Ending Life (or anything else) with Dignity

Scan 775

Good evening,

If you are wondering who that person is with the dog, it is me when I was about 25 years younger. That was a cocker spaniel purchased when I lived in Pennsylvania the first time. As a Lutheran pastor at the time, I named him Luther, so his name was Luther Martin. Sad, I know, but I did it. While I need to grade I cannot concentrate and I feel it is not possible for me to give students reasonable feedback at the moment. For the third time in 4 days I have received a call from Wisconsin about Lydia. She is fading and her doctor actually told me that I should be prepared for that phone call. While I am sure that is what she would wish for herself at this point if she were cognizant of what has become of her 90 years, and it is truly want I want for her, I am realizing how hard it is to let her go. While I am not her son, I have become the son she never had. I have noted this before and I believe it to be true with all of my heart. I wish I could have a conversation with her that would tell her how much I love her and appreciate who she is and what she has accomplished in her life. I wish I could see those sparkling eyes once again brimming with all she knew and understood. I wish I could see the radiant smile that she had once again, in spite of the fact she never thought she took a good picture. I learned so much merely watching her and sharing time with her. It is hard to believe I have been part of her life and she mine for more than 10 years.

From the time when I was a parish pastor, not all that far from where I now live, I remember that I probably did more funerals around the holidays than any other time of the year. I wonder if she realizes it is almost Christmas. Lydia did not really like Christmas or any holiday for that matter. I am not sure why that was. I think it was probably because it is a time we remember family and the way in which she lost her family was pretty horrific and so I imagine it was related to those connective experiences. She did like Good Friday. That was the one time she asked to go to church and she lit her candles and said her prayers publicly. I also remember that trying to buy a present for her was pretty difficult. The only thing she would not take back was crystal. I learned that she liked it and she was happy to receive it. I once tried to purchase a new wrist watch for her. She had me take it back three times before we could find something she deemed acceptable. Once I bought her a birthday present and she took it back and I did not even realize I had a significant credit at that place for months. She was so eccentric in that way. During the past months (and actually years considering her situation), I have pondered if it is worse to become a shell, merely existing and having your mind disappear or is it worse to have control of your faculties and some other sort of disease ravages your body and you are aware of your demise. I have watched Lydia for over three and a half years at Comforts of Home and the person she was when she first began her residency there and the person she is now does not resemble the person she was then, either physically or mentally. It is actually tragic. I am quite sure that I have a different feeling about the young woman who decided to end her life on her terms. At one point, both the pastor and the human part of me would have regarded such a path with disdain. I lived in the Detroit area when Jack Kevorkian was on his mission to help people end their lives and I remember being really conflicted with what was happening. He seemed ghoulish to me. As I have watched Lydia progress and lose so much of who she was, it is unbelievably challenging to watch and see the person she has become. Let me note that the care she receives is outstanding for the most part, and the administrator of her particular COH is a phenomenal young woman who cares deeply about the people in that facility. That does make Lydia’s situation more tolerable for me, especially when I am 1,000 miles away.

It is Thursday of finals week and things are drawing to a close. It is always an interesting time to observe everyone, students and faculty alike. As students it is amazing to see how they step up to the plate and try to put on a game-face, if you will. Some have done their work throughout the semester and you can see they have a clear sense of purpose and trying to finish up, ending the semester in as strong of a manner as humanly possible. There are the other students who have been less than stellar at claiming the opportunities of the semester and the last week and a half is their desperate attempt to make up for their sins of omission. One student in particular stopped by the office today wondering where his grade was headed. I can honestly say (as I did) that I did not know. While I think I did some outstanding teaching this semester, I think the place I fell down was in my grading in a timely way. I am paying for that now, and it is why I will stay up  as late as my somewhat weakened body will allow. I have been in bed earlier over the past month than I have probably since I was in elementary or middle school. The number of nights I have been in bed before 10 would shock most of you who have known me in the past 35 years. The days of 3 or 4 hours of sleep do not happen any longer. It frustrates me to no end, but it is my reality. Another student said that he or she hoped their hard work now would at least get them passing grades. That is a very sad statement, for a number of reasons, but the one I am going to note is an economic one. To merely be average, which is what I tell students from the very first day of my Foundations class (FYC) is not a good plan. Especially when there are 15 million college students between the ages of 18-23 in college at the moment. The competition for a reasonably well paying position, particularly after spending 100K (on the low end) for a bachelors degree, has never been greater. While I try to relay that message from the get-go to my students, there are many who simply do not pay close attention to it. Some end up leaving with an unbelievable debt and not much to show for it; some think transferring to another school will take care of it (one stopped by my office today and is actually transferring back). The only thing that takes care of the things needed to succeed in college is hard work (discipline to do hard work, perhaps more succinctly). I must say, this semester I think I have had some of the most insightful students I have had in a long time. This morning as I gave my Bible as Literature Final, it was gratifying to see that group of students and the sort of family they have become in that class. I referred to them as the Faithful Remnant. They are an extraordinary group. I will miss them greatly. I think there might need to be a sort of gathering at a 40 day mark of something . . . sounds Biblical enough. Yet, I had quite a similar experience in my capstone class, Writing in the Professions. They worked terrifically hard on two major projects during the semester and they created strong and professional work. Experiential learning  is such a different sort of process when you are working for actual clients and you are responsible to each other as well as to a professional situation outside the class. I am always stunned at what they accomplish and what they learn ( I am not surprised that they do the work, but rather at some of unexpected learning moments along the way) . In that class there was also the sense of a small company or a group of people who cared deeply about the other people, about their colleagues. It is so enjoyable to experience. It is fun to see the lights turn on and they get excited about real positions or internships and moving beyond the classroom.

I think about Lydia in the classroom and I have tried to imagine what she must have been like. I know there were times when we would be out and people would come up to her and recognize her and say, “Professor Rutkowski . . . .” She was always shocked and she would say to me in her Austrian accent, “Michael, I do not know how they recognize me.” It was always so cute because she was so befuddled. My response was simple. “I have no problem understanding why they recognize you.” She was not pleased by that response, but it was what it was. If I posted a series of Lydia pictures here, you would understand completely why I might respond as I did. I have actually taken the time to look at some of her notes. She was meticulous in her preparation for class, and to say she had command of her subject matter would be a gross understatement. There are local people in Menomonie who had her in class and they say she was unbelievably tough, but they learned so much from her. I think she and I have some similarities. I have been told similar things. Yet, like her, I am not nearly as tough as people think. That is one of my downfalls, however; I have been too willing to give. I have learned that lesson the hard way and it is one of the things I am working on changing. While I do not want to be a hard-ass, I have learned that giving to people unconditionally can lead to a lot of hurt and difficulties. One of the things I know is that I have spent a lot less money eating out the last three or four months than I did the previously. There are a couple of reasons for that, but I have certainly noticed the difference. In addition, I have learned the hard way once again, in more than one situation, that others best intentions are generally not more than that.

The next year I will deal with things very differently across the board. I do want to end what I have been doing with a sense of dignity, however. That is not to say I won’t help people, or I will, in political terms, become isolationist, I have spoken with a couple of people about a particular mutual situation, but as I did once this past year (and most of my life), I will not be as understanding when their word is not kept. I have never really been a person to push the other, but I have learned this past year to do some of that. In fact, as I had a colleague over for dinner tonight, the person I put into the legal system (or more accurately, she put herself there) stopped by with another payment. I anticipate it is going to happen again (probably more than once). I will try my best to not be rude; I will merely stand up for myself. If people think I am being harsh or unreasonable, I guess that is what will happen. On the other hand, I need to continue to work on some things both professionally and personally. I will be focusing on three things this coming semester: my teaching, directing the program and shepherding the revision process, and writing for publication. Having gotten one of the hurdles cleared this week, I can focus. The second thing is to work on my personal life. There are a couple of important components, but I hope to continue to make progress in the one battle. The second component is working with a situation that is important to me in a number of ways and I hope to do some of that initial work during the break. Finally it is to make sure that I take care of myself across the board and end my own issues with dignity. It is possible and important for me to do so.

Well, I am going to go back to my grading. My mind is clearer and I am ready to focus. As always, thanks for reading.

Michael (and in the grading realm, Dr. Martin)

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