Exactly a week ago I was responding to former mayor of Boston Tom Menino’s decision to cease treatment for his cancer. I admired his brave decision to say, “Enough!”, then gather his family and friends around him. Surely, I presumed, he still had enough fortitude to reach Thanksgiving if not Christmas, just one last time. And then in a flash, or so it seems from out here among the living, he was gone.
I listened to countless testimonials about Mayor Menino yesterday on WGBH and WBUR. Parenthetically, for major local stories, there are no better sources for up to the minute news then these 2 NPR affiliates. As I listened I remembered something Maya Angelou once wrote: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” So many people mentioned Menino’s love of and advocacy for children. He was way ahead of the curve when it came to GLBT issues and treated members of that community with enormous humanity. He cared, and his constituents knew it because he was sincere and committed. As Yvonne Abraham wrote in the Globe today, “Tom Menino was a master of the heart.”
One thing I heard really stuck in my craw. I don’t remember who said it. “Mayor Menino could be very tough. He was truly a fighter.” No disagreement there. In fact he could be downright vindictive in the face of criticism. Friends and foe alike knew that you did not want to be on the wrong side of an argument with the mayor. But then the guy said, “The mayor went out fighting.”
In fact, he did not go out fighting. There is great honor in his decision to go gently into that good night. Tom Menino had a choice once he heard from his doctors that they could not vanquish the cancer. He chose death with dignity. He embraced the truth with quiet bravery and wholeheartedness.
The choice to embrace the ending with quietude and dignity has not been honored enough in the contemporary world. It frustrates professional caregivers when a patient says no more. Doctors and nurses often feel like it is a defeat when a patient opts out of the fight and chooses palliative care. In too many situations patients and their families are made to feel guilty, as if they are quitters, when they voluntarily end treatment.
Tom Menino fought his way back from several illnesses and physical challenges in his life. Thank God he did: for the sake of his family, his constituency and for the sake of Boston. I honor him for that indomitable spirit that enabled him to push back the angel of death. And I honor him for reminding all of us that death with dignity is not an abstract concept but rather a real decision that deserves serious consideration and respect.
May Tom Menino rest in peace. May his wife Angela, his children and grandchildren never forget the gratitude of a city well-served by a man of conviction. May all of us derive strength and meaning from his life, and from his death.