A conversation about death

I was thinking of Susan Griffiths the other day when “Gracie” and I were walking in the early morning.
The air was fresh and fragrant after a heavy frost, and the morning sun hadn’t had a chance to do its magic, so everything in the shadows was still white with frost. My shoes crunched on the grass and gravel and as I listened to the sound of me being alive, I thought of Susan.
Undoubtedly you will know who Susan Griffiths is, but just in case, she is the Canadian woman who went to Switzerland to end her life of pain from an incurable disease. She didn’t have such an option in Canada.
I admired her courage and her taking a stand on the subject when it would have been much easier to tend to her own needs; to forget about politics and spend her last days with more personal endeavours.
But she was our voice, no matter our position on the subject. Susan spoke up and challenged us all to think about this very complicated issue.
I am very much for the right to choose an assisted death when our health deems life hopeless. It’s a difficult concept to consider and an emotional one, to say the least.
When I was eight years old, I accidentally slammed the car door on my kitten, “Pussy Willow.” I had retrieved an armful of books from the back seat of my mother’s car. With no free hands, I gave the door a good healthy shove with my foot and at that precise second my kitten decided to jump into the car.
Pussy Willow was a lovely soft grey with a spot of orange on the top of her head. She never really grew—staying kitten-sized while the rest of her litter grew into adolescence.
The car door broke her spine and left her writhing in pain at my feet. I was horrified and I was home alone, just briefly, but home alone.
I ran into the house, filled a pail with warm water, and grabbed a small hand towel. I scooped up Pussy Willow’s broken body and gently held her in the pail under the water and she died, with my help.
My dad came home just moments later and found me sobbing with my dead kitten in my arms. And after I explained, he helped me bury Pussy Willow at the edge of the potato field.
He told me I was very brave, but I wouldn’t be comforted. I had slammed my kitten in the car door and that made me a murderer.
I wasn’t a murderer for drowning Pussy Willow. I was terrified to do such a thing. I was only eight so you can imagine my anguish. I wanted to rescue her from pain and my child brain knew there was only one thing to do and I had to do it—for Pussy Willow’s sake, not for mine.
The ending of her misery, in my innocent mind, was some recompense for the horrible wrong I had done to her when I put my foot to the car door, as if this act of mercy somehow helped pay my debt—even if only in part.
That moment of crisis has stuck with me for 50 years and not once have I ever doubted the choice I made in those heart-breaking seconds. I could have run and hid under my bed, but I took responsibility for the kitten I loved.
I spend a lot of time thinking about death and maybe that’s because of Pussy Willow. I often write about grief and that’s what writers do; we write about that which puzzles us in the hopes some understanding will surface and we can get our minds around the subject that is poking at us from the inside.
My mother has Alzheimer’s and has been imprisoned in that disease for too many years now. Several weeks ago, she had a fall brought on by a possible seizure or a brain malfunction.
She was unresponsive for many hours and during that time, I wrestled—wrestled with my wish for her freedom and wrestled with my sorrow and hoping to see recognition on her face; hoping to hear her whisper my name, to place my cheek against hers, to brush her hair, and feel her fingers push my hair behind my ear, just one more time.
In the end my mother recovered, and I was left thinking about death—her death.
If my mother had been given a choice before her memory was consumed, before she slid down the slope from which she will never return, would she have chosen as Susan Griffiths did? And would I have let go her hand and respected her decision?
I hope so. I wish Canada allowed for such a conversation.
wendistewart@live.ca

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