Esther’s Guarded Condition
Dying When Common Sense & Common Decency Have Departed
by Anthony Esolen
As his days were racing to an early end, my father had to discuss with his doctors all the “choices” available for treatment. Sometimes these were legitimate choices involving the weighing of commensurate goods or commensurate evils, each with different degrees of probability. But once it became clear that he was going to die, that there was nothing that medicine could do to heal the bile duct and its spreading and thickening cancer, the doctors lost interest in his case.
They were kind to him, but they wanted him to make the choices—to take responsibility for the treatment. Finally, at one point, he threw up his hands in exasperation. “Why are they asking me what I think?” he said. “What do I know about it? I was an insurance salesman!”
Lucky it was for my father that he was in possession of all his faculties, and that he was a man of strong faith and will. But what happens when you are bedridden and unconscious, and your death is imminent?
I’ve seen a little of what happens only recently, attending with my wife Debra and her father at the bedside of her dying mother, long afflicted by a slowly progressing senility, the result of many small strokes. But the last two strokes—massive and irremediable—had left her mainly comatose, unable to swallow, and clearly on the path to the grave.
Debra and I had driven from Rhode Island to Pennsylvania to be with Grandma and to assist her husband in making sense of the reports and the demands, veiled as choices, made by the doctors. For my mother-in-law Esther was already uninteresting to the great god of Medicine.
She was going to die. We knew it, and had accepted it. But although she was in the care of people who were generally kind and considerate of her weakness and our grief, subtly the medical care of this dying life had shifted into the realm of personal choice, personal desires—and professional insistence, sometimes quiet, sometimes not so quiet, that the “right” choice be made, and fast.
We did not at first know how long she had left to live, and it was conceivable, at least for the first two days, that she would recover the ability to swallow. Therefore we asked that she be given nourishment intravenously.
Anthony Esolen is a professor at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts in Warner, New Hampshire, and the author of many books, including Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord (Ignatius). He has also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House). He and his wife Debra publish a web magazine, Word and Song (anthonyesolen.substack.com), on poetry, hymnody, language, classic films, and music. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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