Essay: The problem of dying at 'just the right time'

It's excessive, we all know it, this hourly concern with whether Ariel Sharon has moved a finger on his left hand or fluttered his eyelids.

hillel halkin 88 (photo credit: )
hillel halkin 88
(photo credit: )
It's excessive, we all know it, this hourly concern with whether Ariel Sharon has moved a finger on his left hand or fluttered his eyelids. Whether he lives or dies, recovers consciousness or remains in a coma, he's not going to be our prime minister again. We would do well to pull down the blinds on his hospital room window and give him some privacy. But of course, our fascination with Sharon's condition doesn't have to do just with him. It's with ourselves, too. There probably isn't anyone in this country over 50 who hasn't imagined himself in the prime minister's current situation. It could happen to any of us. Not that we weren't aware of that before this. But a public figure like Sharon is a bit like a next-door neighbor. You may never exchange a word with him, but you see him every day. When he drops, you feel the bullet passing close to you. What would we do if we were in Ariel Sharon's place? A foolish question. We wouldn't do anything. What would we think or feel? We wouldn't think or feel anything, either. That's what the doctors tell us, and there's no reason not to believe them. And yet there's always the haunting suspicion that they might be wrong. Suppose that, while everyone assumes we're not feeling or thinking, we actually are and just can't let anyone know - trapped in a paralyzed body as in those nightmarish stories about people who wake to find themselves underground in a coffin. Yes, that's unlikely. But the next possibility is not unlikely at all. In fact, it happens all the time. What if we wake to find we're no longer ourselves? That one side of our body belongs to us and the other doesn't, or that we have eyes to see with but no mouth to speak with, or that although there are thoughts in our brain, they are not recognizable as our own? Horrible! There is a false note in all our prayers for Ariel Sharon's recovery. We may not say so for fear of the evil eye, but we all know that, given what "recovery" generally means in cases like his, we should more logically be praying for there not to be one. But is that what we would want for ourselves if we were in his place? For those around us to wish we remained in a coma until we died? Perhaps even to contemplate hastening our death? WHO KNOWS? There are things you can't say about a place until you have been there - and once you are there, it's too late. This is why there is also something false about the pundits who tell us that the lesson to be learned from a case like Sharon's is to make our preparations in advance. We should think it over carefully, they say, and write a letter to our children or to our friends, telling them exactly under what circumstances we would prefer the doctors to fight for our lives and under what circumstances to let us die. As if we knew ourselves! And even if we did, what right would we have to tell those who love us to pull, figuratively or literally, the plug on us? What if the burden of deciding when to kill us is not one they wish to carry? In general, dying at the right time is a good trick if you can do it. When you think of it, the great majority of people die too early or too late. Of the first we say, "What a tragedy! He had so many good years still ahead of him." Of the second, "How sad! He should have died when his life was still good!" And yet what separates one case from the other can be no more than the unexpected bursting of a tiny blood vessel in the brain. How do we know that the man who dies "tragically" by a sudden stroke hasn't been spared a long and miserable death from Alzheimer's? It's a little like owning shares on the stock market. If you sell when they're on the way up, you've sold prematurely. If you wait until they're on the way down, you've waited too long. But you only know they've reached their height when they're already past it. There are exceptions, of course, some legendary, some real. The Midrash tells us that Moses, at the age of 120, "his eye not dim, nor his natural force abated," died "the death of a kiss" in the arms of God. And back in the 1980s, if I remember correctly, the Anglo-Jewish Labor politician Emanuel Shinwell, having reached the age of 102 with sound mind and reasonably healthy body (several years previously he had published the third and last volume of his autobiography), invited his friends and family to his bedside for drinks. When all the brandy snifters were filled, he lifted his, toasted all present, tossed off his drink, put down the glass, said "I've had enough," and turned his head to the wall and died. But few of us have that fine a sense of timing. We depart before or stay around longer than we should. It's a crap shoot. Old age, for the fortunate, has its satisfactions: The leisure of retirement, the chance to look back on a life well lived, the gratification of successful and happy children, the pleasures of grandparenting. One wants it to go on… until one day something happens to one's body or mind and one wishes that it hadn't. It's because we all know this that there is, though his stroke leaves us apprehensive for the future, so little sense of grieving for Ariel Sharon. He was still at the height of his career when he toppled, but he was also 78, and that's not a time of life when you can count on anything continuing for very long. Should a miracle happen and he be restored to his former powers, the prayers for his recovery will have been well said. Otherwise, we will have prayed for something that we did not really want to see.
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