(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, February 21, 2015)
KAMPALA, UGANDA ✦ He was Swiss and we were talking over coffee and he said he’d just read my story about Canada’s new look at assisted suicide. He spoke as if I’d written on this, which I had not, or maybe he called it my story simply because I’m Canadian.
He said he didn’t know what all the fuss was about. Europe, after all, liberated itself from any shameful baggage on assisted suicide long ago. If you want to die, he explained, you can easily go to places and doctors for help.
Yes, Europe got its enlightened look at doing yourself in at least as far back as Goethe when, much to his later regret, the young German philosopher wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther, a semi-autographical novel of a sensitive and lovesick young man who wore yellow pants and a blue topcoat.
Werther had fallen hopelessly into the pain of unrequited love and eventually reasoned the only escape to happiness and freedom was to shoot himself in the head. After Goethe’s novel took off, more than a few young Germans were found strewn across the country in the same colourful attire with self-inflicted bullets to the head. It became fashionable.
This is freedom, one of those words that gets rather threadbare when overused, one of those great ideals that can turn into a distasteful parody of itself.
No, it seems to me that even the most free of us aren’t entirely free any more than the happiest among us are entirely happy. This is because this world, even at its best, is a gilded cage, one that points to the hope and truth that there must be something more eternally satisfying elsewhere.
I didn’t say this to my Swiss friend. Nor did I suggest Canadians will now run around in yellow pants and blue topcoats to go and exit life stage-right. I said nothing on happiness or Goethe or bullets to the brain or even what I might know about unrequited love.
Neither did I say anything about the mystery of suffering, how suffering refines some people like gold – see it here in Africa – while others just get hardened like iron or cheap-sounding like tin.
Instead I wondered aloud about Canadian courts lording it over elected officials and how Ottawa might now somehow craft a reasonable law that still considers citizens who are hurting and vulnerable, Canadians who won’t always have the power or well-being to choose life for themselves.
Then I told my Swiss friend about a loved-one from my own family who was so horribly sick that she ended her life one dark day in her Berlin apartment – I was barely in kindergarten – and how I have no doubt that, in her deep depression and inability to think clearly, she would have asked a doctor for help to kill herself if it were legal then.
Yes, just who will protect these people from themselves? Who will protect them also from certain doctors now more interested in just another method of expedient billing than medicine’s centuries-old oath to preserve life?
When I told my Swiss friend about my dead loved one – she was my mother – his eyes welled up. I had shared more than he wanted, I suppose. Maybe he also sensed other things, important but hidden things, that didn’t need to be spoken.
This is my story. It’s what I’m married to, for better or worse. It’s my song. Life for family survivors of suicide may go on somehow, even with great hope and healing, but it’s never without scars. Many families never fully recover.
Now and then I have moments when I wonder what she, my dead mother, might want to say to me, even in moments like this. This too is a mystery.
“I’m sorry. Will you forgive me? The view is so different from here,” is what I’m imagining. Or is it just my imagination? “I want you to open your eyes. Life is a gift. Live it with joy, even knowing that suffering is a part of it too. Now sing it with every last breathe you’re given.”
Do you hear it? Because this is not just my story anymore. Soon it might be yours.