You can get quite attached to someone who you only know through their newspaper columns. I have read Pamela Bone 's columns in The Age for a long time and I am saddened to hear that she is retiring due to ill health, that is terminal ill health. Her last column was a moving and dignified exit. Best wishes Pamela.
I have learned in this year of illness that legislation for the right to die at a time of one's own choosing, and with help if necessary, will and should come.
'YOU have multiple myeloma. It's not curable, but it is treatable. The usual outlook is one to eight years." In the bed next to mine an old man who'd had two toes amputated because of diabetes was crying loudly. I don't know why they insist on putting men and women together in hospital rooms these days. I don't think either sex likes it much.
I had never heard of multiple myeloma, which is cancer of the bone marrow. I'd been in Africa, was sick while I was there and sicker when I got home, and thought I had picked up some exotic virus. My doctor sent me to the Royal Melbourne Hospital, where after many blood tests the diagnosis was made.
The world of illness is a different world. Weeks later I stood before the mirror, 13 kilograms lighter, my head completely bald, a plastic tube burrowed into my chest, and saw myself a poor, diminished creature. I used to bustle about. Now I walked slowly, weakly. When I went out into the street I marvelled at how well and strong all the people looked. I felt no longer one of them.
I didn't cry, though I came close to it when my hair came out in my hands and lay in long strands on the floor of the shower. I didn't pray, and I didn't ask, "why me?" as others have told me they have. As far as I can tell there's no one up there handing out fairness; in any case, I wouldn't even want a God who would save me and let so many innocent children die. I am sure the parents of those hundreds of children buried under the rubble of the earthquake in Pakistan prayed.
All right, if I'm going to die, let's get it over with, I thought. But that was a year ago and I haven't died yet, despite my refusal to think "positive" thoughts. Why am I writing about this now? Partly because I couldn't before. But also because there is nothing unusual about my case. Multiple myeloma is fairly rare, but cancer is not. One in four, or even one in three people will get it. There's a whole community of us out there; we can be seen around the place in our headscarves and wigs and beanies, and we recognise each other and give each other sympathetic smiles. Please leave Kylie Minogue alone, I shouted silently to the media. She's one of us and I know how she feels: she just wants to be left alone.
What have I learned in my year of illness? That there is an amazing degree of kindness around. I have been overwhelmed by kindness: the kindness of family, of friends, of work colleagues; the kindness of people in shops and cafes in my local shopping centre; the kindness of the doctors and nurses at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, far beyond the requirements of their professions (oh, but the food at the RMH is an insult to sick people!); the kindness of my specialist, who tells me to stop talking about dying. There simply is a great instinct for kindness in most people. One thinks a system should be devised in which this is more strongly appealed to.
I have learned that this is a society in denial about death — hardly a revolutionary discovery, it's often been remarked on. On one level everyone knows they are going to die, but the mind slides away from it. People change the subject. At first I was critical of this, but now I think it has to be this way. You can't spend your life being constantly aware of your death. Harder was the other realisation that struck me with force: not only will I die, but so will everyone else: every single one, every little baby with dribble running down his chin, every carefree teenage girl, every rich and powerful businessman.
All must die. What is the point then?
You have to learn again what you always knew. Life is more precious because it is brief and the only one there is (and really, who would want an eternity of anything, even paradise?). What matters — and I do apologise for this sentimentality — is that although every individual will die, the human race will go on. I believe it will, and I even believe it will get better. Notwithstanding the strange, apocalyptic times we are in, I still believe in the continuing, gradual, difficult, faltering improvement of the human condition. If I had space I could make a rational argument for this.
Fear of death is natural; it's what keeps us alive when we are young and strong. But for most older people, for whom death is no longer a remote, unlikely possibility, the fear is not so much of death as of what might precede it: prolonged pain and sickness and (especially) dementia. More than death, what most people fear is the prospect of being kept in some sort of half-life for years, being spoonfed and toileted in some nursing home, sans mind, sans personality, sans dignity.
What I have learned in this year of illness is that legislation for assisted suicide — for the right to die at a time of one's own choosing, and to have help to do so if necessary — will and should come. It will come because the majority of the population wants it (according to opinion polls), and because those who protest so loudly every time the subject is mentioned are a minority. To know there is the means to end life peacefully and painlessly when they want to would be a great comfort to most old people. This is a kindness that we, as a society, need to extend to ourselves.
Last week when I walked into the hospital, which is now as familiar as a second home, some schoolchildren were there singing Hark the Herald Angels Sing. All year, music students come into the hospital wards and play instruments and sing. Others come to offer conversation and pastoral care, for those who want it. In the foyer, volunteers sell knitted toys and jams and raffle tickets to raise money to help the hospital. There it is again, that human kindness. It's all around, if you care to look.
This is my last column. It has been an immense privilege to have this space for so long, to have my say about things. I have not set out to be a "contrarian", as I have been described, but then, to offend no one you will say nothing. I do want to thank all of you who have read, either approvingly or disapprovingly, what I have written over the years. I will miss you.