We should live and die on our own terms

I must not be left to keep breathing, while having zero quality of life and as good as no chance of recovery

In Summary

• Terminally ill people should be able to die with dignity

I am not ready to write about my mother’s recent death, or the long, miserable illness that led up to it.

The time will come when I feel able to write about it, but not just now.

That said, I do want to write about terminally ill people being able to die with dignity and, where possible, on their own terms.

I am aware that many people, and particularly many Kenyans of my experience, don’t like to contemplate death. People like myself who write and speak of their own mortality and even the things they would like to happen upon their death are thought of as, at best, somewhat morbid and, at worst, evil.

But, and it is a mere truism, death is inescapable. It comes to us all. 

Of course not everyone wants to “go gentle into that good night”. Many feel the urge to rage against it and, as the poet wrote, burn with life even in the face of death. And if that is your way when the time comes, good for you.

When my time comes, however, if I am, for instance, in terrible pain, or incapable of looking after my basic needs, such as feeding myself, taking care of myself in the toilet, and I am being kept alive by machines — I would be grateful for the chance to have left instructions that I must not be left to keep breathing, while having zero quality of life and as good as no chance of recovery. 

I would like there to be legislation that can allow a medical doctor or family member — if they have the stomach for it — to pull the plug, as it were, and just let me go while I still have some dignity. Because if I have generally lived on my own terms, dying on my own terms is the next logical step.

All this talk of death reminds me of the ancient Mesopotamian tale, “Appointment at Samarra” which, if I recall, goes something like this:

There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions. And in a little while, the servant came back, ashen-faced and trembling, and said:

‘Master, just now when I was in the marketplace, I was jostled by someone in the crowd, and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. He looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.’

The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop, he went.

Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd, and he came to me and said, ‘Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?’ ‘That was not a threatening gesture,’ I said. ‘I was just surprised. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.’