In October of 2015, my grandfather, Grant McGuire, utilized Oregon’s aid-in-dying law after suffering for months from pancreatic cancer. He had been diagnosed in February of the same year and his doctors originally believed that surgery would be the solution. Unfortunately, however, they discovered during his preoperative work that the cancer had already spread to his lungs, liver and bloodstream.
Living a fulfilling life was much more important to my grandfather than living a long life but, at 68 years old, he still had so much that he wanted to do. With surgery off the table, our family hoped that chemo treatments and a clinical trial might provide more time. We remained cautiously optimistic because, except for the cancer, he was still healthy and full of energy.
Even so, it was clear that his condition was terminal. On top of that, his treatments left him feeling sicker and weaker than the cancer itself. Just weeks before his death, my grandfather came to Illinois to visit me, my sister Christine, my mom (his daughter, Sarah Breeden) and my dad (Ken Breeden). He spent three weeks at our home and, during this time, my mom also took him on what they called his “Goodbye Tour” to see some of his friends throughout Illinois and Indiana.
We knew that he had been gradually deteriorating since February. By the time he was preparing to head back west, he was suffering gravely. He had grown increasingly fatigued and had lost an alarming amount of weight within the span of just a few weeks. He could barely walk, and he wasn’t able to attend family events without completely exhausting himself. He had been holding back on his pain medication in order to stay lucid–he wanted to ensure that my sister and I, especially, had joyful and lasting memories of our time together–but he ended up having to see a doctor while in Illinois so that they could give him a stronger prescription.
My mom joined her father on the journey back from Illinois. She had flown to and from Oregon several times since he had received his diagnosis. Getting through the airport was now a monumental task for my grandfather to take on independently. It was clear that he was nearing the end.
Soon after arriving home, he chose a date to pass. This knowledge allowed our family the opportunity to speak openly and intentionally during his remaining time. My grandfather was determined that my sister and I remember him not as he was in his last days, but as he had been to us throughout our lives. For this reason, we were not with him in Oregon. We exchanged several texts with him in the time leading up to his chosen date, and he read each of us a goodbye letter over the phone. Those last conversations were incredibly meaningful–we were able to tell each other how proud we were of one another. My grandfather had always been supportive of my passion for social justice, and he was part of the reason I became inspired about such issues in the first place. We shared a great deal of mutual respect, and I am thankful that we were able to articulate this one last time. I recorded the call in which he read his letter to me, and I often open the audio file when I want to hear his voice.
My mom stayed in Oregon until after he passed. Early into his diagnosis, she had written a letter titled Putting the “U” in Eulogy. My grandfather later told her that whenever his pain kept him up at night, he would read it. It meant so much to my mom that her words made a difference to him, and that the two of them had the opportunity for several more heartfelt conversations before he passed. They enjoyed each other's company and took short, careful walks around the neighborhood. My mother and grandfather likely would not have had the chance for such meaningful final exchanges without the ability to openly discuss his end-of-life plans.
On the day before his planned death, they held an open house during which people could drop by to share their favorite memories and say goodbye. He told his favorite jokes and was, as usual, the life of the party.
He died on October 6th, 2015, just days before his 69th birthday. The world lost a truly remarkable human being that day. He had been such an adventurous, cultured and kind-hearted person. Along with visiting all fifty U.S.-American states, he had also travelled to over forty countries–not just as a tourist, but as a backpacker, a discoverer, an intellectual sponge and a global citizen. He had served as a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) for children, delivered hot meals to Portland’s needy populations, taught English as a second language, lended to entrepreneurs in the global south and taken Qur’an lessons in order to better understand other people’s belief systems. He was the embodiment of selflessness, so much so that he received a posthumous award for his CASA volunteer work.
Had he not been diagnosed with cancer, I know that my grandfather would have loved to spend more time with his family, enjoy retirement, keep gardening, practice his Spanish, drink more coffee and travel to more countries. But in 2003–years before contracting a terminal illness– he had actually chosen to retire to Oregon due in part to the state’s medical aid-in-dying law. He could not have been sure that he would ever need to use it, but the option mattered . When the time came, the fact that he lived in Oregon meant that he was able to choose a date and a time and a place to pass, surrounded by his family, in his own bed, when the pain became truly unbearable. It was clear that all other options had been exhausted and it was a relief that he had some semblance of control over the manner in which his life would end.
Many people, however, are at the mercy of their home addresses. State boundaries should not dictate a person’s life or death against their wishes because goodness knows these decisions are already hard enough to make. In an effort to honor my mom’s father and my grandfather, we continue to advocate for this important end-of-life option in our home state of Illinois.