Carol asked if I would help her die.
We were on our last drive back from the oncology clinic in Iowa City, and she asked if I could help when the time came. And it was coming.
Hospice nurses soon would be stopping by the house, and they would bring morphine for the pain that showed on her face.
At 54, Carol was resigned to her death. She knew nothing more could be done, so she set her jaw, fixed her eyes and went about the business of helping us accept it, too.
It was February 2005, and we were making our way home on Interstate 80. Carol had a pillow resting against her stomach tube, and the heat was blasting in the car, because she was always cold.
I can't get the words exactly right, but Carol wanted to know if I would help her take enough morphine to end her life if the pain became too much.
I froze. My throat tightened, and I searched my mind for an answer, giving zero consideration to the likelihood such a thing would be illegal.
A desperate desire to relieve Carol's fear supplied me with a response: "Yes. I'll help you."
She never asked again.
The relief was not in being spared an impossibly difficult position. The relief was in knowing the pain never got to the point of pressing us into action.
It took Carol two weeks to die, and she became impatient for it at times. More than once, her eyes flitted open, and her tired voice muttered, "Dammit."
Her sister and I squeezed a drop of morphine under her tongue as directed, and that seemed to be enough to coax her back into rest. For some people, pain medication is not enough.
There are worse things than dying, and one of them is unimaginable suffering.
In five states and Washington, D.C., the terminally ill have a choice. Mentally capable adults who have less than six months to live may request and receive life-ending medication. The drug is self-administered (swallowed) to deliver a peaceful death when suffering becomes unbearable.
The Iowa Legislature recently had the opportunity to give Iowans that choice, but the End-of-Life Options Act didn't make it out of committee after an emotional debate.
State Rep. Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport, was one of the sponsors of the bill, and she said Tuesday that she is not aware of any plans by the chief sponsor to reintroduce it. Opposition is stiff, she said, especially among those who regard the end-of-life choice as assisted suicide.
"Some people say, 'We have Hospice; we don't need this,'" Winckler said. "But Hospice can be very prolonged. Some individuals want to make the decision of when it's time, and they have suffered enough."
In Illinois, the legislature considered a physician-assisted dying bill in 1997 and has not entertained a related measure since. However, the Chicago-based Final Options Illinois is advocating for new legislation.
A group of Scott County people who are advocating for the movement met Monday night at the Bettendorf Public Library for a viewing of the movie "How to Die in Oregon." The movie was a documentary, following people who were terminally ill and opted to exercise their choice under Oregon's 20-year-old Death with Dignity Act.
Though sad, for sure, the movie was not a downer. It was warm and touching and funny and sweet. Through my tears, I became more convinced than ever that permitting people to have the choice of ending their own suffering is the correct thing to do.
Here's how I knew:
I had a cat by the name of Jack. He was my soul cat, and I don't care if that makes me sound crazy. Jack and I were bonded. I loved him as if he were my child, and I knew he loved me.
Jack had a terrible summer of repeated head wounds that were difficult to treat. On Oct. 27, I woke to find Jack lying next to me, eyes distant. I could see the swelling in one ear and some dried blood on the side of his face. My vet's warning that Jack likely had a brain tumor now appeared to be a correct diagnosis.
I took him that morning to his vet in Davenport, and we talked about the chances of recurring wounds and his obvious pain and discomfort. Though it felt like I might simultaneously collapse and throw up, I got the words out: I need to let him go.
I held one of his furry little paws with one hand and gently stroked his head with the other, reassuring him the best I could. "I love you, Jack," I heard myself say between sobs. "You're a good boy. It's OK."
No more than two minutes passed between the injection and his little body becoming still.
It was like that for the people in the movie. Though they were sad to be leaving their spouses and their children, they needed the peace of death. Some found comfort in simply knowing the lethal medications were in a drawer.
As one elderly woman put it, her life already had ended. What she needed was an exit.
Because I loved Jack, I gave him an exit. Because I loved Carol, I vowed to help her find one, too.
The humane thing for any one of us to do is to support the choices of others. When the misery and indignity of death becomes too much, comfort comes in going.