A house of sorrow
"Recipe for death."
Those were the words in the subject field of the e-mail from Fran Measley.
"Dear Steve, as an 88-year-old caregiver of my husband for many months, I do not want my children going through the same experience with me. Would you send me the name of the concern that sells the recipe for death that you mentioned in your column.... My husband and I agreed that when we are old and infirm, death is a friend."
By the time I responded, Donald Measley, an Air Force pilot who flew supplies into postwar Germany as part of the Berlin airlift, had died. I apologized for not getting back to Fran sooner and also explained that I hadn't actually written about a specific "recipe for death." I'd written about Compassion & Choices (http://www.compassionandchoices.org), a nonprofit offering end-of-life counseling nationwide. The organization encourages terminally ill, suffering patients to discuss their wishes with their doctors, but in some cases offers advice on possible combinations of legally obtained medication that when properly self-administered, can hasten death.
Measley, a retired high school English teacher, clarified something, too. It wasn't her husband she was seeking help for. "I wanted it for me," she said. "I don't want my children going through what I just went through."
Her husband lived a good life but did not die a good death, Measley said, explaining how she fed him, cleaned him, picked him up when he fell, and patiently endured his demented outbursts. The last two years were particularly sad, Fran said, and her husband was miserable. Once, he asked Fran who she was. When she said that she was his wife, he called her a liar.
"Honey," he said one day, "I'm in the bathroom and I don't know how I got here."
Peripheral neuropathy left him shuffling along, leaning against walls and clutching furniture.
"He asked our son to shoot him, then said, 'I can't get any better, and this can't go on.' Our son looked at him and said, 'I won't do it.'"
When I visited Measley in the Santa Barbara home she shared with her husband, she vividly recalled the day she came upon him, alone in the den.
"He had a little pistol about like this," she said, holding her fingers a few inches apart. "He didn't say anything. He looked up at me."
Measley hid the gun, but wished there were a clean way out for her husband. If this were Oregon, I asked, would he have asked his doctor for a prescription?
"Yes. He would have been happy to."
Don Measley died Oct. 15 at a hospice center. He was 90. A month later, Fran's 55-year-old son-in-law died in a motorcycle accident.
"This is a house of sorrow," Measley said.
A good time to go
If Kitti Ford-Scholz, 77, was pretending not to fear death, it was an Oscar-winning performance. We sat on the patio of her red, wood-frame home looking over Oahu's Kaneohe Bay, and she told me about the funeral she'd thrown for herself in late October.
"It was a celebration of life," she said. "It was a bunch of people sitting around talking, and it was lot of laughter. Just a happy time. The lady who may be buying my house came in from Washington. A friend of mine who has a titanium spine, and is 85, flew in from Illinois. I got to see all of these people who have been so much a part of my life."
The slender and elegant Ford-Scholz was nonchalant about how terribly sick she was.