By Roberta King of Missoula, Montana. Roberta is the daughter of Bob Baxter, who fought in the Montana courts to have the legal right to aid in dying. (This is the second article in a three part series. The first article can be read here.)
My dad called me the summer before he died and told me he had purchased a gun and was going to end his life. He had gone to court to seek a legal right to aid in dying but it was taking a long time and his aggressive cancer was progressing fast.
When he told me his plans, I scolded him for being selfish and informed him that my mother would have that violent death as her memory of his passing. We argued about the court case. I was hoping it would resolve before long and I of course, being the child, didn’t think he would leave so soon. He was only 76 years old. Dad never mentioned it again; he sucked it up and hung on as long as he could.
During the last few months of his life, my father’s disease progressed to the stage where he suffered a great deal and was in a constant state of misery. His symptoms included severely swollen glands; constant pain and aching that made it extremely difficult for him to sit up; problems breathing; chronic fatigue and weakness; persistent infections; inability to sleep; loss of appetite; weight loss; and horrible episodes of alternating sweating and cold. He had lost about 30 pounds from his thin frame by the time he died.
My Dad was a very proud man. As his disease progressed, his ability to do things for himself decreased. He lost the ability to drive; this was crushing to him. He had been a truck driver for most of his life and now he couldn’t even drive himself to his Dr. appointments. He had to rely on my mother for everything.
Dad went on Hospice November 1st and I went to Billings to see him. I spent the whole drive thinking about what was coming. Once again, selfishly, I didn’t think he would leave so soon. He was so sick and miserable. From statements he made to me and other members of our family, it is clear my father would have availed himself of aid in dying if that choice had been legal in Montana and available to him. But we had heard nothing from the court.
I saw him again three weeks later, the week before he died. When I first saw him, I saw a skeleton of the man I knew. He was so thin his glasses wouldn’t stay on his face. I immediately burst into tears and dad had to comfort me. He asked me how long I thought he would have to endure before he finally died. I couldn’t tell him. I spent those few days trying to find things to comfort him: a pillow so he could sit, something to keep his glasses up. When my husband and I left, he said goodbye to me and meant it. I didn’t say my final goodbyes because I thought I would see him again.
On December 5, 2008, I was packing to come back to Billings to see him again. That was the day Judge McCarter issued her ruling. She wrote, “The Montana constitutional rights of individual privacy and human dignity, taken together, encompass the right of a competent terminally [ill] patient to die with dignity. . . . The patient’s right to die with dignity includes protection of the patient’s physician from liability under the State’s homicide statutes.” My father was sleeping when the news came that he had won his case. He never woke up.
Opponents of letting people make this choice themselves quickly attacked the judge’s ruling. Montana’s Attorney General announced he would appeal the decision to the Montana Supreme Court. We knew the people of Montana agreed terminally ill patients should have the choice my dad wanted and Judge McCarter said the constitution agreed. Now we would have to see what the Supreme Court and then the legislature would have to say.