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Maria's story

Maria was vulnerable because she was afraid.

Maria died of a brain tumor at the age of 90. Prior to her death, she progressed from mild to moderate dementia and finally, for the final several months of her life, she was completely physically incapacitated and unable to speak. She was a woman of formidable strength, socially gregarious and refined in her tastes and aspirations. She was also strongly opinionated, class-conscious and suspicious.

Maria had a very strong will. She was proud to the point of vanity. During her many years of competent adult life, had she been asked if she was willing to live in a state of complete dependence, she would have replied categorically NO. Had she been asked if she was willing to receive intimate physical care from strangers, many of whom would speak with foreign accents and have darker skin than hers, she would have said ABSOLUTELY NOT. Had she been asked if she was willing to be seen in public as a frail and pitiable old lady, she would have had no doubt about her response – UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES.

But as is the case for most of us, Maria was prone to logical inconsistency. Had she been asked instead if she was willing, when it was clear that there was no quality of life remaining for her, if she would like a doctor to gently usher her to death, she would have been horrified by the question and immediately REFUSE. Had she been asked to imagine the worst case scenario – you are all alone in the world, you are at the mercy of strangers, your body and your mind can no longer function – shall we take steps then to end your life gently and with dignity? Here again, I am quite certain she would have said UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES.

There was no one that she would trust to make that kind of decision for her. In fact, the very posing of the question would confirm for her that the asker was not to be trusted. Her husband of 58 years had signed a DNR order a few months before his death from cancer in 2007. She kept that document hidden under lock and key, refusing to tell anyone where it was or what it said. For her this document posed a deadly danger.

Like most of us perhaps, Maria was a complicated person. She did not want to live in a state of advanced dementia, but she did not want to be killed either. Had she indeed been “alone in the world” without my brother and I to look out for her in post-Carter Canada, and had she been asked – when she was still considered competent – only the first set of questions above, chances are that she would have ended her life as a 'success story' for assisted suicide.

But if by some miracle, she had been asked both sets of questions, I think it is possible, knowing my mother as I did, that she would have felt herself being backed into a corner, and, reasonably enough, refused to answer.

For despite the great excitements to the contrary, there are some people who simply do not want to choose, some people - like Maria - for whom the forcing of ‘choice’ is oppressive.

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