Phil Gulley: Grave Expectations

We’re born free, and this country should let us die that way.

Unless I live to be 104, I am now closer to my death than my birth. At least I hope I am. I have enough money to last until I’m 58, after which I’ll have to work at Walmart or become a prostitute, two equally unpleasant options that promise humiliation and slave wages.

Death catches a lot of people off guard while they’re doing something embarrassing, like having sex with their mistress or listening to Rush Limbaugh. That’s not going to happen to me. I know exactly when I’m going to die—on my 90th birthday, February 5, 2051. Everyone I know who lives past 90 ends up in a nursing home, pooping themselves. Not me. Instead, on my 90th birthday, while my wife is at Kroger buying chocolate ice cream for my birthday party, I’m going to stick my head in our electric oven and end it all. (I might wait until that night, after my wife is asleep, so I can have chocolate ice cream one last time.) My funeral will be held on February 8 at 10 a.m., so mark your calendars now and don’t bother coming unless you can stand and say something nice about me.

This past autumn, I was speaking at a retreat and fell into conversation with a woman who mentioned that her parents had recently died. They had been terminally ill and decided to shuffle off to glory with the help of a kindly physician in a state that permitted assisted suicide. Three enlightened states now permit that gracious service—Oregon, Washington, and Vermont. Since physician-assisted suicide is kind and sensible, the Indiana legislature will not likely allow it anytime soon.

I have attended the deaths of many people over the years and see no virtue in letting people writhe in pain, long past any reasonable hope for survival. I recently shared this sentiment with a group of people and was scolded by a man who said our deaths are up to God, that we have no business interfering. Puhleeze. Sorry, pal, the minute you began popping pills to lower your cholesterol and blood sugar, thus prolonging your life, was the moment you took your destiny out of God’s hands and placed it squarely in your own. That is as it should be, though: free and informed persons deciding for themselves when their lives will end.  

Eric Miller and his misguided minions at Advance America will, no doubt, do their best to ensure the rest of us die in prolonged agony, with no promise of relief. Having tried for years to control women and their bodies, having made Hoosier gays miserable, they will soon insist we gut it out through terminal cancer, Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s, and other delights fate happens to heap upon us.

I was speaking with such a man not long ago. “We have no right to take our lives,” he said. “I watched my father die a long, painful death. It taught me much about courage.”

Thank you, but no. There is no lesson I wish to learn that comes at the expense of another. If I’m not clever enough to learn from my own misery, I will not insist others bear pain so I can grasp some illusory truth.

The great orator Robert Ingersoll was once asked if those who committed suicide were insane. “There are circumstances under which suicide is natural, sensible, and right,” he said. “When a man is of no use to himself, when he can be of no use to others, when his life is filled with agony, when the future has no promise of relief, then I think he has the right to cast the burden of life away and seek the repose of death.”

Death with dignity? Fuhgeddaboudit. Not so long as there are fortunes to be made in keeping us alive.

I raise this subject because a lot of us Baby Boomers are going to be kicking the bucket in the next 40 years, and if we don’t do a better job dying than our parents have, we’re going to drive our nation into bankruptcy. (Granted, it will be a short drive. But nevertheless.) Here is our problem in a nutshell: We’ve forgotten how to die in this country. Death with dignity? Fuhgeddaboudit. Not so long as there are fortunes to be made in keeping us alive. I knew an 84-year-old woman deep in the throes of Parkinson’s disease whose doctor wished to remove her breasts lest she die of breast cancer, which she didn’t have but might one day get. Her husband, overwhelmed, gave his consent for the surgery, which was stopped only after their son learned of it and intervened. This is what we have to look forward to: being sliced, diced, poked, and prodded in a futile effort to avoid our certain deaths.

When Dr. Kevorkian brought the issue of physician-assisted suicide to our attention, I hoped it might begin a serious conversation about how we die in this country. Unfortunately, he was a kook, so he won few supporters. The Affordable Care Act contained a wise provision that reimbursed doctors for talking with their patients about living wills and end-of-life care. Then Sarah Palin jetted about the country lying through her pearly whites about death panels until the provision was stripped from the bill.

Here is my promise to future generations. Since our Congress lacks the political courage to make the choice, I urge you to make this decision with me. If we all do this, hundreds of billions of dollars can be directed toward the dawn of life, where it rightly belongs, investing in our nation’s future, not its past. I pledge, after I have reached the age of 80, to politely decline any government-funded efforts to keep me alive. No hospital stays, no nursing homes, no medicines I can’t personally afford, no snazzy electric scooters on the taxpayer’s dime, no Medicare nurse visiting my home, no surgery, nothing. I will eat sensibly, exercise regularly, laugh much, drink wine with my evening meal, then accept with courage and good humor my human frailty and finitude. When given the opportunity, I will opt always to have our precious healthcare dollars spent on those who’ve not yet drunk deeply from life’s well. I will opt for infant vaccinations, prenatal care, school clinics, mental-health treatment, care for our veterans, and food assistance for our poor.

By the time I am 80, I will have given much to our nation, but it will have given me far more. So all I ask of it is to extend me one more freedom, one more inalienable right—the privilege of ending my life when the sun of hope has set. I received a letter from the AARP the other day, inviting me to join. I will not join today, nor tomorrow, nor ever. They do not speak for me when they demand our government lavish its resources on me at the expense of children. Give me the ice floe, the forest tree under which I can peacefully expire, the hearthside chair. I am not the future, so I will not spend its treasure. 


Illustration by Ryan Snook

This column appeared in the March 2014 issue.