FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida / South Florida Sun-Sentinel / Your Health / April 13, 2011
At 94, the legendary actor has developed some definitive views on life --
the decision to end it being one of them.
And though Ernest Borgnine plays an elderly widower flirting with thoughts of suicide in his latest film, the Oscar winner makes it clear he was just acting. He no more believes in suicide as an option, even in the darkest of hours, than in the growing push to make assisted suicide legal, as it is in three U.S. states.
"I think it's the most terrible thing in the world," Borgnine yelled into the cell phone during a stop last week in Fort Lauderdale to promote his new indie drama, Another Harvest Moon now playing in select theaters around the country. "You just have to stick it out. I don't care how bad it gets, there's always a little sunshine."
Susan Caldwell lives for those spots of sunshine. But they won't keep her warm much longer.
The Atlanta, Ga., native knows all too well the relentless pain, the dementia, the sheer hell that awaits her.
Caldwell has Huntington's disease, a rare, incurable genetic disorder that claimed the lives of her mother, her uncle and her grandfather in the cruelest of ways, robbing their bodies of function, their brains of cognition and the end of their lives of any dignity.
"I was my mother's primary caretaker for 10 years, and I saw her condition progress to a point where it was impossible to keep her safe," Caldwell said, answering my questions, with her attorney's help, through e-mail.
At a nursing home, her mother had been sexually assaulted, but was powerless to fight back, incapable of even communicating what had happened. But for a nurse's aide walking in on the horror, no one would have known. Caldwell will not allow herself to deteriorate to the same state.
To her, hastening death's darkness is not "the most terrible thing in the world." It's the most humane option she can think of, for herself and the loved ones on this brutal journey with her. Just as it was for Borgnine's character, Frank, in Another Harvest Moon.
"My condition is terminal and progressive, and my quality of life will decrease beyond what is imaginable to most," Caldwell said. "I seek a peaceful, painless and dignified death of my own choosing and want to do so with a compassionate person present.
"We treat our pets with such compassion, and I hope I will be treated at least as well as I would treat my dogs."
Suicide is an ugly word, its connotation full of judgment and regret. When it describes the despair and desperation the deeply depressed or mentally ill succumb to, the word is fitting.
But while debate continues to rage across the country, much of America is settling into a comfortable acceptance with the idea that those facing a debilitating, painful, terminal illness with no hope of recovery -- people like Caldwell -- should have the right to choose how to end their own lives, and get help.
A Harris/BBC World News America poll released in January found 70 percent of the 2,340 adults surveyed accepted such a premise, and two-thirds of respondents believe a doctor should be allowed to advise terminally ill patients on ways to hasten their death.
It's a perfectly American principle. A country that treasures the freedom to live as we choose surely embraces the right to decide how we die.
Suicide -- killing one's self -- is, in fact, legally permitted in the United States. But getting someone's help to carry out that final act is not, except in the progressive states of Oregon, Washington and Montana.
It is a strange paradox. As Jim Chastain, president of the Final Exit Network of Florida, points out, "it is the only situation where it is illegal to help someone commit a legal act."
The state of Georgia goes even further -- past the point of sanity, really -- making it a felony for anyone to even talk to someone about ways to kill themselves after publicly advertising their consulting services.
For Caldwell, that means she can no longer seek the comfort or counsel of the Final Exit Network, a national, all-volunteer right-to-die advocacy group that provides critically ill patients with information on -- but not any help with -- safe, painless "early-death options" and offers the soothing presence of an "exit guide" to hold a patient's hand when the time comes.
In Georgia, in fact, four FEN volunteers have already been charged under the state's 2009 law for consulting with patients about their end-of-life options. Those cases have not yet gone to trial.
In the meantime, FEN has taken a proactive stance, filing a federal lawsuit -- with Caldwell as one of the plaintiffs -- challenging Georgia's law on constitutional grounds.
"It seems like absolute cruelty not to allow [Caldwell] to do what she wants to do," said Jerry Dincin, FEN president. "Your life doesn't belong to your doctor, or your religious leader, or your best friend. Your life belongs to you."
If Georgia's law signals a step backward in the debate over assisted suicide, it is an anomaly in a movement that has gained considerable ground in the past few decades. When Derek Humphry helped his cancer-stricken wife end her misery in 1975, assisting in a loved one's death was not widely discussed.
"I don't think I even knew the meaning of the word euthanasia," said Humphry.
Largely because of Humphry, the term is now a household word. The cartoonish Jack "Dr. Death" Kevorkian may be the most well-known figure in the assisted suicide world, but Humphry is credited with actually fathering the movement.
In 1991, he penned "Final Exit," a landmark how-to guide that stunned the nation with its detailed information on how and when to end one's life. Attempts to ban the book failed on constitutional grounds, and 20 years later, the New York Times bestseller is in its third revised edition and has been translated into 11 languages.
The movement the book helped spawn has grown up, too. Assisted suicide is now legal in eight countries, and continues to be debated for acceptance in state legislatures across America.
"We've got our foot in the door," said Humphry, who serves as a chief policy advisor for FEN. "We still have a long way to go."
But the popularity of movies like Another Harvest Moon show Americans are increasingly accepting of the idea of ending your own suffering.
"Personally, I am all for assisted suicide," said Greg W. Swartz, Harvest Moon's director. "That said, I tried very hard to stay away from judging the issue in the film.
"We want to put a scenario out there that felt real... not right or wrong."
Assisted suicide as a concept, without judgment. More and more, that premise is more than a Hollywood story line.
Copyright © 2011, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Another Harvest Moon
Another Harvest Moon is a sensitive drama about four elderly Americans coping with life in a nursing home. Frank (Ernest Borgnine), Ella (Anne Meara), Alice (Doris Roberts) and June (Piper Laurie) gather each morning for a game of cards. They have become like family to one another, offering unyielding support, constant bickering and strong opinions about life, death and everything in between.
One morning Frank reveals to Ella that he no longer remembers his wife’s face and that he doesn’t want to live to endure another debilitating stroke. He persuades his son Jeffrey (Richard Schiff) to give him his old gun because by holding it he finds a way to remember his World War II buddies. But perhaps he has another motive for wanting the weapon.
Frank’s revelation sets off a struggle between Ella and the ever-optimistic Alice as they both try to affect his decision while privately dealing with their own fears.
That Labor Day Jeffrey, daughter Vickie (Cybill Shepherd) and grandson Jack (Cameron Monaghan) take Frank on a camping trip where his spirits are lifted.
Back at the nursing home Frank ponders his decision and his next move. His friends and family must confront their own feelings about faith, dignity and our obligations to our loved ones.