Life sentence without parole
After a long and full life my 90 year-old good friend, Eleanore, is worn out. While wearing herself down she’s endured at least the usual load of heartbreaks and ecstasies, doing her best for the good of family and others. She surely deserves better than the fate she’s inherited.
An only child, her family was neither privileged nor deprived of life’s essentials. Her legally-blind father was a successful businessman. She describes herself as a tree climbing, baseball-loving tomboy during the day, who listened to Tigers games and classical music with the lights off in her bedroom late into the night.
She was a mid-year high school and college graduate who immediately ran into the type of challenge that would hound her forever. Gaining a firm grasp and managing life often seemed just beyond her reach.
As a newly minted teacher, her first job was as a fill-in for a Spring Semester elementary-school vacancy. Staff, teachers, students and parents always seemed to know each other better than she knew them.
That summer after graduation she married and, within a few weeks, moved to a distant city so her husband could further his education. Living under newly-wed, student circumstances, a new teacher in another unfamiliar school system, she discovered she was pregnant and chronically tired, with morning sickness.
The next summer, with her husband’s education completed, they moved back to more familiar circumstances. He joined the family business. She had more babies. They became bulwarks of the community. Life established a level of stability; manageable but never seeming to be fully under control.
Any fantasies they may have had of living happily ever after once their children reached adulthood dissipated. As an emerging adult their oldest, a brilliant musician became chronically ill, incapacitated, and died in his seventh decade. Their other offsprings’ lives were periodically disconcerting and sometimes burdensome on them. There was strife among the parents and their siblings. The family split.
During this time her husband was the full owner of the business. She was protector and frequently care giver for her one hundred year-old mother-in-law. As they approached retirement their home became party central whenever siblings and their families visited from out of town.
Nevertheless, there were great reunions for their side of the family, which was natural as she was an excellent cook and gracious host. For her, it was a labor of love. Though there were problems, having a large family made up for her sometimes lonely childhood.
Though everyone pitched in to help, she bore the brunt of the work. Her stamina gradually dwindled. She saw several medical specialists and, at the strong suggestion of her family, was thoroughly evaluated at a world-famous clinic. There were no magic pills or curative surgeries for her condition.
She stopped playing tennis, but still had lunches and birthday parties with long-time friends and partners. After retiring she and her husband joined a gym. But regular exercise for its own sake never fit either of their interests or styles.
They hired trainers to help with physical conditioning, but aches, pains and fatigue became reasons to not work out. They moved into a retirement center where she had regular physical therapy appointments. She referred to the therapy room as a torture chamber.
Her strength and conditioning deteriorated. She became less interested in going to the symphony and shows in the local theatre, and began staying home because she just didn’t have the energy to walk down the long hall or sit through an entire program.
What are called the dwindles continued until she can no longer dress herself. She can walk with a walker, but needs help getting up from a chair to use it.
For more than a decade it’s been obvious she’s given up on life, but is unable to do anything about it. She prefers resting or napping in bed. While up she complains of having no energy. At the retirement center I occasionally eat with her and her husband. The last time she whispered in my ear she wishes she could just go to sleep and not wake up.
Eleanore is universally respected and deeply loved by her family. She’s completed a full life. If she were a treasured Golden Retriever she’d have been mercifully euthanized. Indeed, a pet owner who kept her alive in her condition would be roundly criticized and perhaps reported for animal cruelty.
But in today’s culture she’s banished to an existence of perpetual, intolerable suffering. A life sentence without parole. Within the next century euthanasia, or at least assistance with suicide, will come out of their closets and be accepted as compassionate, humane methods of ending endless suffering like she endures.