Deciding to End a Life

Mom and I sat side by side in a small conference room in Maine Medical Center. We were listening to a doctor explain, as gently as he could, that the time had come for us to make decisions about my father.

A few weeks earlier, Dad had undergone quadruple bypass surgery. He had recovered from it fairly well, but during his first night home from the hospital he suffered a massive stroke. After a few days back in the hospital, he slipped into a coma. Now we were facing the reality that he wouldn’t be coming back to us.

Dad’s condition, in the doctor’s opinion, was irreversible, yet with the feeding tube and ventilator in place, he could be kept alive indefinitely. The doctor asked if Dad had ever prepared an advance directive. The answer was no. As far as I knew, Dad had never said anything at all about what he would want in the circumstances we now faced.

Mom turned to me and said, “What do you think?”

“I think it’s your call, Mom.”

She was silent.

Finally I said, “If you don’t want to decide or if you can’t decide, Mom, I will.”

“I think you’d better,” she said.

I looked at the doctor. “Are you saying he can’t get well?”

It’s the kind of question doctors usually hate, but this doctor didn’t hesitate. “Yes, that’s what I’m saying.”

“We have to let him go,” I said. Then I was in tears and couldn’t talk anymore.

“We’ll keep him comfortable,” the doctor said.

Dad hung on for three more days.

All of this happened 15 years ago, and I still sometimes find myself wondering if I did the right thing. Should I have pushed Mom harder to make the decision herself? Should I have waited a few more days to decide? Should I have asked to talk to another doctor? Should I have just said we were going to wait for a miracle?

These are the hardest questions anyone can face. I did the best I could without much time to prepare or to think.

The kind of counseling that would have helped Mom and me, that perhaps would have led Dad to tell us what he wanted in advance may or may not have been widely available in 1994. But it’s available now.

Sarah Palin and her ilk, however, want to make sure health insurance won’t cover it. With her gift for twisting the truth beyond recognition, she calls such counseling “hav[ing] to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel‘ so his bureaucrats can decide” whether someone lives or dies.

It’s hard for me not to take that personally. I had to pull the plug on my own father. It was the hardest decision I have ever had to make in 63 years of living. I could have used some help.

That’s why I wrote to every member of my state’s Congressional delegation urging them to stand up to Sarah Palin and all the rest who want to derail healthcare reform. The story of my father’s last days is old news now, but families everywhere face the same heartbreaking dilemma every day.

Many opponents of healthcare reform don’t seem to care. If you’re someone who does care, however, it’s time for you to speak up.


The headline here is an ironic acronym coined by my daughter Elizabeth and me. It stands for Triumph Of The Human Spirit. We use it to describe a particular kind of fiction in which the hero or heroine overcomes incredible adversity, all the while remaining almost inhumanly Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean and Reverent.

Books like Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much is True come to mind. Elizabeth, by the way, refers to that particular novel by the name I Know This Book is Long. She’s right. I waded through the thing myself—all 912 pages of it—and I’ve been on a strict Wally-free literary diet ever since.

My wife Marge just finished another TOTHS novel a day or two ago and noticed a couple of surprising typographical/grammatical errors in the thing.  When she told me about this I assumed that she had been reading a cheap edition, but on second thought I’m beginning to wonder if the problem was that the proofreader kept nodding off. There is, after all, a limit to how much TOTHS anyone can take.

Fenway Vanity, Part 3

I swear I won’t go on about this anymore after today. It’s just that it took me a while to figure out how to extract the audio track for the rendition of “God Bless America” that we sang at Fenway Park during the 7th inning stretch.

The video of this, by the way, is definitely not for public consumption. I’m guessing it was shot with a hand-held camera because it’s so jerky. The sound seems to have been recorded from what was coming out of the speakers in the park, rather than through a direct feed from the mics. Also, there is image and recording information visible in the corner of the video frame—rather like what you used to see in home videos in the early days of the camcorder, when people didn’t know how to turn this stuff off.

Anyway, the point is that we got to sing for the 7th inning stretch. This was a song that wasn’t in our repertoire, and we had about three days to learn and memorize it.

In the event, the musical wheels came off a bit just before the final “God Bless America,” but you might not have noticed that without this heads-up from me.

So, without further ado, here are The Grateful Dads singing “God Bless America.”

A Healthcare Letter to Maine’s Congressional Delegation

Here in summary form is the letter I sent today to Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe and Representatives Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree:

Americans of all persuasions are being subjected to a blizzard of disinformation from well-funded interests devoted to preserving the status quo in the area of healthcare. These advocates are NEVER off message, and they never seem to run out of money.

A single-payer system won’t work, they say. “Socialized” medicine is doomed to failure, they say. Significant changes to our current healthcare system will compromise our freedom, they say.

These claims, simply put, are self-serving lies on the part of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries.

Perhaps it is coincidence, for example, that Big Pharma now spends more on marketing prescription medications directly to consumers than it does on research and development, but the history of American healthcare over the last 30 years suggests otherwise.

The question now is whether leaving millions and millions of Americans without the ability to pay for healthcare is really an acceptable cost of doing business in order to protect record profits in the pharmaceutical and insurance industries. These industries clearly believe so.

I’m asking you to consider whether this thinking represents an America whose government you want to serve. What will America have become when, in the eyes of its elected representatives, corporate profits trump the right to life itself for millions of its citizens?

Here are some simple truths that special interests attempt to stifle again and again:

  1. Single-payer healthcare in Canada, Great Britain and France is a genuine success. Citizens of those nations pay less and receive better care than Americans.
  2. Americans now pay more than ever before for healthcare, yet the health of Americans does NOT improve. America’s infant mortality rates, for example, are shockingly high for the developed world. Americans’ life expectancy lags behind much of the developed world.
  3. One American in six under the age of 65, about 46 million people, now live without health insurance of any kind. The reality for these people is that hospitals turn them away if they cannot pay. For such people, American “freedom” means the freedom to die for the sake of the status quo.
  4. It shouldn’t have to be said that these 46 million American lives matter, but it does have to said. Repeatedly. The current healthcare system condemns many of the uninsured to death every single day in order to protect profits.

America’s healthcare actuaries have the data at their fingertips to say exactly how much profits increase with each American condemned to such a death. Perhaps during the current debate you will have the opportunity to ask what this number is. I think the number would do a lot to clarify the priorities of those who defend the current system.

As a resident of Maine and a voter in every single election since 1968, I am counting on you to do your part to ensure that 2009 is the year that America finally begins to find its way out of the national disgrace of our current healthcare system.

By the reckoning of some, I’m just another malcontent. Maybe writing and sending this letter was just a waste of time, but I have to believe that at some point people will decide that letting people die just to increase profits is just plain un-American.

In Praise of Bobby McFerrin

There’s more to Bobby McFerrin than that inane pop tune Don’t Worry, Be Happy, although I have to be careful how much thought I give to that song. I suspect that it still helps him to pay the bills, but I don’t want to end up with it stuck in my head for the next 36 hours.

And there’s more to him than the wonderful a cappella reimagining of the
23rd Psalm that a group of my friends and I sang in church yesterday.

The guy is a genius about the way music works. Check him out here, using his audience as an instrument and “playing” them amazingly.

World Science Festival 2009: Bobby McFerrin Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale from World Science Festival on Vimeo.

I’ve watched this video again and again. The more I watch, the more amazed I become at how little direction the audience actually gets. It seems to be that this is stuff we, as human beings, just know. Bobby McFerrin is the guy who noticed that simple, compelling fact.