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Such sweet sorrow

The right-to-die debate arouses conflicted emotions

Heidi de Marco / Kaiser Health News</p><p>At times, questions surrounding the right to die may be more difficult to confront in the heart than the court. </p>

Heidi de Marco / Kaiser Health News

At times, questions surrounding the right to die may be more difficult to confront in the heart than the court.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/3/2016 (1650 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.


An open letter to a fellow traveller, on the eve of your departure:

Maybe it’s strange, but one of the first things I wondered about you was whether you are an avid reader.

Perhaps it’s because I am one myself, or at least I used to be. When I was a little girl I soaked up every bit of prose that fell in front of me, sneaking a flashlight under blankets to keep reading after my parents declared it time to sleep. Sometimes, I’d wake up in the morning with a book lying splayed across my face.

Early in my reading life, I developed an odd habit, one that has followed me to this day: I begin every book by flipping straight to the last page.

It seems anticlimactic, right? Yet that is how I did and do it, opening every story by finding out what happens at the end. A thousand times, I’ve watched characters I don’t know say goodbye or make amends, despite lacking all the necessary information to glean the weight or meaning of what I’d just read.  

This could be the same instinct that made me a non-fiction writer, where we often start in the present and work backwards. It goes deeper, though. When you know what happens at the end of a story, you are in control. All that’s left is to admire how the pieces fit; you already know what the picture looks like.

Which brings me back to you, and trying to understand your story only from a few scattered pages of its final chapter.

By your request and the support of the court, the media have kept you veiled. Your true shape will be for those you love, and who loved you, to remember. Do you have brown eyes? Do you have laugh lines around your mouth, or freckles? We don’t know. We don’t know your name, your age or your gender.

We also don’t know what is killing you. All we know is that two diseases have made your life unbearable, and led you to seek the first physician-assisted death in Manitoba. In a statement, you said you were not depressed, but that the suffering wrought by this terminal condition was "intolerable." I believe you.

As I write this, though, I realize I picture you as a woman, of my diminutive height but older. It isn’t you. It’s me, inserted into your picture. It is like looking into a foggy mirror and seeing what it reflects, the pain and the pills and the hospital beds. The point where body and mind sit in agreement, and begin to whisper. 

"That’s enough now. That’s enough."

This is the part that we often don’t mention, when the right to die is debated. On some level, aren’t we all thinking: "What if it were me?"

Or, even more uncomfortably, more unsettling to the glass palaces of immunity that we build up: "When will it be me?"

Being the first isn’t easy, and I respect your decision to shield your name and, in so doing, shield your family. The media exist to preserve our stories, but — and I say this as someone who plays a part — they also consume. Media swallow up the details of people and turn them into fuel for our perpetual-motion machine.

That machine is not without a purpose. It chugs on, night and day, stamping out a framework for what this whole human life thing means. If it means anything. 

Meanwhile, the debate over the right to die is still raging. The ethics of it demand careful untangling. Legally, we are closer to untying those knots than ever before, with new federal legislation coming this year to allow and safeguard doctor-assisted dying.

Still, these are questions that may be more difficult to confront in the heart than the court. At this stage, decades into the public debate over the right to die, the positions and angles have been exhaustively examined. They draw on medical ethics, public safety and compassion. For some, they draw on faith.

For a time, looking at this page, I thought I might make an argument on those grounds again. But it feels as if it’s all been said, and usually circles gently around the heart of the question, which is not necessarily one of legalities or ethics, but more about the squeeze in the chest that happens when it’s debated.

Which is to say: we are also afraid. Not of you, or of the others who have petitioned the court to end their lives this way. It’s that we are afraid to look in that mirror and wonder what it would take. What would it take for each of us to reach the point where life itself is no longer justification enough to suffer on?

Somewhere along the line, like an explorer forging ahead of us in a perilous climb, you found your answer. Maybe for someone else it would be different. But what can we really call our own besides the bodies we inhabit? And who else knows better than each of us when those bodies have taken us as far as they can?

What I do not know about you is everything, except for one thing. This was your life, and a historic court case became a page in your closing chapter.

I’m happy for you that you won and can complete your own picture. Maybe you are finding peace in this moment. Maybe you’re already gone.

Whichever it may be, go gently. Rest on. 

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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