I took care of my dad, Harry Southworth, the last year of his life when he was in hospice for terminal prostate cancer. He lived in California and eventually chose medical aid in dying in late 2019. His death was peaceful and powerful.
My father was a lifelong truck driver who spent his whole life in the Bay Area of California. He was a friendly, gregarious man, with a charming sense of humor, who was generous with his friendship. Married three times, he took care of his last wife for the last ten years of her life as she succumbed to dementia. He retired in his early 60s and he and his wife went to a local buffet daily–that was their community for nearly two decades. After she passed, he continued to go there where he would hold court offering wisdom and support for all his friends.
For the last year of Dad’s life, as I cared for him, I got to build a relationship with him that only happens when you are supporting someone on that level. Growing up, he and I had a fractured relationship. We had reconciled many years before, but his last year was a mutually rewarding time to understand and appreciate one another more than we had in the past. I witnessed the love that surrounded him as friends who visited enjoyed just hearing him talk. He did a bit of pontificating about his end-of-life beliefs, but he did it in such a way that no one ever seemed to mind.
Dad was an incredibly positive person who drew people to him. He had lived with prostate cancer for fifteen years and, fortunately, for the most part it didn’t bother him. Because of his uniquely positive spirit, one of his doctors at Kaiser Permanente asked him to co-lead a class on living with cancer. For about a year, my dad volunteered his time to help others embrace a more positive attitude toward life with cancer. I am incredibly proud of the work he did to help others cope. He had such care and love for everybody.
In August of 2019, though recently removed from hospice just the month before, Dad shared, “I think I’m getting tired of this. I don’t want to go on anymore.” He had been losing more and more of his abilities, and his suffering had increased. I did some research on California’s End of Life Option Act and Kaiser Permanente was fantastic when we went to them with questions. They provided information on the process and Dad’s primary care physician was supportive of his decision. Though she was unwilling to act as the prescribing doctor, she facilitated Dad connecting with a doctor who would be willing to prescribe.
Dad’s vitals had consistently been showing as strong, hence why he was removed from hospice in July. He would tell people he felt terrible, but all his vital signs showed he was doing just fine. Once dad requested medical aid in dying, the hospice doctor came back out and did another Prostate-Specific Antigen (PSA) test — it came back extremely high. It was confirmation that the end was coming and the information helped Dad feel confident in his decision.
Everyone Dad talked to was supportive of his decision. The reassurance from his community was so important. So many people at the end are living for others, not for themselves. He was surrounded by a lot of support, including from his minister son.
After Dad made the decision, he was just very peaceful about things. The decision and the option seemed to ease his pain and suffering. He even experienced a spurt of joy and health during his last two weeks. He wanted to make it to 89 so we celebrated his birthday on September 10th and planned his last day for Sunday, September 15, 2019 — when his favorite football team, the 49ers, would be playing.
On his last day and throughout his last week, Dad was surrounded by people he loved and loved him. The day of, friends, family, and some members of his hospice team stopped in for his goodbye party. We watched his favorite football team win, and we took photos, exchanged hugs, and joked around right up to the end. Dad’s last day was exactly the way he wanted it to go.
For the very last moments, me, my wife, and Dad’s best friend toasted him, each of us with a glass of champagne and dad with his cocktail. He was asleep within five minutes and gone within a couple of hours. It was a beautiful experience.
As a minister and through my chaplaincy work, I have been with a lot of people through the dying process. I have spent time with terminally ill people who have lived long and good lives, but were tired of the fight. People who are often kept alive against their wishes. Both as a minister and as a son, my experience with my father was beautiful and his autonomy was important. Terminally ill individuals should have the ability to decide when they’ve endured enough.
I believe in something bigger than us, but I don’t believe that force wants us to suffer and be in miserable pain. Most people who have witnessed a loved one suffer a difficult death understand why this option is important.
What a contrast to the difficult deaths I have sat through with people. My dad was able to celebrate his life, see his friends, be conscious, have a goodbye toast, and be sent out with love. To send him off with tears in our eyes, but also with joy and laughter. It was peaceful — not just for him, but also for those who love him. What a wonderful blessing.
My wife, who does not have as much experience with death as I do said, “I’ve always known births to be beautiful, but this is the first beautiful death I’ve ever been part of.”
The decision about medical aid in dying is a sacred decision to be made between that person and their conscience and/or God. Every terminally ill adult should be afforded the option my father was allowed in California.