good emotionally gripping film, it lacked other sides of the argument though. There were a few people against it, such as the man who had cancer that was declined chemo but offered physician assisted suicide. But those moments in the film were short lived. For sure got conversation going, but I would have liked to see more from the other side to complete the argument.

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    1. Yes, it was a bit one sided, but what a powerful film. Have you seen the Suicide Plan? It's a documentary that aired on PBS.

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