Last week I had the bittersweet task of helping my dog, Skittles, for the last time. I had to help her die, by taking her to the veterinarian to be "put to sleep." The task was incredibly sad, because she was a great dog, a good friend, always happy, and an integral part of our family. Yet, it was a task that I did out of love and duty. Even when death is inevitible, when there is no hope, the body doesn't want to give up; the heart keeps beating and the lungs keep breathing, only prolonging the suffering. When a beloved pet's death is inevitable, and the animal is only suffering, most pet owners, out of true love for their pets, help their pet one last time by gently and kindly helping them to die.
Why is it that we can't do the same kindness for the people we love?
Yesterday, television viewers in Great Britain had the opportunity to see a man commit suicide, a real suicide, in the documentary about Craig Ewart's death. Ewart had a degenerative motor neuron disease that left him paralyzed and suffering. As he put it, "If I go through with [this suicide] I die, as I must at some point. If I don't go through with it, my choice is essentially to suffer and to inflict suffering on my family and then die."
Mr. Ewarts case struck very close to my heart, because my own father died of the exact same disease, except that he had to let nature take its course. It was a terrible thing to watch, seeing my father suffer a long, drawn-out death, with weeks and months of unnecessary suffering.
The sad memories of my father's death came rushing back to me as I was helping Skittles for the last time, when the veterinarian said, "Can you imagine, we can do this kindness for our pets, but not for our own mother and father?"
One of the greatest tragedies that religion has inflicted on us is the idea that humans are somehow different than animals; that because we possess a "soul" that was put there by some mythical god in the sky, we have to wait for that same mythical god to take the soul away. Worse, like many other religious ideas, this one has become part of our legal system.
Mr. Ewart chose to take his life early, while he still could. My father wanted to kill himself. We talked about it many times. But as the paralysis gradually took over his body, he was faced daily with a terrible choice: Do I kill myself today, while I still can? If I wait too long, will I become incapable, and end up suffering for years, paralyzed in a hospital bed, in discomfort and pain, wearing a diaper, unable to read a book or even watch television? The terrible dilemma was that, as long as he was able to take his own life, his life was still good, still worth living.
If he'd killed himself when he still could, he would have lost a year of a life that, while not perfect, was still decent. He wouldn't have heard about his granddaughter graduating high school. He wouldn't have learn that his grandson won the World Juggling Championships. He wouldn't have gotten to see videos of his other grandson playing a mean saxophone. But the price he had to pay for that year was very high indeed – he became too weak to take his own life, and had to suffer through a "natural" death.
I don't mind if religious people want to choose a painful, lingering death for themselves or their loved ones. But why can't my family and I choose the moral and ethical route. Why is it that we can help a mere dog, but not help our own parents, wives, brothers and sisters, when their time comes to die?
Death is part of life, and life is good. Skittles knew that, and if she could have talked, I know she would have thanked me for helping her. Here's a funny little tribute to Skittles. This is what happens when you give an engineer a new MacBook pro dual CPU with 4 GB of memory, two dual SATA 750 GB disks, a hi-res second monitor, Final Cut Pro movie-editing software, and Soundtrack Pro music editing software. He makes a video of his dog. Enjoy!