A few years back my Nana died. She’d had a stroke, but that wasn’t what killed her.
Nearing 100 and faced with the prospect of years filled with potentially useless rehabilitation she decided to surrender the flag, to pack it in, to close up shop. She decided to die.
She explained her reasoning to me as such: “I’ve seen the world, love. Now it’s time for me to see something else.”
Of course getting from life to death was no easy task for her. The woman, who loved food more than anyone I know, had no choice but to starve herself to death. Why? Because we still don’t believe that voluntary euthanasia has a place in our society.
Compare her case with another relative of mine who didn’t hop a ship to Australia back in the 60s. She still lived in Holland, so when her doctors told her that the cancer was terminal, that there was no coming back, she opted to forego treatment and die instead. In the Netherlands, voluntary euthanasia is legal in many circumstances. Thanks to these laws, that lady went out with a bit of grace, after a few weeks of hearty farewells and last-minute indulgences. She died pain-free, surrounded by all of her family and close friends who had made themselves available for her departure.
Out of a population of almost 17 million people, around 5,500 chose to end their lives in Holland in 2015. These were people who believed their existence was an impossible experience of suffering, and while some cases were clear cut others were more controversial. One was a very young man who was a paraplegic, who had well adjusted to his life until he started to go blind. Another was a middle-aged woman with tinnitus so bad she spent her days locked up in a room weeping. Did they have more years to live? Yes of course. But while I can certainly see why life is valuable, there’s more to life than the number of years that you live.
However, in our society death is the final door, to be avoided at all costs. We keep bodies alive on machines even when souls have fled. We resuscitate and renew and replace until there are no more options. Like a child clinging to their favourite toy, we just hate to let go. Haven’t we realised yet that life is all about letting go? Are we still not aware that none of this lasts forever?
Many years ago I knew a girl. She was a wonderful thing, always smiling and constantly expanding her inquisitive mind. Days would be spent harassing her older brothers and making her chubby little sister laugh as they splashed together in the pool.
Then she got cancer.
She wasn’t very old then, and she didn’t live to be as old as she should have. But the doctors tore at her, filled her with drugs, and cut her to pieces. Then, when it became obvious that there was no solution, all they could do was step back and let the disease take it all. It took away that smile and that curious mind. It stripped her of her energy, made her tired and sad. Her friends couldn’t bear to be around her. She felt abandoned, and alone.
Eventually death did come knocking, much earlier than it should have, but still not nearly early enough. She had suffered, she was in pain, and for what?
All because there was no law to protect the quality of her life, only the quantity of it.
I understand that it’s controversial to allow a 12-year-old girl to choose death over life, but is it more controversial than allowing her to suffer it out to the end, to lose the things that made her who she was? By the end, she just barely existed, caught halfway between yesterday and tomorrow. Even her little sister, then a precocious five-year-old, couldn’t rouse the girl who used to make her laugh so much.
And I should know, because that little sister was me.
So yes, I’ve seen it at both ends of the spectrum. I’ve seen the young and the old realise that death can be both the relief, and the next great adventure. I’ve seen people around them wish for it, fervently to release them from the prison of their broken bodies. And I’ve seen the whole thing drag out into misery and despair and I’m here to tell you one thing:
Life isn’t just about quantity, it’s about quality too.
I hope that one day, hopefully in the very distant future, when my body is broken beyond repair, that I’ll be able to choose my own ticket out of here. Because I can tell you I’d rather go in a comfy armchair listening to some great tunes, surrounded by my family and with a smile on my face, than in a hospital bed in a morphine nightmare, riddled with pain and not knowing what it’s all for.