Carol Henderson: No Hallmark here

May 8, 2014 

The Hallmark season is upon us again: Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. I have a friend whose husband buys her clothes: suits and sweaters. My husband has no idea what size I am or what I like, except he knows I would live in yoga pants and sweat shirts if I could. He wouldn’t know where to begin, even with those.

I don’t think my husband has ever given me a Mother’s Day gift, rarely a birthday gift, and we do nothing anymore for Christmas. We aren’t scrooges. We just don’t show affection or consideration through gifts.

My man often tells me he’s glad I’m a cheap date. I don’t like perfume, jewelry or lavish anything. He’s a cheap date too. We have not renewed our vows with a second honeymoon or, for me, a bigger diamond. For many of our anniversaries I’ve been out of the country.

But we’ve hit on something we both might get, maybe for our anniversary in October: tattoos.

Not hearts or Celtic symbols or Chinese characters. We’re thinking of getting matching phrases – his on his clavicle, not sure where on my chest I would put mine. I do wear the occasional blouse with an open collar. I wouldn’t want this to show.

The two-word imperative: “No Code.”

No Code is doctor speak for “if I’m dying, let me die.” Please, no heroic efforts to light up my dead brain, breathe for me with a tube, or restart my stopped heart.

“I’m done. Let me go.”

Both of us have lived through the pitiful final years of parents kept alive far longer than they should have – or if their earlier wishes had been granted, would have. We don’t want to relive, in our own final days, months, years, what happened to them.

On a recent “Radio Lab” program, a doctor said, “What we do to keep dying patients alive I wouldn’t want to do to a terrorist.”

Doctors, when polled, overwhelmingly said they would personally refuse all such efforts if they were at death’s door. Refuse everything except pain control. Lay people, on the other hand, were open to nearly every form of life extension technique at the end of life, presumably to squeeze out a little more time.

Why the disparity? The doctor explained it: lay people’s ideas about these things are shaped by TV hospital dramas. On TV, for example, CPR restores life about 75 percent of the time; in real life, the figure is more like 3 percent. And half of that 3 percent survive in a compromised state.

So, “No Code,” please.

When we’re at the end, when living is no longer the preferred option, we would like to go. After all, isn’t death as natural a part of being human as birth? We celebrate birth, we welcome it – well how about death? Yes, I know, none of us want to leave the party. And yes, death is celebrated in funerals and memorial services – but only after it’s been held off as long as possible, through artificial devices and procedures that often cause undue anguish, and expense.

Neither my husband nor I want to find ourselves “warehoused” at the end of our lives. But neither did our parents. And yet it happened anyway. Vagueness, indecisiveness, and confusion make it harder than anyone imagined to make the crucial calls at the right time.

In our view, that’s why we want to make the calls now and buttress them with as many directives as the law will allow. “No Code,” written on your body, might not have genuine legal force, but it will support the “Do Not Resuscitate” in our files. Many doctors are doing it too. We’re hoping it’s going to send a powerful message to physicians and other folks trained to save and preserve life at all costs.

Undeniably, heroic life-saving is a worthy mission. But at end of life, its value is questionable. As my husband puts it: “When it’s time for me to go, I’m outa here … I hope.”

“No Code” is going to be our somewhat whimsical and definitely not Hallmarky renewal of our vows to help ourselves, each other, and others set the stage for a proper and timely send off.

Carol Henderson is a writer and teacher. Contact her at cd.henderson@gmail.com

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