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Grant me a dignified demise - R.H. Joseph

Last week I spoke of having been beset by advanced cancer and, it seems, cured. Lucky me!

I spent this past weekend with my father-in-law, a man in his mid-eighties, and have seen foretold the end result of such apparently good fortune.

Wraith-like, the enfeebled octogenarian is in a transitional state. Little more than desiccated remains trapped within the web of existence until one last breeze carries him away, he has transcended self-awareness.

He is not senile, just detached, disinterested. Uninvolved with what is taking place around him, the conversations and physical dynamics of the moment, when an arbitrary combination of synapses fire in succession he says whatever is on his mind.

I celebrate the life of the mind, find nourishment in the recorded history of ideas. Have I survived cancer only to await the inexorable erosion of my engaged and ravenous intellect?

I recall the appearance of Groucho Marx, a man by that time in his 90s, on some late night chat show a few years ago. He wore his beret at a jaunty angle and attempted to be the clever wit his fans knew him to have once been, but that time had passed.

The host would set him up for a clever rejoinder but Groucho could only search desperately, the muse fueling his gift for the scathing bon mot having abandoned him for younger, more agile minds.

All agility has flown from my father-in-law. His upper body has become curiously distorted, a brittle, insect-like carapace. His torso is essentially frozen, incapable of articulated movement.

Arms, waxen, translucent appendages through which blue-black subways of sustenance convey an unwelcome life force compelling him to lay awake at 4 a.m. contemplating who knows what, are now barely capable of extricating him from his recliner.

Hands once the agile instruments of will are tremulous, palsied. The simple act of placing a dessert plate into a dishwasher slot becomes an aggravating, humiliating challenge.

Fortunately he is not humiliated by the bits of food that cling to his chin or the nasal mucous ever awaiting the decorum sentience imparts. He is childlike in his dotage, kept alive by the miracles(?) of modern science.

Science, laser surgery to be specific, keeps his eyes sufficiently clear to qualify for a driver's license. It is astonishing to think this man (and tens of thousands like him in the Tampa area) are entrusted with 5,000 pound blunt instruments.

Sadly, were he denied his vehicle, his mobility, his existence would quickly become an afterthought to all but his loved ones. Though alive, he would effectively cease to exist.

Is such decrepitude the ignominy I must one day endure?

Issues of life and death trouble the self-obsessed, the religious. They cling to promises of eternal life with a fervency equal to their fear of death.

I do not fear death, I am revolted by the inevitability of decay. I am an active man with an active mind. It is my identity, my self-image.

Is life worth living when that which defines me has dissipated?

I asked my father-in-law when his body began to let him down, when it could no longer be relied upon.

He used to be relatively active though he rarely leaves his apartment now. He just sits in his chair, his face sunken and skeletal, waiting.

He used to pride himself on taking a daily constitutional of considerable length. When I pointed this out last Saturday he recalled how he and his wife would bundle up and go for long walks even in the depths of a Philadelphia winter. She's been dead 18 years.

Another dynamic, something far more primal, also took place this weekend. I might not have noticed except that events in Florida paralleled those in my home.

My oldest cat had given up eating, it knew its time was nigh. The younger male, rather than demonstrating compassion, used the opportunity to anoint himself alpha male, attacking the weakened one from time to time as the opportunity arose.

While I did not attack my father-in-law physically, an objective observer might perceive a similar dynamic in this abbreviated social unit consisting of my wife, her sister, and her sister's son, a young man in his mid twenties. I was testy, impatient; I snarled at the old man, the females and the young buck from time to time.

When my time comes, when I am no longer capable of being who I am and want to be, I hope we have wrested our legislatures from the religious so I may be permitted the elective, dignified demise I allowed my cat.

R.H. Joseph is a longtime employee of the News Daily. His column appears on Wednesdays. He may be reached at (770) 478-5753, ext. 252, or by e-mail at rjoseph@news-daily.com.