Thursday, 5 November 2009

Cliffs of Fall

I am feeling trapped in, this last few days. The return to standard time brings the dank November dark an hour earlier, pushing me into the warmth of the house with its foggy fingers. The air is cold with the damp and, as I write, the first snow is falling in wet fat flakes and clinging to everything. It will melt, but it is a harbinger of things to come, nasty things like icy slippery roads and icy slippery steps that challenge my driving skills and my arthritic joints. As well, it is hunting season and the woods and fields are dotted with figures in 'hunter's red' ( a nasty shade of glowing orange) shooting at and spooking the deer. We all have to drive with extreme caution because you never know when one of the wretched beasts will materialize on the road in front of you. It makes me think twice about leaping into the car and zooming off in any direction, especially after (the very early) dark.

I am also feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of meetings I have scheduled this month. Meetings I cannot miss, having taken on the job of chair of the board. Meetings that I have to drive on the dangerous roads in the dark to attend. I can do it. I do do it. But more and more as I grow older, the effort is greater. I can see the time coming when my own fears may become disabling, a prison that I will build myself.

Confined in the Tower of London, Richard Lovelace wrote the famous lines:

Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage.
A fine philosophy, that. But recite those lines to a young mother, tending toddlers in a home far from any public transport, short of money, and you will provoke her, at best, to derisive laughter. The expectations of our community can confine us in the adamant constraints of others' ideas of how we should live and what we should be. Poverty builds walls of cold iron around us, walls with very few, very narrow exits. However, for many of us it is more our minds than our circumstances that trap us into prisons more grim than a stone walled cell. Our expectations of ourselves can become the most stringent prison of all. Depression, illness, fear and grief are the cold, weeping stones that form these prisons and sometimes there is no door, no window, not even an oubliette, to bring us hope and news of the world.
There's a debate going on in Canada just now, in the intervals of the latest chatter about H1N1 anyway, about euthanasia. A bill allowing some types of assisted suicide is being debated in the House of Commons. It's not a simple question. The medical association in Quebec wants some guidelines to help them deal with uncontrollable pain in terminal patients. The various associations of disabled people want the value of their lives acknowledged and protected. The non-religious majority (52% of Canadians, the last poll I saw) want freedom to choose a dignified end. Courageous souls with debilitating diseases are requesting legal suicide options. I am certainly not alone in worrying about the effect an open-ended legalizing of suicide would have on the many people whose minds, not innocent or quiet, cause them constant pain.
It's not a simple question. The young man, paralysed from an accident, can fight his way through the pain and become a contributing member of society. The depressed new mother who throws herself in front of a train could have been helped, cured perhaps. Even Tracy Latimer might have been helped although I understand, I think, why her father killed her. There are no lines to divide physical and emotional pain and not all pain can be 'managed'.
Here's my personal dilemma. I smoke. I do so knowing that, although I have not so far cost the state any money from smoking-related illness, sooner or later I may develop lung cancer or have a debilitating stroke that will reduce me to a vegetable to be a burden on my family and a huge cost to the taxpayer in medical care. Would it not be both fair and simple to issue me a lethal dose of something when the disease in my lungs is drowning me or to use on my mindless, stubbornly breathing hulk? Would not that be more dignified, less costly in both emotional and monetary terms? A release from the prison my stubbornness has built for me?
Or, I could just go and drive down the county road too fast, hoping that the deer I hit would be big enough to kill both of us.


  1. So much to ponder here. First, I'm sorry that these days of less light make you melancholic.

    Second, now I'm worried! Have you taken on too much? Driving here and there and here again is all well and good, but some restraint, please? Especially at night?

    And third, you smoke? Smoking was what gave my mother a particularly nasty cancer and then, through peripheral artery disease, eventually killed her. I wish you wouldn't... But other than that, you'll get no preaching from me.

    Thinking of you as you navigate slippery roads and thorny ethical questions.

  2. "ditto" slouchy

    This was a very thought provoking post Mary. My mother has not been well for about a month and has been a prisoner in her home. She was quite hysterical with pain and depression one day. She scared me quite a bit.

    As for myself, as I get older I find myself welcoming the safe "prison" of my home. I don't like to go out unless I absolutely have to.

    Good luck with all your meetings and all your driving. I do admire how involved you are.

  3. My brother-in-law's grandfather went for a swim one day when he was very old. He was a stubborn old rancher, his wife was dead, and I don't know, one day he just decided he was done with it all. Every person in the family respects him for that. I do think there's dignity in going out on your own terms.


  4. Oh, Mary. You could have ended this post after the thought-provoking paragraph following the snippet of poetry. I nodded all the way through as I commiserated and thought of my aversion to cold and how I tend to withdraw when I am stressed. I also am becoming a very timid night-driver--though I have always just detested driving, period. Then when you began The Big Stuff, oh my! So much more to ponder.

    Let me say only that you have a lot on your plate right now, and that you should be certain to clear it when on the roads at night! Try to think only of taking good care to drive safely. Save the rest for when you are...stationary.

  5. More snow there than here. We've had a bit, but nothing has stuck.

    Re. the other questions: surely we can come up with a merciful system where people can both live and die in dignity.

  6. Anvil Cloud, I would like to think so, but some of the debate and op ed pieces give me doubts.
    Nance, I will. It took me all day to get this much up, but I intend to pick up on the debate again, on the principle that if you are advocating something, you should be able to support it.
    Jennifer, I've had family members do the same. Not always the good choice, though, depending on what and whom they are leaving behind.
    Kaye, I do the community work because it gets me out among people.
    Slouchy, Jennifer, I hear you (pulling head back into shell).

  7. Gee Mary...instead of worrying about becoming ill and a burden on society because of your smoking couldn't you stop before you get ill? I know it's not easy and maybe you enjoy it and so I'll shut up about that now. The driving thing? I think you'd be crazy NOT to be worried about driving all the time in the dark on bad roads. I hate driving. And that's why I live in the city - so I can do stuff without having to get in a car. This was a very melancholy post and a little scary, but very evocative

  8. XUP, I'm going to fall ill and become a burden to society whether I smoke or not. Everyone does, eventually.
    The point I was trying for is that most people are not lucky enough to die easily. I guess that giving myself as an example was a bad distraction.
    And, yeah, I know what a dumb risk it is that I take. But addictions are not easy things to break. I've tried and I will try again. The damage is done, though.

  9. Come. South. Now! (Where sunshine awaits) I know you have a million responsibilities, and you are incredibly good about living up to them. But you need a break - and I worry.

  10. this was, indeed, very thought provoking. i am, in theory, one the side of allowing dying people to die with dignity and in a manner of their choosing... we think it's right to put our pets out of their suffering... why not a human? And yet... you make such great points about what suffering through hardships often gains for a person, and I can see why maybe it is not a good idea.

    And so now I will have to think on this.

  11. Hmpf. Blogger just ate my comment. I didn't say much, really, since I'm not writing too coherently and supposed to be working anyhow. But here goes again.

    This was indeed a very thought-provoking post, and my head is all swimmy with the thoughts.

    I also find myself wishing that you could scale back on your commitments a bit, and perhaps find a balance that minimizes your driving without leaving you feeling housebound.

    I will refrain from commenting on the smoking. (Well, except for that bit, which was a sort of comment. )