They came to collect his body, but there was a problem. He wasn’t dead yet.
They were a day early.
Franks* death day was Friday, but some clerk somewhere made a scheduling error, and so the sober-faced black-clad funeral employees showed up with their steel gurney in tow on Thursday.
I first notice them as they are beating a hasty retreat from our building.
“What? Are you doing a practice run?” I ask quizzically.
Chagrined, they told me what had just happened.
Frank had answered their knock on his door.
“We are here to pick up Frank.”
“But I’m not dead yet! That’s tomorrow.”
“We are so sorry! Good day, sir!”
Going through with M.A.I.D (medical assistance in dying) must be traumatic enough, but then to add to the stress, a Monty Python-esk blunder such as this one must have been overwhelming.
I take the stairs two at a time to check on Frank to see how he is doing.
Uncharacteristically, this anti-social hermit invites me in. Normally, I wouldn’t have gone in. There is an eighth of an inch of nicotine that has painted his entire room, turning it from white to brown. In the hot summer months, it bleeds and forms long, sticky, smelly drip strains that snake down the walls. Adding to this frightful sight are the billows of cigarette smoke that have to be contended with for any brave enough to enter, but this is a special situation. Frank will be dead tomorrow. I decide I can spare a few moments.
“Isn’t this just my luck!” He exclaims.
What do you say to a man with less than 24 yours to live? I start with,
“I’m so sorry about your terminal diagnosis and about this screw-up.”
“Terminal diagnosis? I don’t have one of those. I’m fine. It’s just that I can’t see or hear very well anymore, and I’m tired of spilling my damn coffee all the time!”
“Oh, ok, well, uh,…” I was immediately shocked by the non-emergency that had precipitated his decision to end his life.
“How are you doing?” I ventured.
To my utter surprise, this quiet, typically grumpy old man starts singing!
He closes his eyes, lifts his head and sings with passion amidst the clouds of smoke in his dingy apartment. Clearly, this 1927 show tune is his swan song, His ending anthem. His dying truth.
“Life gets weary I’m sick of tryin’ I’m tired of livin’ but scared of dyin’ — Old man river he just keeps rollin’ along.”
He’s come to the end. He can think of no more reasons to live; he wants to be done with life, but even still, he is terrified of dying.
“It’s understandable for me to be scared out of my mind to die, don’t you think?” He half tells me, half asks me. “Look at me I’ve been drinking coffee all day to try to calm my nerves.”
“Do you want to die tomorrow?” I ask
“No!” He yells, “Who wants to die? But I don’t have a choice, I need to die tomorrow.”
I am flummoxed; of course, he doesn’t need to die, but in his mind, he does.
“I just hope they put some really strong anti-anxiety medicine in the I.V. before they finish me off tomorrow.”
What kind of conversation is this? I wonder to myself.
“When were you born?” I ask, hoping to turn the conversation away from the morbidity of the moment.
“I was born, on June 22, 1938. The day that Joe Louis got his title back from Max Schmeling. Joe knocked him out cold in Berlin in front of Hitler! It only took him one round to knock out that nazi bastard.”
Turns out, the fight took place in New York at Yankee Stadium, and Schmelling was never really good at being a Nazi, but this is how Frank remembered the day he came into the world. He talked on about boxing, baseball, and horse racing.
“God I really loved horse racing, but I’m 85, I’ve had my time, I’ve lived a full life. It’s time to be done. Vancouver is done, too. Every since Expo 86, this city has gone to the dogs. You know what else is crappy around here? The food! We used to have really good food at the manor, now all they serve us is slop.”
Frank was starting to sound like his old self now. It was time for me to go. The clouds of smoke produced by his chain smoking habit felt like they were taking years off my life.
We shook hands. He thanked me for being a good building administrator. I asked him if there was anything he needed.
“No” he said. “Its just really strange to think that tomorrow I will be dead. I’m scared, but I want this on my terms and no one else’s.”
Death day came. The nurse showed up and chatted with me for a long while, both before and after she helped Frank escape the world.
She took time off her holiday to help end his life. She is passionate about the noble work she believes she is doing. What an honour to grant a suffering person their final wish to end their suffering. In her mind, there is nothing sinister or dark about what she does. As both an ER nurse and then in Palliative care this woman had seen enough suffering. Was it always necessary to suffer until the bitter end? — No, not according to her.
“What about abuse of the system? Can you see relatives encouraging their parents or grandparents to die sooner rather than later so they can collect inheritance money?
“No system is perfect but hopefully those kinds of abuses are few and far between. We just have to trust the process,” she said.
She explained how the rules had broadened over the years. She put it succinctly for me.
“If you’re over 18 and don’t want to live anymore and you don’t have a mental illness diagnosis, and you can convince the assessor that you need to die, then you can go away, suffering is suffering and if it’s too much for someone then they have the right to end their suffering in a humane, dignified way.
There is no pressure from us to have someone go trough with it. If they change their mind a second before the needle goes in we will stop immediately.”
“How many have stopped last second like this?”
“In all my years there hasn’t been a single one. Everyone that gets to this point is completely convinced that it’s there time to go.”
She told me that, Frank had met his death with laughter and loud music. His only family member had driven in from out of town to to support him in his passing and clean out the room after it was all over.
“What were his last words?” I ask.
Moments before the lethal dose went into the I.V. he had reiterated his conviction:
“I don’t really want to die but I have to.”
With his brain sharp and his body still functioning reasonably well, I felt like he had so much more to live for. He still had some good tread left on his tires! But he didn’t see it that way.
Was this a tragedy? A valued human life succumbing to depression, loneliness and despair and as a result gone too soon?
Or was this a noble end? A valued human life tired out and needing to be freed from the pain of his own existence?
What do you think?