Thursday 21 February 2019

Facing down death


"All the people you'll meet in this film are, like me, thinking about how they're going to die," said bestselling fantasy novelist Terry Pratchett in the extraordinary documentary Choosing to Die.

Pratchett (63), who was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's three years ago, doesn't appear to fear his impending death; it's the manner in which it might unfold that disturbs him.

"I know a time will come when words will fail me, when I can't write my books," he said. "I'm not sure I will want to go on living. Is it possible for someone like me and you to arrange for themselves a death that they want?"

That question formed the core of this brave, harrowing, sensitive, troubling film. The answer in Britain, as here, at the moment is "No". The law won't allow it.

Some who can afford it are choosing to arrange their death through the group Dignitas in Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal. This is what Pratchett favours; he wants to choose the moment before Alzheimer's takes the choice out of his hands.

Pratchett can no longer type. He's having to dictate his new novel, the ironically -- or perhaps not so ironically -- titled Snuff, to his assistant, Rob.

Neither Pratchett's wife, who chose not to take part in the film, nor Rob are in favour of assisted suicide. "It feels so wrong," said Rob, who accompanied Pratchett during his journey to Switzerland to find out about how one dies with Dignitas and provided necessary balance to the author's arguments.

Not that Choosing to Die was by any means a polemic. Several times during the film Pratchett was moved to tears by the people he met and the events he witnessed, and he continually questioned his own initial judgements. He had some doubts about Dignitas, which he likened to "a one-stop shop" for dying. "You go in as you are and you come out in an urn."

He met two British men, one of whom, we had been warned in advance, would be shown dying on camera. Andrew, a 42-year-old MS sufferer who'd tried to commit suicide twice, was due to travel to Switzerland the following weekend.

Rob, in particular, was visibly distressed that a young man with so much life left in him wanted to voluntarily end it.

"The die is cast," said Andrew, pun probably not intended. "What can I say?"

The man whose death we were to witness was 71-year-old Peter Smedley, an old-school gentleman who had motor neurone disease, a terrifying terminal illness that attacks and destroys every muscle in the body.

"My condition has deteriorated to a degree where I need to go shortly," he said. Peter's wife, Christine, agreed fully with his decision: "I would not put my dog or my cat through an undignified ending."

The circumstances of Peter's death, which took place in a bland, Dignitas-owned house in the middle of a busy industrial estate in Zurich, was both prosaic and brutal. Once numerous legal documents had been signed and Peter had given a woman from Dignitas called Erika one last assurance that this was what he wanted, he took a drink of a clear liquid and sat down on a sofa.

With Christine holding his hand and Erika embracing him, Peter downed a glass of a different, fatal liquid. Suddenly looking distressed, he asked for a drink of water, which had to be refused, and almost immediately fell into a sleep.

Peter's final moments were clearly painful for him, but that's all they were: moments. He had gone from life to death in what felt like half a minute.

It was desperately hard to watch this and Pratchett seemed filled with fresh doubts. "I'm not sure I could do that," he admitted. "I'm not sure my hand wouldn't shake."

In the end, he concluded that it had been "a happy event". "We've seen a man die, more or less in the arms of his wife."

Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die ***

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