NO SHORT CUT
BY RAY JOHNSTONE
‘The most difficult thing about life is death,’ was Andy’s usual opening gambit. It was his favourite subject, and he never got tired of talking about it. It was as if he was on a mission. To change people. And their ideas. On a subject no one likes to talk about. Or even to think about.
Sandy always agreed with him. ‘What a pair,’ some people said.
Andrew and Sandra Forbes – universally known as Andy and Sandy – enjoyed their lives to the full even though they’d planned their deaths. They knew how they were going to die. And when. They’d done it meticulously. In every detail. And they’d put it in writing. So that in the cold light of day anyone and everyone, at the appropriate time, would see what they wanted for themselves when it came to dying.
‘I refuse to die in a home. When I’ve lost it, I mean.’ Andy could be quite forthright. ‘In one of those institutions full of puking, mewling old dodderers spilling food all over themselves and wearing adult nappies. In tacky surroundings, with horrible smells, disgusting food and unable to get to the lavatory by yourself. Always needing to call someone to help you have a shit.’
Sandy usually had her say too. ‘And, speaking as a woman, I like men’s company. But most of these places are segregated. I think that’s the case anyway. And I’d want to see Andy. And if he wasn’t around, other men. Not just rows and rows of gaga old biddies making signs with their hands and incomprehensible sounds with their mouths. No, no those places are not for me either.’
‘So we’ve got this pact you see,’ Andy would always follow up. ‘So that when one goes, or is about to go, we’d both be ready. And we’d make sure the other would exit at the same time. More or less. And as far as possible.’
Andy and Sandy always seemed to be doing something interesting. They worked hard to make sure that they were always having a good time. They were never afraid to indulge themselves, and were in the happy situation to be able to do it. Seats for the theatre or the tennis. Regular visits to good restaurants. Ski breaks in the winter and summer holidays at smart resorts in some far flung tropical paradise. And even a last minute weekend in Venice for Sandy’s birthday last year.
They knew, they said, that this would all end one day. It does for everyone. There’s nothing surer. So Andy and Sandy decided they were going to control what happened. They both knew what to do in the event of a sudden stroke, or the obvious onset of a debilitating illness: mutual suicide. Even though it was illegal.
‘Fuck the law,’ Andy would say.
‘Darling! Why do you have to put it like that?’ Sandy would always respond.
Some people found this boring and them quite trying. Even scary. Because of their ideas about dying. And their preoccupation with death. And how they always found a way to manipulate the subject of conversation onto what seemed to others like grisly talk. Their own deaths. Then other people’s. And, if possible, the deaths of everybody who was present.
Sandy asked one day, ‘Darling, do you think our circle of friends is diminishing? We don’t seem to see as many people as we used to. And I’m sure we don’t get invited out as often as we used to.’
Andy knew she was right. He’d had the same impression. Because even their oldest friends didn’t like to think about the fact that they would die one day. And it’s even more sobering to be reminded that one never knows when.
‘That’s the really big unknown,’ Andy liked to say. ‘It’s all very well being in denial. Like we all are, and never thinking about death. Our deaths, I mean. But one day it’s going to hit us like a tidal wave. Except for the lucky ones, that is. Those who die quickly. In their sleep. Those who don’t need help. Or those who don’t spend a long time dying. With some dreadful and debilitating disease. That makes them a burden on everyone. Their families. And friends if any are left after a few weeks.’
‘Yes, I agree,’ Sandy would add. ‘I can’t think of anything worse than being one of the living dead. After a stroke. Or when Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s have got you in their grips. But haven’t decided yet when they’re going to kill you.’
Andy would hop straight back to his favourite lines. ‘You see, it’s all very well thinking it will never happen. Or that you’ll handle the situation when it arises. Because then it’s too late. And the only really certain thing we have in our lives is that we’re going to die. But picking the when and the how is the difficult part.’
Even their kids found them difficult. They were discussing it over dinner one day when the children were still quite young. Patrick got quite worked up. ‘No I won’t take you to Switzerland when you’re at death’s door. How could you think such a thing?’
And, just before she left the table suddenly, Patty’s Parthian shot was, ‘What about the chances of a last minute recovery? If you think euthanasia’s OK you can bloody well drive yourselves to that terrible place.’
It was obvious that their children didn’t like talking about their parents’ deaths either. Or their own. Or anybodies for that matter. As far as they were concerned it was a taboo subject. One best to avoid.
‘They’re like ostriches with their heads in the sand,’ thought Andy, but he didn’t say it out loud.
They stared at him. ‘Oh no, not this again,’ they all thought.
Andy had just said, ‘About as much chance as a black rapist on death row in the Deep South of avoiding the electric chair.’
Andy went on. ‘That’s your chance of having a seemly death. Unless you spend a little time working a few things out. I mean before you go.’
Sandy bought a book about planning for the end. Dying with Dignity it was called. Or something like that. They showed it to everyone. Or those few who were receptive anyway. Most of them glanced at the cover, saw what it was about, and tried to change the subject.