And Death shall have no dominion


I do love being an American. It's rarely boring. If people aren't hollering about John Kerry's war record, they're fussing about Barack Obama's birth certificate or trying to convince everyone that Medicare death panels are going to go all Logan's Run on us. Hollywood doesn't try half this hard to keep me entertained.

Side note: please extend some sympathy to the University of Idaho's Alumni Association. They could brag about the former U.S. Senator alum... but he's Larry "Wide Stance" Craig (Political Science, '69). They could also brag about the second UI football coach to run an NFL team... but he's Tom Cable, UI fired him in 2003, and he's coaching the Raiders. (Worse, the other guy was Dennis Erickson, who is Voldemort in Moscow these days.) Finally, they could brag about the Vice Presidential candidate alum who rocketed to fame about this time last year... but she's Sarah Palin (Communications/Journalism '87). She is apparently not content to destroy the reputation of UI's Journalism department with her lousy interviews and constant railing against The Media. No, now she's taken on the entire university's reputation as a institution of learning and critical thinking. I refer, of course, to her recent assertion that "(t)he America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil."

Um. Sarah? You know that heart condition Trig will almost definitely need to have corrected when he's in his mid-thirties, courtesy of Down syndrome? Pre-existing condition. He's a lot more likely to die at the hands of some faceless insurance company's accountants. You know, the same ones that have been fighting with me for eons over which birth control pill they'll pay for. My doctor prescribes me one because it works and doesn't make me crazy. They insist they won't pay for it, but they will pay for a different one that does make me crazy. That is, if they pay for it at all. You want to talk about evil?

The House bill Ms. Palin is demonizing actually authorizes Medicare to pay for voluntary counseling when recipients need to make some major life decisions. For instance, do you want to be kept alive indefinitely in a vegetative state at tremendous expense to your family, or would you like to go quietly and peacefully with lots of pain relief when you feel that it's your time to go? (Even though I've never met anyone who expressed a desire for Option A, it's available.) To describe her take on it as accurate would be like saying Larry Craig might get re-elected in Idaho sometime soon. Nevertheless, it's scoring her major points with a lot of freaked-out people who aren't sure whether they're more afraid of their own eventual death or the fact that the U.S. president is a black guy. It is also making me think a lot about a conservative Evangelical lady who loved the outdoors, the Republican party, and her family, though not in that order.

I'm not sure what my grandma would have thought about Ms. Palin. The world has changed a lot since my grandma passed away from multiple myeloma five years ago. While I think she would have been delighted to see a woman in a place of power in the Republican party--especially such a nice God-fearing lady with such a lovely family!--Palin's views on the environment and wolves' place in it may have caused some concerns. My grandma was also one of the most practical people I've ever met, aside from her conviction that the Second Coming was just around the corner. She might have watched Palin flub her way through the Couric interviews and sighed in dismay. She did not tolerate much nonsense from anyone, even nice God-fearing Veep candidates with pretty hair.

In keeping with her practical nature, my grandma made some difficult decisions late in life. Multiple myeloma is a form of white blood cell cancer that is not for sissies. It's one of those things that occurs all too often to people who have lived long and productive lives. Basically, her plasma cells just stopped being plasma cells. It also causes awful bone pain, usually from localized fractures. Her vertebrae began to collapse and compress, making it hard for her to move. She had spent much of her life hiking, kayaking, and being active, and now she was stuck in an elevated recliner most of the day. Her kidneys began to fail. It was terrible in a way that is hard to understand when you're 28 and healthy.

My grandma spent the last three years of her life in increasing amounts of pain, confusion, and dismay over all the bother she was causing her family and friends. I think the last was the hardest for her. She raised three children while my grandfather was away at war (WWII and Korea) for long periods of time, moved her furniture 27 times in 25 years, courtesy of the U.S. Army reassigning my grandpa, was the linchpin of many Army bases' social circles, and generally ran a tight domestic ship. She hated to be dependent on anyone and loved being able to help people however she could. A few months before she passed away, she needed my grandfather's help with her catheter tube in order to pee. She was taking enough morphine to lay a horse low, and I was incredibly grateful for it. Hearing her cry in pain was one of the most horrible things I've ever experienced.

It was even harder for her husband of 64 years, who prayed every day for Jesus to heal her. Jesus did not come through.

Since my grandma was firmly convinced that the Good Lord helps those who help themselves, she took action once it became obvious that 1) nobody recovers from multiple myeloma, and 2) she wanted to make things as easy as possible for the rest of us (and herself, too). She and my grandfather talked to her doctors about her likely prognosis and how best to handle it with the medical technology available. She decided that when things got really bad, she did not want heroic measures to be taken. For the last year of her life, a big "DO NOT RESUSCITATE" form was neatly and prominently displayed on the refrigerator door. She wanted to make sure the paramedics wouldn't have to look too hard for it. When things did get really bad, she went to a hospice where she lived out her last couple of weeks in a quiet and peaceful environment with even more opiates.

This kind of care was possible only because she had health coverage provided by the U.S. government. My family would not have been able to afford it otherwise, and there was no way we could provide the level of care she needed at the end. My grandfather developed walking pneumonia as a result of neglecting himself in order to care for her in the week prior to her going into the hospice. My mother and her two sisters had a difficult time caring for one sick parent, much less two. I wouldn't wish it on anyone.

In short, my grandma planned an awful and difficult decision as best she could. Nobody wants to die, or see their family members die, but it's going to happen to all of us, and it probably won't happen the way we think it will. It behooves us personally and as a society to do it as sensibly as possible, like my grandma did. She had help in planning things out from her doctors and her health insurance program--Medicare. Her family was involved, but she called as many of the shots as she could. If that's a death panel, sign me up. I only hope I can do it with as much grace and compassion as my grandma.

Multiple myeloma is hereditary.