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A few years ago, my grandmothers died within six weeks of each other. One went quietly. After surgery to insert a pacemaker, she was told she'd probably not return to the little house she loved. She breathed her last with no more notice than this: One moment her chest was moving, and the next it wasn't.

The other asked her family to help her fight death by every means possible, and over the long months before she died, the family buckled under the emotional and financial weight. When she passed, the family was almost too exhausted to grieve.

Both grandmothers lived within shouting distance of the family of Nancy Cruzan, a dark-eyed beauty who had a horrible car accident in 1983 and slipped from a coma into a persistent vegetative state until her family got permission to disconnect her feeding tube seven years later.

Before they could do that, the Cruzans had to take their sad case all the way up to the Supreme Court. What should have been a private decision among people who knew and loved Nancy became a cause celebre until her tube was removed in 1990, and she died 12 days later.

Hers remains the last end-of-life case the high court has heard.

Carterville, Mo. -- Nancy's and my grandmothers' hometown -- is a dusty speck on the map, with a Main Street lined with two-story, mostly empty brick buildings. Signs point to Historic Route 66, which threads through town, but all of Carterville's good days appear to be behind it.

Still, there's a small-town charm that can't be dismissed. In Carterville, you don't make a quick run to the market. Things move slower there because you're bound to run into someone you know, sometimes someone whose families have been entwined with yours for generations. When my father was in high school, he dated Nancy Cruzan's mother, Joyce, before she married Joe. In grade school, my brother was sweet on Nancy. For years the Cruzans lived behind my aunt and uncle, and after Nancy died and the world's attention turned elsewhere, Joe hanged himself in his carport there. He had been clinically depressed for years. In 1998, Joyce Cruzan was diagnosed with cancer. She refused treatment and died shortly after.

For all the attention Nancy's case got, we natives -- an independent and cantankerous bunch -- were fiercely proud of the Cruzans. They stood firm. We could have chosen no better representatives to the greater world.

But the price was too, too high. As if Nancy's health weren't bad enough, the subsequent court battles and public opinion polls were like a bomb dropped into a family.

You could learn a lot from the long, sad case of Nancy Cruzan, but I wonder if we've learned much. Both Nancy and Terri Schiavo ended their lives at the center of an ugly tug of war. In Nancy's case, her family wanted to let her go, but the state said no. In Terri's case, the disagreement hit closer to home. In both cases, protesters and publicity-seeking politicians who never met the women marched in with as much compassion as a shoe by the road. If they'd slipped into the women's rooms and done a macabre dance with their near-lifeless bodies, they couldn't be more appalling.

Whatever your politics and your feeling about end-of-life issues, of all the things you can learn from Nancy and Terri, maybe the main lesson is this: No matter your age, the best gift you can leave your family is a clear roadmap for your own graceful exit.

Hartford Courant

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