The day before her 39th birthday in 2012, my wife, Rebecca VanWormer, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Despite surgery and several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, over the next four years the disease spread to her liver, brain and spine. By then she started knocking items off her bucket list.
A strong woman who loved life, Becky wanted to live as long as she could. She was prepared for death, but she didn’t want to get to a point where the cancer took over her body, preventing her from walking, seeing, speaking or going the bathroom. She wanted the option to go on her own terms.
When a death with dignity bill came up for consideration in the Maine Legislature in 2015, she supported it fervently, calling legislators, sharing her story, asking her community to get involved. “I will either die with the law in place or fighting for it,” she said. You cannot imagine her disappointment after the bill failed to pass by a single vote.
But Becky picked herself up and poured herself into advocating for death with dignity. She knew she was dying, but she hoped this would be the one thing she could do before she passed. She would never be able to use the option, yet she tried to provide it for others. That’s the kind of person she was.
For her final Christmas, Becky decided to bring the holiday cheer to our town and neighboring towns. She and a few neighbors rallied the community to organize a grand-old Christmas: tree-lighting ceremonies with carols, renditions of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and meetings with Santa for kids. She did all this even as she could no longer feel her legs, and she did it all with the same infectious smile that could light up a room.
Unfortunately, Christmas Day was not as splendid. The hospice nurse said Becky, completely drained of energy, had only a couple of weeks left at best. Soon after, Becky could not understand what people said, and visiting friends and family could not understand her. She couldn’t even see the water bottle in her hands at times. Her liver was shutting down, and she needed my help to go to the bathroom, before the nurse switched her over to a catheter and upped her morphine and sedatives.
It was absolutely heartbreaking to see this 43-year-old woman whom I loved — who had been so strong and independent, so sure of herself and so full of life, and had an amazing singing voice — reduced to this childlike, confused state. All the things she feared happening most in the end were happening. My heart broke to see her suffering so much.
One night, after she became unable to speak at all, Becky found the strength to wrap her arms around my neck and pull me close. I realized she just wanted to give me one last hug and one last kiss. I cried. It’s a terrible thing to tell the person you love with all your heart, who made you complete, that this is a final goodbye and that you’re ready for her to go because you don’t want to see her suffer anymore. But I did. And I know it was just as awful for her mother to have to do the same for her youngest daughter.
A couple of nights later, on Jan. 5, 2017, moaning in pain with every breath, Becky passed away. All her fears came to pass. She died without having a say in how it happened, in pain, suffering and humiliation, her loved ones left with haunting memories.
One of Becky’s dying wishes was that when Sen. Roger Katz reintroduced the death with dignity bill this year, it would pass so that others would have a choice to die with dignity. The new bill — LD 347 — gives people who are dying the option to go out on their terms, not on the terms of their terminal illness.
Death with dignity was all Becky wanted. That’s what I’d want, and that’s what three in four Mainers want. I call on the Legislature to pass LD 347.
Kenneth VanWormer lives in East Millinocket.