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On 2 September 2015, after writing a letter each to my brother and me, compiling a list of people and services to contact, and writing a letter to the police, my father set about the lonely business of ending his life. It would have taken him some time to set everything in place and I can only imagine how alone he felt. He’d planned an easier ending that in the end he was unable to facilitate.
Dad was 86 years old on the day he became a Queensland Masters Squash Champion in June 2014. A month later, he was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma. He drove himself to the hospital and only phoned me when he realized something was ``really serious’’; his neighbours told me he had been noticeably unwell over a period of weeks but still self-caring and determinedly riding his push bike to the shops, (albeit with a serious wobble.
Before the diagnosis, Dad, a Queenslander, had climbed all the Glass House Mountains; at least once a week he rode the 12 kms to Mt. Coolum and climbed it to ``keep fit’’, even when it was officially closed due to a rock fall. (Dad was always a rebel). He swam regularly at Mooloolaba. When we visited, we saw him swim out toward the rock wall, just a little head bobbing in the distance. We always assumed that Dad’s passing would be related to his many sporting activities; he was just so fit. He was a wonderful father; my brother and I are very lucky to have had such a kind, strong and loving father.
From his early seventies Dad had attended euthanasia seminars. I remember seeing him on the news, sitting in a seminar. He’d always been adamant that he would never go into care.
Dad was never depressed; he was a fighter and he battled that disease. But he could not bear to lose his autonomy; this to him would be a complete loss of self-dignity. For Dad anything less than being able to care for himself, to walk with ease, to cook without dropping things, anything less was not a good quality of life. To have carers washing him, to lie in a bed for weeks at a time, to be incontinent or incapacitated was not part of his life plan.
I had been staying with Dad, leaving to come home eight days before he decided to take his last journey. He was very unwell; he could only walk a few steps without becoming incredibly breathless and distressed. We had a beautiful weekend in spite of this; I asked him to return home with me and encouraged him to come: he could have lots of good company, I would ensure he would be comfortable and cared for.
``Dad, I am really good at palliative care, I have lots of experience,’’ I said.
He smiled at me, then gently declined. He also refused to let me stay on in Queensland to look after him. When we said goodbye at Maroochydore airport, Dad said a very final good bye; he left me with no doubt that this would be the last time we would be together. I cupped his face in my hands and cried; the flight home was very hard. Dad saw the oncologist again a couple of days later; he was told that there was nothing more they could do: he was now ``palliative’’.
Although Dad had always said he would choose his moment to die, it just seems so surreal. It was a very hard time.
I can only think that on 2 September 2015, or perhaps the day before, he realised he was deteriorating very quickly. He had to act quickly or he’d have been too ill to carry out his elaborate plan. The loneliness of it appalls me. Devastating for all of us; nonetheless I feel very proud to have had a father who was so sure about what he wanted and so brave.
Australian politicians must address the need for legislation to allow voluntary assisted dying – the right for a terminally ill individual to make their end of life decision. If VAD (with stringent regulation) had been legal, it would have meant that Dad could have chosen to have his family with him on the days prior and at the time of his death.
He could simply have swallowed a tablet (legally obtained) and been in our loving company at the end. It would have meant that his lovely elderly neighbours would not have had the confronting experience of finding him deceased, with the equipment in place.
A terminally ill person should not be forced to take their life before they really need to; at present that is the only way to ensure that one is physically able to proceed. Palliative care should definitely be a choice; for many people this is the death they wish to have. But for others, like Dad who are terminally ill, to die with dignity at the time of their choice is the only acceptable outcome.