Living in the Shadow of Death

Strangely enough, I find myself wondering about what it would be like to live on death row.

We don’t have death rows in Canada, but there are about two thousand six hundred Americans in twenty-nine states right now sitting in cells awaiting their deaths by lethal injection or by other means, depending on the state. Most are still waiting for their date with the devil because they can appeal in so many ways and it seems that the average time now spent on death row is over sixteen years. There is an increasing hue and cry in the US about the time people have to spend on death row arguing that the wait itself is “cruel and unusual punishment.”

…the European Court of Human Rights in 1989 ruled that extended periods on death row violated a provision of the European Convention of Human Rights that forbids “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” While acknowledging the legality of the death sentence in certain cases, it nonetheless forbade Britain to deport a German man to Virginia to face capital charges because he might spend years on death row facing “the anguish and mounting tension of living in the ever-present shadow of death.”

https://www.bnd.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/answer-man/article151691567.html

Right, “he might spend years on death row facing ‘the anguish and mounting tension of living in the ever-present shadow of death'”. Well, you know, I’m feeling a little like that myself, actually. I’ve been told I have an incurable cancer, but one that can be treated. It looks like I will go into remission sometime, probably in a few months, but who knows for how long. After that, if my myeloma doesn’t react to new treatments upon an inevitable relapse, I will surely die from organ failure. So, I wait and wait and wait not knowing if my next chemo treatment will work or not. The end result is preordained, however. No getting around that. How is this different from a death row inmate who applies for an appeal for his terminal sentence not knowing whether or not he will be successful? If he is successful this time, what about the next time? He knows that at some point the avenues for appeal will run out. When that happens he will suffer from organ failure like me, but that will be a systemic, total failure of all bodily systems as he lies there on a gurney in the execution room being administered a lethal injection of a deadly concoction of poison.

The analogy I use between my cancer diagnosis and a death row sentence is certainly not perfect. No analogy is. For instance, I don’t have to spend the bulk of my days in a small cell with bars. Nor do I have guards watching over me. That said, the comparison between my myeloma diagnosis and a death row sentence is fair if focussed on the psychological dimensions of an indeterminate cancer survival prognosis and an indeterminate execution date for the death row inmate. Chemotherapy is akin to an appeal: both buy some time but just postpone the inevitable.

I imagine that death row inmates are not pre-occupied twenty-four hours a day with the fact that they will eventually end up on the gurney in the execution room more than I am focussed all the time on the fact that my cancer is incurable, and hence terminal under the ‘right’ conditions. It’s just that the uncertainly of the situation is combined with the certainly of the outcome. That is disconcerting to say the least. I am definitely living “in the ever-present shadow of death”, but, of course, we all are. My shadow is possibly more opaque than yours at the moment, that’s all. Until I got my ‘death sentence’ I could go about my days thinking about projects I was doing, walks we would be going on, trips we would take. Now, it’s not so easy to do these things. Oh, it’s still possible, but utter exhaustion, chemo, lab and doctor visits, imaging sessions, etcetera, complicate things. I can only hope things will be different when I go into remission. I have a canoe that needs a new canvas skin and I have a sculpture I want to complete.

This all brings me back to the ‘value’ of sudden death. Sudden death does have a very important feature: its suddenness. No time to think about it, no time to live in anguish, etcetera. Looks like I won’t have the luxury of a sudden death. Maybe I will, we never know, but the way it’s going now, it’s not likely. So I have to figure out another tactic, or set of tactics to deal with the uncertainty of my life but with the certainty of my imminent death.

Problem is my death is not just about me. Yes, it’s an intensely personal experience, but other people are involved. Is it fair for anyone to focus so much on having a good death that they ignore everyone around them? Is it okay to be completely selfish about our own dying?

According to this op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, dying at home, although it seems like a reasonable thing to do, entails consequences, especially for care givers, and especially when home support and respite care are not available. This op-ed provides me with a not-so-subtle reminder to get my living will done. I probably shouldn’t procrastinate on that one.