A decision had to be made, and because he was very old she felt she had to make it for him. There was a diagnosis that was irrefutable. There were pressures for and against: if he did not have the operation it was certain death, but that death would probably be slow, he might live for many more months, even years. If he had the operation he might recover and live a great deal longer, but it was a risk because of his age. It was in the days when doctors didn’t tell patients the truth because they thought it might frighten them. Or, at least, their close relatives had to make a decision whether they should be told or not.
Some thought you should never lie to anyone, others thought that you should try to ease suffering even if it meant lying. Some believed that being lied to was itself a form of suffering, because people always knew they were being lied to, and because not knowing – when it involved your whole future – was worse than knowing, however terrible that knowing might be. The doctors said they took the cue from the patient. Some patients asked and some didn’t. If they inquired, you told them. If they didn’t, you kept it to yourself. This was all a long time ago, before doctors were worried about whether they would be sued for misinformation, and before patients were considered to be fully in charge of their own lives.
Some thought it was best to have a quick death to avoid pain and suffering, but others thought it was important not to abort life and to make sure everyone lived for as long as possible. Many thought you couldn’t make those kinds of decisions on behalf of another, and that any vicarious decision was wrong.
She had always thought a quick death would be the best kind of exit, but now, suddenly, that didn’t seem so clearly the case. Once you died you were over the line, so maybe it was best to push back the line for as long as possible.
It was surprising how fuzzy matters of life and death could be. Death was final, inevitable and non-negotiable, but the exact moment at which it occurred could be delayed, almost decided. It was as if you could determine the moment of death for yourself or, more alarmingly, someone else could settle it for you without your knowledge. Every day such choices were forced on people by other people.
Some people thought that a decision of this type was not really a decision because you were being advised. If you were being advised, that took the responsibility off you.
When he had the operation, the first phone call said it had been successful. The second phone call said he had died. She could only think one thought: she had thrown the wrong dice. She had not pushed back the line. She had failed to help him.
It was a father who brought a daughter into the world but it was the daughter who decided when the father left it.
At first it seemed as if the guilt, the anguish, the wish to rewind would never find an alternative target. She would wake in the morning, and sometimes it would not be present for a few moments, but it would return.
Some said that she was deliberately inviting it in and giving it too much leg -room. These were the people who believed in willpower. With willpower, so they said, you could turn anything away. But she knew that willpower didn’t work. Willpower was contrary. Whichever way you told it to move, it preferred the other way.
She asked herself questions that could not be answered, though she couldn’t stop posing them. There was always that hope, if you answered the question, it would slip away. But questions didn’t move aside just because you wanted them to. And even if someone said, It is no good thinking about that, because it cannot be changed, you couldn’t stop thinking about something just because it was irreversible.
She went over and over the diagnosis. Maybe it was not as irrefutable as it had seemed. Any diagnosis was subjective and could not be trusted. There was no second opinion. The doctor seemed pleasant but inexperienced, should she have really put her faith in him?
Some people did not talk to her about it. They were either not interested or they were, but they waited for her to raise the topic. Sometimes she did raise it. They said that sometimes you had to take a decision and it had certain consequences. But you couldn’t always know what those consequences would be. You couldn’t be held responsible for what followed. Most people said that whatever she had concluded it wouldn’t have mattered because he was dying anyway.
She felt alone because she had made the decision. You could read about other people who made similar choices and that did help, but their problem was never exactly the same. The news was full of mistakes that people had made. But maybe those decisions were just like this dilemma, and had to be made without knowing what needed to be known.
Everything was directed at making the feeling lessen. When she went away on holiday it was less, when she went shopping it was less, when she went for dinner with people it was less. She was told to talk about it, but talking about it didn’t necessarily help.
Then one day, many years later on, her daughter said to her, But of course it was the right decision, he didn’t suffer, he was asleep and didn’t know anything. He was neurotic about his health and you saved him months of suffering. And anyway you were advised to do it, and if you hadn’t followed that guidance, it would have been reckless.
Maybe it had been said before, maybe it was said at the right moment when she was recovering anyway and was more receptive to it, maybe it was the way it was said, but she felt she had been acquitted. Maybe she hadn’t been so wrong after all. Maybe she hadn’t been to blame. From this moment her recovery ran its course, slow and halting, and with many minor reversals. Recovery was not resolution. Recovery was having a glimmer that in the end it didn’t make that much difference. A few more weeks of life were not much on top of a long, long life that had run its course.
She didn't always believe this, but at certain moments she did.
She wondered if it would be passed through the generations. Not her guilt and fear, but the inevitability of this situation arising again. Her daughter would suffer it, and her granddaughter, and it would go on and on. It would always be there, the possibility of its regeneration. One day someone might make a decision on her behalf like this. Maybe the same one. Maybe a different type of decision she couldn’t at the moment imagine. Or maybe she would, knowing all this, intercede, take the decision herself. Meanwhile maybe she could forget. Forgetting was a bigger gift than anything.