By William Markiewicz

In one of the newspaper advice columns, a woman reader asks how to respond to her 82-year-old mother who prefers to commit suicide rather than go to a nursing home. She is in good health but not aware of how rapidly she is losing her memory. "Should I let her know what will happen or should I let her slip into dementia and nursing home care?" The adviser says that the daughter's duty is to tell her mother the truth and with the help of professional people -- advisors, psychologists, social workers -- to influence her against drastic decisions. In my view revealing the truth may speed her decision and it's hard for a child to take that step. On the other hand, I don't like the idea of professional assistance from social workers, psychologists, etc. It makes me think too much of manipulation of soul and mind a la Orwellian Big Brother that has a remedy for everything.

I remember three proposals for dealing with the unavoidable. Their one common quality is that they exclude pretentious mandarins who have a recipe for everything. The topic is tackled in the famous movie about the paraplegic artist who sues the hospital that refuses him the right to die. The hospital sends a young woman social worker who admonishes him that he thinks only about himself. Yes, he can't make his sculpture anymore but he can give his wisdom to young disciples. Of course, very positive, very logical, very Orwellian. I don't remember the patient's words but he becomes so angry that medical help is called to calm him. I felt that right was on his side. You don't resolve everything with smart recipes that you are not so sure you'd apply to yourself.

What should we do in a desperate situation? First of all, build courage. Discharge your burden, meaning escape forward. It's expressed in various ways. Katherine Mead said that her father tried to think of something else while dying. Castaneda writes about the warriors' dance that is a form of defiance, acceptance and disdain, "I am bigger than you O my death!" Yeats expressed it masterfully, "Cast a cold eye -- on life, on death -- Horseman pass by." All those attitudes were summed up by the writer Romain Gary/Emile Ajar, in a short story about a dying man in the Polish forest among Partisans. He lay near the fire as his colleagues sang and drank, not paying attention to him. He became angry, 'You bastards!' he said, more or less, as I remember, "with no respect for your dying comrade. You may as well sit on me like on a stone or trunk of a tree. You don't pay attention to me anyway. Don't be embarrassed." To his great shock, they sat on him. I don't remember how the situation or conversation developed; they poured vodka into his mouth and he joined in their singing, happy to die in such good company.

I also saw a theatrical piece about a Scotsman in a terminal condition who decided to die with his family rather than in the hospital. As he wore a kilt his buddies made him swirl and his kilt flew up. They all bent down to look under his kilt. It was a joke and it took him awhile to realize that this was the place to die, among good comrades who became his closest family.

In Buddhism, maybe in all religions, the dogma asks the dying to concentrate on his own death because great concentration helps the soul rise to the highest realms of consciousness. For the devout it may be OK. As the creator of Polish romanticism Adam Mickiewicz wrote, "feeling and fate speak more strongly to me than the wizard's loup and eye." Instead of logical arguments with social workers, etc., let's find some simple words that two persons can use intimately without witnesses. For instance, "Mom, as long as you are alive we can always have some fun together. Let's not worry about the rest."

Back to the index of the Vagabond
© Copyright 2002 E-mail to: William Markiewicz