To keep his tongue moist, so he could continue talking to the string of visiting family and friends wishing him well on his final journey, he poured a few ice chips in his mouth. When the chips melted, he wouldn’t swallow, but would spit the liquid into a cup.
The big man propped up in a bed in his Riverview area living room also used something called Biotene, an oral rinse for dry mouths. Every four hours, he took a few drops of morphine orally – the only thing he’d swallow.
He was mostly alert, still as intelligent as ever and still “snarky” of course, but he would drift off periodically because of the drugs. The last time I saw him, he hadn’t eaten anything or ingested any liquid for five days.
This was how Tom Byrne chose to die.
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Ten days later, May 2, the longtime Durango High School English teacher, known by others more as a river guide or musician, was gone. Although some might contend he took his own life by starving and dehydrating himself to death, it was esophageal cancer that was truly to blame.
The cancer had been diagnosed in summer 2012, just two years after he retired from DHS, and had proved untreatable. During the next 2½ years, as the cancer spread, he traveled, played music and truly lived as if there was no tomorrow.
By the time 2015 rolled around, the cancer was in his brain, he’d lost the use of his left hand, and he really didn’t understand the point of prolonging a life that, up to that point, had been well-spent.
For humans, lethal injection – euthanasia – remains illegal in Colorado and most states. So, he decided on a method now commonly referred to as VSED, or voluntarily stopping eating and drinking. After that, he said, “my demeanor improved significantly.”
“It’s a painful choice, yeah,” the 58-year-old said during a visit to his home April 22, just a few days after he’d begun his fast. “It’s not something most people are going to think of as a means of putting themselves out of misery.”
This method, however, gave him some control. It basically allowed him to say goodbye on his own terms, instead of waiting for an end that could take months.
“I really do believe he did it the right way,” says Terry Double, a fellow musician and good friend of Byrne’s. “He knew it was going to be a miserable, long, slow death. His life was over. He had lived it to the fullest. And he had made up his mind.”
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Several of his close friends, including neighbor Anita Blanchard and former DHS teaching cohort Barbara McLachlan, spent many hours keeping vigil and keeping his pain medications flowing the last several days of his life.
If he were a pet, we would have euthanized him out of compassion, they agreed.
Why has society created such a taboo on a peaceful ending of your own choosing? Although Oregon in 1997 passed a Death With Dignity Act that allows terminally ill people to procure life-ending drugs, other states are slow to follow suit. A Colorado bill this year never made it to the full House.
Religious objections and possible abuses of the law are two reasons. Some believe doctors, who would have to prescribe lethal drugs, shouldn’t be asked to be an agent of death. Others believe that having such a means available would put pressure on the terminally ill to make a quick exit.
In a February interview, when he actively was campaigning for the Colorado legislation despite the fact it couldn’t be put into law in time to help him, Byrne wasn’t buying the arguments against. Oregon showed it could work.
“Objections raised are about things that never, ever happened,” he said. “There are lots of safeguards.”
Although Colorado’s bill died, California’s End-of-Life Option Act still is making progress. It was the November 2014 death of Brittany Maynard, a Californian who moved to Oregon to take advantage of the law there, that galvanized widespread public support. On a smaller stage, Byrne hoped to make a similar difference.
“He loved to have experiences. He loved to teach,” says Blanchard, who was with Byrne when he died. “If his death can be instructional and in any way a step toward ‘death with dignity,’ I know that would please him greatly.”
Early this year, Byrne began hospice care, which strives to keep a patient comfortable through the dying process. Byrne was appreciative of the care but was loathe to just lie around and wait.
During my visit April 22, Byrne held up for me a package of adult diapers. The day he had to send his nephew out to buy these, he said, was the day he determined his next option was VSED. He felt it was a natural way of bringing on death.
“It took him out with the greatest amount of comfort and dignity that he could maintain,” his friend Double said. “He didn’t want to be a slobbering, drooling, (excreting) fool that people have to clean up after. He was too much of an independent person.”
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Depending on their condition, people die within a few days to a few weeks after abstaining from food and water. Is this really the easy way out? This was total commitment, not only from yourself but family and friends, too. Byrne, fully cognizant April 22, but tired and suffering the pain that drugs can’t mask, knew what lay ahead. He’d known since the diagnosis in 2012.
“From the very, very beginning, I made it clear I wasn’t going to wait around to die,” he said. “I wanted to go do things, not wait around for this to kill me.”
His mother, 93-year-old Ruth, flew from the Phoenix area a couple of weeks before the end. His sister, Anne (also from Phoenix), and brothers Mike (Bay Area) and Tim (Tennessee) also gathered.
Byrne guarded his privacy, but he wasn’t afraid to be the center of attention, either. “Knock loudly, come in and announce yourself” said the note on his front door. And in those last few weeks, many people did. Friends brave enough to stop by got a warm welcome, Byrne-style. That snarkiness – an acerbic wit, a biting tongue – never left him. Those understanding friends, and this writer, couldn’t help but admire his courage.
John Squire, former owner of Durango Rivertrippers rafting company that Byrne had worked with, compared VSED to running a rapid.
“You’re scared stiff, but you don’t have time to think about it. You’ve gotta get through,” Squire said while at Byrne’s side. “He’s been a guide, and he still is.”
His former DHS pupil Sarah Jacobson, another visitor April 22, said Byrne, who taught at DHS from 1992 to 2010, challenged her to do things correctly and still inspires her.
“He changed my life,” she said. “I can still hear his voice lecturing.”
During the last few days, he slept often, couldn’t focus and became delirious. By April 30, he stopped taking visitors, other than those keeping a constant vigil. The final days were difficult for family and friends, as the life force that was Tom Byrne retreated into his body’s shell.
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Since he was a youngster, Byrne was passionate about music. He played guitar and several other instruments, and he was a regular at the Sunday afternoon Irish music jams at The Irish Embassy Pub.
Several years ago, he and Double formed the Celtic band An Sliabh (The Mountain). During his final performance, in October in Aztec, Byrne could use just two fingers on his left hand.
At his urging, one of the last songs his band learned was Warren Zevon’s “Keep Me in Your Heart.” Zevon wrote it just before he died of abdominal cancer in 2003 at age 56. Double plans to play it at Byrne’s memorial. When he does, not every eye will remain dry.
“Shadows are fallin’ and I’m runnin’ out of breath. ...
“If I leave you, it doesn’t mean I love you any less.
“Keep me in your heart for a while.”
firstname.lastname@example.org. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.