By Warwick McFadyen
I looked into my father’s shrunken, red eyes. Death was tolling. I cradled the skin and bone that once was a man, a force of life, but now was in a palliative care bed awaiting nothingness. The voice had gone, breath rose and fell slowly; these whisperings of existence were really the last gasps.
Cancer did him. He had fought it through the final year of his life. He did not want to die, did not seek it, but he knew it was coming for him. ‘‘I’m so weak, son,’’ he told me in the weeks before his death. He would never have said that before. He knew the light was fading into black. He also knew that beyond his death was zero. Not even the word death. That word belonged to the living, rolled off the tongue with familiarity, for everyone dies. Everyone speaks of it, most times in the abstract, and then up close and personal.
Did my father ever say or acknowledge he had entered the terminal stage of his 82 years? No. He always resisted the ferryman carrying him to the fatal shore. He kept his self-awareness until near the end. The drugs helped. He was loaded with chemicals to keep the pain at tolerable levels.
He took no solace in knowing his passing was merely a staging post to elsewhere, beyond sight and comprehension. Religion could stay out of his death. It had no place there. It was a stranger. In the final days his body had begun to convulse, uncontrollable spasms seized his once strong frame. We tried to soothe his fevered brow, tried to hold down his limbs, while the ambulance came, yet again, until the paramedics, my mother, sister and I knew, the only path left was the road to a dying ward.
We told him, as the afternoon light streamed into the bedroom and we held him, that it was OK to let go. Let go, let go if you can. It was a useless attempt at assisted dying, the urging of a life to go. A life we loved. But the pain had taken over completely, utterly. The letting go was the only option to end the suffering.
I think back on those last days as debate rises over the proposed legislation of assisted dying in Victoria. There is no more personal event or element to a person’s life than their death. It is abhorrent that any institution, or set of people who are held together by a common belief, can influence how a person chooses to die. It is a dictatorship of the spirit. This is not about their right to believe. It is about others not having to live and die by a stranger’s belief.
The bill introducing the legislation is expected soon to come before Parliament. It will be a ‘‘conscience vote’’. The Premier Daniel Andrews said, ‘‘This is about dignity, choice and giving Victorians the support and care they deserve in their final moments.’’
Guidelines recommended by an advisory panel include that a patient is expected to die within 12 months, have the capacity to decide and be a Victorian resident 18 years or older.
There would be ‘‘rigorous checks and balances’’, the Premier said. His views had changed following the death of his father, aged 65, from cancer. He told the ABC: ‘‘I’ve come to the conclusion that whether you would avail yourself of this option isn’t really the point. If the right safeguards are in place, then the question becomes do we have the right to stop others from accessing a safe — and on some measures a very conservative — scheme?’’
The Premier is right. ‘‘Do we have the right to stop others?’’ Of course not. Choosing the timing of the end of your life has nothing whatsoever to do with what someone else might believe is the grand plan of the cosmos and the omnipotence of an unseen deity of the universe. Nothing. To try to subjugate a person’s will to die (and obviously live in better circumstances) because of another’s spiritual bent is arrogance beyond belief.
It is administering torture behind the excuse that all life all the time is sacred, despite the agony and wretchedness that a life might have become. There comes a time when enough is enough. It should not be up to anyone but each individual vessel of blood, flesh and bone to decide when that time is to let loose the moorings and cross the river.
The only slippery slope attached to this legislation is that of allowing one set of beliefs, mainly those based in the Christian tradition, override all of us. It is fair enough, and welcome in an open society, that people do bow to a faith and live by it. As long as it harms no other. The days of the missionaries are long over.
On Monday, a group of religious leaders, including the Catholic Archbishop Denis Hart and Anglican Archbishop Philip Freier, issued a joint letter arguing against the legislation. It read, in part: ‘‘Once the fundamental principle to do no harm and never kill is removed from our medical practice, the integrity of our health system is compromised.
‘‘It would be counter-productive to legally endorse any form of suicide when our governments and community groups are working so hard to persuade others that it is not a solution to take their own life.’’
It may not be a solution to take one’s life – in a perfect world, where if not splendidly painted in beautiful colours, it is seen in black and white. But life is not like that. Even the dictum ”never kill” is not an absolute. The word of those who believe in a life after life is hardly grounded in reality, despite their gravitas.
This legislation will usher in a ray of enlightenment in the humane way in which we live with the terminally ill, and how we respect their wishes.
I know my father would have agreed.
Warwick McFadyen is a freelance writer and editor