When does a self-willed death cease to be ‘rational’? ‘Dignified?’ ‘Justifiable’? Do we ever use society norms, the amorphous mass of common sentiment, to calculate what is a ‘good death’? “Yes, he lived a good life, he was 96, he was terminally ill with cancer, and decided to check out from living a week earlier using barbiturates or a helium bag.”
One norm that also gains respect is the mutual love of two people for one another. The ‘till death do us part’ syndrome. There is something heart-warming to all but the most hardened ‘pro-lifers’ about two people, equally old and ill, who both leave this world holding each other’s hands. A very rare occurrence of course – as statistics tend to be against us in the ‘mutual illness timing’ department and, for many others, in the lasting love department. Failing that, there may be sympathetic relatives, a son or daughter, or some like-minded ‘right-to-die’ supporters to produce that momentary blessing (so-called), the dopamine high, the sense that one is both loved and justified.
Joe Bodolai’s death hits the news last week. He recalls all the good and less good things in his life. A successful public career most of us could only imagine. The love of a good woman. Opportunities to use his most remarkable talents successfully. He also recalls the loss of these things. He says his farewells discreetly. Posts his last thoughts on a blog. Then drinks a bottle of anti-freeze. (Mixed with Gatorade – an easy but unpleasant way to go as the liquid destroys major internal organs.)
He was in his older years: but not old enough to tick most people’s ‘tired-of-life’ box. He had struggled with illness: but not one that was terminal enough or ‘respectable’ enough to elicit widespread sympathy. Probably few people, if any, would have supported his decision (including right-to-die societies). For most of us, the vision that life, after material things, after fame and fortune, after the close bond with others (or another), after all these vanish from our fading eyesight and disappearing heartbeat – this moment is reserved until just before death. When it comes earlier, we’d probably invoke social services or a course of anti-depressants.
Yet there is little logic to this . . . other than the instinct to get by, to go through the motions for another day. “This is what people do!” screamed Meryl Streep, in The Hours, to the dying poet. “They stay alive for each other!”
Joe Bodolai had given much to us, the ‘others.’ Immortal lines like, “Can God make something heavier than He can lift?” The Canadian comedy writer had moved back to America to write the multi- award-winning, Saturday Night Live. His humour was memorable for its sharp political and observational insight and wit. After his death last week, his suicide note went viral.
Sometimes I too, like the poet, feel I have given ‘enough’ in this life to loved ones and others, and that I would like to go at the time of my choosing. Especially if my giving simply begets a sense of inevitable loss in those loved ones, as it does in me. (“What is the ultimate point?” one night ask.) On other days, I see life as a journey and adventure, one where I must pick up my sturdy hill-walking staff and at very least drag myself across the next mountain. Maybe the view will be worth sending a note home about.
We come into this world pretty well alone. The cold air: maybe a slap to get us to breathe it. Ultimately we all die alone, and without even the token umbilical cord of affection. And some, those less fortunate, just die more alone than others.
IF THIS WERE THE LAST DAY OF YOUR LIFE, WHAT WOULD YOU DO? Read Joe Bodolai’s suicide note
Can God Make Something Heavier Than He Can Lift? (JB blog post)
Newspaper report (includes his video creations, including Wayne’s World)