It seemed as though they had been sitting in the car for hours. The weight of the topic, her son’s expectations, and her responsibilities bore down on her, making her feel as though she could not breathe and tempting her to simply open the car door and run as far and fast as she could in any direction so long as her feet carried her away from everyone and everything familiar to her.
Finally, she took a deep breath and turned to face her son’s insistent gaze.
“Look, it’s Christmas Eve. We’re on the way to your grandparents’ house. Do we have to talk about this right now?”
“Yes, Mom, we do,” he replied softly, but firmly. “We do because they are going to ask you the same question. And I have made a decision that I need to tell you about.”
“O.K.,” she sighed, unsure that she would be able to bear the weight of one additional complication.
“I am going to visit Dad one more time. On New Year’s Eve. Just once more. And then I’m done. No matter what you decide, no matter what you do, I have to do what I believe is right. I have to honor him and his wishes. Continuing to sit in that room staring at him lying there, listening to that machine breathe for him is not what he wanted us to do. So I am going to go into that room, say good-bye — even though he won’t hear or understand me — and then walk out forever. When I wake up on New Year’s Day and it is 2008, I will wake up knowing that I did what I could to respect him.”
As she looked into his beautiful, gentle brown eyes — so much like his father’s — she knew that she would be unable to dissuade him. But she felt no compulsion to argue with him.
“All right,” she responded resolutely. “If that’s your decision, I will certainly accept and respect it. I’ve told you all along that whether or not to visit Dad was a decision you had to make for yourself. And now that you have done that, I won’t try to change your mind.”
“But that brings right back to my question, Mom,” he continued. “What are you going to do? Are you going to keep your promise or not?”
“It’s not a simple question,” she hedged.
“Yes, Mom, it is,” he said sternly. “It is the simplest question and the answer is also simple: ‘Yes’ or ‘no.’ You and I both know what Dad wanted . . . what he asked you to do. What you promised you would do.”
“That was then,” she said wistfully. “Things are very different now. None of us could have known what this is really like, how it feels. Nobody can know that until they find themselves in a situation like this. He couldn’t have known. If he could have, do you think he would ask me to make the same promise today?”
“Yes, I do. I think he would be more adamant about it now if he could somehow appreciate all that has happened in the last two years.”
In spite of her own inner turmoil, she was impressed with and amazed by her son’s maturity and depth of understanding. And extremely proud of him. And yet she was not surprised because he had always exhibited an awareness and appreciation of the intricacies of human emotions and foibles that belied his youth. Her best friend had said, when she saw him for the first time just a few hours after his birth, “Oh, this one’s a really old soul” and, in the past two years, her observation certainly proven apt.
“Your father would be so proud of you,” she murmured without even realizing she was speaking aloud.
“He always told me he was proud of me and that he loved me. He told me every day, just like you do.” He smiled at the memory, but his grin faded quickly.
“Mom, I was there, remember? I heard him. I know what he said,” he reminded her softly.
She knew he was absolutely right. If he were physically able to do so, Dennis would extract the same promise from her today, but much more emphatically. Every time she visited him, she was painfully aware of how horrified he would be by his circumstances — and disappointed by her failure to fulfill his wish.
For a few moments, she gazed out the car window at the last-minute shoppers coming and going all around them.
“Every now and then, do you feel that the doctors are wrong? I do. Not every time we visit him. And sometimes the feeling is very brief, fleeting. But now and then as I sit by his bed watching the respirator breathe for him and listening to the sounds it makes, I believe that he is going to open his eyes again.”
Her son said nothing. He just continued gazing at her lovingly, but with the same steely resolve. “No, Mom,” he replied, his conviction unwavering.
“In the beginning, I tried to make myself believe that Dad’s condition would be temporary,” he continued. “Every now and then I would even dream about Dad recovering. In my dreams, Dad was fine, all of this was behind us, and we were happy again. But after the first few months, I never had another dream like that. And I never try to convince myself that things will be different. I have accepted that Dad’s life is over.”
Tears well up in her eyes. The finality in her son’s voice was chillingly accurate.
It was early 2005. They were enjoying a quiet mid-week dinner. She had turned the television set in the kitchen on while she was preparing the meal and had neglected to turn it off before they sat down to eat. They had been chatting about their work, school, what activities were planned for the upcoming weekend. Mid-sentence, Dennis became distracted by the images on the screen.
“Look at that! My God, it’s disgraceful,” he had exclaimed, his fork stalled in mid-air. “I can’t believe the way those people are fighting over that poor girl! “
The camera focused on a mob scene outside a Florida hospital. In the background, opposing groups of protesters held up signs and taunted each other while the reporter attempted to make sense of the latest round of legal squabbling and answered questions posed by the studio anchorperson.
“Oh, good grief, and now all those televangelists are down there getting their fifteen minutes of fame, too? This is sickening,” observed, his voice heavy with revulsion. “What a circus. You know what? None of those people care about her. They just want a shot at having a sound bite on the news! They want their own fifteen minutes of fame.”
Ironically, it was her son who had drawn Dennis deeper into conversation about the plight of Terri Schiavo, eliciting Dennis’ opinion and leading him to voice his own wishes.
After dinner, as the news coverage continued, the drama playing out on the television screen had served as the backdrop for their conversation.
“Dad, her husband says that she wouldn’t want to continue living the way she is, but her parents say she wouldn’t want to die?” her son had asked quizzically. “Who do you think is right?”
“Well, son, since I don’t know any of those people, I couldn’t say who is telling the truth and who isn’t.” Dennis had been a wonderful father, patiently explaining things to him, helping him understand. Over the years, it had been Dennis who helped him with his homework nearly every night, the two of them huddled at the kitchen table puzzling over algebraic equations or out in the garage brainstorming about an elaborate science experiment. Dennis had drilled him on his spelling words every Friday morning over breakfast table and cheered on the Friday evenings when he came home to find another quiz or test bearing a gold star posted on the refrigerator’s door.
And that evening had been no exception. Dennis had painstakingly explained the controversy to the boy, objectively detailing the consequences of the courts’ rulings. She had barely joined in the discussion, content to listen to the two of them — and feeling richly blessed.
After a few hours, her son had, of course, posed the inevitable and inescapable question to each of his parents.
“Mom, if you were like Terri Schiavo, what would you want? Would you want to continue living that way or would you want Dad to do what her husband is doing? Would you want him to tell the doctors to let you go?”
She had hesitated for a moment, unsure not only of her answer but of whether or not she felt comfortable providing a response to her son. Even after the lengthy conversation in which they had just engaged, her maternal instincts caused her to momentarily question whether or not he was mature enough to hear her response.
Dennis glanced over at her and, seeing the uncertainty in her eyes, said, “Well, son, I can tell you precisely what I would want if I were in a situation like that. I think your mom might need to give it a little more thought,” he said, smiling softly and giving her a little wink that conveyed his willingness to bail her out as he had so many times over the years. She smiled back at him gratefully. “And you know what? That’s o.k. Because this is an issue that everyone should think very carefully about.”
“Your Dad is right,” she added. “I’m not sure what I would want your Dad to do. I guess I’ve never really thought about it before now.”
“Well, I don’t need to give the question any more thought. I know what my answer is: I would definitely not want to be kept alive if I were in that condition,” Dennis stated matter-of-factly. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s not even living. What is the point of just lying in a hospital bed in a coma or almost-coma? No thank you.”
At that moment, he had turned to and extracted from her the promise that her son now expected her to honor and keep.
“Honey, you have to make me a promise right now, as long as we are having this conversation. If I got hurt and ended up like that woman in Florida — or, God forbid, in even worse shape — you would have to do the right thing and let me go. I would not want to be kept alive with tubes and I definitely would not want to spend my days just lying in a bed somewhere.”
“Dad, what are you saying exactly?”
To emphasize his point and assure that his wife and son understood his message, Dennis had pushed the “mute” button on the television’s remote control. The room was absolutely silent aside from the sound of his strong, clear baritone voice and time seemed to stand still. “Would you want Mom to let you die?” His eyes widened in just the manner that had caused her to fearfully stumble for a response. She could tell that the idea of the man whom he knew as his father — and adored — leaving him forever had permeated his consciousness in a tangible fashion.
“Absolutely,” Dennis replied emphatically. “And I want your Mom to promise right here and now that she would be strong enough to do just that.”
He got up from the couch where he had been seated, and walked over to the chair in which she was seated. Kneeling before her in the same way he had so many years earlier when he asked her to be his wife, he took both of her hands in his and, looking deep into her eyes, somberly repeated his request.
“Honey, if something terrible were to happen to me and I was left in a coma or near-coma, I would want you to tell the doctors not to let me linger indefinitely. So if the doctors assured you that I would never be able to lead a productive life again, I want you to promise that you would let me die.”
Click here to read Chapter Ten