My Cat Had A Better Death Than My Grandfather

01 Jul
July 1, 2014

I once heard someone describe the difference between a dog and a cat like this: You love your dog so you take care of it and feed it and give it treats. So your dog is grateful and it looks up at you and thinks to itself, “You must be God.”

You love your cat so you take care of and feed it and give it treats. So your cat is grateful and it looks up at you and thinks to itself, “ I must be God.”

Sometimes we feel like a cat, and sometimes we feel like a dog. Like the guy who woke up sick as a dog one morning after his office holiday party with a huge hangover. He wasn’t normally much of a drinker but you know how all those fruit drinks don’t even taste like alcohol and he had so many he didn’t even remember how he got home. As bad as he was feeling he had a sinking sensation that he had been really ad when he got home the night before.

He forces himself to open his eyes and the first thing he sees is a couple of aspirins next to a glass of water on the side table. And next to the, a single red rose! He sits up and sees his clothing in front of him, all clean and pressed. He looks around the room and sees that everything is in perfect order, spotlessly clean. He takes the aspirins and cringes when he sees a huge black eye staring back at him in the bathroom mirror. Then he notices a note hanging on the corner of the mirror written in red with little hearts on it and a kiss mark from his wife in lipstick:

“Honey, breakfast is on the stove. I left early to get groceries to make your favorite dinner tonight. I love you, darling. Love Jillian.”

He stumbles into the kitchen and sure enough, there is a hot breakfast, steaming hot coffee and the morning paper. His son is also there eating so he asks, “Son, do you know what happened last night?”

“Sure dad,” he answers, “you woke me up. You came home after 3 am drunk and out of your mind making lots of noise. You fell over the coffee table and broke it, then you threw up in the hallway and you got that black eye when you ran into the door.”

Obviously confused he asks his son, “So why is everything in such perfect order and cleaned up and I have a rose and breakfast on the table waiting for me?”

“Oh THAT, “ his son replied, “Mom dragged you in to the bedroom and when she tried to take your pants off, you screamed, “LEAVE ME ALONE, I’M MARRIED!”

 

Sometimes you feel like a dog and sometimes you are the cat’s meow. In fact I’m sure you know how much people love their pets. They literally become a part of many people’s families. I can’t even count the number of times I have worked with a bar or bat mitzvah on his or her speech and when I ask them to write about what their families mean to them and to talk about the members of their immediate family, they include the dog or cat as one of the most important members of their family.

And who could forget that the biggest news of the past month was that Leona Helmsley had left $12 million in her will to her pet dog. Talk about wanting to be in the dog house!

I won’t allow pets any more in our house. Don’t get me wrong, I love animals and I grew up always having at least one dog and one cat around the house. Gable has always grown up with several pets as well and still has her little dog “Baby” with her practically all the time.

But I won’t allow any more animals to live in my house ever again. And Didi agrees. Our last pet was a beautiful British Shorthair cat named Masman, and we all loved him. He was stunning – British shorthairs tend to be striking which is why you see them used in lots of commercials on TV. And he was a sweet, loving, adorable, and unusual cat in that he really liked to hang out with people. Any time any of us was around, that’s where Masman would be – under foot, in your lap, sitting down next to you, hanging out as one of the family.

And that’s why it was so incredibly painful to discover that he had an incurable cancer and began to suffer so that our hearts broke just watching him. After a particularly difficult trip to the vet we had a family meeting and agreed that it would be cruel to allow him to suffer any longer and that we needed to do the humane and loving thing and end his pain and suffering as quickly as we could.

The very next day we took Masman to the vet hospital and the three of us stood around him and shared with him our final loving words of encouragement as he received an injection that quickly and painlessly ended his suffering and put him out of his misery in as gentle and humane a way as possible.

That day I had two very powerful personal revelations: First, I realized that I didn’t want to have any more animals in my house and run the risk of having to go through that so soon all over again; and second, I realized that we treat animals more humanely than we treat humans.
I remembered 30 years ago when my grandfather died – he lay for months in the hospital in Santa Monica as he slowly withered away, tossing and turning and suffering to the end from the disease that had already destroyed his mind and now was slowly destroying his body one day at a time. My poor mother and her sister and her brother were powerless to do anything to take away his pain or relieve him from this tortuous grip of slow death. I thought of my grandpa Manny that day with Masman at the vet hospital and I realized that my cat had a better death than my grandfather.

There is just something wrong with that. There is something wrong with a society that calls peacefully ending the suffering of an animal –“HUMANE” but doing the same for a beloved family member “MURDER.” How does it make sense that animals can die with greater love and tenderness and dignity than humans? We don’t need a “right to life,” but we do need a “right to death.”

Nicole Kidman was just in a movie called, “Invasion” which was a remake of the old “Invasion of the body snatchers” – we already have an invasion of body snatchers – for none of us can exercise control over our own bodies as it is.

How many times over the years have I sat in the hospital with you, my congregation, as you sat vigil by the bedside of loved ones who themselves were experiencing a slow, agonizing and dehumanizing death. I can no longer count the number of times one of you has turned to me and said, “I wish Kevorkian were here.”

We all remember the controversial American pathologist Dr. Jack Kevorkian. For a decade he defiantly helped over 130 people in Michigan escape the agony of a long and painful death and championed the campaign for a terminal patient’s right to die and to legalize physician-assisted suicide. It was Kevorkian who time and again stood in front of the media after a terminal patient had ended his life and proclaimed, “Dying is not a crime.” Dying is not a crime.

In 1999 he was convicted of second degree murder for injecting a poison into Thomas Youk, a 52 year old with ALS who although totally mentally competent was no longer able to assist in his own death and who had asked Kevorkian to help him end his life. Dr. Kevorkian was sentenced to prison for 10-to-25 years and repeatedly denied parole. He was released from prison a few months ago on June 1, 2007 after serving 8 years of his sentence.

Ironically, Kevorkian, who helped many people escape the agony of a long and painful death from terminal illness, is coming home to die of his own terminal illness. He is suffering from diabetes and hepatitis C, an incurable disease of the liver.

In spite of his efforts and all the publicity that his decade-long campaign created, only one state in the union, Oregon, has a law that permits physician-assisted suicide. The Oregon law allows only terminally ill, mentally competent adults to ask a physician to prescribe life-ending drugs. But the patient must make the request in writing and two times orally. They also must self-administer the medication.

A recent report noted that since the Oregon law went into effect in 1997 until the end of last year, in spite of those who feared that it would create a massive slippery slope of physician-assisted deaths and abuses, after nearly ten years only 292 people have chosen this option. Most of them were cancer patients and their median age was 74.

Naturally there have been numerous attempts for other states including our own to follow the Oregon model – all have failed. As a rabbi I am sad to say that it is the “religion lobby” that holds sway every time. The legislatures of Hawaii, Wisconsin, Vermont, Washington, California, Michigan and Maine have all tried, but if you are terminally ill and want the right to die as you choose, if you want the right to end your life on your own terms, you’ll just have to move to Oregon.

What Kevorkian did do was raise awareness of the suffering endured by the terminally ill, and the need for “end-of-life care” in America. In many ways the growth and acceptance of the idea of hospice care, where dying patients are eased out under a doctor’s assistance, with adequate medications to ease their pain and suffering, is due directly to the public awareness that Kevorkian created. Our own KINCaring committee this past year sponsored an evening on Jewish hospice and we are prepared at any time to help any of you find caring hospice professionals should you ever need them.

“But how can you step in and interfere with God’s plan?” ask the religiously self-righteous over and over again as they fight to deny every one of us the right to choose the manner of our own deaths. How foolish is that argument? We interfere with “god’s plan” in every hospital and doctors office in the world every single day.

A close friend had a heart attack last week and his wife rushed him to the hospital (by the way don’t do that – call 911 instead – it is faster, safer and always the right choice to make). When my friend got to the hospital they gave him life-saving drugs that thinned his blood, put in a life-saving stent in his heart, opened his closed heart valve and saved his life. Seems to me that it looks like what “God wanted” was for Marty to have a heart attack – but we think nothing of jumping in to thwart the divine decree and save his life.

We do the same every time we discover or create a new drug, create a new life-saving surgery. At every funeral we say, Adonai natan Adonai lakah “ “God gives and takes away,” – really? Just this past Monday our own congregant Tom Elias celebrated the 10 th anniversary of his kidney transplant – and every year since he has competed and won in the international Transplant Games and celebrated this remarkable gift of life that human intervention, creativity and public policy has given him. Should these same “religion police” have let him die instead?

After all if his kidney failed naturally it must have been “God’s plan.” And next month when I officiate at the wedding of his son Jordan and see Tom standing next to his fabulous wife Marilyn as they walk their son down the aisle, I will think of the religious fundamentalists who claim to be defending God’s plan by insisting that if we are dying a slow and painful death it must be what God wanted.

We foil God’s plan every day with heart valves, antibiotics, transplants, chemo therapy, dialysis, and face lifts. When Judaism teaches that we are created in the image of God and that every life is sacred, endowed with inherent dignity and worth, it does not insist that we keep our bodies alive no matter what.

Judaism has always been realistic about death, recognizing that dying is a natural and sacred part of living. Although the rabbis are generally against taking one’s own life, Jewish law in the Talmud created an entire category of “understandable suicide” called “Onus K’Shaul” the “Stress of Saul” after King Saul killed himself on Mount Gilboa in the midst of battle, rather than be taken prisoner and submitted to the indignities and torture of his capturers.

Onus K’shaul – “The Stress of Saul” covers circumstances in which an individual is under extreme stress and anguish from the inevitable fate of a slow and tortuous death. Sounds familiar. And of course in Jewish law there are even times when we are commanded to willingly accept death – for example when threatened with being forced to commit the murder of another or even the sins of idolatry and immorality.

Although traditional Judaism has clearly disapproved of active euthanasia,that is taking active steps to end one’s life it has always embraced passive euthanasia which is removing obstacles to death so that death may come. In the archaic language of the Talmud it teaches that “if there is something present which prevents the departing of the soul, such as a man chopping wood outside or salt present on the dying person’s tongue, we may stop the chopping and remove the salt so as to not hinder the departure of the soul.”

We all know so well the wisdom of the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes – “To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die.” Four hundred years ago, Rabbi Nissim Gerondi, the brilliant Jewish Spanish scholar quoted this verse from Ecclesiastes and taught that just as a person has the right to live, so too there comes a time when he or she has the right to a peaceful departure from this life. We haven’t learned much in the last 400 years have we?

I believe it is time to speak out and to take a stand. Being a Reconstructionist Jew means recognizing that Judaism is an evolving religious civilization and in the words of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, “the past has a vote but not a veto.” It’s time for us to recognize that our world is not the world of the Bible, not the world of the Talmud and not even the world of the medieval commentators of a few centuries ago.

Our world is one in which our population is growing older and older, while our toxic world environment continues to breed cancers, aids and diseases of all kinds that strike down young and old alike. As Reconstructionist Jews who are committed to evolving anew with every age, it is time to rethink our attitudes about taking control over our own deaths. Jeanne Calment was the oldest living human whose age could be verified. On her 120 th birthday she was asked to describe her vision of the future. “Very brief,” she said.

Medical miracles can become medical nightmares if they are designed to merely add minutes to our lives and not meaning. The truth is that there are more suicides then homicides in America every year. In fact, each year there are tens of thousands of identified suicides in North America and no one knows how many others end their own lives quietly with prescriptions they have saved for just that purpose. It’s time to allow them all to come out of hiding and embrace a commitment that both life and death deserve to be lived with dignity – to the very end. Although no U.S. state now considers either suicide or attempted suicide a crime anymore, helping another to die is, everywhere except Oregon.

Yet hundreds and probably thousands of people do that every year – they just don’t talk about it much. I have had many conversations over the years with medical professionals of all kinds who admit acting to relieve patients of pain and suffering and thereby hastening their deaths. And they do it with compassion, and they do it with love, and they do it to provide grace and dignity to the last moments of their patient’s lives. No doctor, no nurse, no health care worker, no hospice worker in the United States has ever been convicted of assisted suicide.

I believe that a dying person should have the right of personal control and choice over their destiny and over their death. Period. And I don’t think they should have to do it alone. We didn’t even want our cat to have to die alone. I believe isolation at such a time is a cruel, inhumane experience and as a society we should be ashamed of how we treat the ones we love most.

I believe here as with so many other significant places in our lives, including the right to marry regardless of gender, that personal dignity, self-control, and choice are fundamental civil and religious liberties that we must champion over and over again. We live in a world in which it is obviously no longer true that God alone is the author of life and death. If we all died at home as everyone did in ages past, perhaps it wouldn’t be such a painful, difficult, ethical and legal issue. But we don’t. Most people here in America die in the isolated and impersonal environment of a hospital surrounded not by loving family as in ages past but by strangers who don’t even know them let alone love them.

Paul Harvey once told about a group of scientists who were determined to teach a chimpanzee to write. For fourteen years the scientists labored diligently and patiently with this chimpanzee, providing things in its cage to enable it to form certain syllables and combine letters. Finally the day arrived when it appeared that the chimpanzee was actually going to construct a sentence from the symbols it had been learning.

The scientists could hardly contain themselves as they pressed around the cage to read the history-making sentence. And here is what the chimpanzee had written: “LET ME OUT!”

LET ME OUT. No one wants to live in a cage. No one wants to live attached to a machine. No one wants to live in the prison of pain and suffering and disease. We speak of God both as creator and as redeemer – especially tonight on Kol Nidre. This is a redemption too long in coming. And we speak of vows that we have made and not kept.

Perhaps one of those vows has not even been spoken – but should be made tonight . I vow to stand up for the right to die as well as the right to live in dignity. “See I set before you good and evil, life and death, blessing and curse” – let us regain the ability to choose life with dignity to the very end.

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