Illustration for article titled Downer Alert: Letting Grandpa Die, And Other Stories

I remember once overhearing the following when my mom was on the phone with her aging father: "Well, has mom agreed to this?" "That's not a suicide pact, Dad. It's a murder-suicide." Not to get all 'Lives' on everyone, but a piece in today's "Science Times" made me think of me, me, me! Or, at any rate, my family.It's the account of a woman who's promised her mother in vague terms that she'll "help her out" should she ever fall ill, knowing full well what this means to a woman who's a member of the Hemlock Society. And it brings up those cases which are less black and white, even for those who find the issue a straightforward one: when the politics of "assisted suicide" don't have a whole lot to do with the misanthrope in question. Take my grandpa! I've mentioned Grandpa Moe before, a known eccentric who hoarded clocks by the thousands, buried gold bars under the house and kept a deep-freeze full of beef sides in preparation for a vague apocalyptic happening known as "The Bad Times." To call him a pessimist is an understatement: he believed every year was his last, that he'd never live to see a grandchild, that ill-health and dementia were stalking him. He was also a eugenicist (he thought "stupid people" should be fixed), and so wildly "pro-choice" (not that I think anyone of that movement would have been particularly eager to claim him) that he regularly scandalized local pro-life protesters with his arguments for mandatory abortions based on IQ. Needless to say, he had no moral qualms about the issue of euthanasia. When I was pretty young, he took me aside, much as the mother in the Times article does, and asked me to shoot him if he ever "lost it." In the article, the dutiful daughter agrees. In the end, she is spared a terrible choice when her mother has a swift natural death. In my grandfather's case, things were not so simple. After my grandmother died, he lost all will to live — but then, how much had he ever had? At 87, there was nothing physically wrong with him, but he sunk into a deep depression that quickly led to a general physical deterioration. He grew cadaverous and never left the bed. Then he started the suicide attempts: in his weakened state, he was rather easily disarmed when he went for his guns and swords (yes, an arsenal was necessary for The Bad Times) and tried to hang himself, but when he went on hunger strike, there was not much to do. People have heard that and asked, "why didn't anyone call 911? They could have put him on an IV, maybe given him antidepressants." Maybe. But no one did. Oddly enough, it had little to do with his "right to die" — if you'd asked many people involved about the politics of it, you'd have found their views far more complex than the story might suggest. We saw it as his wish more than his right, perhaps, but also an act of monumental hopelessness that, at the end of the day, was of apiece with the way he had lived his life. It was certainly what he wanted, but it had less to do with dignity than with the affirmation of a philosophy which, as the days drew on, rapidly ceased to seem an amusing eccentricity and more something deeply sad and rooted in fear. To call it political is silly; my grandfather, much as I loved him, was unwell and his views had no business being imposed on anyone. In this regard, I thought the Times piece was right: to the extent the personal is political, of course there are ramifications, but the stories are personal and unique. As the piece's author puts it, "my mother had been ready to die for years. Not that she was suicidal, but she had always been one of those people who found the cloud in every silver lining. For my mother, life’s positives outweighed its negatives, but just barely." For my own grandfather, anything less than an ending of despair and doom would surely have nullified the cloudy outlook that had guided his every adult action. What he found in his kind of death was, in a sense, a grim sort of self-fulfilling satisfaction. Why weren't five children, six loving grandchildren, years of health an enticement? Well, that was not what he had planned on. And there is comfort in the expected. Keeping A Promise When A Life Is Near Its End [New York Times]


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