At Death’s Door
Looking through delightfully plump folders containing family memorabilia – letters, postcards, photographs – I once found an ancient-looking little slip of paper that had the word “morphine” on it and looked like a medical prescription. The word, along with the paper, sounded too excitingly Sherlock Holmes to the 8 year-old me, so I immediatelydemanded an explanation from my grandfather. “Ah, Grandmother Xenia Pavlovna”, he said.
Her story is so familiar it sounds like a generalized composite, with not much new to say. Following a month or two of inexplicable excruciating pain that was getting worse by the day, my great-great-grandmother was diagnosed with a terminal form of cancer. That was in the 1950’s, when Xenia was alreadyaround 70. Very soon the only way of hushing the pain was morphine, with my great-grandmother giving her mother injections. Xenia, an exceptional woman in every way, brave, strong-willed and full of wisdom, remained lucid when not in pain, and kept spending time with her grandchildren, telling them stories and teaching them things. I cannot imagine her complaining, or showing any signs of being tiredof life and of the struggle. But the image of her three-month “burning out” seems to have carved itself deep into my then 12-year-old grandfather. “There came a day, he says, when the pain was impossible to control”. Increasing doses of morphine only granted short glimpses of lucidity followed by falling off into a blank, black and inhumane abyss. So she asked the family doctor to give her moremorphine, decidedly, definitely more. Clinging to a life of suffering and pain and condemning her family to the same was not the option, not when the effects of the dangerous drug were starting to alter her mind. There was no arguing, no pleading, no forcing. On a quiet summer evening she fell asleep, and was gone.
I do not think there was ever any controversy about her decision in thefamily. The privileged position of having a family doctor also ensured that no complications on the administrative side followed. Cause of death – cancer. That was the end of it, the decision itself was never even named in any other way than “death”, was not condemned with words too sharp. I know I could not say anything against a decision like that in the given circumstances, either. I also know thatas a society, there is no way we could make what my great-great-grandmother did legal, not 60 years ago and much less today.
Death grips our throats tightly, suffocating us in fear and denial. I would shake off any bravado and say that the death of a loved one is one of the scariest things that could happen in this world. The scariest one is a slow, painful and irreversible path towardsdeath, non-life while still breathing, of a loved one. Whenever you say the long and only vaguely familiar word “euthanasia”, a stream of Big Words gushes in – dignity, right to die, value of life, Hippocratic oath, choice, respect, morality, religion, to name but a few. The list of pros and cons is too often recited almost unchanged to elaborate on. The majority of public discussions abouteuthanasia concentrate on ethics, both in Russia and worldwide. The arguments for and against all seem to be rather convincing at the same time. However, ethical arguments about euthanasia do not seem to come any farther than the repetitive generalizations in Russia.
The thing is, I believe that determining whether or not euthanasia should be made legal in Russia is much more about the practical andlegal implications, the infinite array of possible violations and abuses than just the ethical side of helping to die. Imagining patients legally killed for organs or property, not only on the part of unscrupulous doctors, but also self-serving relatives, is easy enough in the Russian context. Speaking of scary things – this surely is one. What with an abundance of “medical” centers working on...