They both wanted to die. They both asked to die. 

And yet, there was nothing any of us could do.

I watched as cancer turned my grandfathers -- once strong, independent men -- into helpless shells. I watched them eaten from within. I watched them suffer through treatments that, at best, could only prolong their lives, and the suffering, a few more months.

I watched as each of them asked to die.

Lung cancer attacked my maternal grandfather in 1999. By the end, he couldn't bathe himself. His wife and three daughters were reduced to holding a months-long vigil over him. On more than one occasion, he asked for his pistol. And, in each instance, the reply was the same, "You know we can't do that, dad."

Many of us, even the most ardent Catholics, wished we could have handed him that .357 and just walked away. Our refusal was one of self preservation. The consequences for those of us in the room, had this now-immobile man somehow armed himself, was the reason no one acted. 

My paternal grandfather's prostate went malignant in 2006. He, too, fought it for months. But there was nothing medicine could do. He knew he was doomed and openly talked about it. 

The rest of us were reduced to mixing ground Aspirin and petroleum jelly in a hapless effort to numb the shingles that covered him head-to-toe. 

A few months before he died -- drugged into unconsciousness in a Hospice bed -- he tried to end it. That fistful of pills would have done the trick if my mother hadn't found him lying on a cot in his workshop surrounded by empty prescription bottles.

After his death, I found a length of clothes line hanging from the ceiling of that workshop, carefully twisted into a mouse-sized noose.

My grandfather had been practicing. There's a certain morbid artistic beauty to the existential anguish represented by that piece of string. It's one of my most cherished possessions. 

A lot has been said on this page in recent weeks about assisted suicide, or "right to die" as proponents like to call it for political reason. It started with a piece by Quad-City Times columnist Barb Ickes, who sat by recently as a family member clung to life. The response, in letters and op-eds, came from two distinct perspectives. Proponents talked about individual rights. Opponents cite God's plan -- a nebulous concept -- and a "slippery slope" toward wholesale eugenics, a classic red herring. 

Thing is, neither of my grandfathers were especially religious men. One almost never attended mass alongside my grandmother and was baptized in concert with his last rites. The other hopped from protestant church to protestant church depending on which had the best music.

And yet, due to laws framed by a narrow religious view, both men had to suffer the pain and indignity that is death prolonged by medicine. They had to suffer for months, or succumb to paralyzing doses of painkillers, because of a worldview to which they didn't subscribe.

I respect the likes of Bishop Thomas Zinkula, who recently made an impassioned argument on this page against the assisted suicide movement. Zinkula has every right to his beliefs. He has every right to find some universal meaning in the pain and suffering that people experience at the very end. 

But my grandfathers also had rights. And theirs were walked upon by a stigma, imposed long ago by those in the death business, that considers suicide unnatural and shameful.

From that vein, one could argue that the drugs used to numb their pain were unnatural. It could be argued that the weeks of chemotherapy, which extended their lives a few pain-ridden months, were unnatural.

The very concept of the natural is, at the end of the day, a subjective value judgement. Even the Vatican's view of what constitutes acceptable doctrine -- what's natural -- shifts from pope to pope. 

Yes, those opposed to assisted suicide have every right to face the pain and suffering in their final days. But I struggle to see how, in a secular society, those beliefs mean my grandfathers couldn't be afforded the same right to choose for themselves. 

Jon Alexander is editorial page editor at the Quad-City Times. He can be reached at


Editorial Page Editor

Editorial Page Editor, Quad-City Times