Opinion » Maxed Out

One step closer to a 'good' death


1 comment

About a year ago, on my birthday, my Wonderful Wife asked me a question at dinner. It was one of those questions, the ones for which I never have a good answer.

"What's your favourite meal?"

I was in no risk of insulting the dinner in front of me for two very good reasons. I'd prepared it. And it was one of those simple but celebratory meals — a bit of steer, cooked rare, a couple of scallops, cooked rarer, suitable accompaniments.

"This one," I mumbled, swallowing.

"Steak and scallops?" she asked, perhaps to make certain.

"No, the one in front of me."


"The one in front of me. Whatever it is. Like my favourite wine... the one in my glass. I figure it's not my last meal, it's the one I'm eating, and unless it's terrible, it's my favourite. Otherwise, it seems like a waste of time, doesn't it?"

"OK, so if it was your last meal, what would you have?" The tone of the question suggested patience was wearing a bit thin.

"Fondue," I answered. "Cheese fondue."

"I didn't know you even liked cheese fondue. We've never had cheese fondue. You've never even suggested cheese fondue."

"Right. But if this were my last meal, I'd have to figure it wouldn't be because I was on death row. More likely I'd be in Switzerland so I'd probably order cheese fondue. I seem to remember they do that well in Switzerland."

"You lost me... again." Waning patience having given way to amused frustration.

"If I knew it was my last meal, I assume I'd be in Switzerland to end what had become an untenable life. Hence, cheese fondue. Oh, and one of those really great Swiss Fendants from Valais. Damn Swiss keep it all to themselves."

So maybe after last week, I might have to rethink my last meal. Salmon and a crisp, Blue Mountain Pinot Gris instead?

I don't think often about my own demise; I leave that to others. But for as long as I can remember, I knew the thought of a lingering, debilitated dance toward death was about the most unappealing thing I could imagine. Always with the caveat, "You never know until it's your own reality," I hoped, assumed, I'd have the strength of conviction and will to end my own life when it became intolerable.

Intolerable is a self-defined word when it comes to one's own life. I don't know how it can be any other way, and I suspect lawmakers and courts will spend a fair amount of time trying to nail down a working definition of the word. Therein lies the trap set by Canada's Supreme Court last week.

The Court ruled, unanimously, Canadians have a constitutional right to choose — in a limited way — the circumstances of their own death. People who are suffering severely and irremediably, whether that suffering is physical or psychological, were found to,"... be condemned to a life of severe and intolerable suffering..." because of the government's absolute ban on assisted dying, suicide, euthanasia, insert your choice of descriptors here.

Given such a person is left with two choices — take their own life, never an easy task, or continue to suffer until death steals suffering away — the Court decided those choices were cruel and an alternative was needed.

There are those, staunch moralists, who will raise the cry, "activist court." They will claim unelected judges have imposed their own, creative interpretation on the country. Meh.

In fact, the Court suspended its ruling for 12 months and passed the ball back where it rightly belongs — to federal, and possibly, provincial lawmakers. Under the ruling, the federal government has those 12 months to craft legislation under which people can elect to enlist the help of the medical profession to end their lives.

If Ottawa chooses not to act, they'll kick the can down to the provinces, allowing them to create a patchwork of laws.

Of course, if lawmakers at both levels hadn't been so — what is the word... chicken sh!#? — to take a stand, even a stand supported by upwards of 80 per cent of the population, this would have been done a long time ago. Kind of like gay marriage and prostitution, not that I'm in any way linking those two things but, you know, cultural hot potatoes the court had to finally provide persuasive incentive on to get lawmakers to do their job.

Death is the final act in a life well, or badly, lived. It is the last thing we'll ever be able to do. Until now, the choice to do it well or do it poorly was a matter of stoicism, character, strength of conviction and blind good luck. For every fortunate soul who clutched his or her chest, fell over and was dead before they hit the ground, there were several who spent months and years more helpless than newborns, and with the diapers to prove it. If that's how you want to leave this Earth, it's still your choice.

But perhaps in a year, it won't have to be that way.

The hardest thing I ever did was help my Perfect Partner die. It was hardest because I couldn't do anything to help her die. When her cancer became intolerable — there's that word again — she pleaded with any doctor she saw, and she was batted between them like a shuttlecock, to, "just get me off this bus." They all looked helpless; they all said there was nothing they could do. And there was nothing I could do without risking a long stay as a guest of the criminal justice system.

Fortunately, as has been done so often for so long, various anonymous palliative caregivers administered relief. She died a "natural" death, helped along by copious amounts of morphine.

By contrast, and with a substantial dose of irony, Zippy the Dog didn't have to suffer intolerably. When his physical powers abandoned him, peace and release were just two sleep-inducing injections away. Had I let him suffer, I would have been guilty of cruelty.

Canada's not going where no one has gone before. There are good models to follow: Quebec, Oregon, Switzerland, Belgium and others. Not surprisingly, none of those places have seen vast numbers of people lining up to end their lives. It's not a decision many will make, but fortunately, it will be a decision those who wish to pursue may make in the near future.

And that's a good thing.