If you're out of sorts this morning, perhaps you should put this column aside until a more appropriate time. Wait until your sunny disposition has returned to normal.
I wasn't given the choice of when to think about the possibility of a lingering and painful death. It was thrust upon me unexpectedly.
I had spent the morning drafting a new will, not because I expect to die soon but because we must all update our wills periodically as children and grandchildren grow older and circumstances change.
Nevertheless, after one drafts a new will, thoughts of death linger in his mind, and my disposition was anything but sunny when I reached the office and began opening the day's mail from readers. The second letter I read was from Mrs. J.K.T.
She had written the letter from a hospital bed at 3 a.m. The letter said:
"What I see in this geriatric wing scares me. Across the hall, a 92-year-old woman with a broken hip rants and raves, alternating between threatening to call the cops and pleading to go home. She has to be tied to the bed. No one comes to see her.
"My roommate is 84 and has many problems more serious than mine. Tonight she was 'tortured' for 45 minutes by a nurse who was trying to find a viable vein for yet another I.V. As mine often do, her veins collapse.
"An old man is tied in a chair daily in the hall near the nurses' station. He sits there with his eyes shut, groaning with every breath.
"Don't you think it is time we old folks get together and demand some kind of euthanasia legislation?
"My brother was admitted to the hospital on Good Friday. Early the next morning he suffered a cardiac arrest. The nurse was in his room at the time and summoned help at once, but he never regained consciousness.
"Electric shock started his heart beating again, but he remained in a deep, deep coma until he died, weeks later. The doctors said there had been just enough brain stem activity to keep him breathing and to keep his heart beating. My doctor says that if the same thing were to happen to me, he would have to do everything possible to revive me, even if right now I were to sign an 'order' that nothing be done to prolong my life under similar circumstances.
"No doubt you have visited nursing homes in which rows of breathing skeletons are lined up in macabre array. Many don't know who they are or where they are. Is it kindness to keep them alive? If I were in such condition, or under unremitting terminal pain, I know I would want to go -- and fast. Shouldn't I have the right to do that?
I don't know.
When my father was 82, I saw him fight back from a paralyzing stroke that the doctors thought would finish him. He lived several happy and useful years before a second stroke immobilized him. Who could say with certainty that he would not recover from the second stroke, too?
The day after I regained consciousness after open-heart surgery, my wife visited me in the intensive care unit. When she asked how I felt, I said, "If I could make it to the window, I'd jump."
What a stupid statement that was. A month after I made it, I played a round of golf and felt great.
So don't waste your time soliciting my views on euthanasia. They're worthless.
Instead, consider this note from Dick Kelly of Kensington. In referring to The Washington Home, formerly known as The Washington Home for Incurables, he wrote: "Recently, I watched a good friend die at The Washington Home for Incurables. Each time I visited my friend, I was impressed with the loving care he was receiving from the nurses, aides and volunteers there. I was reminded of the volunteers who worked at a leper hospital in Louisiana. One day, a visitor said to a volunteer, 'I wouldn't do your work for a million dollars.' The num replied, 'Neither would I.' "When I visited the funeral home, the first person I met was a nurse from The Washington Home for Incurables. I wonder if you could pay a tribute to those beautiful people who devote their efforts to performing a service that most of us would shun."
I could, and I do.
It is pleasant to share a bit of laughter among one's family and friends, and even between a writer and a reader. But life and laughter are finite, and eventually we must all think about death and tears.