Dr. Donald Low became a public figure during the Toronto SARS crisis of 2003 when, amid innumerable news conferences, the staid and reassuring microbiologist became a familiar face. He returned to the public’s mind last month after a video was released following his death at age 68. In this video, recorded just one week before he succumbed to natural causes, Low makes an impassioned plea for Canada to change its law prohibiting euthanasia and assisted suicide: “I’m just frustrated not being able to have control of my own life.”
It is with the utmost respect for the late doctor that we suggest his grievance was not really with Canada’s laws. The vigor and health of the young create the illusion that it is otherwise, but none of us ever really has control over his own life; even on the strongest summer day, the sun still sets. We are contingent creatures, dependent and in need: we rely, as children, on daily bread from our fathers and, at all times, on the daily bread of our Father.
What, then, does it mean to die with dignity? When Low regrets that, “it will be a long time” before “there’s dying with dignity” in Canada, he is, of course, only employing the preferred euphemism of the euthanasia lobby, and not addressing the question begged by the phrase. For, in one sense, there is no such thing: death is the ultimate indignity, casting a corrupting shadow over even our brightest joys. The spiteful enemy of man, death proves false the “promise” of life: that sureness we all share that life is a beautiful, ever-burgeoning mystery, whose cessation strikes us as so absurd.
No, there is no dignity in death – but there is in the mortal man who girds himself to greet that great mystery; who meets each of his counted days as an unlooked-for miracle; and who knows that, in every moment, there is as much life as in any other. This is the dignity of Montaigne’s sovereign affirmation: “No man dies before his time; the time you leave behind you is no more yours than the time which passed before you were born.”
In the phrase, “life is a gift,” it might be hard to hear anything more than a platitude. Yet, like the golden talents of the Gospel, life loses its meaning when not welcomed and given again with the same gratuity. In the words of the poet: “We receive but what we give”; and we, likewise, debase what we merely possess. A gift, then, held in trust, our earthly days are numbered – yet how they seem to double when offered to others with love!
The debility and dependency which infirmity inflicts in no way diminishes our dignity. Rather, our dignity is compromised only by the pernicious attitude that sees life as anything less than an awful mystery – from its first dark and invisible moments in the womb until its late twilight. After all, we did not choose to be born, nor decide to enter into the great continuum of embodied life, threaded by umbilical cords from one generation to the next. In the same way, death can never be a “choice,” one more medical therapy among others. Elected death, rather, is a Fates’ thread cut short; euthanasia always has the figure of a refusal.
Indeed, from a certain perspective, death is not even the cruel inverse of our birth, but, rather, a mirror image of its miracle. As the poet Paul Claudel puts it: “Time is the invitation to die, the means by which all things are able, on the threshold of eternity, to confess their naught in the Creator’s bosom.”
In his last days, Low lamented that he could not “die with dignity.” And yet, in his every syllable, it is hard not to see the dignity of which he claimed to be deprived. So too, is it hard not to find a happy irony in the last words which appear in the late doctor’s video: “He did not have the death he had hoped for, but he died in his wife’s arms and was not in pain.” No, it was not the death for which he advocated – not the cold comfort of hemlock’s fatal dregs. Instead, Low enjoyed what the monk longs for with his each day’s last prayer: “A quiet night and a perfect end.”