There’s this columnist I’ve been following since I was twelve or so. She was brilliant and funny and her writing was like dynamite. In May 2000 she wrote a column on the “right to die” and said she didn’t think that only terminally ill people should have the right to die. To quote the relevant part:
Let’s say you are eighty-five years old and you’ve had a rich, fulfilling life. Your marriage was long and loving right up to the day you were widowed, six years ago. Your children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, have for the most part turned out to be loving, productive people. After a struggling beginning, you were and still are financially well off. In your own small way, you’ve helped to make this world a slightly better place than it was when you arrived here. It has been a life well lived.
You are relatively healthy, but now you can find no enthusiasm for anything any more. You are very lonely and never found a successor to your beloved spouse. You are experiencing the many infirmities of age that take much of the joy out of life. Your hearing no longer allows you to enjoy the symphonies you once relished. Food has no taste any more. Sex ceased to be a consideration many years ago. The wine you used to enjoy now gives you indigestion. You haven’t the energy to get involved with your grandchildren’s activities–and, frankly, you’re not all that interested anyway. Although you can remember your high school years vividly, you cannot recall what you did yesterday. It’s a struggle to remember names. You’ve seen more politicians come and go than anyone should rightly have to endure. You ache when you get out of bed in the morning, and sometimes you ache all day, which is why you can no longer take care of a pet. Your friends are mostly in the same boat you are, and you envy the extremely rare exception who still plays tennis. You and your friends unintentionally bore each other. Your days are clones of one another as you go through the motions of eating (which you often forget to do since you have no appetite) and sleeping–which you now do only four or five hours a day. You fill the spaces in between with game shows and magazines that are no longer relevant to your life. You have some wonderful memories, but now you are weary. It is time to say good-bye.
I hope I haven’t depressed the hell out of you. But my point is that this person, and any others like her/him, should be “allowed” to die if that is what is desired.
I’m not ready to go yet! But if the time ever comes that I have simply had my fill of life, and no longer have the desire to force myself to get out of bed in the morning only to sleepwalk my way through another empty day, I would hope that I would have the right to say good-bye to the world at a time and place of my own choosing. And I would wish the same for everyone else.
Last June this writer died. She was 65 years old, relatively young. It was very sudden. She died alone at home. And her site’s webmaster was all like “Until I get permission from her family, I don’t think I should talk about what happened.” I was pretty sure he wouldn’t have been saying that if it had been a heart attack or something. I could read between the lines and I had my suspicions as to what must have happened, and it made me much sadder than I would have thought. I didn’t know this woman, but I felt like I did, from having read her column all those years. I wished I’d written her to tell her how much I liked her work, because now I’d never get the chance.
The other day, while looking for something else, I stumbled across confirmation of my suspicion: yes, her death was a suicide. Surprisingly, given the people I hang out with, this is the first person in my life who died in this way. And she was such a small part of my life.
I’ve been thinking about her a lot since then, strange soft feelings, and remembered that passage from her column. From what little I know, I think it happened the way she wrote above. I know her husband had died suddenly a few years ago — she found him facedown on the floor, already cold — and she was so grief-stricken by his death that she took a year off from writing. I know she didn’t have much to do with her family. I think she was tired and she’d had enough of this world.
I was talking about it with my dear friend Wendy the Minister, and saying, do you think what she did made sense? I have often said I’m tired of life and I’ve had enough, and everyone — including me, eventually — always dismisses such statements as irrational. But this woman was much older than me. Wendy said she thought this woman probably had alternatives she didn’t consider, that she didn’t have to do this.
I asked her if, given my own history, if I were to do what she did, would people be as stunned as this writer’s friends apparently were. She said it usually takes people by surprise, no matter what, and is devastating on the people you leave behind. That I would hurt everyone. She reminded me, “You have been affected by her suicide, and you didn’t even know her.”
“Why do you think I’m still alive?” I asked. It’s true that in the depths of my depression I don’t think about my family being devastated; rather, I assume they’d be better off without me. But during the Great Headache Crisis, when I was sometimes in so much pain that I would have done literally anything to stop it, the only thing that stopped me from taking my own life was my responsibilities to my family and friends and the thought of how much they would miss me.
I wonder if she gave any thought to the people who would miss her. Maybe she thought no one would. Maybe she figured they’d get over it. Maybe she didn’t care.
Well, I miss her. Maybe I have no right to say so but I wish she hadn’t done it.