Life and Death

Ray Gosling in a MessFor those who haven’t been keeping up with the news or those who live outside the United Kingdom, the biggest news story which is exercising the British public lately has nothing to do with economics or the Winter Olympics; rather, it is a matter of life and death.

A quick recap: the documentary maker Ray Gosling admitted in the course of a BBC television programme to having smothered his former lover to death. The rationale was that the young man was dying of AIDS, and in Gosling’s words, “in terrible pain”. Gosling also stated that the doctors could do nothing further and suggested they had purposefully left the two of them alone to carry out the deed. His testimony was moving, though I did raise an eyebrow at the ease with which Gosling suggested he was able to suffocate his companion. The spark of life is not easily doused; he made it sound like it was an altogether gentle task.

That aside, Gosling didn’t help himself with an interview he gave on BBC Radio 4 the following morning: I had assumed that the man Gosling had killed was his life partner, or at least someone with whom he had an enduring relationship. Apparently not: he referred to the dead man as his “bit on the side”. Gosling also apparently suffers from little self-doubt; he suggested that the victim was smiling down from Heaven upon his actions. To add insult to injury, Gosling was quite rude to the Radio 4 presenter and gave off the impression that the law didn’t apply to him so long as his conscience was clear.

After the interview concluded, I was deeply troubled by what had been said: a “bit on the side” is lucky to get an invitation to a funeral, let alone act as a decision-maker for a terminally ill person. Furthermore, no clear process had been set out: Gosling suggested that he and his erstwhile lover had discussed the matter, but he did not say there was a living will, nor did he suggest there was a letter, nor even something written on the back of an envelope which would indicate an adequate expression of wishes. Rather, it sounded like a owner talking about having his beloved pet put to sleep.

This is an issue in which politics is definitely personal. My position is informed by two items; during the Terry Schiavo fiasco in 2005, I listened to an American radio talk show which was kicking the issue back and forth. A lot of heat was generated, but no light. Then a caller to the programme came on who unlike the panellists had actually been in a position whereby his life could have been terminated. According to my recollections, the gentleman in question had been in a car accident and suffered a traumatic brain injury which could have left him in a permanent vegetative state. He was adamant: it was his wishes which should be considered sacrosanct. Given that he had left no clear guidance, the focus had been on palliative care: by an extraordinary stroke of luck, he had recovered with only marginal impairment to his long-term memory.

That said, I have more intimate experience with the dilemma: my maternal grandmother suffered from Alzheimer’s, which eventually led to her death.

Alzheimer’s is often referred to as “the long good-bye”; in my grandmother’s case, there was quite a lot of personality to cart off to the afterlife and so the farewell was particularly drawn out. It hit rather suddenly and was entirely unexpected given how healthy she was: I recall an afternoon in the early 1990’s, during which I was walking to the train station with both of my maternal grandparents. I was eighteen or nineteen at the time; my grandmother, who was then in her early eighties, was keeping up with me while my grandfather trailed behind. We stopped for a moment on a street corner to let him catch up. My grandmother said with a mixture of pride and apology, “Your grandfather says I walk like a young girl.” And so she did: she had a lightness of step which belied the difficulties in her life. Her story began in Sweden, detoured through Weimar Germany while it was in the throes of chaos and hyperinflation and ended up in the United States, where she endured both the Great Depression and World War II.

The progression of her disease was tragic: one of the first visible signs of her deterioration was her loss of emotional control. She would break down in the middle of the night or during lunch, plagued by insubstantial fears. She began to lose her ability to cook meals and remember names. My grandfather did his best to look after her, but as the disease progressed, this became impossible; eventually, my mother found a local rest home which took over her care. I saw her only once during this period: she was no longer the sprightly woman of my memory, rather, frail, white haired and dressed in a brilliant white nightgown, she seemed like a Swedish angel, ready to ascend to the beloved country of her youth. She did not recognise me.

According to my mother, my grandmother was aware, to the extent that she was able to be cogniscent of such things, that something was wrong: she frequently said, “My head is broken”. Shortly before Christmas 1996, my mother had one last conversation with her, and said to her in Swedish, “It’s OK, you can go now.” My grandmother blinked in reply. Less than 48 hours later, she passed away.

My grandfather had been weakened by her long illness: he had become painfully thin and was consuming the adult equivalent of baby formula in order to ensure he was getting enough vitamins. Her death was a shattering blow. He sat in my parents’ kitchen with his head in his hands and cried, “I want to go too.” At the funeral, he stated in Norwegian to her, “I will see you in Heaven.” Less than nine months later, he died.

Would it have been better if my grandmother had access to services and procedures to end her life, as another Alzheimers sufferer, Terry Pratchett, has suggested? I don’t know. Personally, as my mind is the best asset I have, I would rather die than live with losing all the faculties which allow me to engage in living. However, my grandmother left us no guidance, so therefore my family worked to make her comfortable as possible, to provide the best palliative care we could find and cross our fingers. It never would have occured to my grandfather to smother her, as for him, the spark of life, even hesitant, flickering, contained an element of hope. He spoke to me about his dreams of a medical breakthrough which would restore her to her former robust health. Were these aspirations forlorn? Yes. But at the same time, he passed on his memories of my grandmother, a conversation which might not have taken place had the end come more suddenly: it was during this time that my family got the full measure of them both and stories which will ripple down to future generations. In a sense, while both of them died, they still live even more brilliantly and vividly than before.

Given this history, I find it very difficult to support what Gosling did. The Nottingham police have arrested him on suspicion of murder, which is an appropriate and understandable response. The difference between murder and merciful release in this case hinges upon that which is most unclear: the express wishes of the dead man. Unless Gosling or relatives of the deceased can straighten out these matters, it was indeed a step too far and should be treated as such. It is sickening to think that he proceeded without such explicit consent in mind, and his vanity enabled him to act as arbiter of life and death; indeed, Gosling’s undoubted flair for the dramatic hints at more than a fair dollop of narcissism on his part. Contrary to what he may think, we, as individuals, are the sole sovereigns of that domain. While there are circumstances in which we may want to depart, unless we make it starkly clear under what conditions that particular passport is to be stamped, all we can expect of our loved ones is to act out of the kind of love which seeks ease and rest for the afflicted, not life’s premature end. I don’t believe I will be alone in saying this: while Gosling has stirred up a debate that we as a society should have, at the same time, it would have been better done had he approached it as a great documentary maker rather than a bringer of death.

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