Hook in the West
RECENTLY, I travelled to the UK to the funeral of one of my oldest friends. Tom had been instrumental in me meeting my wife, a mentor in my life and shared my enthusiasm for rugby. For the last three years Tom had been in a nursing home as sadly Alzheimers had taken hold and although his body retained much of the strength of his days as a destroyer commander in World War Two, he could no longer remember those of us that came to visit.
I was struck by the cultural difference between the British and the Irish in burying their dead. The Church of England seemed to be in an unseemly haste to send its member off to the next world. Three hymns a quick eulogy from the vicar and it was all over. I missed the lengthy Catholic ceremony, the tributes from friends or family and the panoply of the funeral mass.
The biggest difference however was the attendance. Given Tom’s involvement in business, rugby, the church and the community I was amazed by the paucity of the mourners. A man of his character and personality would have received a much bigger send off in Ireland. The British seem unwilling to travel or take time off to bury their dead. Happily some of his oldest friends raised a glass with me to a man that had always been generous to us, his trainees in the embryonic computer business of the sixties.
The trip back to Ireland was sad as I reflected on the Tom I knew for most of our friendship and the man that spent his last years unable to recognise his friends and family. I am at the age where I increasingly consider how I am going to depart this earth.
When my mother was in her eighties and living alone, she asked me to come and see her to discuss, as she put it, a personal issue. Over a cup of tea, she produced a bottle of sleeping pills that she had hoarded from previous prescriptions. The plan she outlined was simple. Her useful life was over and she did not want to be a burden on her family, so she intended taking the pills as we drank tea and I could stay with her until she died.
I was understandably horrified and successfully persuaded her to abort the plan on the basis that her family cared for her, she had years of useful life left and importantly if we continued along her chosen path, I would probably be jailed as an accessory.
Sadly, my mother’s fears proved prescient. Her son burdened with the pressures of his own family and weighed down by business worries saw less and less of her. Not a day passes that I do not regret being with her for however short periods to ease the loneliness.
Much of her final months were spent in the house wracked with pains of stomach cancer, yet too considerate to telephone her son to ask for help. I carried on working in America oblivious to the suffering of the woman that had brought me into this world and looked after me as man and boy. Her final days were in the loving care of hospital staff and I made a belated return to her death bed.
Those that know me and knew my mother invariably comment on personality likeness between us. Like her I think I would like to die at a time of my own choosing rather than exist in a closed mental world, suffer unbearable pain or live without independence. If my maker does exist in a better place then surely he is forgiving enough to welcome me in to his Kingdom a little earlier than scheduled.
Last week a loving mother was sent to jail for giving her son an overdose; the sentence reflected the fact that the boy was brain-damaged and not in a position to give informed consent. Therein lies the rub. At the very time when we most need help to end the suffering, we may be unable to communicate our needs.
Last year, a catastrophically injured young rugby player felt he could no longer carry on and his loving parents went with him to a clinic in Switzerland that catered for assisted suicides. It happened outside the legal jurisdiction of the UK so the parents escaped prosecution.
The state is already applying pressure on the old. Being cared for in a residential home means that one’s pension is sequestered, additional charges may be levied and a portion of the family home taken after death.
Government fails to see the contradiction between the treatment of people with complicated illness requiring long term hospital stay and high-tech treatment and the care of the aged. Why should one be free and the other expensive.
Societies are judged by their care of the young and the old. Increasingly the so-called civilised world is failing that test. If the country is about to fail me then I believe I should have the right to decide when I want to opt out.