Friday, July 20, 2007
At Death's Window
I know this might be a strange post on the back of me remembering my grandfather - then again I am strange. It's my article for the paper tomorrow, as usual blog land will have it first - helps me gauge the temperature...
It started with a sentence that might last a lifetime and has left me too tired for sleeping and too wounded to hurt. I reached page ninety-eight but can’t go on. Page ninety-nine will be a long time coming, and to top it all I am probably on a hiding to nothing writing this.
The day began like any other, with coffee as I boarded the train bound for Gatwick’s South Terminal, thanks to Apple, Louden Wainwright III, was singing into my ears, and I was enjoying the latest offering from one of my favourite writers, Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith by Annie Lamott. That was until I got to Chapter eight.
The chapter begins with a confessional statement. ‘The man I killed did not want to die, but he no longer felt he had much of a choice.’ See, not your normal opening sentence in a book about faith is it? Annie then goes on to tell the story of a couple she calls Mel and Joanne. How a once articulate, strong, fit, comical man had become deficient, still functioning and resilient, but having to retreat to a place his mind and body had never inhabited before - like a wardrobe long empty of someone, gradually losing shape and purpose – had decided to cut short his stay on this earth.
Now, as I write this in an airport terminal, I have no clue as to whether assisted suicide is legal in California, but to cut a short chapter of her book even shorter – it has to be said, that (as Annie in a painfully beautiful way writes) Mel and Joanne agreed to Annie, through, ‘wily, underground ways’ coming up with a prescription that would cover enough pills (which included barbiturates) for a lethal dose - one evening a meal was prepared, goodbyes said and presents given before Mel called time and took a cocktail that put him to sleep, the kind from which he would never wake.
It seems assisted suicide laws around the world are clear in some nations but unclear – if they exist at all – in others. Just because a country has not defined its criminal code on this specific action does not mean all assisters will go free (am assuming Annie thought this through). It is a complicated state of affairs. A great many people instinctively feel that suicide and assisted suicide are such individual acts of freedom and free will that they assume there are no legal prohibitions. This fallacy has brought many people into trouble with the law. In America there have been - and are - retired doctors who will travel to different places to help dying people who are in great suffering to escape from their pain-wracked bodies.
It seems there is a growing opinion in most of the Western world that not having a choice is an abuse of civil rights. In the coming years I think we will find there will be a more welcome climate for law reform in the area of death and dying. The reason? It is fast becoming (for many) our ultimate civil liberty – the right to die in a manner of one’s own choosing.
Yet why is something deep within still feeling very uncomfortable and awkward about this subject? Well, I guess my theological response to it. For all my opinions, which sit left of centre, I can be pretty orthodox on some issues. I still believe that only God can make an end to human life since God alone is its creator. To live as human beings also means having the will to be healthy; to be man and woman as God has created us to be. The biblical witness does not describe any point at which a human life becomes deprived of sanctity because of disease or disability, nor does it suggest that the value of human life depends on an ability to perform behaviors deemed necessary for human relationships.
I recognize that this is an obscure, maybe disjointed piece of work – confused even; but then again I am if I am honest. I mean, what does it mean to be alive but not living? Is there a point where we keep people alive but deny them life? These are big questions to which I am not sure I have conclusive answers. Maybe the job of an artist is not to bring us to a point of conclusion or black and white answers; but rather a point of departure with questions. Maybe they are the invisible signposts and nourishment for the road ahead, maybe. So will I go back to the book? I think I will, Annie has done her job well – I am out of my comfort zone and I want to know where we go on the next part of the journey.
My final thought? Faced with the existence of human suffering, we are called to pattern ourselves after the ministry of Jesus Christ, to heal and to comfort. And that kind of compassion compels us to bring relief to those who suffer, but I think also believe we should pursue, not merely reject, the reasons they may give to justify a wish to die. Doing this we may uncover fears and witness the power of hope itself.