I have a friend who is paralyzed from the shoulders down. He spends his days in a motorized wheelchair that he controls with the movements of his head and neck. He drinks coffee and water through straws from cups he keeps in his oversized shirt pockets. He is funny and articulate, and generally a joy to be around. A former university lecturer, he still lectures from time to time. He has always been a good teacher.
He paints with a brush he holds in his mouth, and had a one-man show at a gallery last year. His paintings reflect the normal observations of a normal life. There is nothing bitter in his conversation or his art.
He is always ready with a story. The first time I saw him after his accident he was in the rehabilitation ward at Saskatoon City Hospital. I asked him how he was, and he said he was feeling pretty good, considering the circumstances. He asked me, “If a man speaks in the woods and no one hears him, is he still wrong?”
Another time he was leaving a friend’s house and they were trying to manoeuvre him out the door and into a special taxi that was waiting in the street. After several attempts to get him over the doorstep, he finally said, in mock impatience, “Come on, you guys, am I expected to do everything myself?”
He is a good man and a good friend, and it frightens me that he is now eligible for physician-assisted suicide. Some people believe he should put an end to his suffering. He considered it once, but now his response is simply, “I’m still here.”
I have another friend with terminal cancer. It started in one spot and has since metastasized throughout his body. He doesn’t know how long he has left, and though he is not in great pain at the moment, things are getting a more difficult with each passing week. He walks with a cane now, as he has been having trouble with his balance, and his heart has been acting up since he had open-heart surgery several months ago. He takes medical cannabis for pain and anxiety. With the passage of Bill C-14, he, too, will soon be eligible for physician-assisted suicide. Well-meaning people may urge him to put an end to his suffering. I’m pretty sure how he will respond, for he is man of great learning and deep faith, but still, the option wasn’t there before.
I have other friends who deal with chronic pain on a daily basis — heart conditions, arthritis, fibromyalgia, neuropathy. Still others are handicapped or mentally ill, grappling with Down syndrome, depression, bipolar disorder, sleep disorders, and any number of other conditions that doctors don’t understand. It’s a small step from “Would you bring a handicapped child into the world?” — one of the chief arguments in favour of abortion when that debate was intense — to “Why are you allowing them to suffer?”
My sister-in-law Angela was hydrocephalic, and was severely handicapped throughout her brief life. When she fell severely ill once there was a question of whether she should be treated. “Why don’t you stop torturing her?” one doctor asked her mother.
What didn’t seem to occur to anybody was that Angela, to all outward appearances, was happy. She was a member of a loving community that cared for her and mourned for her when she passed — from natural causes, several years later.
Life is not easy. Henry David Thoreau said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” I would say, rather, that most people — including the suffering, the poor, and the handicapped — lead lives of quiet heroism, and go to grave in victory. The friends of whom I have written here are part of my community, and I will miss them when they are gone.
Those who go to the grave by their own hand are to be forgiven, not encouraged.