My mom never asked me to kill her.
She would, she told me, spare me that. But, she also finished her thought with a reminder that should I find her dead by her own hand, it wasn’t an indictment of anyone, but merely because she wasn’t enjoying her life any more.
Mom, who died from complications of Multiple Sclerosis and meningitis in February 2011, had suffered from Multiple Sclerosis for almost as long as I can remember and she hated it. She hated the fact that she couldn’t chase after her grandchildren, or even lift them out of their cribs.
She walked with a cane and a brace, but really needed a walker there near the end. She had her friends and her house and her sports she loved to watch.
Still, no matter how happy she seemed, she made sure to tell me and my sister, Tia, that she always reserved the right to check out any time the MS got to be too much, took away too much of her enjoyment of life.
Maybe it was because I grew up with that idea hovering in the background, but I’ve always believed that people should be able to choose when to give up the fight. Folks should be able to exit the stage at their own discretion. Of course, I also believe that, in most cases, suicide is a stupidly permanent solution to a temporary problem.
But what if the problem isn’t temporary? What if it will be with you, hamper you, throughout the rest of your life?
That’s the difference, as I see it.
Dr. Stephen Hawking, widely renowned as one of the most intelligent people in the world, recently talked to the media about the importance of being allowed to choose an assistant to help him take his own life. Not just him, Hawking said, but anyone who needs the help should have it and not worry that the helper will be pursued by the law for what they did.
Hawking, who has progressive motor neuron disease and has already lost the ability to move most of his body under his own power and can only speak through a computerized synthesizer, said assisting suicide should be legal, but there must be safeguards put in place to prevent any kind of abuse.
“There must be safeguards that the person concerned genuinely wants to end their life and they are not being pressurized into it or have it done without their knowledge or consent as would have been the case with me.”
Although Hawking at one point was put on a respirator and more severe life support machines, the off switch given to his wife, he has always maintained that, where there is life, there is hope. However, he recognizes that choosing to end a life filled with pain is a very personal decision and one that should only be made by the person in question.
In addition to Hawking, Sir Terry Pratchett, a man I believe to be the greatest writer of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, is a firm believer in the right of a person with a terminal disease to take his or her own life. Pratchett, author of more than 50 books, suffers from an early-onset form of Alzheimer’s disease. He’s one of the most vocal campaigners in Britain for the right to choose when to die.
Pratchett recently released a second documentary chronicling his quest to make the right to die one found in Britain and other countries around the world.
He counts himself lucky, despite his diagnosis.
I have to tell you that I thought I’d be a lot worse than this by now. And so did my specialist. At the moment, it’s the fact that I’m well into my sixties [he is 64] that’s the problem. All the minor things that flesh is heir to. This knee is giving me a bit of gyp. That sort of thing. And I’m well into the time of life when a man knows he has a prostate. By the time you’ve reached your sixties you do know that one day you will die and knowing that is at least the beginning of wisdom.
Still, he says, no matter how well or how poorly he’s doing, he wants to be able to reserve the right to die when he believes it’s time. He will, he said, know when the pain in his life is too much to bear. When life becomes a burden to be endured, rather than a profound joy to experience.
(Pratchett) is dismayed that Tony Nicklinson, the severely disabled man (in England) who fought and last month lost an impassioned campaign to end his life, effectively had to starve himself to death. “I put his picture on the little lectern by my desk because I don’t want this guy forgotten. He was very clear about what he wanted and you cannot tell me that two doctors helping him to go to sleep [as in a Dignitas clinic in Switzerland], would constitute murder. It cannot be murder. The law says it’s murder so the law is most definitely wrong and needs to be changed. This poor guy was a prisoner of technology.”
It’s time, dudes. It’s time for us to find a way to let people like Pratchett, Hawking or my mom exit with dignity and on their own schedule. These are not people who are having a bad day, but rather begging to be allowed to make the ultimate decision as to whether their life is worth living.
My mom never asked me to kill her. But I would have.