Dead Man Waiting

Walls Unit Huntsville

Imagine you’ve been convicted of a capital crime. You’ve been sentenced to death, your execution date has been confirmed – it’s tomorrow – and you’re sitting on death row with only hours left to live.

What’s going through your head? Lethal injection. Will I just fall asleep or is it going to hurt? I’ve heard it can cause burning, excruciating pain. How do they know for sure? What’s waiting on the other side? Will I go straight to hell for my crime or has God forgiven me like the preacher said?

Dead man waiting.

As I drove through Huntsville, Texas recently I could see the so-called Walls Unit building, the innocuous-looking red brick structure where death row inmates spend their last hours prior to execution. I had taken my two older grandchildren to the nearby Texas Prison Museum there in Huntsville. My granddaughter was putting together a paper for her school project. A darkly fascinating place, the museum housed an exhibit featuring the last words of executed inmates, the actual intravenous drip-line and saline bag used for the first lethal injection, and of course “Old Sparky”, the venerable electric chair used by the good state of Texas until 1964.

Regardless of one’s opinion about the death penalty, its a dreadful thing to contemplate. For me, I can’t get my head around the idea of a person knowing the moment they will die. The waiting, as the clock ticks down those final hours, and then minutes.

There’s been much debate about the use of lethal injection as a method of execution. It sounds very humane, causing a person to simply fall asleep and never wake up. But in their attempts to find the ideal drug cocktail for the job, a number of US states have reported horrifying consequences as first-use drugs, improper IV administration, and other factors have caused unthinkable suffering for the inmate on their journey to death.

I’m writing about this dreadful topic as I try to come to terms with another method of putting people to death; the growing practice of assisted suicide, also involving some form of lethal injection.

My mother, at the age of 92, lives in an assisted living residence in Victoria BC, in Canada. She’s been very upset lately as an increasing number of her neighbors resort to doctor-assisted suicide as means of achieving a dignified exit. As a Christian, my mom feels that in each case she could have done more to lead these people to Christ before they die. But most of them would hear nothing of it. Leave me alone. There is no God.

Such deaths are legal in Canada. Officially known as Medical Assistance in Dying, or the euphemism “MAID”, this federally-sanctioned program originally allowed doctors and nurse practitioners ‘help’ suffering patients in an irreversible ‘advanced state of decline’ who’s death was ‘reasonably foreseeable’. But in 2019, a Quebec Superior Court decision rendered the reasonably foreseeable death condition as unconstitutional. So for now, MAID is available to just about anyone. In the meantime, about 7,000 Canadians have taken advantage of MAID since 2016. Keep in mind that the population of Canada is about one-tenth the population of the US where assisted suicide is legal in nine states and the District of Columbia.

So, my mother called me a few days ago, distressed that the man who lives across the hall had dropped in to say goodbye as he would be dying on Monday.

This man, let’s call him Bob, was not sick. He was mobile, articulate and of sound mind. Bob said he was ready to go because, presumably due to failing eyesight, he could no longer read or watch TV. He just sat in his room all day alone and without purpose. It seems the communal mealtimes and social activities at the assisted living residence weren’t enough companionship to keep Bob happy. We know nothing of his family situation and can only assume he had none.

Bob said ‘they’ would be coming to kill him in his room on Monday. As Monday approached, my mother became increasingly distressed at the thought of this atrocity happening at Bob’s place while she sat just across the hall.

Senior man hospitalized

It played out just as she had feared. She returned to her room after dinner to find Bob’s door open and the sound of conversation within as three men, one presumably a doctor, administered Bob’s lethal dose. They wheeled him out shortly thereafter.

Its not for me to judge Bob for his decision, nor to judge those who have chosen to facilitate this growing culture of death by participating in the process. But I wonder where this is going. How did it become perfectly normal for people like my mother to have to experience what amounts to a killing so close to home? And all day Monday, having said his goodbyes, Bob sat in his room waiting for the kill-team to come. They showed up around 7:00 p.m., did their job, and then presumably went home and slept well that night. Or did they? I don’t know.

What was Bob thinking throughout the day on Monday? Will I just fall asleep or is it going to hurt? I’ve heard it can cause burning, excruciating pain. How do they know for sure? What’s waiting on the other side? Is there a God? I hope the lady across the hall is wrong, or am I going to hell tonight?

Dead man waiting.

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