On its website, Zoe Carter Fitzgerald’s memoir, Imperfect Endings, is billed as “the uplifting story of a woman determined to die on her own terms and the family who has to learn to let her go. “She may need to fire her blurb writer, because her thoughts on the subject of assisted suicide seem to be much subtler than that. Reflecting on Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s own natural death, she writes that natural death may, on average, be no messier or more irksome than the customized kind:
The idea that ending your life is going to be easier and more straightforward than letting nature take its course is something of a happy illusion. Having witnessed both my parents dying in very different ways, I know that even the best laid plans for death can go awry. It reminds me of the “birth plan” I drafted when I was pregnant. Somehow, between planning the perfect play list and specifying that I didn’t want an episiotomy, I forgot to factor in throwing up, forgetting to breathe, and the uncontrollable urge to yell obscenities at the nurse. So much for my beautiful birthing experience.
It may be a cliche, but there really are some things we can’t control and even for strong-minded people like my mother, who was determined to plot the details of her “end,” you simply cannot know how you will feel when the day comes. In fact, my mother set and changed her “death dates” several times, discovering on the chosen day that she wasn’t quite ready to go after all.
In Bill Moyers’ PBS special on assisted suicide a few years ago (“On Our Own Terms: Moyers on Dying”), not one of the people Moyers followed actually ended up killing themselves. There was always one more event they wanted to stay alive for: a birthday, or a grandchild’s graduation. Every one of his subjects waited until it was too late and no longer had the physical capability to manage it. All, except for one woman who died from natural causes before she had a chance to take the pills she’d stockpiled. Pulling the plug turns out to not always be so easy.
Adding to the vagaries of the psyche is the unpredictability of the body. Unless you live in one of the three states where physician assisted suicide is legal (Oregon, Washington and Montana) and have access to a group like Compassion & Choices who will help make sure you are taking the right dose of drugs, chances are you will not know how to calibrate the means of death. In my mother’s case, stopping eating and drinking took far longer than she’d expected, and an attempted morphine overdose failed. Although she did ultimately manage to end her life, it was not the controlled, predictable event she’d hoped for.
No disrespect to Fitzgerald, who sounds like a very thoughtful person, but Dorothy Parker put it better:
Guns aren’t lawful,
Gas smells awful,
You might as well live.
But really, I can’t get in the pulpit on this one. I know what the Catholic Church teaches about suicide and euthanasia, but since I’ve never borne the burden of following those teachings, I haven’t earned the right to talk. I do know that some very strong-willed people who were also very good Catholics — William F. Buckley, Jr. and St. Therese, to name two — were sorely tempted to hasten their march to the exit. If someone suffering enormous pain or leading a very low-quality life tells me he wants to die, I hope I’ll have something better to tell him than “Oh, buck up, old chap!”
From time to time, I’ve seen people watch the afflicted and dying with a frankly voyeuristic interest. In one way, this makes perfect sense. Dying people, severely handicapped people are like Himalayan mountaineers or big-wave surfers — living on the wildest frontier of human existence. People want to know what it’s like. Everyone’s got to go sometime; why shouldn’t people look for role models?
But I’ve seen this curiosity take on such a life of its own that the spectators begin to imagine that the show is taking place precisely for their benefit. Back when Terry Schiavo was in the news, one woman I knew, a devout Christian, said something like, “I think God wants Terry to live so she can teach us all something.” Since no one can pretend to know God’s will, I took her to mean that she wanted Terry alive so she could learn something. I felt like saying, “Who are you to Terry Schiavo, lady? She must owe you one hell of a favor if you expect her to remain in that state indefinitely just for your sake.”
But perhaps I was a little hard on my friend. Death is a lonely experience — often, in the case of the elderly, because there’s literally nobody around. Whatever else can be said for ghouls, they make great companions for the dying. A woman I know has a habit of savoring every bad thing that happens to anyone. She’s had a hard, disappointing life; therefore, so should you. Tell her good news and her face takes on a look of “Curses! Foiled again!” Tell her your troubles, she’ll be your bestest friend. This is particularly true if the troubles happen to be ones she predicted herself — that way, she gets to say she told you so.
If you really want to get on her good side, become deathly ill. She’ll fly to your bedside and, if you let her, manage your life. In fairness, when it comes to disease and mortality, she’s more than just a common busybody. She is, in fact an RN, specializing in end-of-life care, proof that she was able to figure out the color of her parachute to the shade. She also serves as an emergency Eucharistic minister, bringing the Blessed Sacrament to deathbeds when no priest is available, and claims credit for several eleventh-hour reconciliations. Who am I to doubt her?
Probably her most reckless act of foul-weather befriending involved the parish hoarder, a sad, haunted creature, who made a habit of turning up wherever free food was served. When prostate cancer put him in the hospital, she organized fellow parishioners into work gangs and succeeded in clearing the man’s house of 30 years’ worth of clutter. She also schmoozed skilled tradesmen into fixing one of the toilets and — I believe — one of the air conditioner. When I showed up to fulfill my corvee obligation, I found her standing by the washing machine, folding bell-bottoms and first-generation Izod shirts for delivery to the St. Vincent de Paul Society. She looked happier than I’d ever seen her.
I’m too new to the Church to really know, but something tells me she belongs to a common and recognizable type. If so, good on the Church, for providing death junkies with a venue. I’m not sure how many could hack it as freelancers.