John Thorndike’s description of his father’s dementia [“Just Shoot Me,” August 2010] speaks to the difficult decisions faced by those of us who become caregivers. Not once did I ever dream that my smart, adventure-seeking, loving husband would one day become the kind of person Thorndike describes. No one ever prepared me for this: the forgetfulness, anger, stubbornness, sadness, anger, immobility, slow thinking, anger. I am afraid of what’s to come. What will I do? At what point do I stop providing care? Who will I call for help? There are no Nembutal pills here, no guns, no morphine.
I appreciated John Thorndike’s essay about caring for his terminally ill father. I’m a certified nursing assistant, and after years of attending to my own and other people’s dying loved ones, I still find these stories to be full of mystery.
Thorndike refers to “just shoot me” as an “unconsidered, almost flippant remark.” I agree, and yet I have heard many people say it. I never let the remark pass without encouraging the person who makes it to recognize his or her personal responsibility to leave clear instructions for loved ones to follow and to have conversations about possible scenarios for failing health and old age. In the end only those who actually commit suicide or avail themselves of assisted suicide where it is legal have true control over how long they put up with the decline.
As a caregiver I see a rapidly growing number of people who want to stay at home but need help. Qualified, dedicated, trustworthy paid professionals are few and far between. I believe that in the next twenty-five years we will legalize physician-assisted suicide, make a real commitment to palliative care, and come to better value and fairly compensate our caregivers.
I admire Thorndike for not squirming out of his difficult contract with his father. People like him are destined to help guide the ship.
In “Just Shoot Me” John Thorndike makes it clear that his father, when he was lucid, did plan his own death and had obtained the means to bring it about without a mess. Why did Thorndike interfere? I am ninety-four myself and believe that it is our right to decide when we go and by what means.
I will order his book The Last of His Mind: A Year in the Shadow of Alzheimer’s, which may have the answer to my question. In the meantime I thank him for an account that will help me initiate a conversation with my own children.
John Thorndike responds:
Of all the mistakes I made during the year I took care of my dad, the one I most regret is having removed those Nembutals from his reach. In my book I write, “In principle, I don’t believe in stopping him from taking his own life, but in practice that belief has fallen before a more primitive desire: I don’t want him to die.” That’s an explanation, but no excuse. By the time I found the pills, I think my father’s dementia had wiped out all memory of them. Still, Stoney is right: I should not have interfered. I’ve thought about this a hundred times.
As I read David Cook’s interview with Sister Helen Prejean [“And Justice For All,” August 2010], my heart fell. Prejean asks that we have compassion for violent criminals. In October 2009 I was beaten and raped by my boss as I walked to my car after working the late shift. Although he threatened to kill me if I told anyone, I still went to the police. In the ensuing investigation it came out that this man had been convicted of two separate rapes in two other states and had served a total of three years for both before being released for “good behavior.” Seven women in our workplace had brought charges of sexual harassment against him, and yet he was still allowed to manage a team of mostly women who worked the graveyard shift.
Prejean says I am to have sympathy for this man, to consider the mitigating circumstances that made him what he is. No. He showed me no sympathy as he brutalized me. There was no compassion as I relived the experience over and over for the police and investigators. There was no kindness as his attorney brought my sexual history into question during the grand-jury proceedings. If convicted this man will not get the death penalty. Even in Texas a serial rapist will most likely serve less than fifteen years. Perhaps Prejean is feeling compassion for the wrong “victims.”
For those of us in the death-penalty-abolition movement, the issue of capital punishment is as urgent as slavery and civil rights were. Sister Helen Prejean is in many ways the face, heart, and soul of the movement. I believe history will place her in the company of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. — spiritual messengers who tell us how we may transcend the human condition by changing our hearts.
I have spent over nine years in a Texas prison, and I would love to be on death row and have a cell to myself, away from the crowding and the noise and the violence. On death row I would not have to work like a slave. I would have unlimited appeals and pro bono defense attorneys. And if my appeals failed, I would much rather die than have to spend the rest of my days in this hellhole.
I am serving a fifty-year sentence for my first offense, a robbery in which no one was hurt. (I was suicidal and had sought psychiatric help the day before.) Through my blog (SaintsInside.blogspot.com) I hope to bring awareness to the fact that prison can be an opportunity for spiritual growth and that too many good, decent people are being imprisoned for too long.
Helen Prejean refers to so-called Christians who support the death penalty. I’m always amazed such people exist. Is it so outrageous to suggest that a Christian is someone that believes that the words of Jesus of Nazareth are true, takes them to heart, and attempts to live them? I mean the literal words of Jesus: not what your preacher says, not what your church says, nor the theologians, nor the Gospel writers — just what Jesus said, as recorded in the Bible. With a red-letter version of the Gospels, it’s an easy evening’s read.
Support for the death penalty is contrary to any rational interpretation of Jesus’s message. There will never be real social justice in this country until people who ignore the teaching of Jesus can no longer get away with calling themselves Christians.
I wanted to reply to Lee Taplinger’s letter [Correspondence, August 2010] about the solar panels Ronald Reagan removed from the White House. They are not in a dumpster, as Taplinger imagines, but found a new home at Unity College in Maine, where they are used to heat cafeteria water. A documentary titled The Road Not Taken chronicles the history of the Carter solar panels. I had just seen the film at the Maine International Film Festival before I read the August correspondence.
Marjorie Kemper’s “At Prayer Level” [July 2010] is one of the most amazing, beautiful, and wry stories I have ever had the privilege of reading. Her writing reminds me of Eudora Welty or Flannery O’Connor. I am truly sorry to hear of her death.
I read Thea Sullivan’s interview with Woody Tasch [“Prophet of Modest Profit,” June 2010], and thought, Good luck to this guy. He’s dreaming. But then I read it again and realized that I am dreaming right along with him. More important, Tasch is not simply dreaming; he is sticking his neck out and doing.
We should drop the hot-button word elitist from the discussion of slow money. The development of any new system is always costly. Typically, if the new system is small-scale, it is the wealthy who give it initial support and the chance to grow to the point where we may all benefit from it. The support some consumers gave to organic produce when it was more expensive now enables me to buy organic lettuce for a dollar a head.
Tasch has a vision. He is doing something good — potentially great — with it, and his feet are firmly on the earth. The Slow Money Alliance has my support.
In our September 2010 issue a line of Anna Belle Kaufman’s poem “Cold Solace” was printed incorrectly. The fourth stanza should have begun: “The amber squares / with their translucent panes of walnuts / tasted — even toasted — of freezer, / of frost, . . .” The Sun regrets the error.