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AIFF 2011: Spotlight on How to Die in Oregon

How to Die in Oregon is, in the simplest terms, about the ability to choose your own fate.  The state of Oregon is one of the few places in the world that allow you to literally do so, by granting the terminally ill the right to select their moment of death through assisted suicide.  However, that simple concept is not so simple in practice.  How a society deals with the end of life reveals much about what it values in itself.  This film gives us the opportunity to think about that topic for 107 minutes, and likely beyond.

Director Peter Richardson is allowed into the lives of terminally ill Oregonians and those that care for them - whether emotionally, clinically or both.  Through his lens, we are witness to the impact of looming mortality.  As sentient beings, we all know we’re going to die, but most of us don’t know the eventual cause.  These people do.  For most of us, the “when” is “someday”.  For Roger, Barbara, Randy, Ray, Cody and others, it’s “soon”.  Or “today”. Many documentaries bring us close to their subjects by sharing a part of their lives, but nothing is more intimate than sharing your death.

On many levels, this is a powerful film.  On a personal level, for me, it was nearly too powerful.  It’s relevant to the film, so here’s part of the explanation why:

The person whose story the film follows more than any other is Cody Curtis.  Her condition was very similar to that of someone I was close to, in fact, the father of the childhood friend that I stay with when I come to Ashland – without whom, I wouldn’t be in this theater, watching this film.  Shortly before his death, I was able to spend a few hours with Albert which made me one of the last people to see him alive.  Perhaps one of the last two.

Back home, my dog, Griffin (my long-time avatar for this blog), had recently been diagnosed with cancer himself.  After surgery (a partial mandiblectomy), he was undergoing chemotherapy.  Long story short, a key medical appointment for him fell during AIFF and couldn’t be moved.  Since what really mattered was that he was there, not me, the decision was made that I should come to Ashland anyway.

With that in the back of my mind, in the film in front of me Cody received her “six months or less” prognosis, similar to Griffin’s.  She received this effective death sentence on February 16th, which happens to be Griffin’s birthday.  Suddenly, a switch flipped in my head.

As I sat watching a movie on a Thursday afternoon, Griffin was three thousand miles away with a very important Friday on tap and for the first time in over a dozen years, I wouldn’t be there to take him to the vet.  Of all the appointments to miss… What was I doing here…?

My fight-or-flight reflex was kicking in.  My nerves were on high alert. My mind was racing.  So was my heart.  My body felt like it was escaping in six directions at once. I thought about leaving.  I moved to grab my stuff to go… and then I stopped.

Isn’t that what this film is really about?  When it all becomes too much, don’t we all, on a primal level, just want it to stop?  Whatever it is: pain, bad news, emotional trauma, injustice, stupidity, unkindness, … lingering death.  Make it stop.  Please.  I can’t bear this anymore.  As an audience member, I have the option to exit the theater if I don’t want to be here anymore.  For someone with terminal illness, with nothing ahead but chronic pain and functional decline, don’t they just want the same option?

I chose to stay and see it through to the end.  Knowing that I have the power to choose was enough.  That’s also true for many of the terminally ill who never exercise that power.  In my case, I finished seeing a film that will last with me for a lifetime – and provide guidance for my own road ahead.


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