A Summer of Reading

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I finished my dissertation in June, much relieved to have my To-Do list greatly shortened and my workload exponentially reduced. I launched on a plan to engage in a summer of enjoyment and relaxation rather than toil. Looking back, I can see I was still in “accomplishment mode,” setting goals for relaxation; I told myself I’d read one book a week during the glorious days of summer sun.

Many of the books I had on my list relate to my career path as a social worker and executive at Death with Dignity, as many good social justice, political, and even death-themed books have been published in the last couple of years. I’d tell my colleagues, “I’ll put it on my reading list for when I’m done with my dissertation.” My reading list filled with work-related books! About halfway through the summer, I abandoned my work reading list for pure, nonsensical written trifles.

I thought I’d share with you some of the best pieces I read, both death-themed and not. Some of them might make it to your snuggle down for fall reading list.

Until I Say Good-Bye: My Year of Living with Joy by Susan Spencer-Wendel

Philosophically, this book fits with my worldview. The author, upon receiving a diagnosis of ALS (commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease), embarks on a journey, committed to living life to its fullest. This book is like a memoir and travel journal, rolled into one. I appreciated the author’s desire to not lead a medicalized life, rather to enjoy lived experiences and create memories for herself, her family, and friends. So many individuals diagnosed with a life-altering illness, get caught up—for the most part unexpectedly—in the day-to-day shuffle of medical appointments and tests. This book challenges that paradigm and shows one person living her life and accepting her diagnosis with dignity.

Her bucket list includes a trip with her best friend to see the Northern Lights, a 20th wedding anniversary celebration abroad with her husband, and a trip to New York to give her daughter, age 14 at the time, the opportunity to try on wedding dresses. She acknowledges she won’t live long enough to see her daughter married, making the trip all that more poignant.

I was interested in reading this book because my cousin was diagnosed with ALS 25 years ago, and she leads a full life, regardless of the ravages of the disease on her body. While every person with ALS experiences the disease differently, both my cousin and the author have attempted and achieved vibrant lives not defined by their illness.

Doctor, Please Help Me Die by Tom Preston

Tom is a friend and colleague. We met during the 2008 Washington Death with Dignity ballot initiative campaign, working together in weekly meetings for over a year to ensure success at the ballot box. I have so much respect for the work he does in Washington, helping physicians understand their law and use it appropriately.
His book is short; I read it on a three-hour train trip, and it provides a historic overview of assisted death including both cultural and pop culture references to the practice. He provides a thorough discussion of how organized medicine came to oppose Death with Dignity, and his chapter about the history and content of the Hippocratic Oath is fascinating (who knew there was something called the Lasagna Oath?).

It’s clear physicians must do a better job with terminally ill patients, and I appreciate how Tom approaches this imperative from a non-blaming and clear-headed perspective. His careful dismantling of the ideology behind opposition arguments and how ideology has become entwined with the practice of medicine is learned and scholarly.

The final chapters of the book provide concrete suggestions for physicians working with patients who request assistance in dying. With this book, Tom proves he’s one of a small handful of scholars and thinkers who are exploring physician opposition to Death with Dignity. Anyone interested in a full exploration of medical societies, physicians, and patient requests for Death with Dignity will find this book a compelling read.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

This book was one of the aforementioned nonsensical trifles of late summer, but one thing stood out for me in this wildly-successful trilogy: the heroine, Katniss Everdeen, commits an act of mercy killing. One of the “tributes”—individuals who are being punished for their district’s uprising against the prevailing government—is viciously attacked by dogs. Katniss can’t save him, and he mouths to her, “please.” She shoots him with her arrow, painlessly ending his suffering.

While this book has nothing to do with Death with Dignity, or even dying in general, I was astounded when I read it, and even more shocked when I saw the movie. Because of my work at the National Center, I’ve done a full scholarly exploration into issues tangential to Death with Dignity: palliative sedation, mercy killing, euthanasia, among them. In this popular fiction novel for young adults (written at a 6th grade reading level) and in the movie, the act of mercy killing is applauded by the audience and dismissed quickly as a nonissue.

I wondered how many of those people, applauding at a mercy killing that was a compassionate act for a suffering man, would oppose Death with Dignity. Viscerally, they supported a controversial and criminalized act set forth in a movie and novel targeted at young teenagers. I was shocked at how easily a controversial act was dismissed.

Other books that didn’t make this list, but are still worth reading:

Enjoyable trifles:

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