Good Life; Good Death — Part II 

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Zippy the Dog isn't the dog he used to be. I'm as unsure how that gangly, floppy-eared brown puppy became an old, grey-muzzled dog as I am about where my 25-year-old self went when I see that grey-muzzled old guy staring back at me from the mirror each morning.

Next month I'll celebrate Zippy's 13th birthday. In Labrador retriever terms, Zippy's more or less living on borrowed time. I see his age every time I look into his increasingly rheumy, golden brown eyes. I see it many evenings when he can't decide whether it's worth the effort to drag his tired back end up the stairs to go have a final squirt before bedtime. He reminds me he's an old dog on those occasions when he simply doesn't want to go for a walk or doesn't want to go very far.

And every day I think it's up to me to decide when he crosses that line between living and dying.

Killing your dog is as much a part of the bargain as cleaning up after it, feeding it and doing the thousands of other things you'll have to do during its lifetime. It's irresponsible to let an old dog suffer. It's cruel. It may even be illegal if carried to an extreme.

I was graphically reminded of that reality when Zippy was a puppy. During his first visit to the vet, at perhaps 10 weeks, there was an old dog there that was minutes away from the Big Sleep. The dog looked like hell and it was hard to tell who was suffering more, the dog or its owner. Without asking I knew what they were there for. It was time.

I don't know how I'll be sure when it's Zippy's time but I know I'll have to make that decision.

My Perfect Partner knew when it was her time. We both knew the day her lung cancer was unequivocally diagnosed she'd been handed a death sentence. For 15 months we preferred not to dwell on it. It was simply The Bastard and we were only going to let The Bastard win one final day; the days until then were ours.

But before that final day came, we passed the invisible line between treatment and cruelty. The docs knew there was nothing they could do, no hope they could offer. They generously treated the pain but the treatment was not without its own side effects of pain and suffering.

Spiraling into an unreality of drugged awareness, she asked each doctor she saw in the final two weeks of her life, "Can't you give me something to let me off this bus?" I watched helplessly.

Of course there was. But they couldn't do that.

There was probably enough oxycodone lying around the house to do the job. But how could we be sure she'd slide gently into that good night and not into a different, prolonged nightmare? How could we do it without me being left to face an inevitable "assisting" charge?

And, quite honestly, I don't believe she had it in her to take her own life. Maybe it was some latent, Mennonite programming from her youth or maybe just that immobilizing fear of the stepping into the unknowable that stopped her. Regardless of how willing she was to let go of what was left of her life, she was going to require some help to take the final step. Maybe that help came on the sly from the good people at palliative care; maybe it didn't.

But it didn't come from an "enlightened" society. Our social, political and medical model is one that insists we allow people to suffer in a way we'd be fined or jailed for if they were our pets. Simultaneously, it's one that condemns — either actively or passively — what appears to me and a lot of other people to be a perfectly rational decision by someone like Ruth Goodman to end her life as she lived it: on her own terms.

I've been surprised, not always pleasantly, by people whose response to her story has been to suggest she must have been suffering from depression or some other mental disorder the medical-pharmaceutical complex could lob drugs at to "treat."

Well, hell, maybe she was depressed. Let's see, she was 91, in reasonably good health, leading a happy life but with an overwhelming desire to not live out her final years as, surely, she'd seen so many of her friends do — dependent, frail shells of the people they once were, waiting around to die a "natural" death. Yeah, I find that prospect depressing. And I think exercising the choice to step off stage before the final curtain is a completely rational response; one I hope I have the strength of character to perform when the time comes.

That's the rub. No one knows for sure when the time comes. Almost everyone wants to wait until... until... until it's too late. Until they need help to end their life. But with few exceptions, none in Canada, there isn't any help other than self-help.

Notwithstanding the tiny inroads made last year when the B.C. Supreme Court ruled the federal law making suicide assistance a crime discriminated against terminally ill patients with disabilities — the inability to take their own life — there is unlikely to be a rush to legalize physician assisted suicide in the province or anywhere else in Canada. The opposition is formidable.

There are, in a society that fears death, still strong moral objections to allowing anyone, particularly a physician, to induce death. The fight against God's will is still far from over.

There are fears physician-assisted suicide would be the thin edge of the wedge, the first step on the slippery slope from which there is no return, a slope that would inevitably lead us toward genocide against the old, feeble, imperfect, malformed, mentally ill, undesirable elements of society.

There are legitimate fears some would coerce elderly and ill family members into taking their lives against their own wishes.

There are legal issues I wouldn't even want to think about if I were a physician. And, of course, there is the impossibility of forcing any healer to take part in administering death.

We're left with imperfect choices and the stark inevitability of fending for ourselves. Death is the last thing we all get to do. Most of us want to think we've led good lives but none of us want to think our last act may be the one thing we do less well than anything we've ever done before.

Ruth Goodman's allowed us to change the debate. I hope her effort wasn't wasted.

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