In a recent article in The New Yorker, Rachel Aviv depicts how Belgium has “embraced euthanasia as a humanist issue.” Not only the terminally ill, or even those in intense pain, but also those suffering from depression may receive “The Death Treatment” and be treated to a “dignified death” through a fatal chemical cocktail. How did we “progress” as a society to the point where our major magazines seriously question when (not whether, but when) people, including those who might live for decades, should be “helped to die?” As I pondered this question, my mind kept piecing together anecdotes from the lives of people I know and where they seem to lead. Here is the story I think they tell:
As he lay in his bed, his mind wandered, returning again and again to the events of his youth. He had fought for justice, he knew. There had been civil rights marches which he supported, without actually joining, and also anti-war demonstrations, which he had actually joined, along with his girlfriend at the time. What was her name again? He forgot, but she had been terrific. Very sweet and very attractive. There had been some issues because she had gotten pregnant, but he had helped pay for the abortion, and they had stopped seeing one another soon after.
His first wife? Now she was something completely different. Too needy, too much a drain on his time and energy. There had been kids, and she had wanted to stay home with them. He had let her, of course. Given all the sex discrimination at the time she could not have brought home that much money in any event. Besides, he had met wife number two and marriage number one had quickly deteriorated. Wife number two was much more independent. She had her own career, her commitment to social justice, and a strong will of her own. Things had been fine for some years. They shared everything: passions, interests, even chores. He had been a good husband, too, doing his part around the house, helping take their daughter to daycare and various activities. But sometimes things just do not work out. Still, even after his wife divorced him, he had remained a part of his daughter’s life, with regular visits when he was in town and on most holidays. He never had understood why she said she resented him. He helped with child support and even some college expenses. He supported her in all her decisions, even when she decided to keep the baby after her boyfriend left her. Then again, you simply cannot please everyone.
But he had had a good life. He made quite a pile of money in the stock market, and even started a small business that he sold at a big profit. He could not, at the moment, remember what they made, exactly. But the venture capital guys had made back the money they loaned him and the corporation that bought him out at least broke even by taking over the licensing agreements, even if they did shut down the plant and fire the workers.
There had been mountain climbing, mountain biking, skiing, all the things that kept life interesting, as well as some beautiful girls along the way. And he always had tried to do the right thing. He had supported Greenpeace from the beginning, given money to Planned Parenthood, hired gays and minorities whenever he could, started a recycling program at the office as soon as he had heard about how important it was, and boycotted racists, homophobes, and other bad guys on a regular basis.
He had thought that early retirement would bring him everything he had wanted. And it had given him a lot more time for skiing and hiking, including in some pretty exotic places. China had been the best, though he had enjoyed the climb in the Andes, too. Too bad his money had not gone quite as far as he thought it would. Then again, who wants to die rich? Better to enjoy life while you have it to live.
His problems had not really started until he got sick, and then sick again. Chemo is not just painful, it also is expensive. Then there was the relapse. And then his memory started to go. Sure, he had terrific insurance, he had made certain of that. But he started slipping, both in his mind and literally, falling one too many times. His daughter told him he needed full time help, which was odd because she had not been around all that often to help out. But she probably was right. Then he had signed that power of attorney allowing her to sign him into this place.
The boredom, the sheer boredom of a building full of old people! There were books, of course, but he really was not interested in books any longer. He knew what he thought, and was tired of literary make believe. The old folks were kind of nasty, and not good at conversation. Playing Yahtzee had never been his idea of a good time, let alone if it meant talking to morons who knew nothing about how the world works. So that left him with the television. Whatever happened to real stories on television, anyhow? There used to be a plot line: the system crushes people, a rebel decides not to take it anymore, then there is a fight to make things better. Progress, you know? Now it was all “reality.” Cooking contests, singing contests, dancing contests. Who cared? He could have done better than any of them, back in the day. And none of it mattered. Nobody was changing the world with cooking or dancing.
And now the money was running out. Not completely, of course. But his daughter had told him that it was getting close, whatever that meant. At 83, she told him, he already had had a good life. Now he was unhappy and really just waiting around to die. Sometimes his daughter would visit. His kids from his first marriage had come around a couple of times, but he really had nothing to say to them, and let them know it. One was some kind of religious nut, and the other was just so boring, some stay at home mom married to a Republican! No, there really was not much left for him.
Then there had been the visits from the counsellor. Not some preachy chaplain, thank goodness, but a really good guy, a humanist who had talked to him about dignity and his right to live and die as he deemed fit. He liked that. He might not be of any use to anybody any longer. His daughter certainly did not seem to want him around anymore. But he still could take charge of his life. He still could leave by his own rules, on his own terms, telling the world it did not own him, could not lock him away and forget about him forever. He could take charge. He would take charge.
“I’m ready to die. Go ahead and do it.”
The good doctor smiled and put the machinery in motion. The poisons were administered, useful organs were harvested and the remainder burned.
The daughter used the leftover money to buy a boat.
Welcome to Human Dignity in the Secular Age.
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