Monday, January 31, 2005

Can there be dignity?

Marcel ate at a nice restaurant on Friday night, the kind in a fancy hotel. He was surrounded by 50 friends and family members who toasted him and wished him well. He wore his favourite blue sweater. Anyone seeing this kindly 78 year old man may have assumed that he was celebrating his retirement. He was not.

He went back to his Ottawa home with a few of his close family members, shared some fond words with each of them as he sat in his most comfortable recliner. Then, he put a helium-filled bag on his head and was dead within 5 minutes as his family watched on.

Marcel Tremblay went to a wake on Friday night - his own.

He had been planning it for three months prior, always hoping he wouldn't need it, but upon waking up every morning, he moved the plans forward. He was dying of a lung condition, but to his view, he wasn't dying fast enough. So, he took matters into his own hands. Marcel Tremblay is dead now, by his own hand.

Dying with dignity.
Dying with dignity?

This, of course, raises a lot of controversy. In Canada, it is legal to commit suicide as long as the person doesn't receive help from anyone else. Marcel Tremblay was a sane man. He was suffering. He chose for it to end.

This does not sit well with a lot of people. Words and phrases like 'euthanasia', 'assisted-suicide', 'mercy killing', 'compassionate homicide', 'the value of life', 'the quality of life', 'God's will', and 'the human will' are tossed around, back and forth, and eventually lose their meaning until the next prominent case occurs.

Many of us remember Robert Latimer, who, back in 1993, put his 12-year old daughter Tracy into the cab of his pick-up truck, and killer her with carbon monoxide poisoning. She had severe cerebral palsy, was a paraplegic, and functioned at the level of a three-month old baby. She was due for more surgery and lived in constant pain. Her father judged it better to watch his little girl die than to watch her suffer anymore.

He was convicted of second degree murder.

I'm not going to get into ethics and morals here today. We all have our beliefs, and we are all entitled to them.

What I'm thinking today is this:

What must it have felt like to watch Marcel die? To watch those last breaths of life. Did he give someone's hand a final squeeze? Did he close his eyes? Did he, even for just a second, have a flash of regret on his face?

If you want to know the value of 5 minutes, then think about what it must have been like to be in that room. To know that with one quick tear of the bag, life could be preserved. How many had that temptation? How many fought the urge to save Marcel's life? 5 minutes can be a very long time.

Marcel committed suicide. He chose this end by himself. But being surrounded by loved ones, he could have been stopped. How do you decide to support your father/husband/brother in their quest to die? How do you stand there for 5 minutes? The room must have been gravely silent, and we can only imagine the thoughts and memories and doubts and grief that went on in their heads.

Tracy, however, did not commit suicide. She was euthenized (or killed). She did not choose to die; someone else made that choice for her. But then, someone else also decided what surgeries to give her, what food to feed her, where to place her wheel chair, what she looked at for hours of the day, who she interacted with, what clothes she wore, what course her life would take.

By all accounts Robert Latimer was a very loving father. He believed that ending her pain and suffering was an act of love and compassion. He still believes that now, after serving 11 years in prison. This, of course, makes other disabled Canadians wary. None of us would want someone else to decide whether our life was worth living or not. But in some cases, that does happen. Lots of people have a living will, and lots of people give their parents or their spouses power of attorney should anything happen to them that would keep them from communicating their wishes.

Parents make decisions for their children all the time. They decide the most intimate details of their child's life before the child is even born: name, religion, place of birth. Parents decide whether the child will be circumsized, where the child will go to school, what medical treatments will be received or refused. Robert Latimer took this one step further; perhaps one step too far. Certainly his actions were not legal in this country. The news of Tracy's death hit people all over the country hard; there was an outpouring of support for Robert, and there was a lot of condemnation as well.

At the end of the day, Tracy is dead. Her father wrapped her in a blanket, laid her across the seat of his Chevy truck, and sat on the wheel to watch her die while the rest of the family was at church. We don't know what tears were shed on that day. Until you are in that situation, you just cannot understand. I imagine that the decision did not come easily, or quickly. They say that losing a child is the worst pain you can experience, but what about this? What kind of pain are you in when you turn the key to the ignition, and say your goodbyes? We can't know. All we know is that Robert Latimer insists he has no regrets.

Neither does Marcel Tremblay. Dead men don't regret. Marcel is dead. Tracy is dead. May their souls rest in peace.


transience said...

this makes me so sad, jay. you know what, we can never really explain the motivations behind people's actions. we can never know until we put ourselves in their shoes.

Jay said...

That is so, so true Trans. Suicide is the loneliest act in the world though, so it's not often that we get any glimpse into the "whys", which is the question that bothers those of us are left behind.

Monica said...

I don't think you should kill someone else... that was a hard decision with Tracy..poor guy

But if you do it yourself because of a good reason(not because, BOO HOO I'm sad and I dress in black & play Morrissey all day long) like you are I'll and suffering, then I think its fine.

I've been in the nursing homes & hospitals lately and my brother in law Lenny just looked at me & I looked at him and we both said we didn't want to live like most of the people we saw, it was horrible.
(nana is up and running and fine!!!! sick but fine!!)

mojo shivers said...

I think we should all have the right to terminate our own lives if it is going to be one spent in misery and suffering. I wouldn't want to end up losing my dignity by being forced to be hooked up to machines. That isn't quality of life.

Also, I think there is something to be said about the quality of death. How someone goes makes just as big a statement as how they lived. I'd much rather die on my own terms than die violently or accidentally.

Green-Eyed Lady(GEL) said...

Mojo, I couldn't have said it better. I agree wholeheartedly!
Jay, thank you for an excellent and well-written post. These two juxtaposed incidents yield much food for further thought.
Also, thank you for visiting my site and your enthusiasm. I'm glad you enjoyed my first humourous blog attempt. (I enjoyed the mini tale you shared.)

Jay said...

Ah yes, me and my mini-tales. Goodness knows I am famous for my short-windedness.

Oh wait. That's the complete opposite of truth.

Ironic, then?

Nah, I'm no good at irony either. My lip just doesn't curl up in the right way.

Okay, long-winded and boring. There you have it.

BeckyBumbleFuck said...

You're so fun in part because I never know what I'll find on your site...serious social commentary, drunken blogging, intimate details of your life and history.

I'm impressed by Marcel's family, having endured something so intense, so significant, and so difficult. They are very selfless. They gave marcel what he wanted. Now the family will always have to live on with the memory of death and likely will always re-assess if they did the right thing.
I'm also really impressed that suicide is legal in Canada.

Jay said...

Yeah, I wasn't really sure about the whole legality of it, but it's what I've been reading...and even in places where it's technically illegal, it's not usually enforced. Either the person is dead and can't be prosecuted, or the person survives the attempt, and people figure he/she has suffered enough.
I do hope that all suicide attempts are treated seriously, and that they receive follow-up help with their problems.
Suicide is a serious matter for me, I've seen in up close and personal, and it's not a pretty picture.

And yes, I know I jump around a lot in the content of this blog...but basically, that's what it's like to be around me. I have lots of thoughts, an opinion on EVERYTHING, and now I have an outlet - beware!

Ivy said...

Very insightful post. Points worthwhile to ponder. I've always view life as a gift, and that I actually do not have ownership over it. Life was given to me, I did not choose to enter into this world, therefore, I do not have the right to chose to exit. It's all in the perspective.

Woody said...

They put Dr. Jack Kevorkian away in the States for assisting terminally ill people in ending their agony. In this culture, doctors and hospitals are playing God for profit. In other cultures, suicide - ritual seppuku or hara-kiri - is an honorable way of saying you're sorry. Heavy, heavy post Jay. - woody

Tiger said...

I actually shared some of my thoughts on suicide recently:

Chick said...

Oh Jay, insight is truly your gift.

I used to be dead set (pun intended) against suicide. I thought it was a selfish, selfish act of cowardice. That was until I had it touch my life. Everyone's story is so vastly different. There are things about these people & their absolute pain that we can never completely understand.

You are so right in saying that it is a very lonely thing to do.

Throne777 said...

This site is just odd. Good but odd.


amy said...

It truly is hard to say what's best at one particular moment or another. I had an aunt suffer from Alzheimer's for over 10 years, and I watched her go from the vibrant, intelligent, beautiful woman of my youth to a whithered and scared soul. Not a week went by that my Mother didn't visit her, and she made me promise me that if the same befell her, that I wouldn't let her go on for so long: trapped in a nursing home, losing her faculties, forgetting her own children. I used to refuse - perfectly unwilling to see my mother's wishes through. But I've seen lots of stories in not only the media, but in my own life since then that make me wonder just what I would do if that time came. Personally, I don't want to be in charge of that decision, but I already know what her wishes are. It's up to us to follow-through if and when that time comes. I pray it doesn't, but I know what the realities are.

Great post, Jay. I love when you invite controversy and personal stories to reflect a current issue.

Jay said...

Life is about controversy. I have yet to discover a path through it without meeting up with some opposition.

And not to make light of the situation, but after Jason read this post, we had the following conversation:

Me: How would you feel if it was me?
Jason: Oh, I'd be okay with it. I'd support you.
Me: Oh yeah?
Jason: Well, not that I wish you were dead.
Me: Gee, thanks hun. You should write that in a card or something.

And the scary thing is...he's the romantic one!

Jay said...


At the wake, several of his friends tried to talk him out of his plans. He held fast. At home, he discovered that someone had tampered with his lock to prevent him from entering the house and thus killing himself.

In reality, it took 15 minutes for the gas to take effect. His wife watched on, in pain as the plastic bag inflated and deflated over and over again.

When his family thought he had stopped breathing, they called the paramedics. THey did not heed the DNR. The family prayed that Marcel would not be revived from the paramedics' efforts.

Is this dignity?

random-girl said...

life is both a gift and a struggle. one could argue that the two are synonomous, that what you gain in struggle is the gift of life. whatever our journey is meant to hold, the inevitable will come. the end of a life is always hard, but easier to accept if it was taken by the hands of God (or whatever entity or fate you believe in) - something no one can prevent. when it is taken by the hands of someone else or your own self, people are always going to be asking 'why?' and 'what if?'. it is the guilt of the unknown that haunts the living more than the death of the deceased. is this fair for the loved ones left behind?