Death Pill

by Kate Petre 


    On March 27, 2007, the California Assembly Judiciary Committee passed Assembly Bill 374, aka The California Compassionate Choices Act, which allows doctors to prescribe lethal overdoses to terminally ill patients that are believed to have less than six months to live. If the bill continues through the state senate, it will allow mentally fit but physically decrepit people to alleviate the pain and fear that come with death and skip to the good stuff. Leave it to America to legalize dispensed death (buy stock now).

    At the bill’s hearing, those that gave testimony in its favor were either related to or were themselves terminally ill patients with a rainbow of painful and demobilizing diseases that would make any compassionate god proud. These people felt (or spoke for those who felt) what it was like to want to die, a very powerful and, in a way, cherished feeling.

    One of the only things we are capable of controlling is premature death. Suicide is our birthright. The last brave act of a cowardly life can be the blissful jump or slice or swallow or squeeze. Technically illegal, suicide is the last act of revolt to pull oneself out of the system of society and defiantly whimper, “This is mine and I’m going to take it.” In this world of regulated piss breaks, don’t ask permission to die. Be bold enough to figure out how to kill yourself without legislation. Yet perhaps it isn’t the suicide - excuse me, physician assisted death that’s the problem, but indeed, its result.

    When I was ten years old I peered in at my grandfather lying in his best grey suit, pounds of makeup causing his face to puff and bulge like an obese woman’s fatty thighs; his eyes, nose and mouth like strips of pinched cellulite flesh. It looked nothing like my grandfather. He died in a car crash; a bald-tired van impaled his tin-can Nissan truck in the middle of a wet intersection. His head must have been destroyed for them to pump up and restructure his face so inhumanly. There must have been blood and bits of skull everywhere, his body must have been completely crooked. Maybe he cried out or winced or even screamed. I imagine this because of the movies for that is the only place I’ve seen death in action. For me, death’s reality is make-up and a best suit. Death has always had ceremony, but it has, within modern times, become nothing but ceremony. Death as a reality has been killed.

    Like many things in this over grown ant-hill of a civilization, we have over-processed the meaning of life on the most basic level, that is, to not die. It has become so easy for us Americans not to die that the trick now is to live as long as possible. Everyday, everyone from scientists to school teachers are discovering both directly and indirectly new ways to die. Soon to follow are the prevention measures, the hand rails, the insecticides, the declarations that this will cause cancer. Our survival instinct is like a doll to the video game of the FDA. We have developed such an extraordinarily efficient anti-death society that we expect measures have been taken, tests have been done, areas have been roped off and edges dulled so that we are able to walk anywhere and stick anything in our mouths without thinking about it first. We no longer need innate sensory signals to tell us the meat is bad; we have USDA ratings. And if the government approves of chemical formulas like Red Bull well then, by god, enjoy! But on the other side of that coin, there is so much that is filtered for us, so much that is wrapped up and compartmentalized and labeled with detailed instructions, that when we feel something, really feel something for which there doesn’t seem to be a process, like the depression and shame of being frightened of failure (oh, wait they have pills for that now, too), we can’t figure out how to use that doll we abandoned so long ago. So we turn to our keepers and ask, “This thing that I’m feeling, do you know what it is? Is it ok? Can you fix it?”

    Death has become this thing. And although AB 374 is a result of this, the effects reach much, much deeper. No matter what we do, we can’t fix death. Life will end. But, as with most quagmires we American’s find ourselves in, we’ve refused to accept our powerlessness and instead have constructed a pretty charade that sweeps real death behind a plastic curtain of smiling faces in the Disneyland tradition. These days, death is not a part of daily life, it is designated to isolated places like Iraq, old-folks’ homes, hospitals, deep, deep in the forest, in an old dog (but even Patches’ body is hidden from the children), newspapers, movies and TV and, for those of you that still read them, books. Rarely do we see the splatter of blood and guts on our clothes, or hear screams in our ears; rarely do we feel that fleeting, aching moment when a vibrant life standing close at once expires despite its tragically useless attempt to the contrary. This used to be commonplace (and still is in much of the world). This is not to say that everywhere outside the US people are dying violent, messy deaths. Many people do die in bed of old age, but it takes months not years. There is more sentiment and less sterilization and staff infection. Apart from the odd fat man keeling over from a heart attack at your local bistro (as everyone stares waiting for the paramedics to arrive), we usually find ourselves cringing bedside for years, watching a person waste away monitored and yellowing, his irises slowing clouding over more and more while everyone waits anxiously, even impatiently, for the moment the expiring stops fighting and just dies. The very fact that our machines and medicine can lengthen a life, however wasted and decrepit, makes us believe we still have a little control and somehow this postponed death has become better, less painful, less frightening.

    In postponing the lives of the old and sick through hospitals and drugs we have limited their ability to enjoy what’s left. In the same vein, the young and healthy have been reared on vitamins, check-ups and the fear of what will happen if they actually do drink the water so that our entire country has become a huge hospital bed. (Sandwich makers in Paris do not use plastic gloves and do not wash their hands after handling money. Risks abound.) And in favoring this slowly regulated death, we’ve deprogrammed our natural acceptance of it, making it something that is to be avoided at all costs and for which it is worth exchanging dignity and the joy of risk. And now little Sally isn’t allowed to stick her hands in the pond at the park because their might be some horrible bacterial agent that will leach onto her large intestines and slowly chew her to death. And this whole process starts so early that she doesn’t even do it anyway! We have allowed ourselves to become carefully monitored from birth because of the fear of death. Death has become an incurable illness that we’ve all got, instead of the much needed rest at the end of a long and crazy life.

    But behold Death, he comes. And as he slowly makes his way, the entire society gathers around the victim, and in an instant of expected betrayal, we push him behind that happy plastic curtain so Death won’t bother us (ewww, death! Get it away! Get it away!). Why? Because we can. Despite the elderly’s ever-increasing numbers, their failing bodies and minds can’t contribute to a society that isn’t made for them, so death-fearing people hide them away. Although cruel, our country has never been known for its compassion towards individuals who can’t take care of themselves; there is a point when it actually becomes hopeless to fight for life and the rest of us just give up. The only people that see these old people die are the nursery home workers who professionally and tenderly sweep them up and lay them to rest according to a family that has already been looking at them for years as if looking at an old picture, if they’ve looked at them at all.

    Back to AB 374. The terminally ill of whatever age have in essence contracted Old Age. They have prematurely entered into the realm of the pretty-much-dead. It’s not physical pain from which they suffer (although that seems to make the most sense) but the fact that they’ve been pushed behind the plastic curtain too early; it’s dark back there and living people don’t see you anymore. Like being the nerd in school, you don’t feel valuable to society and, frankly, the sick and dying rarely are. Instead of being a part of life, a life that refuses to admit death, they are daily living death and there’s just no point in doing that. Or is there?

    In 1984, the late, non-NAZI-affiliated pope wrote a treatise entitled “The Christian Meaning of Human Suffering.” Not trying to assign any religious dogma to the matter, the old Pope’s words have a certain clarity for even the least moralistic of readers: “When a body is gravely ill, totally incapacitated, and the person is almost incapable of living and acting, all the more do interior maturity and spiritual greatness become evident, constituting a touching lesson to those who are healthy and normal.” (It almost begs the question, wouldn’t we all benefit from a little torture?). Death is painful. It hurts. It is anguish to slowly feel yourself expire. But like riding your bike through the mountains, the toughest climbs are often the most rewarding. And if not, then maybe life is a boring, painful mess and its end will come as a cool breath of ever sweet relief.

    And if you still truly want to die, then push that button by your skeletal hand and roll your Rascal out into the forest to hear the birds one last time before the wolves get to you. Slap the nurse’s tush hard enough that you fall off your bed — at least you’ll die with a smile on your face and a piece of ass in your hand. Have some dignity and die like the animal you are, not like some test subject gone wrong.

    The way things are headed, when my face finally begins to wrinkle and my body sag, as things start hurting and cracking and popping, I will become increasing more terrified of death. And at 123 when my frail, purpled body finally can’t take the preservatives being pumped into it anymore, and I’ve watched all of the reruns of some future reality show where “real” people do the things I’ve always wanted to do, I can ask the doc for some little pill to be placed in my mouth so I can drift into death without being bothered. And my little ten-year-old great grand daughter (my grand daughter will probably be in her forties) will look in at me in my casket, if she is allowed to see me at all, and furrow her brow at a beautiful, smooth-skinned women of undetermined age that some how reminds her of her great grandma, but looks much more pretty and much less real.

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