I'm going to die eventually. And I live in Oregon. So it figures that the award-winning 2011 documentary "How to Die in Oregon" would be of considerable interest to me.
In 1997 Oregon became the first state to allow terminally-ill people to end their lives through self-administered lethal medications if a physician certified they had six months or less to live. It's officially called the Death With Dignity Act, but often is midleadingly referred to as physician-assisted suicide.
The movie shows that suicide isn't what terminally-ill people are doing when they choose to control the time and place of their death, rather than being subject to the vicissitudes of a painful, debilitating fatal disease.
They're doing just what the name of the Oregon Act says: dying with dignity.
I recorded "How to Die In Oregon" months ago when it was first shown on HBO. Since, until a few days ago, it's sat on our DVR, passed over for other programs when we wanted to watch something -- mostly because of me.
My wife would say, "Why don't we watch How to Die in Oregon tonight?" I'd tell her, "Please, let's not. Too depressing."
I was wrong. Very wrong.
I was deeply moved by the movie in some highly positive ways. If you're like me, scared to death of, well, death, you've got to find a way to see "How to Die in Oregon." (It'll probably be available on Netflix eventually.)
After the movie ended my wife said to me, "I'm surprised you liked it so much, given how you feel about dying." She probably was thinking of how, when we sat down with an attorney to discuss our wills/living trusts, I insisted that the attorney say "gerbils" instead of "dies" when she was referring to my eventual demise.
So rather than say "When Brian dies..." our attorney would say "When Brian gerbils..." This made the discussion easier for me to handle, though my alternative word demand must have confused any of her colleagues who overheard us talking.
The older I get (I'm 63 now), the easier it is for me to envision my death. Or rather, dying, because my bet is that after I die my consciousness will be as dead as my body, so I won't be aware that death has happened.
"How to Die in Oregon" made me feel even better about dying.
From the opening scene to the final credits, I was mesmerized as I watched the movie, fascinated by how positive, upbeat, humorous, and courageous the people were who took advantage of Oregon's Death With Dignity law.
Even as they were drinking the liquid mixture of barbituates that would put them into a coma, and then cause them to die.
A review by Ebert at the Movies mentions how the first man shown looks into the camera and says, "Tell the next person this stuff tastes woody!" He's marvelously alert, aware, and blunt as he thanks the voters of Oregon for giving him this option to end his life on his own terms, not that of his disease.
(Watch the review to see some moving scenes from the movie; also, watch the trailer, where the above-mentioned man is shown at the beginning saying he knows what the medications will do: "It will kill me and make me happy.")
"How to Die in Oregon" shows how people act when they know this is the last day, hour, or minute they'll be alive. It's incredibly moving to share these moments. I'm grateful they and their families were so welcoming of the camera crew.
What a gift. The movie is transforming. At least, it was for me. I'll never look upon dying in the same way again. Or living.
Because the terminally ill people shown in "How to Die in Oregon" teach us how to make the most of our last moments. Which could come upon us at any moment, given that death usually can't be predicted.
There were a few allusions to an afterlife in the movie, but I can't recall any explicit displays of religiosity from those who chose the death with dignity option. Of course, most people who choose to die at a time and place of their own choosing likely aren't highly religious.
Mostly, the movie shows them living their last moments honestly, bravely, light-heartedly, warmly. They were supported by friends and family. They were sustained by nature (gardening, walks in a park). They trusted that when it was the right time to die, they'd know it.
I've struggled with a fear of death for much of my life. "How to Die in Oregon" taught me that there's a simple way to deal with that fear: don't be afraid. I realize those three words may not make much sense to someone who hasn't seen the movie.
If so, see it.
This film is like no other. It looks straight into the eyes of death, a subject that most of us dance around rather than embrace. (The Ebert video review says that at the Sundance Film Festival showing, the theatre was half empty; people wrongly thought the movie would be a downer.)
After watching the movie, my wife and I can't understand how anyone could argue that death with dignity shouldn't be an option for everybody. Every state in this country, and every country in the world, needs to pass similar laws.
When death is inevitable -- and even when it isn't -- people who aren't seriously depressed or mentally ill should be able to decide whether they want to keep on living. Why should anyone else be able to make that choice for someone?
God almost certainly is an illusion. Death is real. The main objection to death with dignity is religious, which makes no sense. Illusions can't be allowed to overrule reality.
(Here's a good review of the movie.)