"Three Farewells" looks at the difficult and sometimes heart-rending choices a loving family makes as they confront the end of life.
Our story begins with Hope, literally and figuratively. Hope is the name Faith and her husband picked out for the baby they were having if it were a girl. For Faith's mother, Charity, still in her fifties, becoming a grandmother would take a little getting used to. But the pregnancy went perfectly. And, at forty weeks on the dot, Faith went into labor.
Then something went wrong. On the way into the hospital there was a prolapse of the umbilical cord, cutting off oxygen to the unborn baby. At the hospital, everything that could be done was done; but now Baby Hope is on a respirator, her brain waves are very weak, and she shows no response to anything. How should the parents decide what is best for Baby Hope now?
A few years later, the baby's grandmother Charity learns that she is in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. Always a strong, independent person, Charity asks her husband to promise her that, if she can no longer remember her family, nothing at all should be done to prolong her life. Five years later, Charity doesn't know what day it is, what she used to do for a living, or who the president is. She doesn't recognize her husband, her daughter, or anyone else. Then Charity has a small stroke. She recovers from it, and while she can no longer speak, her other abilities and her attitude toward life seem unchanged. There is just one problem. Because of the stroke, she can no longer swallow. She can only receive food through a feeding tube. The doctors ask the husband's permission to insert the tube. If Charity's husband follows the wishes Charity expressed when she was competent, then he would refuse to have the tube inserted, and Janice would die. But Charity's daughter Faith says that Charity recently expressed a fear of dying, and says that Charity still enjoys some simple pleasures. Faith says that Charity now would not want to die. What should Charity's husband do?
Eventually, Charity dies. A few years later, there is still more tragedy in Faith's life. Faith develops pancreatic cancer. For Faith, this is the last straw. She tells her physician that she is willing to try treatment, but that if it's unsuccessful, she wants control over what will happen to her. Faith's state has passed a law similar to Oregon's Death with Dignity Act, and she wants to get a prescription from her doctor that would allow her to end her life. What should the doctor do?