Once there was a world of bright air and conversation; once there was a house, its rooms filled with laughter. There was a woman whose arms were soft and consolation swift; a melee of children, a barking of dogs, a cat that would lay across his knees, singing to him.
Once there was a bed where he might wile away hours in sleep and dreaming. He no longer sleeps. The mist that has closed upon his mind has drawn a veil across his memories – all are faded, all gone; wilted like the last rose until only the naked briar is left. There is a cold wind in the briar.
Now there is just a chair and a room, and beyond it there is silence. Through the watches of the night he sits nursing his pain as he has done for countless nights, contemplating the chasm beyond the walls. Somewhere out in the ether sits a firefly of change, but it will not dance yet, not until a darkness deep enough to glorify its light has descended. As dawn smolders into the flame of morning it withdraws once more, waiting.
He also waits, knowing (or is it hoping?) it is there. Hoping it will come to him as it did the summer he died, five years ago. When his heart gave notice, that warm green afternoon, it danced for him, and though he felt welcomed by its light, he could not follow where it led. Jolted back to existence, he was prevented.
When he asked the man with shining skin and smiling stare why he should be made to stay the man spoke of a higher plateau where the hibiscus of his youth would grow again and the sweetness of forgotten scents, the smell of woman and the cry of wheeling rooks was eternal. The open path where he walked once, that person said, was waiting, but he might only earn his place there through suffering.
Are you suffering, shining man? Do you really know what suffering is?
The window curtains are grey with morning. Soon ‘Twice Daily’ will come to draw them, to wash the humiliation from a body which although attached to him is no longer his. There will be food and pills and she will leave. For the hours until another night his rebellious heart will keep beating. He will struggle to catch each fleeting breath, reaching within himself to tear out the gossamer strands that clog his lungs, his instinct for survival denying him the final rest his head cries out for.
But oblivion will not come to him – not for another day, and then another, and so many more; while all the time the firefly hovers just beyond his grasp, patiently waiting.
Just recently a lady I knew well ceased to breathe. I could not grieve for her passing because to me, to all of us who knew her, she died four years ago. She died the night her heart surrendered. She was eighty-two.
Once, upon what some would say was a less civilized time, she might have lingered a few hours, or perhaps a few days, then passed with her family around her. Everyone would remember her for the light that shone from her before she was stricken, and the world would move on. Once.
Instead, those who loved her cried for help. Instead, she was revived. Her chest was cut open, a pig’s valve was sewn into her heart and the tubes that had been clogged with the years of living were replaced. Her body was returned to life, and life became her prison.
Did she live longer? Certainly, yes. Was the time valuable to her, an active, practical woman who loved to go out, to tend her garden, to keep house, to walk? When she could no longer do any of these things, did she live longer?
I cannot say that any but the very best of intentions brought her back from the precipice, or that we should not stand in awe of all that medical science has achieved and can do. I would be wrong to question the motives of any who strove to save her and give her those few extra years; but I do wonder whether we fully understand a cliche we use too freely and too often: ‘the quality of life’.
Somewhere along the way, in our ardor to progress, to make advances in medical science, something has gone wrong. A balance has failed, we have tipped over an edge of reason into an abyss of our own creation. It is time to step back and look again.
It is time to consider, since we now have power over life and death, how we should use it.