It seems an amazing coincidence that a day or so after the legislation was passed I came upon a very old box of papers that needed sorting. In it, I found this essay. (See below.) It begins with the topic of being kept alive without brain function, but eventually gets to the heart of what many people these days call “death-with-dignity” issues.
It also so happens, that just a few days before the governor signed the legislation, I took my old cat to the vet, to be euthanized.
It was an emotional, heart-wrenching few weeks, as it was with the two other animals I have had euthanized in my life. One cat I had for eighteen years. My dog Sammy, an overgrown lab mix I had from the time he was a nine-week-old puppy until he was fourteen and a half. Old Grey was somewhere around twenty-years-old when he died. On all three occasions, I was immensely grateful for their long lives, and for the care and assistance of the vets at the end of those lives.
Some time before Sammy passed away, I asked his vet how she felt about the fact that people don’t have the right to make the same choice at the end of life for ourselves, as we make for our animals. She and I had seen a lot of one another over Sammy’s lifetime, this doctor and I, because of Sammy’s severe epilepsy. I respected her enormously, and still do. I will never forget her answer, which she offered not only for her self, but for her profession.
She said that she didn’t know any vet, whatever their religious beliefs might be, who did not believe that humans should have the same right to a humane death an animal has. Not one.
Roots of the word “euthanasia.”
There is a lot of language around this issue, and you’ll see that my essay includes some questionable word choice. One common translation of euthanasia, as “mercy killing”, is certainly incorrect. Or at least it’s not a literal translation, because mercy killing refers to the person administering the medication and their intentions. But the Greek prefix “Eu” means well, or good. Euthanasia means, simply, a good death.
Old Grey’s behavior changed in the last weeks of his life. He wanted to be outside all the time. And once outside, he would wander in different directions than his previous patterns, to the point where I didn’t let him out on his own any more, afraid he would wander into the street, or just wander off. In the house, he kept finding new and strange places to hunker down. Various closets. Behind a hole in the paneling under the sink. Every time I came home, I had to play “find the cat.” Once, I came home and found most of my china shattered across the kitchen floor. Old Grey had climbed up onto the counter, and into the back of the cupboard, moving aside the heavy buffalo china in the process. He couldn’t have made it any clearer: he was looking for a way out.
Looking back at the final photos of Old Grey, I am shocked by his condition, and realize how much denial was still swimming around in me, even though I was doing my very best to face the fact that he was dying. Now that he’s been gone more than a week, when I come home, I still open the door just a crack and angle my foot there, as if to prevent a kitty escape. I forget he’s gone a dozen times a day.
I think this kind of denial is one reason the legal battles around this legislation have taken as long as they have. We’re all in denial about death, most of the time. That’s the way we’re wired.
From that place of denial, part of us thinks that the conversation about end of life issues is actually a conversation about whether or not we’re going to die. That part of us believes that if we support this legislation, we’re saying we’re going to die, and if we don’t support this legislation, then we’re not going to die.
Do we really believe that, intellectually? No. But somehow the whole issue triggers something in us, as if it’s a big flashing sign that reads: DYING! And then evolution goes to work. We check what we think is the other box: NOT DYING!
Fortunately, there are people among us brave enough to have realized that is not the choice we are confronting. Some of those people, my friend Katharine among them, paid the emotional price of watching a loved one suffer and then took the time to fight this legislative battle on all our behalves. We owe them an enormous debt, as we do to those who will continue the fight in the 45 states in the U.S. that have not fully approved such legislations.
I remember writing this essay when I was thirteen or fourteen. I am including it here in the original form even though it may be a bit difficult to make out in this picture. Something about the girlish handwriting seems to me indivisible from the teenage mind that created it. It reminds me how small we all are in the face of this issue.
And despite outdated word choice, and a touch of grandiosity that makes me cringe, I stand by it.
Author’s note: the teacher’s comments at the end about "wordiness" are, unfortunately, still quite fair and common critiques of my writing style:)
In case the teacher’s remarks at the end are not legible, they read as follows: “some wordiness. Sometimes idea gets hazy from perhaps too many words-but essay is good.”
I can’t take this adolescent essay at face value entirely. At that age, when we thought something was really funny, my friends and I used to say dramatically, “that kills me!” That’s how little we knew of death. We could make a joke of it.
But there is one thing I like about the essay. It’s the willingness to admit that I don’t really know how I would feel until I’m in that situation. Looking at it that way, it becomes self-evident that we should leave the choice to the person in that situation, or, if they are unable, to the person who knows them best.
I’m not making an argument. The argument makes itself. I think those who have the experience, like hospice workers, or the vet, or my friend Katharine, they already know the sense of this. All we can do is take their wisdom to heart. Or we can absorb the lessons of death that all our loved ones, animals or otherwise, bring us so generously at the end of their lives. Or we can wait and see for ourselves.
Or all of the above.
But I like that part of the essay, the way it hovers over the issue, my young mind trying to decide, but then admitting that I don’t really have the answers. As an older person, it’s a habit I’ve gotten out of, saying, “I don’t know.”
I don't know...
I’m making a mental note to myself to admit that more often, that I just don't know. Especially when it comes to second-guessing other people’s choices, both big and small.