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58535Assisted Suicide

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  • Mary
    Nov 16, 2012
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      The following combines my impressions of the film Mar Adentro (The Sea Inside) with a biographical sketch written several years ago. Hopefully it demonstrates how literature, film, and politics can intersect with personal experience. I apologize for its length.

      I was married on August 24th, 1968, in the Midwestern United States. The day before, under the same sun in Galicia, Spain, Ramón Sampedro stood atop his favorite diving spot, thinking about a woman. Distracted, he didn't notice that the riptide at the base of the ocean cliff had pulled the water out and down to a dangerous level. Without thinking he dove, broke his neck, was instantly paralyzed, and floated between life and death. Drowning would have been merciful. Instead, a friend pulled him out of the water. Twenty-five years later I would have my own cataclysm, and 5 years after that, Ramón would successfully convince his friends to assist his suicide. About eleven o'clock, on the evening of November 11th, 1993, eleven years to the day from my mother's suicide, I hovered between life and death on the side of a mountain in Colorado. And the only thought running through my mind, as I listened to gasoline trickling from the carburetor of my flattened pick-up truck was, "I've got to get out of here. My kids need me." The firefighters' jaws-of-life extricated me, and a flight-for-life helicopter lifted me off the side of Schaeffer's Crossing, near Pine Junction . . .

      I confess to reading other reviews of this highly praised and awarded film about a quadriplegic's request for euthanasia. (Oscars, Golden Globes, 52 wins and 26 other nominations). Otherwise, I might have missed the depth of stupidity in its detractors. Their lame reviews read like a plethora of Green Day clones with their enlightened and no doubt well thought out objective arguments. In other words, these reviews had the passionate scream of heavy electric rock but with whiny pubescent voices who actually believe their bullshit wisdom. Mar Adentro neither degrades the disabled, nor demeans their demand to die. Ramón Sampedro was much more generous with his opponents' points of view than I could ever be. Only the disabled who didn't approve of this movie have a bitch. The others are meaningless spit in the wind.

      "When you can't escape, and you constantly rely on everyone else, you learn to cry by smiling, you know?" Was Sampedro's patience simply exhausted anger? His loving family's dedication to keeping him alive was demonstrated by their excellent care for him. Well-educated on Spinal Cord Injuries (SCI means both the condition and the afflicted) they never allowed him to succumb to the common complications leading to death: pressure sores, pneumonia, blood clots, cardiovascular diseases, and bowel or kidney failure. Before his accident, his father and brother made their living as fishermen, and Ramón himself had been a sailor-mechanic who traveled the world. They completely changed their lives, moving inland to a farm, in order to keep him alive. They needn't have bothered: he wanted to die.

      Despite his condition, or perhaps because of it, five women loved Sampedro. (The film condenses them into only two characters.) They wanted him to live; but he couldn't make love with them, and that mattered to him. Finally though, it was the rare love of a few that enabled them to arrange his suicide. This was the only proof of love that Ramón demanded. They covertly organized a group, where each conspirator would complete a specific, necessary, but non-prosecutable act to help him die. And in return for their kindness he tells the government, "You can punish [the person helping me] if you want.. But you know that what you will simply be doing is seeking revenge when, in fact, I am the only person responsible for my actions." In support of his right to euthanasia, one thousand strangers purchased keys to his apartment as a gambit to frustrate the authorities. Spanish police tried to find out who was behind the camera of his video taped suicide, and who helped prepare the potassium cyanide, but eventually they gave up.

      But for 30 years before his adieu, day in and day out, he wanted to die. They kept him alive like the maimed Grail Fisher King; and it was this very same affliction, the inability to make love with his body or to father children, that tormented him. Instead of a boat on a lake, Ramón lay in his bed, composing poetry with a pen that someone had to place in his mouth; looking out the window towards the distant sea; and occasionally catching its scent on the wind.

      This reminds me of another legend, the one about Jesus. He had his harem too, platonic, we are told. We are also led to believe he was celibate and never fathered any children. Alternative history and apocryphal versions have it differently however, and that at least one woman became his consort or wife, Mary Magdalene. He may have had progeny. Perhaps the whole story has been stripped of its obvious connections with fertility rites of the calendar goddess to whom Jesus was sacrificed. What's relevant here is that he spent three hours on a cross. Ramón spent three decades enduring the nearly unendurable. You tell me who suffered more and who deserved the right to leave his devotees.

      Joseph Campbell recounts an amazing legend from the Hindu Panchatantra about four Brahmins, four quills and the Terror-Joy Wheel crown. I see Sampedro as suffering and rejecting it, as savior of no one, not carrying the weight of the world, only a granite memorial to his own former self. His absurd agony was not a joy. All the love in the world directed towards him couldn't change how he felt about himself as a burden to be moved in space and time. He longed to be set free into Oblivion.

      One of the film's most intimate scenes shows Ramón's habit of sharing a cigarette with a woman. Erotic and humorous (he hoped he might get lung cancer) the scene sadly portrays all that's left of his life, a few minutes that slightly approximate sensuality. To ease his pain I suppose he could've passed his days with alcohol and drugs, but I figure nobody could afford that. No, he wouldn't be taking Chogyam Trungpa's path to enlightenment. No opportunity for Sampedro to practice the Rinpoche's "crazy wisdom". Without orgasms that path might be very boring. Maybe Ramón's craving for death was crazy wisdom.

      The focus of Mar Adentro is on his final years, surrounded by the family who loves him so very much and his devoted euthanasia advocates; so much a life affirming environment that I found myself wanting this man to live. Such a witty, handsome, intelligently vital, and yes, formerly robust man, initially evoked in me only a weak and grudging approval of his yearning for suicide. However, through occasional flashbacks to the life lost to him, the film poignantly makes his point.

      The story is adapted from his memoir, Letters From Hell (not yet translated into English), documentaries, interviews with family and friends, and the videotape of his suicide. Isn't it ironic that if Ramón Sampedro had won his right to euthanasia, we might never know his story. The Sea Inside has a wonderfully eclectic soundtrack - modern and traditional Spanish songs, Wagner, Beethoven, Puccini's Nessun dorma, and Galician Celtic tunes. Alejandro Amenábar co-produced, directed, co-wrote the screenplay, wrote for and scored the soundtrack. I have nothing negative to say about this movie.

      A Spanish quadriplegic priest tells Sampedro that freedom without a life isn't freedom, and he retorts, "A life without freedom is not a life." Ramón and his supporters appealed to the government of Spain, then a newly formed secular state. Another euthanasia advocate, Michael Schiavo, appealed to his supposedly secular government on behalf of his wife, Terri. Our country's political and religious leaders then zealously demonstrated how frightfully close we are to becoming a fascist, fundamentalist Christian theocracy. Michael was thoroughly vilified.

      Poor Terri Schiavo would have been appalled to know that her body was paraded in public, her dignity destroyed by her parents' love. She most certainly wouldn't have wanted that as her farewell, a 15-year spectacle. Terri died because of her vanity, her appetite to be thin and beautiful. Here too, we can admire her family's attentive care, but it was unnecessary. Terri's expressed wish to die should have been respected.

      The voices of opposition predictably issue from the religious, and sadly sometimes even the from disabled themselves. They believe they should determine how and when someone dies. They assume an indecent authority. Their stance is philosophically and illogically contradictory: doesn't Heaven sound like a much better place? Why are they always so reluctant to help someone get there? Except of course, in the case of capital punishment when they are in a hurry to send criminals there. Are they certain they're sending them to Hell? What if the sinner repents? Is it the Aquinian perspective: save their souls by killing them? The opponents of assisted suicide fear an unethical slaughter of society's already unfortunate victims. Like that doesn't happen everyday anyway.

      But to die and know there's nothing else takes much more courage than to die and hope for something better. Perhaps the determination to continue in such a condition is admirable, but Sampedro felt otherwise. He trusted his own hunch - nothing before or after life. To return to nothing isn't such a big deal. C'est néant. To base a future decision, euthanasia, on your present thoughts and feelings, is absurd enough. How absurd is it to decide for someone else, for someone who is alive and reasoning with you? Ramón wasn't vegetative: he coveted his death in his present.

      He respected the opposite perspective of other disabled persons, but he wanted autonomy to choose his death with dignity. Sampedro said, "Life is a right, not an obligation." Human life is serendipitous; an evolutionary anomaly; a privilege and a joy, but it's also capricious and horrible. To end our own suffering is a responsible and very human privilege. Instead, the evangelists of truth and justice descend like vultures with Bibles and good intentions, their nets straining out gnats. They leave compassion to flop about like dead fish.

      So give me liberty and give me death. This latter unalienable right is written nowhere except on the heart, especially the kind that loves and suffers. Who can attribute meaning to a life except that person? This right is so fundamentally significant that it defies legal definition as a freedom. It's just true. Is it really a selfish freedom for someone who can never again enjoy their own flesh, let alone anyone else's; for someone who only has a brain to remind them of what they can never be? If I remember my biology correctly, the requirements for a living organism are: eating & drinking, breathing, mobility, and reproduction. If these are assisted by technology do they equate? Ramón didn't think so.

      He eschewed chaired wheels, and many wheelchair bound `plegics are offended. But imagine that the only meaning of your life remains in dreams and fantasies. Dreams of zero-gravity, flying, a trip to the moon, sky-diving, jets at mach whatever. Dream that you can lust wildly, moving freely in any dance. Then imagine the disappointment of being offered a groovy techno-marvelous wheel-chair that must be orally maneuvered. For some, that's enough. But, "Why should I settle for crumbs?"

      Sampedro was no Sisyphus, the absurd hero: he didn't take silent joy in rolling his stone uphill. But Ramón did know that his fate belonged to him and that the rock just wasn't his thing. He was more a mélange of Jean Cocteau's version of Orpheus, floating through time with his seductive Princess of Death, and Cocteau's ghostly angel, Heurtebise, himself a suicide who loved Eurydice. Ramón turned his talking head one last time, took the poison meant only for himself, and spoke his last words. No one would be rolling him around his stage anymore.

      Often the disabled are able to work despite pain and exhaustion; because they want to, and because the law guarantees that right. Many SCI's advocate various related causes. We write about it. We lobby Congress. We donate and dedicate our lives to research, as did our courageous Christopher Reeve; but these are personal choices, not absolutes. The only absolute is death, and we have the right to meet it on our own terms.

      All your research, clever opinions, and subjective wisdom can't begin to approximate what it feels like to be paralyzed. Even if you have an SCI, you can only know how you experience your body and emotions, not how every other SCI does. We intellectually understand that each injury is amazingly unique, and yet we feel so strongly about the issue of suicide that we risk violating another SCI's freedom to choose.

      Take the worst moment of your life; extrapolate its eternity, its infinity of contingencies; then multiply by three decades. Lie in bed unable to move anything but your head. To others, your body appears limp, flaccid, emaciated. To you, it seems disappeared, gone, dead. If you are fortunate enough to have any physical awareness at all, your body feels like a rock. Require someone to administer your catheter; manually evacuate your bowels; bathe you and move you for 11,000 days. That's 15,768,000 very long minutes. Tell me then now how much you want to continue living. The people that love you, or the work that occupies you, might sustain your will to live, but it's still your decision.

      In Camus' essay, An Absurd Reasoning (from his The Myth of Sisyphus), he states, "In a man's attachment to life there is something stronger than all the ills in the world. The body's judgment is as good as the mind's, and the body shrinks from annihilation. We get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking. In that race which daily hastens us toward death, the body maintains its irreparable lead." Unintentionally, Camus has provided a justification for Sampedro's cause. Because when your body feels dead, acts dead, it isn't taking the lead. And even more despairingly, the mind becomes a museum of all the life you once had. It's constantly in conflict with your body, because a good part of your brain thinks you're normal: it remembers how to do everything by habit. Because your brain is conditioned to do those things, your memory sets up a conflict of unimaginable stress that exhausts you until the day you die. The harsh reality of which you're now cognizant can't erase those memories of automatic living. You still want to dance, to make love and parts of your brain are oblivious that you can't. It's a cosmic joke, this absurdity of memory and immobility.

      . . . Left paralyzed after 12 hours of surgery to reconstruct my disintegrated vertebrae I was grateful to be alive; relaxed about it. But when the wonderful narcotics were taken away, or I refused them because I couldn't breathe or easily wake up; I realized I couldn't move my body. Fear slipped in. My flesh was stone. I didn't fear death, just near death. I couldn't dream. I could barely think or feel at all. My doctors, who so personally determined my survival and even cried over me, fixed me up with a titanium alloy Texas Scottish Rite instrumentation and a Moss cage; medical tech-speak for a very sturdy reconstruction. My prognosis was that with extensive therapy I'd leave my wheelchair and walk again. I was in my prime with a fulfilling sex life and seven children as delightful evidence. I had much to live for after my tumble down the Rockies. What did Ramón have left?

      I have a permanent but incomplete spinal cord injury which means I'm both lucky and frustrated. Mine is a diminished condition with which my sensory capacity is variously impaired, a veritable patchwork of hypersensitivity, no sensitivity, and every possible nuance. On one side of my body, cold feels oddly like heat or pain. There are a few spots where the nerves are completely dead. My muscle capability is fickle, changing from one minute to the next; one moment my body is teasingly in sync with my brain, and the next moment I'm staggering like I just closed the pub. I always feel like I'm moving with a concrete body suit. My gravity is relative to my memory of it. I feel heavier, but I'm not. I can't run, walk quickly, dance with wild abandon, climb, hike, and most certainly not scamper after dogs or children. But I can walk with a cane outdoors and without one in a very safe familiar environment. Sometimes I can strut my sassy and dance a little. I can breathe, make love, and think coherently, though some have serious doubts about this last one. I live with chronic pain and exhaustion; must be vigilant with exercise; must avoid getting knocked down; and always anticipate that the titanium will outlast my bones and brain. For the sake of comfort, I'm in constant motion, sitting, walking, laying down, standing up. Some day I may grow weary of all this effort. But for now, I put my feet in the dewy grass. I can feel only its presence with my right foot, yet I also feel some softness, coolness, and wetness with my left foot. I know that Sampedro would have relished all these remnants of wholeness. He would have savored these very substantial crumbs. Only 26 years old, and he lost everything including his dignity. Not my dignity, not yours, but his.

      When at last I meet that trickster porter, Terror-Joy Wheel Dude, aka Anfortas, aka Jesus at the Gate to No-where, No-thing, No-how, I'll tell him, "Make mine to go. One Poppy Juice. Supersize me." Will I change my mind in those final hours and cave in to my children's wish to delay my death? It could happen. If I remain conscious to the very end, we're gonna negotiate, though I am absolutely convinced I have the right to decide where and when.

      But wait a minute. Just now, after my pontification, I ask myself: would I be so understanding if someone I loved asked me to help them end their life? With all my certainty could I be a hypocrite? The depth of my conviction might conflict with my selfish love for them. I'm certain I'd beg them not to act on their initial despair, but to give it some time. People change their minds, and rash decisions can be irreversibly permanent. Ramón's father, Joaquin, sadly said, "There's only one thing worse than having your son die on you ... him wanting to." When it's your own son, daughter, lover or friend asking you to help kill them, well. I understand the reluctance. But the people I love must have the same right I claim for myself. If I don't respect this, then I can't assert this freedom either.

      Just before Ramón Sampedro consummated his desire, his euthanasia advocate asked him to give it some more thought. Even more ironic - his adoring and terminally ill lawyer backed out of their suicide pact; and when disease destroyed her brain, she couldn't even remember who it was who wrote to her his final love letter. "Out to sea. Out to sea, and in the weightlessness of the deep where dreams come true, two souls unite to fulfill a single wish. Your gaze and mine, over and over like an echo, repeating silently: "Deeper, and deeper," beyond everything that is flesh and blood. But I always awaken and I always wish for death, my lips forever entangled in your hair."

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