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The Liberty Boat
Nathan Kripz is a freelance journalist working in Ireland. He is especially concerned with religious issues and current affairs.
Though I am from a Jewish background, my late father's experiences as a naval commander during the war persuaded him that if there was a great fairy in the sky he, she or it was a damned fool. He therefore became a born again evangelical atheist and raised me as a secular Jew, i.e. one who though made aware of his ethnic origins and identity was not smothered in religious gobbledegook. Accordingly, I grew up without the hindrance of undue pressure to accept irrational mythological philosophies and was therefore in a position from a fairly early age, as soon in fact as I became aware of wider social and moral issues, to appraise the respective arguments for myself without any preconceptions to cloud my judgement and colour my conclusions.
Consequently, while still in my teens, I had formulated a rational personal philosophy about many matters, among them issues relating to death and dying. It seemed to me that if the consensus in society was that it was humane and appropriate to put a seriously injured or terminally ill dog painlessly out of its misery, them there could not possibly be any objection to applying the same principle to a human animal. The vast difference of course is that whereas the dog would have the decision taken for it as it would be capable neither of considering the implication of such a decision nor voicing an opinion, the human animal, being possessed of reason, intellect and communication skills, would ideally prefer to be personally involved in any such decision, particularly as there might always be the possibility that any one making such a decision for another person might not always be giving selfless consideration to the genuine needs of that individual.
My father died almost twenty years ago and for the last three years of his life he existed in mental anguish. The ravages of Alzheimer's disease reduced this once strong and dignified character to a pathetic shell. His memory became so erratic that if he managed to leave the house unaccompanied he could never find his way back. Frequently he failed to recognize me and spent hours looking for Rusty, his long dead cocker spaniel. He was always very helpful about the house and usually assisted Mum by preparing the vegetables for the evening meal. However his sense of time disappeared and one night we found him downstairs around 3.00AM peeling potatoes. As if that was not bad enough, the sink was full of blood where he was quite obviously peeling as much skin off his fingers as off the potatoes. During another night I nearly flattened him. My wife and I were lying in bed sound asleep when we both awoke with a start and realised there was a prowler in the bedroom. I jumped out of bed and was just about to administer a general anaesthetic with my fist when a feeble little voice said "It's only me - I'm taking the watch tonight". Dad was back in the Navy and we started sleeping with the door locked.
I am a musician and used to spend a great deal of time at home, especially in the mornings, practising, arranging scores and meeting pupils or other musicians. Dad would come into my studio when I was working to ask me to fasten his shoes or to put a knot in his tie. He would then sit on, rendering work virtually impossible. He kindly produced a cup of tea on one occasion. Unfortunately he neglected to first boil the water.
One day I had to go into town to pick up some music. On returning shortly after 11.00 AM I was greeted with a rather pungent odour. Facing me on the stairs was a trail of excrement culminating in a pair of none too wholesome trousers on the landing outside the bathroom. The lavatory and walls were plastered with the stuff and dear old Dad was nowhere to be seen. I went downstairs and found him in the kitchen attempting to wash his underpants in the sink which was clogged and overflowing. "Oh, hello Son - I've had a little accident", with a smile. I wept.
That was the last straw. I rang our GP and arranged for Dad to go into hospital. Two days later he was admitted to a geriatric unit where he was to remain until he died about eighteen months later. While he was in hospital he suffered a series of minor strokes. We were summoned by staff with such frequency that we began to think he would never die. After three nocturnal calls in as many weeks we told the staff that in future if we received a call during the night we would not come out until the morning. It was following such a call that he eventually died, just under an hour before we arrived at the hospital.
On the many frequent occasions when we visited him we frequently thought that if ever there was an undeniable argument in favour of euthanasia, or assisted suicide, this was it. Sometimes he was lying in bed weak, helpless and uncomprehending. At other times he was conscious and moving about, but clearly confused and frankly, not my Dad. But worst of all were the few occasions on which we briefly got a glimpse of the man he once was.
One such occurrence took place on Christmas Day, the year before he died. I offered to play the organ in the hospital chapel for their carol service and afterwards I visited Dad in his villa. He looked straight at me and said "Son, I hate this place. I wish I was dead." Our eyes filled up and we both began to sob.
Long after Dad's death I used to ponder the question "What if the doctors caring for my father had been able to assist him to die with dignity?" I found this question often led to other questions, such as "What if his doctors had suggested to me that it might be timely to end Dad's suffering?", or "What if I had found the courage to assist him to commit suicide?" But, another question which I found a little frightening was "Do I want Dad to be released from his suffering or from mine?" You see, some times there is a danger of looking at some one you love, who is slowly dying and in great distress, and to feel such personal pain at their condition that you want them to die because you just cannot bear another minute of it. This unfortunately is only a small step away from desiring some one's death because they have become objectionable or a nuisance to look after, or costly to maintain and perhaps eating into possible legacies.
It is to protect against this extra step and to minimise the possibility of any one being coerced either actively or inactively into agreeing to euthanasia that any possible legislation must be very carefully worded. Not only should the right to die in dignity be recognized and upheld by law, but the individual consciences of those persons who may be called upon to assist in acts of euthanasia, either by authorising, supplying, prescribing or procuring the means, advising on methodology, counselling or administering, must be honoured and protected. We must also recognize that for some people dying in dignity may mean seeing it through to the end. Their consciences too must be honoured and protected, and if that means providing hospices and extreme medical care then that is as it must be.
Those of us who believe that we have a right to determine when our own lives are no longer worth living due to unbearable physical or mental suffering, have a right to do so, but if we are to be taken seriously and not to be labelled as dangerous cranks we must rely upon the voice of gentle persuasion and afford alternative viewpoints the same respect we seek.
Once when I was visiting Dad he said "Hello Nathan, I haven't seen you for a while" (I visited him twice a week); "I'm just waiting for the liberty boat". That was the name given to the boat which took officers and crew from ship to shore and leave. I do not know if he really recognized me as his second officer, after whom I was named, was also called Nathan, but I thought "Dad, I hope your liberty boat comes in soon". It did, about three years too late.
© 1996 Nathan Kripz
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