Making sense of a desperately bad hand affects people in different ways. Writing is how writers explore the unknown, but not everybody has that facility. What unites many actively dying boomers is a determination to make a mark, to leave a physical, if not a literary, reminder of their lives.
That is what Gloria Taylor was trying to do when she joined the court case to challenge Canada’s law against assisted suicide in the Supreme Court of British Columbia. Suffering from ALS, she knew she could not change the inexorable progress of her degenerative disease, but she wanted the right to die when she found life intolerable.
“I can accept death,” she said in her affidavit, “because I recognize it as a part of life. What I fear is a death that negates, as opposed to concludes, my life.”
But some things are beyond our ability to plan. Ms. Taylor, who won an exemption while the court ruling is being challenged by the federal government, died of a virulent infection last month, before she could exercise her hard-won legal right.
But she has put a human face on assisted suicide, an issue that will become increasingly important as aging boomers try to manage their deaths in the same way as they have tried to control their lives.
Determined to make his mark, politician Jack Layton, for example, achieved his greatest electoral success while fatally ill. After leading the New Democratic Party through three federal elections, he triumphed in the 2011 campaign, a year after revealing that he had prostate cancer. Less than three months later, a gaunt Mr. Layton announced that he was again fighting cancer.
Yet having raised the NDP to new political heights was not enough. He wrote a farewell letter to ensure that his final words were circulated, the way he had composed them, far beyond his deathbed. A few hours after his death on Aug. 22, 2011, his “Dear Friends” e-mail went viral. Within seconds, chunks of his epistle, especially the final paragraph urging all Canadians to be “loving, hopeful, and optimistic,” were Tweeted, Facebooked and made into posters that could be downloaded from the Internet. The politician was controlling his message even after death.
Condemn the farewell letter as a narcissistic attempt at immortality or the final act of a control freak if you wish, but it offers benefits to both the dying and the bereaved. Such a public peek behind the privacy of the final curtain can allow all of us – admirers, rivals, and foes – to creep closer to the deathbed, share in the grief of immediate friends and family, and explore the nebulous boundary between life and death.
As readers, Mr. Berman says, we learn from these terminal accounts how “other people have coped” in a situation that “we will all confront.”
And that can’t be a bad thing in an aging society.