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Another View: Death and Dying | Batavick

Frank J. Batavick Columnist


Ecclesiastes 3 and no less an authority than the Byrds remind us that, “To everything there is a season and a time Images-2to every purpose under heaven— a time to be born, a time to die, a time to plant, a time to reap….” I think of this Bible verse and pop song every fall when I prepare to rip out my garden each fall. The task is satisfying in a way that is hard to describe.

In spring there’s a real joy in gently placing small and fragile tomato and pepper plants in the freshly cultivated soil, but there is also an odd pleasure and feeling of god-power in ripping out their desiccated and brown stems after a summer of harvest. Once I tidy things up and spread some compost that’s been “cooking” all summer, I refer to the whole affair as “putting my garden to bed,” as I know that it will figuratively sleep under the blankets of snow until next spring’s gentle awakening.

Working through this garden task I can’t help but see a parallel to my own mortality. At 71, I am long past blossoming and producing fruit, and my increasingly frequent visits to a range of doctors are reminders of my own slow desiccation and journey toward season’s end.

Regardless, I am still grateful and joyful to be on this side of the grass. Had I been born in 1900, my life expectancy would have been only 46.6 years according to the National Vital Statistics Reports. As it is, I was born in 1945, putting my expected life span at 64.4 years, so I am in a bonus state and getting to play some extra innings. That’s mainly because of the amazing advances in medicine, especially in the battle against infectious and parasitic diseases.

At least for now, I don’t have to worry about plague boils or drinking dicey water. What I do have to fear are the non-communicable and chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes, stroke, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s. One of these will no doubt eventually claim me, though we are now blessed with some near-miracle medical procedures and drug protocols that should, if I’m lucky, extend my life into my 80s and perhaps beyond.

But what then? What happens when it becomes certain that the end is near and all that separates me from my last breath is an ocean of pain and suffering that I’m expected to bravely navigate? I believe that this big question will soon nudge abortion aside to become the number one moral dilemma of our time.

State legislatures around the country are considering passing “death with dignity” bills. These would permit doctors to prescribe medication to end the lives of mentally competent but terminally ill patients. The laws would mirror legislation already passed by Vermont, Oregon, Washington, and California. Currently 27 states plus the District of Columbia are considering death with dignity-related legislation.

Predictably, religious groups joined those who advocate for the mentally ill and disabled and lined up against the bill, while families of the terminally ill and recently deceased argued for a better way to avoid prolonged suffering and needlessly expensive care, especially in the case of neuromuscular diseases that lead to paralysis.

In many ancient civilizations, taking one’s life was an honorable way to exit this mortal coil. However, Judeo-Christian culture has long proscribed suicide as immoral and damning. That’s because only God can give and take life. But religion also dictates that we must be good stewards of creation. That logically has to include our own bodies, and as custodians of these fragile envelopes of flesh, bones, and blood, it could be argued that we each have the right to decide when to extinguish them.

Physician assisted-death should be a profound decision and might only be sanctioned as a last resort when we’ve lost all quality of life or when the pain is too great to manage without massive amounts of opiates. Besides, if you find yourself “knockin’ on heaven’s door,” where’s the sin in turning the knob and easing right in? I am not there yet in my thinking, but know there will be a season for everything. Perhaps the answer lies in the Byrd’s continuing refrain, “Turn, turn, turn.”  

Frank Batavick is a graduate of Gloucester Catholic (‘63) and La Salle University ('67) with over 40 years of experience as a television writer/producer/director for public TV and media companies in IN and NJ.  He has also served as adjunct faculty and visiting professor in Communications at colleges and universities in NY and MD. Frank now lives in MD with his wife Dori (GCHS, ‘63), where he is the vice chair of the Historical Society of Carroll County’s board of trustees, editor of the Carroll History Journal, and a weekly columnist and occasional feature writer for the Carroll County Times.