Thursday, March 10, 2011

How to Die in Oregon

When Megan invited me to attend a screening of the Grand Jury Prize winner for best Documentary at Sundance this year, I jumped in with two feet. Hell yeah, sign me up.

It wasn't until the morning of the screening, however, that I finally clicked on the attached link that she sent describing the film. How to Die in Oregon, turns out, is a little documentary about euthanasia. Go figure.

How to Die is an account of the process by which several Oregon residents chose to end their lives with the administration of a physician-prescribed dose of barbiturates. The film opens with old man drinking a cup of murky white liquid into a quick and painless coma that would result in his death before introducing us to the woman mixing the liquid-- his 'volunteer' Sue Porter, from the non-profit Compassion & Choices. It's shockingly okay in that room, we observe while watching the man die peacefully after a few laughs and final farewells.

We then meet Cody Curtis, a 54-year-old Portland woman of grace and verve and clarity who is suffering from recurring liver cancer. She shares with us her 10 month struggle with terminal illness and her linear struggle with the decision to end her own life. We meet her steady husband and two teary eyed twenty-something kids. We watch her hike through the forest, garden, and visit her doctor to talk about her time line. Now, I understand that much of this is editing and director's angle, but Cody will BREAK YOUR HEART, dear reader. She'll make you want to be a better human being.

The film also depicts the 2008 Washington state ballot initiative debate over whether terminally ill residents should be allowed to end their lives similarly. The film's director was careful to include the opposition as an equal voice, fairly and honestly. We heard from doctors who oppose the initiative, and those who support it. We heard from a man whom the state refused aid for chemotherapy, but offered the deadly barbiturates as an alternative. I understood his anger, and so will you. Washington's ballot passed, by the way, and Montana is next.

What struck me throughout each story (we meet about 10 people who choose to end their lives) was the amount of clarity in each decision. None of them were afraid. None of them were second guessing their choice to die. Cody, the wonderwoman I mentioned above, seemed to approach her death as one might approach selling the family home, or giving away a much loved pet. "We're doing it at 6:00 on Monday, because that is when my surgeon is through with her clinic that day," she tells her hairdresser the Thursday prior. "But I'll take the first pills at 5:25. Thank you so much for my lovely haircut."

The film was gruesome. So much so that half of the HBO staff walked out of the original Sundance screening, and the majority of press in attendance openly sobbed. I closed my eyes for most of the medical stuff and ugly-cried at the end there. It's gruesome, this film. Heartbreaking like you can't even imagine. But for those who manage to make it through, the film’s message is ultimately uplifting. It's as much about life as it is about death, and death suddenly reveals itself as something not so scary.

I hope you're able to see it too.

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