February 8, 2012

Choosing when to go

His quality of life declining, Norman Morse wants all to know that he's made a very sane and sensible decision.

By Kelley Bouchard kbouchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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“Why shouldn’t I be able to end my life in a painless, peaceful and dignified way?” asks Norman Morse, 91, of Falmouth.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Morse holds photos from his time of military service during World War II.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Morse said he believes the medical community opposes physician-assisted suicide because it makes a lot of money keeping seriously ill and elderly people alive.

Nationwide, recent polls show that more than 70 percent of Americans believe that terminally ill patients should have the right to self-administer lethal medication to achieve a peaceful death, according to Compassion & Choices, a group that promotes end-of-life choices.

When asked if doctors should be allowed to help terminally ill people die, 75 percent of Americans said yes, according to a 2005 Gallup poll. When pollsters included an inflammatory term such as suicide, 58 percent said yes.

Morse believes anyone who's not old cannot fully understand the perils of aging. His decline started two years ago, when prostate problems forced him to start wearing a catheter full time. Now, he struggles to stand up, walk, button his pants, even hold a phone. He describes his disabilities emphatically, in crisp detail, as he does everything.

"I had to stop driving a few weeks ago because I couldn't pass the eye test," Morse said. "Where's your quality of life if you can't read and you can't drive? Until two years ago, I went jogging every few days, rode my bicycle around here and could do a perfect set of push-ups. How many American men do you know who can do a perfect set of push-ups at age 90? Since then, my independence has evaporated and my quality of life has plummeted."

One of the worst blows came in mid-May, when a veterinarian had to put down his beloved dog, Billy, a 12-year-old bichon frise he adopted a few years ago. For Morse, the experience emphasized the irony of his own situation.

"We euthanize dogs because we don't want them to suffer," he said. "We are kinder to our pets than we are to our fellow man."

LIFE WELL LIVED

Born in Pittsfield, Mass., in 1919, Morse grew up in a privileged family, the younger of two sons born to Rosamond and Harold Morse, who was a General Electric engineer. In 1926, the family moved to Southport, Conn., where he would live most of his life.

He made it through World War II unscathed, largely because the costly radar equipment that his company carried was well protected.

For most of his business career he managed real estate investments in New York City for the English branches of the wealthy Astor and Whitney families. He owned three cruising sailboats in his life and enjoyed being on the water well into his 80s.

He married Helen Tracy, a Polaroid chemist, in 1954; she died of cancer 11 years later. He married Marta Muller in 1975 and the couple moved to Portland in 1988; they separated when he moved to Falmouth six years ago.

While in Maine, Morse has given the bulk of his financial assets and some of his precious collections to various nonprofits, including Greater Portland Landmarks, Portland Museum of Art, Maine Historical Society, St. Lawrence Arts Center and the Osher Map Library at the University of Southern Maine.

"I always gave early in projects -- $10,000, $20,000, $30,000 at a time," Morse said. "I liked to give seed money because that's when they need it most."

Word of Morse's desire to die has spread among the groups he has supported, upsetting many who have come to love him and value his knowledge of the arts, architecture, seafaring and history in general.

"He's a wonderful, extraordinary man," said Hilary Bassett, executive director of Greater Portland Landmarks, where Morse was a board member and remains an advisory trustee.

"He's been very involved and very committed to our mission," Bassett said. "I was upset to hear what he was contemplating because he still has so much to offer. But I understand that he's very independent, and that it's hard to have difficulty doing things that came easily in the past."

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Additional Photos

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Norman Morse poses for a photograph in May 1944, when he was stationed at Start Point, Devon, England, just weeks before the D-Day invasion at Normandy, France, during World War II. Morse was a second lieutenant in a radar company that followed Gen. George S. Patton's Third Army through France and into Germany.

Family photo

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Norman Morse is shown sailing in Long Island Sound off Southport, Conn., in 1960.

Courtesy Norman Morse

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This picture shows Norman Morse, age 4, sitting on a porch wall beside his older brother, Francis, and mother, Rosamond, in 1924, when the family lived in Pittsfield, Mass. They later moved to Fairfield, Conn., where he lived until retiring to Maine in 1988.

Family photo

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Norman Morse horses around with a cart carrying a friend while visiting Shelter Island, on Long Island, N.Y., in 1950.

Courtesy Norman Morse

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Norman Morse with his first wife, Helen, in 1954, the year they were married.

Courtesy Norman Morse

 


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