If you could choose, would you rather die at home or in a hospital?
When my Dad was dying, my mother was adamant about keeping him at home. She rented a hospital bed, and hired health care aides. She wanted my Dad to have familiar surroundings and because she loved him so much, a part of her believed that if he was at home, he’d never die. But as cancer continued to ravage him, this was no longer the best idea. It can be very difficult to administer pain medication at home, and my Dad was also, at times, highly agitated. When my Mom surrendered, and moved him to a nearby hospital, the situation improved. The doctors were able to keep my Dad far more comfortable, although one doctor did worry that my Dad might become addicted to morphine. This seemed odd, because if you’re dying and in pain, a morphine addiction seems like not such a bad thing. The drugs made my father both more restful, and allowed him what looked like some very pleasant hallucinations.
When my Mom was dying, years later, she was eager to stay in her Manhattan apartment. At first she didn’t want to rent a hospital bed, I think because she felt that hospital equipment would make her feel sicker. She came up with a plan, which she had me research, to install two matching recliners in her apartment. These recliners would allow her a more agreeable sleeping position, and she wanted a pair so that her health care aide or a visitor could be comfortable as well. Before I could move forward with the recliner proposal, her condition worsened, and I got her a hospital bed, which she ended up liking very much, once she realized that it allowed for a range of sleeping options. She liked most of her aides, whom she would instantly advise on their love lives and reading choices. My Mom also decided that she needed an oxygen tank, but once she had one, she realized that the nasal tubes don’t really give you a satisfying gush of air, and since she hadn’t really needed the tank to begin with, she abandoned it.
My mother liked being in charge of her own treatment, and she especially enjoyed bringing my partner John and my cousin Carl, both of whom are doctors, along with her when she went to see the oncologist. This made her feel like Jewish royalty, or the grand marshal of a medical parade.
One morning my Mom called up all of her closest relatives and announced that she was going to die that afternoon. We all hurried over, and that was when my Mom discovered that you can’t just decide to die. She wasn’t in pain, and she didn’t need morphine, but she was a very organized person, so she’d picked a date. When she didn’t die, she looked frustrated and disappointed, but then she decided that there were still some TV shows she wanted to watch.
A few days later my Mom became woozy, but she still wasn’t in pain. I was having a conversation with my Mom’s beloved relatives at her bedside, when my Mom, in a gleeful response to whatever we were all talking about, uttered what was most likely her last word: “Bullshit.” She died a few days later, in her apartment.
My friend Jay died three months ago, at the home of Bernard, his extraordinary and devoted partner. Jay had suffered from ALS, which is a particularly vicious disease. Over a period of years, he’d become unable to walk, speak or move without a great deal of assistance. Jay, like Bernard, was an interior designer, and they both had truly great taste. During his illness, it gave Jay pleasure to see certain paintings and objects. Jay was an opinionated guy and even after he couldn’t talk, he was still able to let visitors know exactly what he thought, on a variety of topics.
Jay died at home, soon after a friend had sent him a photo of some of Jay’s favorite flowers, which had just bloomed in the friend’s garden, a continent away.
Getting to choose where one dies is, of course, a luxury. People die on battlefields or at busy intersections or beneath avalanches.
Where would I like to die? I haven’t decided, but I’d definitely like some decent pillows. And maybe an orchestra.