19 September 2010

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Tough decisions at the end of life

Many people think murdering their parents is a bad thing. In general, it’s a lifestyle choice which gets a bad rap.
The issue never popped up in my mind at all, except for the 40 or 50 times when I was being punished as a small child. A teacher once told me I would eventually “irritate someone to death”. But despite prodigious efforts, I failed to kill a single person.
The memory popped into my head recently when my 88-year-old mother, known to the family as Granny, summoned me to her bedside and announced that she had enjoyed a good life and was ready to be dispatched to heaven.

I scolded her for being morbid and set up an exhilarating, life-enhancing experience for her, i.e., a thrilling game of Scrabble. But afterwards she repeated her request. Consulting an expert, I learned that this was extremely common, and not a sign of unhappiness. “You’ll make the same request when you are 88,” a wise man from the academic world told me.
Granny kept repeating the request. What to answer? And how would one “arrange” such a thing anyway? I raised the issue at a famed forum at which intellectuals gather (the back table of the Quite Good Noodle Shop).
“You just go to the shady part of town and hire a contract killer,” said a man eating laksa. “They’re not even that expensive these days what with the recession.”
Other diners fiercely opposed this option. “It’s messy and you’ll traumatize the dog,” one said.
The wisest comment came from an udon-eater who said nature would take its course. Granny’s vital systems, such as digestion or breathing, would consciously or unconsciously be shut down, and her wish would be painlessly fulfilled.
A quick Google of the newspapers revealed that a debate about how best to achieve a respectful,
humane life-ending is going on all over the world, as mothers of the baby-boomer generation become elderly.
The dilemma reminded me of old Mrs. Adamson, who lived opposite me when I was a child. She had a “farewell to life” party when she was 66, another at 67, a third at 68 and so on.
By her 10th deathbed party, at the age of 76, she was hopping mad. “I’ve been ready to die for ages but I am still waiting,” she thundered at God. She eventually died, furious, at 96. (I would not have liked to have been St. Peter at the gates of heaven that day.)
Last week, at our home, Granny suddenly fell ill. We raced her to hospital, Doctors rushed her into surgery for an operation. We soon got to know the hushed corridors of the intensive care unit.
Days later, doctors emerged and explained: Granny’s digestive and breathing systems had failed, but a risky operation to fix them had proved successful. We celebrated, of course: What else can one do?
But when I got home, I told my kids that when I got old, they should get a contract killer to polish me off.
One of them reached for her mobile phone. “Not now,” I said. “When I get old.”
Honestly, you have to be so careful with what you say to kids these days.

Nury Vittachi,The writer is a columnist and journalist.
Opini The Jakarta Post 20 September 2010