Do not push gently into that good night

ROSIE DIMANNO

I have spent most of the past three weeks inside a hospital room, watching a person I love fight for his life.

It is in this frame of mind — raging helplessly against the ever-mutating cleverness of disease, how hungrily and with such stealth malignancy hovers, circles, teases, even retreats just long enough to kindle hope — that I come, with outrage, to the reignited debate of assisted suicide.

Torn from the current headlines, it's a trendy issue. But morally hollow. So profoundly abominable that it provokes in me a fury I can barely control.

Death is never a mercy. To characterize death as merciful is to invest it with nearly altruistic qualities, with tenderness, which is a kind of anthropomorphizing, as if death has a personality and we can alter its features, render it more kindly, make of it even a friend.

Merciful death — it was for the best ... at least he's not suffering any more — is but a shallow platitude, seized upon most eagerly by those who cannot otherwise admit their own relief in being released from the exhausting burden, emotional and otherwise but essentially vicarious, of illness and infirmities and frailty; of how awful life looks, wasting and desiccated and necrotic, when it's trickling away.

This is, I think, the unbearable heaviness of being.

Of growing old and feeble, or not even so old but terribly sick, losing one's faculties, one's mobility, one's mind — reverting, yes, to the helplessness of infancy. But it is inevitably the healthy who recoil from this, as if even death were a preferable alterative to such dependency and deterioration.

We project our revulsion — which is essentially rooted in fear of our own mortality — and convince ourselves that somebody else would be better off dead because look, just look, at how wretched their existence has become or will become. And that says a great deal about the value that we subtract from a life when it is no longer vigorous and productive; when it just lies there, maybe thinking, maybe dreaming, maybe remembering.

Little wonder that the sick and dying begin to see themselves as valueless, too, abhorrent, ashamed, unworthy because they can no longer walk or talk or feed themselves.

It is precisely the lame, the enfeebled and the despondent who most need our protection, our gentling, to assuage their pain and respect the essence of their being. This essence is not held hostage to the ravages of the flesh.

A mother who helps a son take his own life — as that misguided woman in Montreal last week, her son just 36 and only in the early stage of multiple sclerosis, is charged with doing — has, if she did it, committed both a crime and a grievous sin. Suicide is the murder of self. Assisted suicide is just plain murder, however some might rationalize it as a supreme act of compassion.

It takes gall — or guile — to call what this woman did selfless love.

She must not be absolved for it, out of mercy.

There's an immense difference between declining to apply extraordinary life-extending measures — respecting do-not-resuscitate orders — and intervening not merely to hasten death but to inflict it. Abetting suicide in the irreversibly ill or the utterly incapacitated is not a kindness; it's an abuse of power.

This young Montreal man was not incapacitated, although he was surely depressed, and chronic depression crushes reason. He had an illness that couldn't be cured, that would assuredly get worse. But he wasn't in insupportable physical pain and he could have lived a productive life — one that contained pleasure and curiosity and wisdom — for decades, with MS, as have hundreds of thousands of other Canadians.

What he needed was a professional to treat the sadness and fatalism that had settled in his bones. The last thing he needed was a mother in emotional thrall to his deranged thinking or seduced by his need to bail prematurely from an envisioned existence he could not, in that agitated state of mind, bear to contemplate.

Don't speak to me about opinion polls that show most Canadians favour a legal option for helping someone to die. This is not a question that can be posed in the abstract, and then answered in the affirmative by those not immediately or imminently facing that acute, bewildering, agonizing dilemma. The young and the healthy are in no position, certainly shouldn't be, to tilt the debate from the depth of their beautiful, enviable ignorance. More illuminating, more intuitively informed, are the views of physicians and palliative care professionals and those involved with disabled people's organizations who are, in the main, strongly opposed to both euthanasia and assisted suicide.

Do not harm is the core code of doctors. That is the antithesis of beckoning death.

It is not in our nature to truly imagine ourselves, or those we love, at the fraying end of the mortal coil. We're only pretending, and the real thing isn't like pretending at all. We might think we know what we'd want for ourselves or for those we care about, but believe me, we do not. I've seen enough of dying — in all its grotesque manifestations and most especially in those who never saw it coming — to have learned that nobody, no mentally lucid human being, is ever eager to depart this world.

It is indeed different for those who aren't lucid, for those in unspeakable pain, and those so intractably depressed that life doesn't seem worth living. But physical pain can nearly also be effectively managed, in this advanced society, and those unable to think clearly should not be making this most irreversible of all decisions for themselves.

Killing the terminally ill or the dreadfully enfeebled must never become the expedient thing to do, dressed up as pity. It must not be legislatively condoned, even that we know full well that it happens in furtive ways, sometimes with physicians involved. There are occasions when it's better to leave some things unexamined.

The moment we condone murder — assisted suicide — even for those just tenuously still attached to life, we set ourselves upon a wicked path, one where the worth of a person is measured empirically. Assisted suicide begets euthanasia and a society that makes intellectual peace with euthanasia is one that puts at risk every human being in it, but most especially the constituency of the vulnerable: The grievously ill, the chronically ill, the mentally ill, the unproductive, the economically draining, the recidivist, the subversive. Maybe you, maybe me.

I put my hand to my father's cheek — but only when he's sleeping because we are not a family that touches — and I feel the warmth of a living person. I feel a heart beating for all the damage that's been done to it. Not even the stench of gangrene assaulting my nostrils can occlude the sweetness of life still being lived. I am so pitifully grateful for every day, for every minute, for every breath.

It's the sadness that must be borne. Sadness and anger and impotence and fatalism — all the emotions that combine to plant in a person's mind the seductive belief that it's better to rush toward death in one final damn-you rebel yell, an assertion of individual will. As if to say, I am the master of my fate.

None of us is. And none of us will make it out alive.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Rosie DiManno. "Do not push gently into that good night." Toronto Star (October 4, 2004).

Reproduced with permission — Torstar Syndication Services.

THE AUTHOR

Rosie DiManno usually appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday in the Toronto Star.

Copyright © 2004 Toronto Star


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