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Death with dignity

03/13/07 12:00AM By Caleb Daniloff
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(HOST) The ongoing debate surrounding end-of-life legislation has prompted commentator Caleb Daniloff to recall his late father-in-law -- the way he lived and the way he died.

(DANILOFF) The bill is out of committee and ready for the House floor. Letters still appear on editorial pages. And the commercials continue to duel -- the former governors versus the voice of god. But all I can think about is Richard. Not because he had a terminal illness and longed to end it. But because his life was over before he died.

Richard was my father-in-law and had a place just across the border in Massachusetts. He lived his life on the road, put food on the table by knocking on strange doors demonstrating vacuums and home products.

His beat-up sales truck flowed through every artery and vein in northern Massachusetts, western New Hampshire and southern Vermont. Stenciled on a side panel: "Lifetime guarantee if you promise not to live too long!"

Richard loved movement, the feel of motion. He took his mother on Sunday drives. He dragged his daughters on sales runs. And he was behind the wheel when the blood stopped flowing to his brain. A severe stroke, but he survived. He was eighty years old.

He even came home for a spell, but with a walker and brain damage. One morning, he stole into the garage and took the van out. It wasn't long before he was back in the nursing home for good.

"If I'm not going to get better, I wish I was dead," Richard said. And he meant it. He didn't fear death. He feared being trapped. Richard came of age during the Depression, his mother hobbled by polio and missing a lung. He grew into a misfit who did things his own way.

In the beginning, we took Richard for rides. But he refused to get out when the trip was over. "No," he cried, gripping the armrest and locking up his legs, "Keep driving."

We grew to hate the walls that kept him put, the draining away of a man. But we did not hasten his death. He never asked us to. His end had been hastened the day he realized he'd never grip another steering wheel.

But his bull of a body hung in for four more years, all the while diabetic infection ate away at his heel. Doctors suggested amputation. But surgery was risky and didn't mean anything for a recovery. Besides, it just seemed cruel take him off his beloved roads, then erase his pedal foot.

Last summer, Richard lapsed into morbid depression and stopped eating, speaking only the words: I want to die. The doctors recommended shock treatment. The man was now eighty-four. I realized how tightly bound "body" and "life" were in the eyes of society.

But it wasn't Richard's five-foot-eight frame or size-ten feet that made him who he was, it was the life he led. Without the hum of rubber, the oil stains on his pants, without a front seat cluttered with coffee cups and vacuum bags, there was no Richard. We'd been watching the two separate since his first months in the nursing home.

When his mind began departing for good last fall and the infection burrowed ever deeper, we stopped his medication. We tried to make sure he was comfortable, and three days later he drew his last breath.

On a crisp October day, we took Richard on his final drive, forty miles to the crematorium, past the Victorians and the double-wides where he used to sell. Watching the leaves swirl up from the road, we finally felt good again about his place in the universe. The connection had been restored. And Richard could at last take his rightful place -- in the hearts of those who loved him.

Caleb Daniloff is a freelance writer. And don't forget to listen tonight to Switchboard with host Bob Kinzel for a conversation with legislators about the death with dignity bill - and we take your calls.

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