I was reminded to think about how I’d like to die. It’s actually pretty simple: a long, slow, painless death, greatly deferred. I’ve actually got it thoroughly planned out.
I’m on my deathbed in my undersea dome, surrounded by my children, my grandchildren, my great grandchildren, my great-great grandchildren, and my great-great-great grandchildren (it’s a very large dome). I’m looking good — I’ve lost some weight, the rejuvenation treatments have been working well, and I’m also feeling terrific — but I know my expiration is imminent. I get ready to speak my last words.
“I love you, Mary.” The phone rings.
“Yes, this is he,” I say. I whisper to Mary, “It’s the Nobel committee.” “Yes, thank you, it’s an honor. You’re lucky to have called just now — another 10 minutes, and I would have been posthumous, and no longer qualify. We have a spot all picked out on the wall for it, right next to all the Olympic gold medals. But now I have to get back to dying. Later!”
“My children, my descendants, I’m very proud of you all,” I continue. The phone rings again.
“Hello, Madam President. Don’t worry, stop crying, you have nothing to worry about — I trained you well, you don’t need me any more. Also, my wife has agreed to step in as an advisor, and you know she’s the smart one of the family. Besides, with world peace and prosperity a reality, it’s not as if you need my guidance anymore. Bye!”
I turn off the ringer on the phone, and settle in for a quiet exit. “Now where was I…”
The door bursts open! There, standing in all of his regalia, is the Last Priest in the World!
“I could not miss this opportunity for a deathbed conversion,” he hisses, swinging his censer and and shaking his staff, resplendent in his bright orange robes and mitre (as the last priest, he was also the Pope, the Dalai Lama, the Head Imam, etc. — religion had tried a desperate series of mergers to stem the rising tide of atheism.) Then his words are lost in a welter of glossolalia and Latin.
I leap from my deathbed, and gripping his throat in my left hand, I lift him off the floor; with my right, I deliver a stinging series of slaps. “There <SLAP!> is <SLAP!> no <SLAP!> god! <SLAP!>” I throw him to the floor.
He shakes, as if waking from a dream. “You’re right,” he says, “I’ve been living a lie. I don’t know how I deluded myself for so long.” He throws off his mitre, his yamulke, his robes, his staff, his orb, multiple fragments of old saints’ corpses, his magic underwear, and rises naked, unashamed of his humanity. “I think I’ll go back to school and learn something useful. Do you have any recommendations?”
“Biology is always good,” I say as I vault back into my deathbed.
“Now where was I…oh, yes, my last words.” And I say them, and they are witty and wise and will be quoted down the centuries, but I can’t tell you what they are, because they’re also totally spontaneous, so you’ll just have to wait.
And then, with a soft quiet sigh, I die instantly and painlessly.
At least, that’s how I’m planning to die. Reality may interfere. But you know what isn’t anywhere in my scenario?
Cancer is an ugly reality — that would introduce a slow, painful factor to my demise.
That makes it really weird that Richard Smith, a doctor, has written a bizarre editorial in which he fantasizes about dying of cancer.
So death from cancer is the best, the closest to the death that Buñuel wanted and had. You can say goodbye, reflect on your life, leave last messages, perhaps visit special places for a last time, listen to favourite pieces of music, read loved poems, and prepare, according to your beliefs, to meet your maker or enjoy eternal oblivion.
He admits to having a romanticized view of cancer, but still…I found it hard to believe what I was reading. Yeah, you’ve got an ulcerated tumor, you’re in pain, you’re experiencing progressive organ failure, but this is the perfect opportunity to read a poem and listen to a concerto. You thought my deathbed story was silly and unrealistic? This one puts it to shame.
This is, I recognise, a romantic view of dying, but it is achievable with love, morphine, and whisky. But stay away from overambitious oncologists, and let’s stop wasting billions trying to cure cancer, potentially leaving us to die a much more horrible death.
There’s something contradictory here: enough morphine and whiskey to dull the pain of terminal cancer, and you won’t be in good shape to appreciate that book of poems. Love might help, but if you really love someone, you’ll give a thought to them…and watching you die slowly, drunk and squirming with pain, and turning away medical help, is no kindness.
But worst of all, any of us who have seen what cancer does are horrified at the idea of a doctor suggesting that we shut down cancer research. Many people diagnosed with cancer are not interested in sitting down with a bottle of whisky and dying in a bleary haze — they have things to live for and want to fight, and it’s only modern medicine that gives them the tools to do that. Because of those treatments, many people experience remissions and additional years of cancer-free life…during which they can read all the poetry they’d like and listen to all the concerts they desire.
I have seen relatively peaceful cancer deaths, of the sort Smith imagines. My aunt died of liver cancer many years ago, and her last months were spent in quiet calm, visiting with family. But the only way she was able to do that was thanks to cancer medicine: she was undergoing chemotherapy to keep the tumors under control, and was getting the very best of palliative care.
No, she wasn’t getting blotto on alcohol. She had good doctors who were monitoring her frequently, and tailoring their treatments to optimize her quality of life. That doesn’t happen without oncologists, and a worldwide investment in treating cancer.
I have no idea what Smith was thinking. It is ironic that he’s chair of the board of Patients Know Best, an organization that lobbies for patient rights. I guess any patient’s desires should be supported, except for those patients who want well-informed doctors with the best and most up-to-date therapies in hand.