“Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep”
Believe me, I know the value of not giving up the fight. When my mother was about to give birth to me at the FEU Hospital in December of 1960, the doctors said only one of us could live—either my mother or me. I don’t know what the problem was, but it was serious. My sister, then four years old, went to the chapel and prayed for us, reciting the only prayer she knew, her nightly prayer at bedtime.
The rational decision should have been to prioritize the young mother. She had a life, a family, and there would be other opportunities to have children. It was my uncle, my mom’s older brother who later became a cardiologist in New York, who insisted that the doctors fight to save both of us. Through their efforts and maybe a little bit of a miracle, Mom and I both survived. Had it not been for a stubborn faith in the possibility of a better outcome and a refusal to simply play the odds, I would not be here today.
And yet, nearly ten years ago, I voluntarily executed a declaration that says: “If at any time I should have a terminal condition and my attending physician has determined that there can be no recovery from such condition and my death is imminent, where the application of life-prolonging procedures and ‘heroic measures’ would serve only to artificially prolong the dying process, it is my desire that such procedures be withheld or withdrawn, and that I be permitted to die naturally. I ask that only medication and medical procedures that are deemed necessary to provide me with comfort or to alleviate pain be mercifully administered to or performed on me.” There’s more, but I think you get the gist.
I’ve heard the stories and I personally know people who were given weeks to live but recovered. Cancer has been known to disappear. Some people even say that you can drink some foul-tasting concoction and your kidneys will function again. Then, there’s stem cell therapy. Plus, prayers. Indeed, there are many reasons to fight on, to spare no expense, to do everything possible; but ultimately, without a doubt, we will die.
Oh, I think I’d like to do more with my life, given the chance. At the same time, I am already satisfied with my life, such as it is. I’m done with my bucket list. If everything was to end now, this very minute, my only regret would be not finishing this article, and honestly, I wouldn’t regret it that much. I’d be dead.
[Pause for a few seconds. Wait for lightning to strike.]
Fortunately, everything did not end in the minute that just passed, which means that in the days and years to come, I can still have long lunches with friends, eat crispy pata to add to the cartilage in my knees, and travel with my family to both new and familiar places. I can still laugh hysterically with my wife. I can still remember little details, find the right word, and write. Maybe I can even continue to lead, teach and help a few people along the way.
It’s only when I can no longer do these things I enjoy most or even make my preferences known at all—because I’ve fallen into a coma or become insane, for example—it’s really only at that time that the so-called Living Will I executed comes into play.
Too often, it’s the spouses and children who are faced with tough questions: How far do we go? How long do we fight? What would he have wanted? And invariably other relatives and friends will second guess their choices.
I’ve faced these decisions twice. I can tell you repetition does not make it easier. Dementia related to kidney disease. Lung cancer that had spread to the brain. My parents were robbed of their ability to tell us what they wanted. After a lifetime of believing that Mother knows best and Dad is always right, will we ever truly feel that we’ve grown up enough to decide for them?
By clearly declaring what I want, my Living Will removes that burden from my family and protects them from any criticism. I am not committing suicide or asking anyone to assist in my suicide. By all means, listen to the specialists and get second and third opinions, but when it comes down to it—if it means only briefly postponing the inevitable—I do not want the transplant. I do not want the chemo. I do not want to be fed through my nose. Please do not revive me.
I used to think my sister’s childhood prayer was disturbingly morbid, but now that I accept that the days I have left are surely less than those I have already enjoyed, I find the words deeply comforting.
“If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.