Monday 19 August 2019

Lay of the Land: For not sweet mystery, only modern medicine

Anaesthetist Frederic Pechier (47) is suspected of injecting lethal doses of potassium chloride to trigger cardiac arrests on the operating table. (stock photo)
Anaesthetist Frederic Pechier (47) is suspected of injecting lethal doses of potassium chloride to trigger cardiac arrests on the operating table. (stock photo)

Fiona O'Connell

The song Sweet Mystery of Life seems apt right now in the country; when you witness winter give way to the birth of another spring. Speaking of which, Mother's Day falls on the last Sunday of this month. Though sad mockeries of it have long marked my personal calendar; like this time last year, when my mother took her last steps. Echoing the antithesis joyful milestone of a child taking its first.

But while legislation now spares the agony of carrying babies doomed to die, those at the other end of life's spectrum must travel abroad to end their suffering.

Approximately 10 Irish citizens a year avail of assisted suicide in Swiss clinics, according to Tom Curran, whose partner Marie Fleming died from multiple sclerosis in December 2013. The courageous couple fought in vain to give a person - and not parliament - the right to decide when enough is enough.

Certainly, some of us with loved ones in similar circumstances find it ironic that a ban, which supposedly protects the vulnerable from abuse, forces them to endure hopeless suffering.

As eminent ecologist David Goodall, who expressed resentment at having to travel from his home in Australia to end his life last year at the age of 104 put it, "one wants... to be free to choose death when the death is at an appropriate time".

His last meal was his favourite: fish and chips followed by cheesecake. Ode to Joy from Beethoven's 9th symphony played during his final minutes on earth. A beautiful ending - and one that my mother, a trained singer who won awards at Feis Ceoils, has no chance of experiencing.

Given she is losing the ability to swallow even the blended food that is nudged into her mouth, already terrified by painful coughing fits. While soon after forgetting how to walk last March, she lost the power of speech.

This shy and private woman communicates with her eyes, which never leave my face as she is hoisted out of her bed. Sometimes she dry cries, as I call the way her face screws up in frustrated despair, though tears don't fall.

I remember all the times she told me that she wouldn't want to live if this ever happened to her. And I nod at the news that antibiotics helped her overcome another infection. So she can go on, like some Beckett character.

I go on too, within ever-decreasing circles, my words of reassurance ringing ever more hollow as her deterioration intensifies. I play the music she used to love - the Anvil Chorus from Verdi's opera Il Trovatore that she performed as part of the chorus in the Gaiety Theatre. Or the poignant Send in the Clowns that she once sang in such rich contralto tones.

I mourn each Mother's Day where the only gift that the woman who brought me into this world wants is forbidden: freedom from the constant fear that her world has become. For not sweet mystery but modern medicine has the monopoly on that.

Sunday Independent

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