We should all have the right to die with dignity, on our own terms. Visit www.dwdnsw.org.au if you’d like to know more, or show your support.
Imagine the sound of a bullfrog whispering.
That’s what Lander’s voice reminded the staff of, whenever he’d manage to make them hear him say, “Take me away, please…”
He didn’t manage that often. Not any more.
It wasn’t anything wrong with his throat that was the problem, although people hearing him lately for the first time tended to assume he was another victim of too many cigarettes.
Truth: the deep gravel voice was natural – he’d never been much of a smoker, other than a brief flirtation with a pipe in the mid-Sixties when he’d first been recognized as A Writer.
Scott William Lander. Creator of the Morton the Lunatic series of novels. The eponymous Morton was a teleporting hero who operated from a base on the moon, hence the ‘Lunatic’ tag. Scott couldn’t resist a pun.
He was never quite a darling of the critics, especially in his early career. He was dismissed as a bit too populist, perhaps, at a time when science fiction was meant to be intellectual, deep and meaningful. Lander’s work had seemed almost a throwback to the pulp fiction heroes of the Thirties, like Tarzan and Doc Savage.
But Scott and his hero were made of sterner stuff than the critics realised. When Armstrong and Aldrin kicked up the moon dust in ’69, some thought that would end Morton’s adventures. After all, anyone with a television now knew what the moon looked like. Nobody could really live there. NASA or the Russians would know if there was any sort of base there, wouldn’t they?
Lander saw it as an opportunity, though. In his next book, What The Eye Doesn’t See, he referred to how Morton used his own advanced technology to keep his base from the prying eyes of the space programs. It raised gentle questions about how trustworthy those agencies might really be, long before any conspiracy theorists proposed that the whole Apollo XI landing was an expensive hoax.
Scott had smiled in quiet delight when he read a magazine article headlined “DID ‘LUNAR’ LANDER GET IT RIGHT?”
That had all been a long time ago. Although his book appearances had become fewer and further between Morton had learned to overcome time as well as space. Alas, the same could not be said of his creator.
Scott Lander had fallen prey to Alzheimer’s Disease. It was insidious – slow and progressive. That had been the most distressing aspect of all for both Scott and his son William – both of them knew what was happening to the older man, and neither could do anything to prevent it.
After his diagnosis Scott had broken the news to Will, also an aspiring author, in a discussion about writing.
“Writers never retire,” Scott had observed. “We go in and out of fashion, and in and out of passion with our muse, but writing isn’t a job you can retire from. It’s a compulsion.”
“A need,” said Will, nodding.
“Like a driving force,” agreed his father, who then sighed deeply. “But I’ve realized I can’t steer. Then I forgot and kept trying. And kept on realizing, and forgetting, and realizing again. I spoke to the doctor about it, he did some tests, and now he’s told me why. It’s only going to get worse.”
It did. Scott reached the point where he could no longer safely take care of himself. Reluctantly William had helped him move into the Stadcor Nursing Home.
The younger man simply didn’t have the expertise to care for his father himself, and as the Home’s sympathetic visiting doctor Margaret Archer had observed, “You two currently have a great, loving relationship. I’m sorry but that’s not likely to survive the physical and emotional strains of your being his full-time carer.”
Stadcor had been the best option of a small range of bad choices. Scott had his own room with a window. It was at least clean and comfortable, and several of the staff were genuinely caring of their residents.
It wasn’t cheap of course. These places never are. The CEO of the Home, Graeme Sparrow, was far more a businessman than a humanitarian.
Scott’s time in the Home probably hadn’t increased the rate of his deterioration. The Disease did that itself. William watched the decline, unable to prevent or even slow it.
William’s distress was worsened when he became aware of the condition of some other dementia sufferers in Stadcor. In a room across the courtyard from his father’s lay a bedbound man, a survivor of the war in Vietnam, whose dementia apparently had his mind trapped in some of the most horrific moments from his past.
The old soldier screamed. Whenever he was awake, and that was for much of the time. It seemed that the pictures in his head were worse when he closed his eyes.
Concerned for the ex-serviceman, his father, and the many other residents within earshot, William had looked for a way to ease the man’s suffering. He approached the Home’s resident Senior Nurse, Gwendolyn Garfield, asking if anything could be done to help and quieten him.
“That’s God’s way of punishing him,” Ms Garfield said sternly.
After a moment of nonplussed pause William had asked, “Punishing him for what?”
“It’s not our place to ask – to question God’s motives.”
“What if God’s motive is to offer you the chance to demonstrate your compassion?”
“If He wanted compassion shown to that man He would allow him to die.”
William looked at the nurse wide-eyed. “You force feed him! You have orderlies hold him down while you medicate him! Maybe the poor bugger would die if you just let him! Why actively keep him alive when he clearly isn’t enjoying the experience?”
Garfield sniffed. “Enjoyment has nothing to do with it. Life is sacred.”
A scream echoed down the corridor from the veteran’s room.
“That one doesn’t sound it. Does my father have to hear it? It distresses him, certainly in his lucid moments but other times too, I think.”
“Perhaps that’s your father’s penance,” she said matter-of-factly.
William walked away before rage overcame him.
As Scott’s condition continued to deteriorate, in his moments of awareness he despaired.
In one lucid spell he spoke to William. “My one joy left in life, besides you, lad, was writing. I’ve lost that. I know my memory fails me – day to day, hour to hour. I can’t remember the last thing I wrote, who the characters are, how the story began, where it’s going or how it will end. I do know there always has to be an ending.”
“Dad, what are you asking?”
“They talk about dying with dignity, but it’s really about wanting to live with dignity, son. Not like that poor bastard down the hall. Take me away from a fate like that.”
William bowed his head. “I don’t think… it’s not legal… I think the only place in the world that you can actually ask to die is Switzerland and Dad, with the best will in the world I don’t think we can afford…”
The old writer patted his son’s hand and said, “It’s alright, Will. Just wanted you to know how I feel while I can still say it. While I still know who you are.”
Scott smiled, trying to make that last comment light-hearted but his son saw the pain and recognised the truth – that even in his most disconnected moments part of Scott’s mind knew what was happening to his consciousness. It knew, it hated and feared the knowledge, and it couldn’t coherently communicate that hate and fear. That only fuelled the despair more.
A meeting with the Stadcor Home’s CEO did nothing to ease William’s frustration. Graeme Sparrow had resolutely cited ‘Duty of Care’ when the younger author had tentatively tried to explore options.
“I’m not asking you or your staff to do away with him. Not even to assist in a suicide. But can’t you let nature take it’s own course? Let him fade away if that’s what he wants? If he refuses medicine or food, respect his wishes and let him preserve his dignity.”
Sparrow shook his head with a thin show of regret.
“Our Charter makes it clear that our responsibility is to preserve life. That has to be our number one priority.”
What the CEO didn’t say aloud of course was his underlying thought: ‘dead patients don’t pay the bills – every day a bed lies empty is wasted’.
So William had bitterly watched his father’s decline.
The old man’s memory disintegrated. His vocabulary – essential for a writer – dried up. He could no longer remember words, or their meaning. Scott would stare blankly at an object: a vase, a radio, a bedpan – and not know what to call it.
Tears would roll down his face as the little part of his mind that did know flung itself against the walls of the disease that so brutally stopped him communicating.
Perhaps it was as well that his physical condition was now such that his voice was failing him anyway. He had little more left in him than the repeated husky “Take me away” that had become the mantra of his despair.
During one visit William stood by his father’s bed talking with the doctor. Margaret Archer was genuinely sympathetic, but as powerless as William.
“I really do wish I could help you and Scott, but my hands are tied,” she explained. “Obviously I can’t actively do anything to take his life – in the eyes of the law that would be murder, whatever the justification you or I made.”
William gave a small derisive growl. “Laws made by politicians who think they have some moral high ground – the right to dictate someone’s quality of life.”
The doctor smiled sadly and said, “They have a legal high ground at least. Being elected gives them the authority to tell people what to do – even doctors, whether we agree or not.”
The writer nodded in understanding as Margaret continued, “It’s an ethical minefield – our oath is to ‘do no harm’ but I’m not one of those who interpret that to mean ‘preserve life at all cost’. Unlike some of the staff here.”
They both looked meaningfully in the direction of the Nurses’ Station up the corridor where Gwendolyn Garfield held court.
Bitterly William said, “It’s gotten to the point where that cow won’t even let me in to see him if I’ve got so much as a sniffle. ‘Protecting the residents’ health’ she says. I think she’s worried I’ll try to infect Dad with something to finish him off.”
He was about to apologise to his father, but stopped when he saw the old man’s blank gaze at the ceiling.
“Lights are on, but nobody’s home,” he said sadly.
“Don’t be too sure,” Margaret counseled. “Just because he can’t react. Nothing coming out doesn’t necessarily mean nothing’s going in. Nurse Garfield isn’t acting on my instructions…”
William started to protest, “Oh, I never thought you’d…”
The doctor waved his interruption away with a small smile. “I know. It’s alright. What I was going to say though was that, to some extent she is doing her job properly. Patients like your father have a severely diminished resistance to infection. Their lungs are weak. Your sniffle quickly becomes his cold, then flu, and from there…”
She rested a gentle hand on Will’s arm as she continued, “Did you know that pneumonia is called ‘the old man’s friend’? But you never heard me say that.”
William laid his hand on hers and nodded. “Understood. But how can I get sick enough to infect him and still be allowed to visit? Especially when Garfield won’t let me near him if I so much as blow my nose on my way through the front door.”
Margaret shook her head. “Even if I had a suggestion to offer, you know that I couldn’t do it.”
“I know. But thank you.” He looked down at his father. “See you tomorrow Dad. Remember I love you.”
The doctor and the son walked out of the room, a little closer together than usual.
Scott continued to stare at the ceiling, apparently oblivious to all that had been said. Apparently.
The following night found William sitting, as usual, beside his father’s bed. He’d been there for quite a while, among other things helping with the early serving of the evening meal. At least that way the ailing writer seemed to accept a small quantity of food without the stress of being forced.
As Will watched the light outside dim he sighed softly and decided it was time he went home to make his own dinner.
He squeezed Scott’s hand and said, more from habit than expectation, “I’m off, Dad – do you want anything?”
The old man surprised him by shifting in the bed to face him.
“Take me away,” was the familiar whisper, but this time there was a little glint in the sad tired eyes.
With obvious effort Scott inclined his head towards the window. His son followed his gaze and looked thoughtfully through the blinds at the gathering darkness.
Will nodded and squeezed his father’s hand again as he quietly said, “Yes. Of course.”
He stood, reached through the blinds and silently slid open the window. He felt the chill night air drift into the room. Then he turned and bowed his head to his father.
“I love you Dad, but you know you don’t have to linger for me, don’t you? I want you to be at peace.”
His voice was little more than a murmur, but the ghost of a smile played across Scott’s face. It remained there as the younger man left the room.
The smile was still there a while later as Scott watched the moon rise.
It was nearly ten o’clock when Nurse Garfield came in doing her ‘bed check’. She scowled at the sight of the open window, and fleetingly glared at Scott as she strode past him to close the offending portal.
As she slid the pane shut she was startled by what sounded like a growl from the sick man behind her. She wheeled on him and for a moment looked like she would growl back. Instead she narrowed her eyes, stared balefully at him and stormed from the room.
She’d neglected to close the blinds.
Scott watched and smiled as Morton the Lunatic’s home seemed to glide up and across the sky. Silently he resolved to go with it.
Scott Lander was found dead in his bed the next morning.
William was called in. Sparrow made appropriate sympathetic comments, already considering who from the waiting list would get the bed and how soon.
Out of the CEO’s earshot Gwendolyn Garfield grabbed Will’s sleeve and harshly whispered, “I know what you did! I should call the police and have you arrested and charged!”
William looked at her impassively, held out both wrists as if to be handcuffed and said, “Take me away.”
Again, I invite you to visit www.dwdnsw.org.au if you’d like to know more, or show your support.