The horror! The horror!

(probably just depressing, so you might want to skip this one)

This topic is never, and yet always, timely, but have euthanasia on the brain again because of Crim a couple of weeks ago, as well as because of Roger Ebert, today.

I can’t help but think that one of the most cruel and inhuman things I could ever do is deny death to someone who truly, deeply needed it.  I realize that it’s not my task to play God, and that I probably would not be comfortable pulling the plug on anyone but my own close relations (ironically enough), and doubt I would ever have the courage to kill someone out of love for them (although I imagine it’s much easier to kill out of hate, or some other negative feeling toward a person), and yet.

I have a rather small sample size in my experience, but it seems to me that, even in the darkest, most invalid days, many, many, many elderly people do not want to die.  Some go peacefully, but a chunk (I don’t know what chunk) must go kicking and screaming, fighting, praying, cursing, hoping for just a little more time.

Fifteen years ago, I, and most of my extended family, saw my grandmother die of cancer.  I mean this literally: we all gathered for her last breath.  The bewildering thing is that all of us were in her room, sometime in the middle of the night, because she told someone? because someone knew? she was done, and yet she still managed to hold on for hours while we waited for her one son who did not live in town to make it.  He made it.  She saw him.  They clasped hands.  She died.  No protest to be seen.

Conversely, my father was a very healthy 80 years old when he began rapidly deteriorating.  Heart attacks, surgeries, strokes, comas, intermittent hospitalizations, slip-and-falls, weeks confined to bed.  Walks around the neighborhood, watching golf, reading every book in the library, inventing a parallel cousin to the Wii, sending me 20-page letters, writing a novel, coming to high school graduation.  Not coming to college graduation.

Once he decided to deactivate his pacemaker, my dad moved to a nursing home 25 minutes from our house. He started off in high spirits, and would always answer my daily phone calls.  Time went on, and he stopped picking up.  I would drive up on the weekends and he would apologize for missing my call; he was tired.  Always sleeping.  He didn’t write anymore, but he still dreamt about golf.  Sometimes he would pick up.  He never got to go outside.  We couldn’t sneak in the dog.  In my eyes, his life was a shadow of what it had been even mere months before.  He seemed to think so, too.

And yet, they tell me that, with fifteen minutes left in the game, he — this supposedly defeated man — screamed, “I’m dying!  I’m dying!  Help!  God, I’m dying!”  Screaming and screaming — that’s the word they use, although, as a loving daughter, it seems so undignified, so crass —

The nurses say they rushed in, checked on him, settled him down, he was fine.  They called my mom and told her what happened, but don’t worry, he’s fine.


and he was gone.

I share this story for two reasons.

#1 Selfish: All this time later, it still haunts me.  It’s a little too Apocalpyse Now.

#2 Thoughtful: We say that when people are ready to go, they’re ready to go, but often we’re measuring this by how we, the robust, judge their lives, not by how they look at their own.  We might think that people who are invalid, lying prone in bed, can’t eat solid food, can’t take a shit, shit all over the bathroom, don’t pick up the phone, that they don’t want to live anymore, that we should put them out of their misery.

Maybe they’re right.  But it’s important that what may seem to me, a healthy 23-year-old, that what may seem like something not worth living — that somebody, anybody out there clings to it and makes it whole, and that it’s not my place to decide if their “quality of life” is unacceptably low.

Conversely, it reassures me that most of those who entreat and plead and finally beg for euthanasia truly do want it.  They just want to sleep so badly, despite all the familiarity of our living world that trudges on, day after day, much the same as they have always conceive of it.  If they, like my grandma, are so organized, peaceful, and certain they are done, who are we to deny it?  By not playing God, by refusing to unplug, by refusing to stop shoving medicine down with applesauce, we are, in fact, still playing God.  It is, frankly, selfish to not let someone else leave your party, if you will.  And if your reason for denying peace is a fear of God — well, why are you afraid?  Are you just jealous that someone else is going to get to Him first?

Finally, and not quite relevantly, I do wonder how, exactly, my grandma and dad knew what were going on.  Was it a physical sensation?  A premonition?  Do the angels come down and tell you you’re next in line?  How did they know?  I suppose that, in your last moments, you’re much more concerned with other things (hopefully me) to record what, exactly, is happening for posterity.

I can’t help but think that, by the time my generation comes to it, one of us might be on the late 21st century equivalent of Facebook or Twitter.  (It’ll probably be a woman; after all, 90% of us die single.)  As informative as that pre-death tweet hopefully would be, it also does seem a bit too macabre.


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