He was the love of my life—my calm before and after the storm—but after battling a series of strokes, he wanted to die.
What I will remember most is my uncle’s emotional pain, and how the mourning seemed to engulf our house even before he drew his last breath. As he suffered through those final weeks, his body and spirit thinning, he began to spit out his medications in an effort to hasten his own death.
It was, I know now, the last stand of a dignified man.
I am not a medical ethicist and, Lord knows, I am not a woman of the cloth, but the choice to live or die should be ours, and ours alone. When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced legislation to legalize physician-assisted suicide last week, I wondered how differently things might have been if my uncle had help. What if there had been a legal means of medical support to ensure a peaceful transition in those final moments?
Albert Ross was the only father I truly new. The year before my dad was murdered in 1973, he asked my uncle to take care of me if anything ever happened to him. It was not an extraordinary request. Given the culture of drugs and violence that flooded my father’s life, it was only a matter of time.
They were married to sisters—Geraldine and Mary Alice—who had six children between them. I was the baby, seven years or better behind the others, and I suppose my father Wyart knew there would come a day when he could not be there anymore and that his going would be permanent.
I remember crawling into my uncle’s lap the day daddy died. He held me there, into the night, while I cried.
There would be birthdays, graduations, scraped knees, broken hearts and other days when I just needed a daddy. Uncle Ross was there for every one of them and almost every day in between—to love, protect, and teach. And if it came to it—as it so often did—Uncle Ross was there to mete out discipline.
He was ours by marriage, the second husband of my mother’s sister, and became the tie that bound us all together—even when we didn’t want to be. He purchased our house on 10th Street in East St. Louis back in 1969 with a contract mortgage and paid it off by sometimes working two and three jobs at a time. The Korean War veteran—who boosted his age by two years to qualify for service-—was a gas station attendant, back when there was such a thing, and a doorman at a luxury condominium building situated at the edge of Forest Park.
Ross believed in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.
He had a steady hand, a moral center that did not move with the sunshine, and a deep, rich baritone voice that I can still hear calling me in the moonlight. He showed me how to dry a cracked distributor cap to start the family car and brew up homemade barbeque sauce. He taught me how to carry myself like a lady and swing like a man, if need be.
We watched the Cardinals play baseball and the Von Erich brothers sling themselves around a wrestling ring. But, Uncle Ross knew I was a wily little creature and my idle mind was capable of almost anything. That included figuring out how to make vinegar and baking soda blow up in the backyard, stealing swigs from his stash of Manischewitz wine and secretly listening to Richard Pryor and Moms Mabley albums in the basement.
He was there the day a truck driver slammed into the back of my mother’s parked car. The impact sent me rocketing into the dashboard. Before the driver could speed away, my uncle came barreling out of the house with a butcher knife to make sure the driver stayed put until the police arrived.
I never heard him utter a foul word and he never once told me that he loved me. But I knew that and Uncle Ross didn’t believe in telling you what you already knew. And, until one Christmas in 1983, I never heard him pray.
There had been a heart attack, at least two major strokes and a string of transient ischemic attack attacks or “mini strokes.” Ross was bedridden for months, unable to climb the stairs or perform routine functions. His left side completely paralyzed, his arm bound up in a sling, he struggled to feed himself.
“Lord Jesus, take me away from here,” I heard him say. “Take me home.”
We knew he wanted to die. Rather than swallowing the scheduled doses my aunt gave him, he had been hiding them in his cheeks and secretly spitting out his medication. In the bottom the wastebasket, beneath some crumpled paper, we found tablets of various shapes, colors and sizes.
A small number of countries allow assisted suicide—among them Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands. In the U.S., individual states have the power to allow, regulated or prohibit assisted suicide. Illinois, where my uncle died, is not one of them. Washington, Oregon, and Vermont are among a handful of states that have laws on the books that permit the physician-assisted form of euthanasia. In 2008, Washington established the Death with Dignity Act, which gave terminally ill patients the right to determine the time of their own death.
Typically, laws passed here in the U.S. mirrored the Canadian proposal. The stipulation that only people with a “serious and incurable illness” appears to weigh the needs of the individual with the needs of the broader society. In all cases, it gives government the ultimate right to decide if someone can legally decide to end their own lives and whether a medical professional can help.
According to Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, a patient must be of sound mind at the time of the request. Two physicians must confirm the presence of a terminal illness and that the patient has no more than six months to live. To ensure the integrity of the decision, a second request must be made after a 15-day waiting period.
Death with Dignity, a national advocacy group that promotes the adoption of physician-assisted suicide laws, wants to expand access to all “qualified terminally ill Americans to make their own end-of-life decisions, including how they die.”
The truth is, notwithstanding a third stroke or some other catastrophic medical incident, my uncle likely could have persisted in his diminished state for many years. Whether or not physical therapy would have been even modestly effective long-term is not known. There is no way to know what his quality of life might have been, but he would not have been regarded as “terminally ill” or met the standard set by most state statutes now on the books. We do know that he was experiencing an inordinate level of pain, both physically and mentally, and that he wanted to die.
Unable to speak or move on his own volition, Uncle Ross took the only way that was available to him. Without the aid of the prescribed blood-thinning medication, which he spat out almost as soon as we left the room, a new blood clot formed and he suffered another major stroke just months before my 16th birthday.
I remember when my mother got the call. We sped down I-70 through St. Louis, across the Mississippi River and into Illinois. By the time we arrived at the house, he was gone. Bookie, the grandson that Ross helped to raise, met me outside. We had a good long cry under the light post situated in the center of the front yard. As we sat on the porch swing that night, my cousin kissed my forehead and said, “It was time. He wanted to go.”
Albert Ross died on Jan. 31, 1984. He was 57 years old.