Four years ago a friend and I were walking the ten minutes across Cookham Common from the station to the Stanley Spencer Gallery by the Thames. My friend had just been diagnosed with motor neurone disease and was already having a problem with using one of his hands. This is a terrible disease I knew something about. Bits of the body close down,starting with hands and feet. Another very good friend of mine from work got it when only fifty. Within a year she couldn’t talk, and within two ,she was dead. There is no cure.
So I asked my friend was he going to see the whole ghastly business to the bitter end. With all the implication that would have not only for his quality of life but on his family and friends ,of which there were many. I asked was he contemplating going to the clinic in Zurich that specialised in assisted suicide.
No, that would not be necessary, he had the pills ,he knew what to do and when the time came he would do it. As it happened maybe because he was in his seventies the disease moved slowly, but it moved.
He now spends his days on a couch. He cannot move himself,he cannot eat or drink except through a straw and has to be fed like a baby. If he slips he has to be put up right. Such is his declining body temperature that he sits with a heater next to him. A nurse is employed to turn and change him at night. Needless to say his family and friends are in a loving limbo. Make that dutiful. They know they are being tested. There is a point when the nobility of the sufferer is more than matched by the futility and 24/7 of the caring.
The other day they asked me to man sit. So I asked him. Why didn’t you. He said he felt that he would be letting all his family and friends down if he took a short cut. He also felt that he owed it to his consultant to see the whole drama through to its dusty end.
I also feel that suicide is usually committed by the depressed. He is an intelligent man who can still follow the news and read which he still has the energy to do with his Kindle. But he sleeps more and more. And so his family nurse him and wait. As does he.
Stanley Spencer’s great fixation was the Resurrection, when Jesus will return and the dead will arise from their graves. The artist saw it happening in his home village of Cookham. But my friend does not believe in an after life,for him the couch is where it ends and as he admitted to me the other day he has passed the point where he is capable of independent action. It is also true as events in Paris show, yet again, that suicide is much easier if you believe in heaven.