Sometimes it's merciful to be 'put to sleep'

Morton Brotman

February 17, 1992|By Morton Brotman

BAYARD Veiller and his wife, Marguerite, owned a dog, Penn, who habitually slept at the foot of Marguerite's bed.

At age 17, corresponding to well more than 100 years of human life, he still had sight and teeth. But every move was painful for Penn, and he was threatened by spreading cancer.

One morning while Marguerite was in town, Bayard took Penn to Dr. Vail's in Greenwich and had him "put to sleep." He buried the pet under the arch of two forsythia trees.

"Now, here is the part I don't expect anyone to believe," Bayard told me later. "I had had a hard day. Telling Marguerite had been a chore, and I went to bed rather early and slept soundly.

"At 3 the next morning, Penn awoke me with his barking. I am not a superstitious man or given to strange fancies. Penn's barking was gay, boisterous, excited. I got up and went outside.

"There was bright moonlight, and over the hill back of the house, Penn came on down to the lawn. He was stepping high, wide and handsome, his tail like a plume in the moonlight. He was young again! I could almost hear him say, 'This is wonderful! I didn't know anything like this could happen!'

"He tore around the yard a few minutes and then moved to the flower bed and bordering evergreens. All of a sudden he was gone.

"I can't explain this, and it wasn't a dream.

"I didn't say anything to Marguerite, but she told me in the morning she had heard barking that sounded like Penn's. It eased her heartbreak, she said."

Penn's death was a simple example of euthanasia. Perhaps what happened to the Veillers and Penn under the moon that morning was a manifestation of the overwhelming relief that euthanasia brought to everyone in the family.

Every birth carries with it a guarantee of death. We humans tend to ignore that uncomfortable promise as long as we are able.

But the future becomes today. Now! And we humans know our chances of avoiding distress as we die, of departing this life without discomfort and pain, are similar to those of hitting the lottery.

In too many nursing homes, hospitals and homes, people experience horrible, drawn-out, agonizing deaths that cry out (aloud or silently) for merciful relief. Death itself is not the problem. It endows peace.

I am not advocating murder. Penn was not murdered. He was allowed to depart this world with true mercy.

You and I should not be satisfied until lawmakers address this problem. We need sensible, reasonable and workable legal guidelines, not just for "pulling the plug" when people are comatose, but for erasing consciousness when people are in excruciating terminal agony.

Here is the gist of the document I have signed and had witnessed:

"I dread consciousness of hellish suffering during a 'dead-end' situation. In a hopeless state, I hereby refuse artificial life support and plead instead to be put to sleep."

Morton Brotman wrote this essay while his wife, Delma, was severely and painfully ill at a Baltimore nursing home. She died Feb. 4.

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