If Euthanasia Was An Option

I don’t know how old Roger was. He looked old, all worn out like a pair of overalls with the knees showing through. He rattled around inside the Masonic Lodge as it’s caretaker, occupying a small room upstairs that smelled of cigars. He had a big ring of keys that hung from his belt loop. He spent hours sitting by the front door of the Lodge… a withered gargoyle. I would do my best to greet him with a smile and a cheery “Good morning!” He often did not answer. Sometimes he grunted.

Roger took his own life in his small upstairs room this morning. He was done with living.

I felt sad when I heard the news… sad for my friend who had been the one to find him, and the only one who ever went out of his way to care for Roger. He would take him to the hospital for his many doctors’ appointments. He would check in on him. He would take care of his cat. That is what Roger said today, when he called my friend at 7am. “Please take care of my cat.” No indication that anything was amiss. He claimed he was just at the hospital again. Then he hung up the phone, adjusted the noose and kicked out the chair.

I feel for this man I hardly knew, someone I found difficult to genuinely like. He was gruff, downright rude. Not pretty to look at. Smelled of smoke and loneliness. He frowned at my attempts at kindness. And yet, here he was… old, alone, in pain. The last couple of weeks I would see him sitting outside the door with a bag of urine that hung down next to him, a cord snaking up under his pants. Worn out eyes behind glasses. Frowning. Who wouldn’t frown? Who wouldn’t feel the utter yuck of being at the end of one’s life, no family or friends, watching your body deteriorate and knowing it will never be good again? That you will never be young or in love or healthy or free or able? Who wouldn’t want to be done with it all?

I’ve always been a big fan of euthanasia as an exit option for one who is terminal and has the ability and soundness of mind to pull the plug him or herself. I remember when I was back in high school and Dr. Kevorkian was going to prison for helping a terminally ill grandmother end her life. “That’s wrong,” I thought. “This man is a compassionate, caring soul. He is not a murderer. He should be honored for giving this woman dignity and peace in passing. Not put behind bars.” If you have no quality of life and no hope of ever returning to life… if you’re in terrible pain, besieged with illness, watching your body and mind rot, you should be allowed to go- peacefully, easily, with dignity. Our medical technology is so darn good at keeping people alive at all costs. Quantity of life rules supreme, whether or not there is any quality remaining. Some of us stay alive far longer than nature intended. I’m all for heroic interventions that result in prolonging a life when the one living it wants it to continue. But if life worth living is over, there can be another way. We have not yet evolved enough as a society to allow for this form of compassionate exit. We do it for our pets all the time. And yet, granting humans the right to choose this action for themselves has met overwhelming resistance.

It doesn’t have to be that way. What a relief it would be to be able to say with confidence and clarity, “Hey all, it’s been good, but I’m done. Let’s have a goodbye party, pass the pipe, say some nice words and I’ll be on my way.” What a decent option for a road that will only get darker and more tragic, a road that has no hope but only more intense levels of pain and despair. I wish that Roger had been able to choose a clean and dignified exit plan. How much greater peace and freedom if we knew that we could gather friends and family together and say our goodbyes, rather than waiting for even worse days to come before we can finally die. Or, if you have neither friends nor family, to at least quietly smoke your last cigar and wash down the pills your doctor prescribed and go quickly. People could think you just went in your sleep. No one would have to know…or be the one to untangle the rope from your neck and lower your body to the floor.

When I am all done (hopefully many healthy decades from now), I hope that our country has advanced enough in the area of personal choice and health care rights that I can choose to do it my way, if necessary. Of course, no one wants to end in excruciating pain, a terminal diagnosis, a deteriorating body and mind. But, let’s face it. We all go somehow. There is no way out of dying except death. But should I find myself facing a dark hopeless road with no possible chance of regaining health, I would be grateful for the peace of knowing that I could gather all my loved ones close to me. I could tell each person how dearly I loved them. I could hug and kiss and laugh and cry and say, “thank you.” I could enjoy all the beautiful flowers that would show up at my funeral- Heck, I could even pick them out myself! And there would be no mystery of “when” or how bad it would get before I could die. There would be no horror of a loved one finding me hanging from a rope or floating in a bathtub. It would be clear, understood, with dignity. I am not saying death is ever easy. But I do believe that we should have choices when our bodies and minds are shot and there is no hope of a U-Turn back to health. Hats off to those who prefer to fight to the bitter end, partaking of every possible medical intervention available to prolong living as long as possible. There is no judgement here, if that’s the way you want to roll. I just want an alternative for the less heroic among us, who want an option other than a rope when there is no more living left to be done.

May you be in peace tonight, Roger. And I wish there had been another way for you.