To Lay Down Life in its Season
Lincoln, Nebraska calls itself the Prairie Capital City. Set in the center of the country, it is a city of Cornhuskers, family-friendly neighborhoods and traditional Midwestern values. The flat landscape stretching around Lincoln for miles in every direction makes for steady winds, gorgeous sunsets and a sense of calm.
Ten years after his neurologist confirmed he had Parkinson’s disease, Alan Hansen of Lincoln faced an oncoming death. He met it in a manner consistent with his beliefs and values. Working with Compassion & Choices’ End-of-Life Consultation (EOLC) Program and with his family’s support, he achieved a peaceful death at a time and place he wanted.
Alan and Lois, his wife of 59 years, had thought about what they wanted from life—and from the end of life—since their early 20s. It began with drafting wills to provide for their children and much later establishing living wills and powers of attorney for healthcare. Over time they enlisted in the movement for end-of-life choice and joined the organization that later became Compassion & Choices.
Ten years ago when Alan learned he had both Parkinson’s disease and macular degeneration, he and Lois talked with their adult children about their own healthcare intentions, including possibly when to end their lives. Alan and Lois answered their questions and assured them nothing was final. The children accepted their ideas.
Parkinson’s slowly and silently impaired the neurons in Alan’s brain, causing loss of muscle control, stiffness, tremor and finally immobility. He could no longer change positions in bed, dress himself or move at all without great difficulty. His hands held a fork or spoon, but guiding them to eat was a challenge.
Every blade in the field, every leaf in the forest, lays down its life in its season, as beautifully as it was taken up.
In August 2006 Alan was hospitalized with pneumonia and struggled for a month afterward in a nursing home rehabilitation program. Once discharged, he vowed he’d never go to a nursing facility or hospital again. As weeks passed his limitations increased. Newspaper headlines were the only reading macular degeneration allowed; chronic weariness closed in. After repeated falls, he was confined to a wheelchair. He lost interest in leaving the house even to sit on the porch. By October, he told Lois he was ready to end his life.
I don’t feel the need to show the world that I can endure a hopeless time of difficulty before I die.
Turning his wish into a plan took time. Alan telephoned each of his four children about his decision, and they all came home immediately. Alan chose the date February 23, 2007, to end his life. His family showed loving concern, some reluctance and a desire to enhance the quality of living for Alan. Alan and Lois had a long telephone conference with a counselor from Compassion & Choices’ EOLC Program.
Lois describes their Compassion & Choices counselor as “a warm and knowledgeable woman who listened, questioned, answered our questions, and advised us on preparations,” preparations that required time. The children returned to their homes, but were in frequent contact with their parents. Throughout many conversations, Alan remained consistent in his choice to hasten the end of his life. At one point he clarified this directly with one of his children, “I’m not asking your permission; I’m informing you.”
Alan and Lois prepared. At Alan’s request, his doctor referred him to a hospice program. Alan and Lois alone obtained the medication he would administer to himself. They did nothing illegal.
The children returned to Lincoln in late February.
Alan was stronger in voice and spirit, and settled in his decision.
Alan chose roast pork and baked potatoes for a last dinner. The six sat at the table as they had when the children were young. Sadness, appreciation, apprehension and grief washed over them in turn as they reminisced and laughed together.
The first thing is that I’m a happy person because of the kinds of things I’ve been able to do and the kinds of interrelationships I’ve been able to enjoy. Those satisfactions are draining from me, as I get weaker and more uncomfortable with my life and my opportunities to do what I like to do.
The next morning Alan lay in his sunny room surrounded by family, who were able to express their final thoughts to him and hear his in return. He took the medication and lost consciousness within five minutes. The family lit three candles, and each member invoked a memory. Lois and the children stayed with him, talking, stroking his head and holding his hands. His strong heart beat through the afternoon, that night and into the next day. His daughter-in-law and four of his grandchildren joined the family vigil.
Near dusk on the second day, large, soft flakes covered the yard outside with an inch of snow. That evening, 29 hours after he lost consciousness, Alan drew his final breath. “It was a sacred time,” says Lois, “full of love and loss, a good death following a good life of 81 years.”
Lois: I speak out about our family experience because I believe that honest discussion about death and dying is deeply buried in the conversational closet, so hidden it is difficult to think seriously about what we want, make decisions or plan. For our family Alan’s final days were about love. They were about his choice to live according to his personal values, about the rest of us joining with and supporting his journey because we loved him.
Andy: When I was 15, I came out to him about being gay. He was the first one in my family that I told.
Later, he led the successful campaign to include sexual orientation in Southeast Community College’s non-discrimination policy when he served on its Board of Governors. Although I was not there, of course, I am told he cried when he was advocating this policy to the Board; he was crying for me, for his child, for discrimination.
Maren: As a young girl, I can still vividly remember waking up from a scary dream, stumbling out of my bedroom and into the hallway. My dad looked at me, exclaimed, “Honey, what’s wrong?” and his big arms opened and gathered around me. I fell into the safety of his large body. Suddenly my world was safe, protected.
The day before my dad died I told him, “I’m going to miss you so much. But I’ll always have you in my heart. You live inside of me.” He replied, “Marnie, that’s where all of us live, inside of each other.”