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Daniel Ruth

Facing death with facts, not fear

For the first 94 years, my Nana lived a rich, vibrant life. She ran a family lumber business with my Uncle Claude. She lived alone and independently. She mowed her lawn, shoveled the snow, tended to her roses and enjoyed the occasional cocktail.

She drove. She fudged about her age to get a job as a hospital volunteer. She read the paper every morning and remained engaged in the affairs of the day. She loved watching the Triple Crown horse races. She made the greatest currant pie in the history of mankind. My Nana, my Nana.

Even well into her 90s, she was still a strikingly beautiful woman. About two weeks before the darkness came, during a visit to Akron, we went to dinner. "Wear something sexy," I kidded her. And she blushed.

And then the darkness came.

The stroke occurred while she was having her hair done. And soon thereafter she was moved into a nursing home. The room was dimly lit as I pulled a chair near her bedside. This amazing woman, who had helped raise me, the only grandparent I had ever known, now looked small and frail and . . . ready.

It took a while. The stroke had affected her speech. She struggled with great frustration to tell me something. But I couldn't understand. She was getting impatient as her lips moved, but language betrayed her.

Finally, as I leaned in closer she labored to slowly get the words out.

"I . . .want . . . to . . . die."

Her wish would not be granted for several more months as my Nana languished in the nursing home waiting and waiting and waiting for the inevitable. There was respectable disagreement among some family members.

Some, myself included, felt no extraordinary measures should be taken to preserve a life my grandmother clearly was not interested in living, trapped in an unforgiving body. Others, guided largely by faith, felt she should be kept alive at all costs. None of us were right. None of us were wrong.

We were a family bonded by love, separated by pragmatism and hymns.

Few issues distress a family more than these dramatically profound end-of-life questions. What to do? What does the mother, the father, the grandparent, the son, the daughter want?

There's been a great deal of demagogic propaganda in recent days that the Obama administration health care reform plan would create a so-called "death panel" of government Grim Reapers who would make end-of-life decisions by passing judgment on a person's worthiness to receive medical care late in life.

There has been an additional urban myth circulated that the health care reforms would mandate that seniors receive government counseling on how to end their lives, which is gibberish wrapped in balderdash enshrouded in poppycock.

Both attempts at extremist fearmongering have been repeatedly refuted as complete hooey, including by the St. Petersburg Times' PolitiFact. Yet as I write this, commercials are still being run on the television in the other room continuing to promote this ageist blather.

Although my grandmother had a will delineating how she wanted her estate managed, she did not have a living will, something that has only come into vogue in recent years in the wake of the debacle surrounding Terri Schiavo, who became the unwitting poster child of the ideological drooling right-wing chattering classes.

The health care reform proposals would merely include provisions for Medicare to cover the costs of doctor visits to discuss creating living wills and other end-of-life issues with patients. There are no angels of death lurking in the verbiage, no medical hit men walking around with the cyanide capsules to ease loved ones off to eternity.

Indeed, the biggest threats to America's seniors aren't bureaucrats armed with actuarial tables but fulminating, duplicitous hucksters shamelessly skulking behind microphones.

The ongoing insistence of those who oppose health care reform to continue to promote the delusion that the government will pull the plug on senior citizens in the twilight of their lives — in the face of reality to the contrary — is political cynicism at its most cruel.

It is also a slap in the face of my grandmother's memory.

This disinformation effort assumes seniors can be easily manipulated by unfounded fears of government death squads hovering over their medical charts.

My Nana was a pretty savvy businesswoman. She knew how to read fine print. She was nobody's fool — especially snake-oil salesmen peddling paranoia.

In all the years I was honored to be her grandson, I never heard my Nana utter an unkind word about anyone. But I think if she were alive today and watching the ad campaign terrorism being inflicted upon her generation, she might well make an exception.

Facing death with facts, not fear 08/13/09 [Last modified: Thursday, August 13, 2009 6:17pm]
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