Charlie Ritz, 85, shares his wishes for the end of life as part of The Conversation Project. (George Hicks/WBUR)
My dad, Charlie Ritz, has given me countless gifts. One of the more recent ones is his willingness to talk openly about the fact that, though he’s healthy, when you’re 85 you’re not going to be around forever. He has made me cheat sheets of all the numbers and names I’ll need to handle his estate. He has signed his living will. And he has told me in so many words that he only wants to keep living if the quality of his life is good.
But it’s one thing to say that. We both know how hard it is to act when the time comes. Nearly 25 years ago, my mom was in a terrible car accident that left her in a coma and then a persistent vegetative state. After about six months, there was no real hope that she would ever wake up. She’d been a member of the Hemlock Society and had always been clear that she wouldn’t want to live like that. Years earlier, she’d even made my dad promise that if she asked him to bring her suicide pills, he would: “She touched my arm and said, ‘And if I can’t ask you, you’ll know,’” he said.
We knew. Even so, it took us more than a year after all hope was gone to finally bring ourselves to remove my mother’s feeding tube. My dad went to see her every day, and apologized to her for breaking their agreement.
So when I heard about The Conversation Project, I asked my dad if he’d be willing to tape “the conversation” with me, to help us and others make sure we’re as clear as possible about end-of-life choices. The project has just been launched by a group of media and medical professionals who want to help families and loved ones begin to talk about end-of-life care well in advance.
Dr. Jessica McCannon, a Massachusetts General Hospital critical-care physician and an advisor to The Conversation Project: “If patients and families can do this around their kitchen tables, and come to the hospital saying, ‘Look, I know my mom; this is what’s important to her,’ then we can really, calmly, make decisions that make sense.”
My talk with my dad, lightly edited, is below. Just to jump ahead, I have to admit that I kind of dreaded it. But I ended up finding it surprisingly comforting. I’d thought this was something I was doing for my dad, to get clear on his wishes. But in the process I learned that he was doing it for me. That he wanted to make sure I came away from his ending without guilt, knowing that though he didn’t want to die, he didn’t fear it.
Dr. Jessica McCannon, an advisor to The Conversation Project (George Hicks/WBUR)
I also learned some things I didn’t know. I learned that he’d very much like to have my children, who are 8 and 10, at his deathbed if they’re willing. If their beloved faces were the last thing he saw in this life, he said, that would be a good way to go.
And I learned that he and I just have very different attitudes toward death. I think death is followed by a great big nothing, and I’d rather have just about anything than nothing. At 85, he feels like he’s “had a life;” he only wants to stay longer on his own terms — a feeling that he tells me is hard for a younger person to imagine. True.
Readers, if this conversation leaves you with personal questions, you can go to The Conversation Project or post them in the comments below; Dr. McCannon has kindly agreed to respond. And now, our Conversation:
Carey: So this is a starter kit. It says it doesn’t answer every question but it helps you get your thoughts together and have the conversation with your loved ones. And you don’t have to complete it in one sitting. So it starts with a bunch of facts about how people don’t tend to communicate about their end-of-life wishes. Actually let’s begin with: So why are you willing to do this?
Charlie: I feel strongly about it and I just don’t mind airing my thoughts, I guess.
And I think for both of us, part of what makes us feel so strongly is our experience with Mum, that we saw how hard it can be for relatives to follow wishes.
And it’s important to me that you — when and if you have to help me in any way — that there’s no guilt involved. That my wishes are what’s involved here. Continue reading