John Wayne, a Fluffy White Dog and Life’s last Dignity


The post, Fluffy White Dog Sociology was and remains the most popular post in Mad Sociologist history. While I was writing that post, however, there was a second narrative playing in my mind. That narrative became this post. I’m not sure if John Wayne remains popular, or if a Fluffy White Dog just hits a nerve, but this post was also one of the most popular MSB contributions. Regardless, because of the subject matter, it really should remain attached to the original Fluffy White Dog post. 

In 1976 John Wayne starred in his final movie, The Shootist.  Wayne played John B. Books, an aging and dying gunslinger at the turn of the century.  Wayne was diagnosed with “a cancer” (symptomatic of prostate cancer) and was informed that he was going to die…slowly and painfully.  The doctor, played brilliantly by Jimmy Stuart, informed Books that he [the doctor] would not want to experience the kind of death that lie in store.

John WayneBooks, a gunfighter having been the instrument of many a man’s death, was now confronted with his own mortality.  He could spend the rest of his days drinking laudanum, which would eventually become inadequate for easing his pain, or he could take other measures…he could die with the same dignity in which he lived.

He elected the latter option and arranged a final gunfight with all of the top shootists in the area.  They all met in a local saloon for a final shootout with the great John Bernard Books and an opportunity to make gunfighter history. Even in his decrepit state, however, Books proved too much for them.  He killed all of his challengers–an indication that he really was opting to die according to the same rules by which he lived. He wasn’t committing suicide. Ultimately, he was gunned down from behind by a cowardly bartender with a shotgun (the bartender was immediately thereafter dispatched by a young admirer of Books played by Ron Howard, currently the acclaimed director).

Books got his wish.  He died with the same dignity in which he lived, regardless of the violent nature. Ironically, John Wayne himself died in a very different way.  Though he was considered cancer free at the time of filming The Shootist (after having a cancerous lung removed) Wayne ultimately succumbed of stomach cancer in 1979.  He died in a hospital, UCLA medical center.  Did he die, as his portrayal of Books, in the manner he had lived, or did he pass slowly in a hospital bed, as many of us are destined?

Last week, as readers are aware, I put down our family dog, Nilla.  She was very old and dying from liver failure, a fate that would ultimately consign her to very painful final days.  We made the decision to “put her to sleep.” Her passing was treated by our family with grace and dignity.  The day before she was “sent on her last journey” we spent doting on her.  By this time she was sleeping almost the whole day.

That night we informed the kids that she was going to Heaven and that we were going to cuddle on the couch, watch a movie, pet her and show her how much we loved her.  Nilla was always the voluptuary who never turned down the opportunity to lounge on the couch and was always willing to let someone pet her.  She enjoyed human contact and warmth, often curled behind my knees as I slept.

The next day I took her to the vet.  I held  her as the doctor administered the dose that would send Nilla on her last journey.  I stroked her and I told her the one thing that I knew she wanted to hear, that she was a good dog. She passed hearing those words.

Unlike most humans, including John Wayne, Nilla died as she had lived. She was allowed one last dignity.  Human beings, however, in their attempt to avoid, hide and sterilize death have placed the process in the hands of institutions. We die in hospitals or hospices.  We get sick, linger, manage our pain until our organs shut down.  Often we are denied life’s last dignity before taking our final breath.

How is it that what we consider “humane” for a fluffy white dog is not considered appropriate for humans?  This is not advocacy of Kevorkian style euthanasia.  But it is my hope that when my time comes, if I’m to be aware of my impending mortality, that I’m allowed one last dignity…to leave this world in the same manner as I enjoyed it.  The thought of putting such an important moment in the hands of a rationalized institution frightens me more than thoughts of my ultimate demise.

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