Thursday, July 16, 2009

Suicide, assisted and otherwise - 1. Not waving, but drowning

I read with interest a piece in the local newspapers about British maestro, Sir Edward Downes, who in his career conducted both the BBC Philharmonic and the Royal Opera. At the age of 85, he and his wife Joan (74) decided to terminate their lives. He had become increasingly deaf nand his sight was failing badly. She, a former dancer, choreographer and television producer, was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

After 54 years of living together, they could not imagine living apart and so they decided to die together in an assisted suicide clinic in a Zurich clinic, run by the group Dignitas. The couple's son and daughter (named Caractacus and Boudicea!) issued a statement, saying that they had decided to end their own lives "rather than continue to struggle with serious health problems".

Personally, I have always believed in the right to end one's own life. The right to a dignified death is as much a right, I believe, as the right to life. It has always struck me as odd, that we are often more than willing to allow our pets to be "put to sleep", but when it comes to human beings, suddenly we have qualms. And this is not denying that there are massive ethical issues involved - of course there are - but why would one insist that a person must suffer, when they do not need to?

I have, in my own life, experienced first hand that choice being made, though in a much more violent form. My then life partner, 10 years ago now, hanged himself. I found him hanging and to some extent, to this day, I am still haunted by the sheer violence of the act. It is a very different decision that he made to that of Edward Downes and his wife, but it was still a choice for death rather than for life.

I know that I am still haunted by it, because the terror of it hits me when I least expect it sometimes - even at this distance from the event. The other day we took the kids to a thing called a "Pirates experience" - basically a circus dressed up in Pirate's gear - all very Arrr Arrr and Yo Ho Ho - but at the end, there was a hanging - and I reacted immediately, the old wounds refusing to be ignored.

Violent my partner Brian's choice might have been, but I have never questioned his right to do it. I just wish he hadn't done it quite like that. Here is something I wrote at the time. I think it is one of my best pieces and part of a trio of articles I wrote fairly soon after the death. Re-reading it 10 years after the event still evokes some of that terrible anguish I felt then. I called it

“Not waving, but drowning”.

I have always felt, always, that everyone has a right to suicide. I have pondered the conditions under which I might do it myself. They are few, for me anyway. I could, I suppose, imagine myself terminally ill; in extreme pain; or sick and old and incapacitated and needing to just give up and let go and get out.

But it needs to be said that contemplation of suicide for me has always been rather abstract and rather removed from reality, because I have never, not even in my darkest hours, considered it for myself. Perhaps I have never been in extremis. Perhaps I am not really the suicidal type. Perhaps I am a coward. Who knows? But for whatever reason, suicide has not ever presented itself to me, in any of the difficulties which I have faced, as an option.

The thing which stands behind it, of course, is death. And death is final. It doesn’t matter how much one might believe, or not believe in the life hereafter – death by one’s own hand, remains a dark and final choice. A kind of absolute rejection of any of the options or possibilities which life might present us with. To embrace death in this way can only mean that life has become so terrible, so horrific, so utterly destructive to oneself, that the natural repulsion and fear which all of us have of death is not enough to turn us from it. This is a valley in which I have never walked.

The suicide of my partner, Brian, made me ponder all these things anew, because beyond the horror and the shock of being confronted by the person one loves most in the world hanging on the end of a dog leash; beyond the pain and the agony which the living must cope with, one needs to – or at least I need to – come to terms with that terrible decision. Everyone tells me (indeed I frequently tell myself) that I must not blame myself. That, of course, is the most difficult thing to do, because there is no-one there to argue the case with anymore. There is no-one there to win the case with. There is no-one there any more and you are just left with you. And the arguments and the case quickly seem to wear very thin indeed. Everything starts to melt and dissipate.

Of course, suicide is the ultimate checkmate in life’s game of chess – because there is no answer beyond it. Of course it is cruel. Of course it is meant to hurt. But still, how does one avoid the voice in the back of one’s head which breathes “if only”?

And so I have tried to unpack his mind and stare into the pond of his life and try to make sense of this awful thing which he did. Naturally, I will never succeed, because it can’t be done. But that doesn’t stop me trying. I find myself trying to imagine what his last moments were like – why he plugged in his cellphone for charging. Why he closed all the curtains. Whether he said goodbye to the dogs. I try to imagine how, or whether he struggled as he jumped from the low pine stool on which he finally stood. I wonder how long it took for him to die and what it was like. I know he was playing his favourite piece of music from Handel’s “Watermusic”, but I wonder what the other terrible sounds were. And what the thoughts were in his head.

What I saw, when I found him, as I was meant to, was grotesque. A manikin, entirely still. What he had done, by forcing me to find him, was to drag every childhood fear from under the bed; from inside the cupboard; from behind the door and said “Here!” “Here it is!” “Look at it!” “Boo!” “Got Ya!”

No-one hangs themself on the spur of the moment. They decide a long time before that this is what they will do. And they plan how they will do it. Which beam in the ceiling? Which stool? How? Perhaps not when – but certainly how.

What comes to me now, over and over again is that poem by Stevie Smith “Not waving, but drowning”. The image is of a dead man, but still moaning. And the people around him speculating on why. “Perhaps it was too cold for him?” “Perhaps his heart gave way?” they wonder. “Oh no, no, no”, moans the dead man. “ I was much too far out all my life. And not waving, but drowning”.

Throughout his life Brian waved – or appeared to be waving. The impression he gave was of contentment and energy and movement. And this is the most shocking part. That we who knew him and loved him were all wrong and that the frantic waving was not what we thought it was. And the real tragedy was that he didn’t seem to be calling for help. He seemed to be calling for attention. And we all gave him attention – lots of it, but not help.

I have had letters of sympathy from people who have also experienced the suicide of someone close to them. They all say the same thing. They know exactly the depth of the pain I feel, because they have felt it themselves. They know it is a different pain to other kinds of death and other kinds of loss. They know it is one thing for someone to die in a car accident or from an illness and quite another to deliberately take one’s own life. This is not to demean or belittle other forms of dying. It is just to say that there is a very profound difference between them. The difference is that he had a choice, and he chose death. And that is what is so terribly difficult for we, the living, to cope with.

The way some people cope is to lean on God – and somehow God helps them. Many people have told me that they are holding me in their prayers and I am very grateful to them. Some time ago, before all this, I was listening to Radio phone-in programme late one night, while driving home. The topic was life after death and they had some guy on the programme who sounded like a mixture of some sort of psychic and New Age chrystals and oils type specialist . Lots of people were phoning in with experiences of loved ones who had come back to them in one form or another. Grandad was spotted sitting on the verandah in the hat he always wore. Husband appeared at the foot of the bed in his running shorts and vest.
There was almost complete unanimity about the fact that there was life after death and dead people seemed to want to come back and make the people whom they had left behind feel better about things. I felt the need to phone in with a somewhat different perspective. I have never experienced anything of the sort – nor do I really expect to. I said that although I recognised that by far the majority human experience is a religious one, that it would be unscientific to ignore the experience of many – which is this – of nothingness. I immediately elicited sympathy from the chat show host and her guest. I was quick to counter. The contemplation of this nothingness does not alarm me.
Nor does it make me a pessimist. I am totally happy with it and I have no expectations of it. But it is sad as well, because I know, inasmuch as I am ever able to know, that I will never see him again. He is gone from my life forever. It was always, during our 7 year relationship, “till death us do part”. And death has.

No comments:

Post a Comment