Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Judge's suicide strikes chord

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IT'S the issue that refuses to die.
Assisted suicide.
Rarely, if ever, have I read such impassioned and well-articulate writings from you, the readers, as I did this week, after the second column on the suicide of Justice Myrna Bowman.

The letters came from those who believe in assisted suicide and/or euthanasia, and those who believe you never say die.

But it is the one that arrived last, and the one I'll save for last, that made me weep. And made me understand just how profoundly complicated -- and sad -- choosing to die, before death chooses you, can be.

Before I share that letter, there are other perspectives.

Even some that don't agree with my view on death with dignity -- that we should all have a legal right to chose.

Ruth Enns has an informed view.

She is the author of a book on the subject, A Voice Unheard (Fernwood Books, 1999).

"Myrna Bowman committed suicide because she feared disability more than death," Enns wrote. "In your first article you quoted one of her daughters saying, 'It was... about being debilitated and not wanting to live that way.' " You say Judge Bowman feared loss of "control", a lingering death, falling.

"All of these are part of some disabling conditions. Clearly, to her and her supporters disability is an indignity. Yet most people with those conditions come to regard life with disability, not as undignified, but rather full, rich and satisfying. Why were their views not part of your articles? They are the ones most likely to be coerced or even forced into a 'death with dignity'."

We can all philosophize, of course, and judge from afar.

But it's harder for those who are going through a lingering death, their loved ones, and, of course, health-care workers who watch both.

A nurse -- she asked to remain anonymous -- who looks after patients at a Winnipeg personal care home, wrote this:

"Health-care workers are faced with difficult tasks of 'caring' for people every day and dealing with their distraught families. It is so difficult to see a loved one when disease process has made them a shell of their former self. I often ask myself -- am I enhancing life or prolonging death? The health-care system tells itself that it's the former but, in our hearts, we know the truth is the latter."

Arlene May offered this counter, a seldom heard perspective. She came by it as a teenager, when she was part of her grandmother's courageous three-year struggle with ALS.

"During that time I learned more about my grandmother, about character, about perseverance, and about how to show love to someone than I have at any other point in my life.

"Never, at any time, would it have occurred to me that my grandmother was undignified... There was blessing upon blessing during those three years and I'm so glad she chose to share them with me.

"Perhaps the indignity of dying is not in the dying itself but in how a society looks at and treats those who are physically incapable of taking care of themselves. Maybe it's about priorities set in a culture obsessed with youth and body perfection and the pressure it puts on those who don't want to be someone else's burden. I'm so grateful my wonderful grandmother became our burden. In dying she left as strong a legacy as she did in living."

Then there was Tim Myers' saucy response to my arguing the case for the right to choose.

"The next thing you know you're going to be advocating that we all have complete control over our lives. Perhaps your column should be moved to the Church Page, along with all the other dreamers."

Ben Neufeld, a Minneapolis resident and former Winnipegger, saw it differently.

"I think you put it best when you wrote that, 'I believe our life is a series of choices that God has little to do with.'

"I believe that my purpose in life isn't merely to NOT DIE, it is to continue GROWING, physically, mentally, and spiritually, until the day that my physical body finally passes from this earth. LIFE isn't about prolonging DEATH, it is really about cultivating LIFE.

"Would you like to live your life like a lit candle, whose flame burns stronger and brighter until it finally goes out, or do you want your flame to grow weaker and dimmer until it just can't sustain itself any longer?

"In the final analysis, the choice is left to each and every one of us.

"Myrna Bowman made her choice.

"What will you choose?"

And then I opened this letter.

It wasn't marked "personal," but it was very personal.

"Dear Gordon,

"Long ago we were neighbours and I have followed your work with interest.

"I am not leaving my name, as I do not want any publicity. However, I do want to let you know that I am completely in accord with your comments in Saturday's paper concerning our right to die.

"I have always felt this way and as I reach my declining years and see my family being kept alive, I am firmly convinced as to my passing.

"I have lived a long life, some good, some bad, and as we go slowly down the road, our health fails, and we are limited to what we can do.

"My mind is sharp and clear, but my body is worn out and so I am planning on leaving this world on my own.

"I had a wonderful husband for 53 years and it is time for me to go.

"I have two sons and four grandsons and I love them all. However, they are all scattered, and before I either have a stroke, or develop a new disease, I am ready to go.

"I wish you well...

"Instead of my name, I'll give you the Irish Blessing from an old Irish lady.

May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
the rain fall softly on your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

In hope, I glanced at the envelope I had torn open without even noticing the stamp.

There was, of course, no return address.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 24, 2004 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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