My uncle got a lucky break last week -- literally. He got up in the middle of the night and, enfeebled at 81 years of age, he fell, hitting his head on a desk and breaking his skull. Later the next night he died, having never regained consciousness.
Why am I calling this gruesome mishap lucky? Because a few months earlier he had been diagnosed with lung cancer, and a couple of days before he died he had gone into hospice care. He was facing several months of increasing discomfort, disability and undignified decline, and then real pain and finally a smothering death. With a misstep in the middle of the night, he managed to avoid all of that.
Barbara Wise wasn't quite so "lucky." She suffered a stroke recently and was bedridden in a Cleveland hospital, unable to move or speak. John Wise, her husband of 45 years, smuggled a pistol into her hospital room and fired a single round into her head. She died the next day. Even though Wise and his wife had agreed long ago that neither of them wished to live in a bedridden, disabled state, prosecutors have charged the 66-year-old Wise with aggravated murder.
An Associated Press story reports that some authorities believe that the Wises' unhappy circumstances will become more and more common as baby boomers age and as medical technology continues to advance in its capacity to keep alive, in whatever condition, patients who would have died quickly only a few years ago.
Maybe this is a good problem to have -- nearly everyone wants to live longer.
But as a nation, we are probably unprepared for the financial burden presented by more and more sick people who live longer, the psychological burden that caregivers will have to bear and the legal burden that will ensue when caregivers like John Wise take matters into their own hands.
All of these issues call for careful consideration, but the real heart of this problem -- the issue that needs enlightened scrutiny -- is the tenacity with which we cling to life, no matter how much its quality has declined.
No one who's alive and healthy can speak with much authority about the decisions that the gravely ill face at the ends of their lives. Still, it doesn't take much imagination to understand a little of the desperation that caregivers like Wise must feel when their loved ones reach miserable, persistent conditions, from which the only escape is death.
We like to imagine death as a peaceful, serene passage. Yet considerable evidence indicates that, more often than not, dying is miserable, painful, prolonged and undignified.
But philosophy and religion, rather than medicine, stand in the way of a gentler, more humane death. Some countries, like Switzerland, permit active suicide assistance for terminal patients, but in the United States only three states -- Washington, Oregon and Montana -- have developed laws that allow versions of physician-assisted suicide, under highly controlled conditions.
In the face of laws against assisted suicide in most other states, terminal patients occasionally benefit from kindly nurses and doctors who are willing to supply enough morphine and other drugs to significantly ease, and sometimes hasten, the passage into the Great Beyond. But many others aren't so lucky, and they suffer greatly from the obligation -- self-imposed or imposed by others -- to let nature or God's will take its course despite whatever prolonged suffering and misery it might entail.
Of course, everyone who wants to die that way should have the option, and it's presumptuous of us to tell others when and how they should let go of life.
But perhaps it's time to alleviate the stigma that prevents us from easing our deaths as much as possible and to provide for ourselves the legal option of a passage as gentle as the ones we insist on for our pets and for serial killers.