Here's a humorous start to a serious post. The conversation was between Ms T and one of her numerous specialists.
Specialist: “And what does Mr X (her vascular surgeon) say?”
Ms T: “He says it's perfect. And I still want to punch him.”
Specialist: “Oh, that's all right. He's a surgeon. Everyone wants to punch them.”
I strongly suspect that the head of Western Australia's AMA, Dr Richard Choong, must be a surgeon, because after his contribution to the euthanasia debate, I want to punch him. Honestly, here are two quotes straight out of the SBS news story.
“Transition from life to death” – yes, he really said that. No, it's called “dying” and we all have to do it. But some of us get to do it slowly, painfully, in depressing ways, replacing dignity with relatives to clean up the shit in elbow-length gloves. Others might just go quickly from a gunshot or something. Transition is what you make of it, I guess, whether it's miserable for years or a momentary “shit, what was that?”
“Quality of life is how the individual approaches their life, and what contribution they make from their life and what they receive from it” – yes, he really said that as well. And this is the true ignorance, the inexperience of youth that I want to unpick.
Now, I've said on this blog before that my wife is dying. We don't know when, and at the moment, things are not too bad.
But this post is about pain and stupid, stupid, smug people who haven't had it bad. So, with my wife's permission, I'll outline a little detail.
Ms T can't take Paracetamol, because her immune system's damaged her liver. She can't take aspirin, because of damage to her stomach. And she can't take anti-inflammatory painkillers, because they set off the immune system condition (heaven knows why). This leaves her one, just one, effective painkiller shy of the hospice: artificial opioids. How much does she know about chronic, disabling pain?
Try it, Dr Hoong. Try getting the carer's kit: the long gloves in case someone vomits or shits themselves, because you're not supposed to touch what comes out. Try the weight loss, the skin lesions, the constant fear that the suppressed immune system will give rise to a tumour that isn't spotted before it becomes the next killer. Try the constant anaemia that leaves you sapped of energy.
Heaven knows why footballers and runners think they're a good thing. They ruin your skin, make you bruise like nothing, suppress the immune system (because we need just a little more vulnerability), and generally fuck up your life.
Just don't start. If it happens, it's likely to be traumatic. If it's not too bad, you light fireworks. If it's actually like the life you remembered when you married, you're in danger of running naked down the street yelling “Up yours, world, we got a fuck and it didn't hurt!”
Well, you can strike off the suits and polished shirts and expensive ties and the other trappings of being a prominent doctor. In fact, my honoured smugness, try striking off work at all. Because you can't deal with the public if you're likely to throw up. And your looks are ruined, your skin blotchy, your mind is addled, and you can't think what would happen if your carer broke a leg, let alone died.
And Ms T isn't dying this year, it seems, nor next, and maybe, life willing, not for a decade.
But even our faint shadows of death give us hints. To have less life than this, and more death; to have less joy and more pain; to have certainty on one hand and no reward in the other? Sure: I'd consider euthanasia.
Ms T and I, we'll get by for now. We can still imagine that she will one day be well enough that we can walk some of our favourite bushwalks together. We can still hear the echoes of what we were when we met, loved, and somehow ended up married.
But if the love of my life begged it of me, and explained why? I would cry and beg and argue; I would, as I do, wish life better and different. I would tear the temple down, tear the world down, rather than consent. And if a kind death were the last service love could offer, I would give it while my heart broke.
My father's last words still haunt me. “I know what I'm like, don't think I don't. I can't control this. Don't come again.”
I disobeyed him, visited again when he was already lost in confusion and shit.
It took another year for him to die.