Melinda had never seen anyone die or even seen a dead body, and she had only been to one funeral in her 43 years on the planet. Her view of death had come mainly from television and shows she downloaded from online.
However, now she was face-to-face with the specter of dying. Her best friend Peter had Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease and he was severely afflicted by dementia as a result. They said that only one in a million contract CJD, and Peter was the unfortunate odd person out. Melinda was taken aback by Peter’s calm outward demeanor as he broke the news to her. Peter and Melinda never held anything back from each other. After he had explained what the disease was and what it meant – that his brain would become like Swiss cheese rendering him intellectually impaired, later becoming comatose, and then dead – he stoically quipped, “Those are the cards we are dealt. I could become angry, but it wouldn’t help any.”
There was no known cure. Melinda was crestfallen. They weren’t married, and they weren’t a couple, but they had been lovers. What had always survived was their deep friendship, sharing confidences, and acting as sounding boards for each other, and through it all was a deep emotional attachment.
Because of their special relationship, Peter had asked Melinda that when the time came and he was no longer mentally there that he be allowed to depart peacefully. Peter had always been cerebral. He had learned all he could, and he had shared his knowledge with all who were interested. He was a college professor of psychology, so imparting knowledge and encouraging curiosity, rational inquiry, and problem solving had been his livelihood. He had been blessed.
“Don’t let me become an empty skeleton that requires constant care of others, especially you,” Peter had implored. “You know in many ancient cultures, when the time came that a person became a burden to the social group, they remained behind to await the end. I don’t want to be a burden.”
“But you wouldn’t be a burden. You could never be a burden to me,” countered Melinda.
Peter knew she believed that, but he also knew that when he might no longer recognize her, when he was incapable of toiletry, when he was completely dependent that she might regret taking responsibility for his care. This he could not accept for himself or for Melinda.
“Burden or not, what would my quality of life be? Having you in my life would make it rich, but it wouldn’t be the same. If it is up to me, then I don’t want to go out with a whimper.”
“Melinda, we both agreed that a person has a right to decide for himself when the pain or incapacity for life becomes more of a negative than a positive, then a person has the right to arrive at an informed decision on whether to continue or end life.”
“But you don’t suffer pain.”
“It is not just a matter of pain, I also said an ‘incapacity for life,’ where the quality of life is abysmally low.”
“What about anti-prion trials?”
“It is just that a trial, and while I would consider it, the truth is that I am beyond being accepted for such a trial. Look, I have given careful consideration to what my decision means, not just for myself, but for those who know me.”
Melinda didn’t want to concede anything about Peter departing the world, but in her heart, she knew he was right.
“I’m 60,” said Peter.” I’m not old, but I have lived 60 years. I have loved. I have experienced. It has been a good life. I’d like it to be longer, but not as a dependent shell of who I was. Don’t I have that right? Is it not my body and my life to decide as I choose? What right does the state have over the bodies of its citizens?”
After all, the major entity that truly stood in the way of Peter’s decision to go out on his own terms was the state.
“The state’s obligation is to protect its citizens, to ensure a quality of life for all its citizens, and to uphold the dignity and respect the human rights of all its citizens. I am a human, and I have rights. Dignity and respect demands that I, as a human, have the right to determine what is best for myself. That is all I am demanding. I am only demanding for myself what is my right.”
“When I am of sound mind, does the state or any politician have the right to deny me my right to decide for myself?”