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My Father's Toughest Fight

A Daughter's Tale of Love and Remembrance, Pain and Death

February 02, 1997|Patt Morrison | Patt Morrison is a Times staff writer and a host of KCET's "Life & Times."

My father died on a summer morning in the low, white-painted four-poster bed he bought for me when I was 12 years old and had a room to myself for the first time. * We found two guns wedged under the mattress. Having his guns so close at hand was probably a comfort, a promise of deliverance. But in the end, this strong man who, at age 70, outran and outclimbed his juniors did not have the strength to pull a trigger. * My father died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's disease. He was 71. * He died too soon but not soon enough. He died just as I was en route home, bringing with me enough pills and enough resolve to break the law and keep a promise and help him to die. * Federal judges and church leaders and lawmakers will, in the course of the next months and probably years, be dealing with the matter of assisted suicide. Their deliberations will be abstract. Ours had a name, a ravaged body, a beloved face.

*

So vigorous and strong was my father that the doctors couldn't believe it was Lou Gehrig's that was buckling his legs and knotting his tongue. So they tested and tested again.

Strong as an ox, the doctors said, puzzled. Never ran into such a physical specimen.

When the ALS was at last diagnosed, he was seven months shy of his 70th birthday. He lifted weights, ran, biked, never walked when he could run. He could, to my mother's annoyance, still fit into the Navy uniform he wore as a gunner's mate on a destroyer that got kamikaze'd at Lingayen Gulf in the Philippines.

A high school athlete who had lettered in everything he could afford the shoes for, he weighed 180 when he graduated and stayed 180 until ALS shriveled the pounds away to 105.

It wasn't death that frightened him. He was a lineman who had climbed electric poles for 40 years; he had lived with death among the hot wires. He had saved men's lives, and he had seen men die.

But this was death by inches, death intolerable. My father was not a scholar, he was a doer. At 70, he was still a happy glutton for work. His co-workers called him "Gene, Gene, the working machine."

Nothing, not even Alzheimer's disease, could have been worse for this man.

Here was no Stephen Hawking who could change the world from a wheelchair. My restless father could not sit through a two-hour movie without getting up two or three times during the film for a little half-jog around the lobby. Our joke was that we, he and his elder daughter, had two speeds: fast and dead.

Until he fell ill, the most I ever saw him write was "I love you" on a note tucked in with the $20 bills he kept slipping into my pocket, long after I earned more than he did. Probably not since he was in high school had he written as much as he did in the last month of his life, when the disease took his voice. We keep the yellow legal pad on which he wrote his wishes. And I, child of the profligate '60s, smile to see that he, child of the Depression, wrote frugally on both sides of the paper.

"Get me some cereal out of yellow box . . . Give Rohan a bone . . . I feel sick every time I get up . . . Can you water the tree to the east tonite . . . lot of doves out there . . . I have a hard time breathing . . . call Patt tell her to bring extra pills with her."

I don't remember a time that the right-to-die issue had not been dealt with matter-of-factly in my family. My grandfather, a vigorous and brilliant engineer and artist, had talked with repugnance of being a "vegetable," dependent, more dead than alive. All of us had assured him we would not let that happen. When he died, he died in an instant, and we mourned for our sake but were thankful for his.

My father had wanted the same assurances, and he had gotten them. Until the diagnosis, they had been an abstraction. They were no longer.

no drugs can halt als. the only hope lay in drug trials and experiments, and their registries were full.

And anyway, he would not have put up with weekly tests or out-of-town trips; as long as he was well enough to go fishing, he announced, he would fish. We gave him neon-bright nylon shorts that Christmas, so we could find him if he fell in and drowned, we told him. He laughed at that and wore them.

He had already asked about getting Jack Kevorkian and began to ask more often, more insistently. I parried that Kevorkian didn't make house calls. In truth, I would not have my father die in the back of what we reporters kept describing as a rusted-out van belonging to a man I consider the wrong messenger of the right message.

Instead, I would find pills--enough pills, however many that would be.

The fact is, I didn't know how much, how many.

There are doctors who are willing to defy the law to help their dying patients to die on their own terms. My father's longtime doctor was not one of them; he would not dispense either pills or advice about them. We were on our own.

So I went to work, ferreting out right-to-die literature, Hemlock Society material, whatever I could find. I didn't want lyrical prose: I wanted formulas, data.

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