by Akim Reinhardt
I sat on a friend's living room couch, waiting for her to emerge from her bedroom contraptions.
I had arrived at the time and date requested. However, my initial visit to her room had been cut short amid the beeps and whirring of machinery. After some brief exchanges, she began to raise herself and then asked me to summon her aide.
“Please get Dr. Reinhardt some tea while he waits for me.”
During the whole of the visit, that was the one time her eyes sparkled and she was fierce and energetic, full of bearing and dignity. That she was truly herself.
I went to the kitchen with the aide. She had already poured me some iced tea when I'd first arrived. I retrieved the glass and said, “I think she wants you to go back in and help her come out.” The aide smiled and returned to the bedroom laboratory. I found a seat on the living room couch and took small sips while she helped my friend get herself together.
It took a few minutes. Terminal lung cancer patients move slowly. When she finally came out, it was with the help of the aide and a multi-pronged cane. Trailing behind her was a machine that facilitated breathing; she was tethered to it by a clear plastic tube attached to her nose with fasteners looped around her ears. She sat down gingerly and was engulfed by a wing back chair.
As we talked, we knew it would be the last time. Adults don't have to explain these things to each other. She gave me a colorful pouch with a drawstring. It contained a small gift of remembrance for a mutual friend who was out of town: polished stone jewelry from Afghanistan. The pouch itself, made in Oman, was for me. I asked if there was anything I could do for her.
“Take me to Oregon,” she responded.
I was puzzled. So far as I knew, she didn't have any family or friends in the Pacific Northwest. Indeed, I doubted that she'd ever even been there. She was originally from Ohio, started her family and got her doctorate there. She had lived in Maryland for decades, and had conducted her research in sub-Saharan Africa. I looked at her quizzically. “Oregon?”
“They have that law there.”
It took a moment, then I understood. Physician assisted suicide. She nodded, wheezing and in pain.
We talked a little more. Rather, I talked; she could only whisper. Each breath was short and labored. She struggled to maintain consciousness amid the morphine drip
After about ten minutes, she dozed off in her chair. I didn't wake her for some time. Instead I sat there, choking down frogs in my throat, contemplating her life, her words, and our friendship. She had authored or edited about a dozen books, her most recent effort being published just this past August, when she was already sick but still misdiagnosed. When the correct diagnosis arrived it was already Stage 4. She declined treatment. With time running out, a colleague had helped her find someone to help organize her vast research materials so they could be donated to an archive.
She loved her work. She loved her sons. She loved her dogs. She loved her friends. She was fiercely loyal and expected the same loyalty in return. She could be brutal. She could be the most gracious host you ever met. She was unimaginably spry for a late septuagenarian. She smiled like a kitten and roared like a lioness, her crystal blue eyes sparkling all the while.
And now she simply wanted to die.
After twenty or thirty minutes, I gently touched her arm to rouse her. She lifted her head and, ever the gracious host, apologized for having slept. I told her she had absolutely nothing to apologize for.
We all have things to apologize for. But deathbeds are for warmth and celebration; any apologies should be merely implied.
She was only half-awake. It was hard for her to keep her head up. I told her I loved her, gave her a hug. I thanked the aide and I left. Before going home, I sat in my car and cried.
American culture can be exceptionally childish in a number of ways. Probably the clearest expression is its notorious fetishization of youth. And it is not youth-on-the-trajectory of growth, absorbing lessons in wisdom and maturation, that is relentlessly celebrated. It is the dumb, drunken frat boy; the vapid sex pot; the tantrum-throwing man child; the walking soap opera itching for a cat fight; the 45 year old who behaves like a stunted version of a 22 year old.
American popular culture is a wasteland of prolonged adolescence.
There are other, more disturbing displays of immaturity as well. We can see them in a variety of social policies.
I want to play with my guns and you can't stop me!
Poor people are lazy and don't deserve our help!
Poor people are culturally compromised and need to become like us!
People who use drugs should be put in cages!
Every sperm is sacred!
However, as I sat there, quietly watching the warbles of my friend's morphine haze, and having listened to her say she was more than ready to die after some eight decades on this planet, in that moment, the most childish thing of all seemed to be the prohibition on assisted suicide.
I realize that suicide is a very difficult and painful issue for many people, and that its impact can be profound and far reaching. I understand that some people see suicide as the ultimate act of cowardice and selfishness. And I have no interest in actually promoting suicide, or extending it as some kind of “right” to teenagers, the mentally incapacitated, or prisoners, ie., people who society reasons should be denied the full rights and privileges of citizenship.
But to say that someone who is in full control of their mental faculties cannot end his or her own life?
By what right do you lay claim over someone else's body? Some stranger's body. This is the mentality of the murderer, the rapist, the slave owner.
And to tell someone in the final stages of terminal illness and suffering mightily that they are not allowed to leave us? This is the mentality of a true believer who wreaks savagery upon the world, a Hilter or a bin-Laden, a coward hiding behind dogma, a bully who talks to God.
This is a brand of childishness that I will no longer abide. You may be a good person otherwise, but you are doing an unfathomably horrible thing. And you deserve to suffer as much as the terminally ill person whose suffering you prolong.
Torture is an unreliable form of extracting information because the torture victim is suffering so much that they will often say anything to end the misery. They will gladly tell you what you want to hear if you just make it stop.
They would rather die than endure this any longer.
And so I say, the person who wants to deny the right of assisted suicide to people in full control of their mental faculties and suffering terminal illness and/or chronic pain, those people should be tortured until they relent. They should have slivers put up their nails, have their genitalia mutilated, and be repeatedly shocked, water boarded, and burned until they see the light.
Until they grow up.
No, I do not believe opponents of assisted suicide should literally be tortured. I was speaking metaphorically. It's something adults do from time to time. For while grown ups accept that this world will never, ever be “fair,” they do occasionally find temporary solace in dreams of poetic justice.
And when we awake, we wipe the sand from our eyes, we go to work, and we do what we can to make it better, knowing that perfection is the stuff of childish dreams.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com