The Last Freedom

Monday, July 11th, 2011

Incredibly moving essay from Dudley Clendinen, who is dying of ALS.

I respect the wishes of people who want to live as long as they can. But I would like the same respect for those of us who decide — rationally — not to. I’ve done my homework. I have a plan. If I get pneumonia, I’ll let it snuff me out. If not, there are those other ways. I just have to act while my hands still work: the gun, narcotics, sharp blades, a plastic bag, a fast car, over-the-counter drugs, oleander tea (the polite Southern way), carbon monoxide, even helium. That would give me a really funny voice at the end.

I have found the way. Not a gun. A way that’s quiet and calm.

Knowing that comforts me. I don’t worry about fatty foods anymore. I don’t worry about having enough money to grow old. I’m not going to grow old.

I’m having a wonderful time.

I have a bright, beautiful, talented daughter who lives close by, the gift of my life. I don’t know if she approves. But she understands. Leaving her is the one thing I hate. But all I can do is to give her a daddy who was vital to the end, and knew when to leave. What else is there? I spend a lot of time writing letters and notes, and taping conversations about this time, which I think of as the Good Short Life (and Loving Exit), for WYPR-FM, the main NPR station in Baltimore. I want to take the sting out of it, to make it easier to talk about death. I am terribly behind in my notes, but people are incredibly patient and nice. And inviting. I have invitations galore.

Last month, an old friend brought me a recording of the greatest concert he’d ever heard, Leonard Cohen, live, in London, three years ago. It’s powerful, haunting music, by a poet, composer and singer whose life has been as tough and sinewy and loving as an old tree.

The song that transfixed me, words and music, was “Dance Me to the End of Love.” That’s the way I feel about this time. I’m dancing, spinning around, happy in the last rhythms of the life I love. When the music stops — when I can’t tie my bow tie, tell a funny story, walk my dog, talk with Whitney, kiss someone special, or tap out lines like this — I’ll know that Life is over.

It’s time to be gone.

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35 Responses to “The Last Freedom”

  1. #1 |  David | 

    Dudley makes a moving argument for his choice. But if society moves this way the more common situations will be relatives hastening someone’s end so they can keep more of the estate for themselves, or government-paid hack doctors withholding treatment from the treatable because it would diminish the year-end bonus.

  2. #2 |  MacK | 

    Exactly what we should all strive for.

    Great attitude, for all life…… not just the ending part.

  3. #3 |  Highway | 

    David, the huge difference is who makes the decision. Such a decision can be made while a person is, as Dudley is, healthy and obviously in control of his mind, and should be carried through until the end of their means. If this means strengthening contracts so that after someone can no longer represent themself a previously agreed to contract is enforced, then fine. There’s always the change in the question when that person’s means run out, tho.

    What I find more problematic is the hubris, the unmitigated gall, of people who say that people like this should be prevented from the control of the end of their life. If someone has closed their affairs to their and those they are obligated to, then who else should have any say, and worse, who else should be able to force them to survive? This isn’t a temporary depression, brought on by some fleeting event (although if someone wants to suicide for whatever reason, I think they shouldn’t be made a criminal). This is a well-considered opinion of what someone thinks is best for them.

    Everyone else can try to convince him otherwise, but no force or action should be taken against him.

  4. #4 |  Bart | 

    If the plus system was still on The Agitator I would be hitting it several times for your comment Highway.

  5. #5 |  Mario | 

    I’m all for assisted suicide, but I do have the same worries David has. If we’re moving towards socialized medicine, then there will be no competition and no choices. I worry that the treatments made available for certain illnesses might be chosen by cynical bureaucrats who would just as soon steer a person towards making an early exit.

    Ultimately, though, this points out what’s wrong when we interfere with the market.

  6. #6 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    This is one of those issues where I am not sure what I believe, and I’m not completely comfortable with the Libertarian solution. I think that there should be enough hurdles that suicide isn’t done casually. I am bothered by several stories I remember reading in the 1980’s about Sweden, which was then (if I recall correctly) going through a scandal concerning doctor ordered euthanasia and eugenics. The case of that poor woman that was all over Conservative Talk radio a few years ago (Schaivo?) also bugs me. Yes, post-mortem tests showed that she was a vegetable. Nevertheless the case showed that we had moved from taking people off of life support when they had a carefully written Living Will to taking people off of life support based on hearsay testimony about the patient’s state of mind from an interested party. That doesn’t strike me as an improvement.

    I think it comes down to this; as a society, we are bad at disapproving of behavior that isn’t actually banned. And we should disapprove of suicide, strongly. It is inappropriate in so many common circumstances. Maybe we could try to make a strong cultural distinction between checking out when age or lingering illness creep up and being a drama queen over transient circumstances.

  7. #7 |  Z | 

    #6 the crux of the problem is that our society increasingly recognizes only one moral boundary- is it legal? Talk about how something that’s legal shouldn’t be done because being legal doesn’t make it right and you’re treated like a mental patient. We have lost independent thought, nuance, reasoning skills and the ability to be intuitively repulsed.

  8. #8 |  Highway | 

    I think it comes down to this; as a society, we are bad at disapproving of behavior that isn’t actually banned. And we should disapprove of suicide, strongly. It is inappropriate in so many common circumstances. Maybe we could try to make a strong cultural distinction between checking out when age or lingering illness creep up and being a drama queen over transient circumstances.

    This is something important. I don’t know if it’s a human necessity, but so many people can’t seem to make a separate distinction about whether something is good or bad from whether it’s legal or illegal. And of course, the state isn’t going to be supporting people’s discretion, because the state is made up of people + it wants to aggregate power.

    People need to separate the judgment of the morality or rightness or acceptability or appropriateness of something from its legal status. Maybe they don’t because they don’t want to think, and want to have most choices removed from their life. If it’s illegal, then people ‘better’ than they must have determined it’s ‘bad’. If it’s legal, then people ‘better’ than they must have determined it’s ‘good’. I think we do need to push on this idea. Make the decision for yourself whether or not you should do something. The freedom to do something doesn’t confer the obligation to do that thing.

  9. #9 |  yonemoto | 

    I worry that the treatments made available for certain illnesses might be chosen by cynical bureaucrats who would just as soon steer a person towards staying alive so they can consume costly, ineffective, and grisly side-effect-laden treatments, sometimes on the public dime.

  10. #10 |  LivingPre911Still | 

    A friend of mines Father had a Living Will and recently passed after the last couple of years of wearing diapers, eating baby food or fed through an IV.. he couldn’t read nor watch T.V. and sometimes could not recognize his own family. It is the Doctors and the system who were making money and a man that I knew who would not have approved of what they called “Life”. As my buddy said… look, if you put a steak and a liquor drink in front of me for 5 days and I don’t touch either… by definition, I’m done!”

  11. #11 |  Marty | 

    I have a friend with ALS. I’ll respect however he (or anyone else) decides to live and die.

    beautiful essay!

  12. #12 |  jb | 

    As long as one does not involve the state, its laws, or innocents (i.e. doctors, nurses, others), in self-murder (suicide)—then fine. That is individual freedom.

    The instant the afflicted tries to coerce another to assist in such a goal, they are recruiting, however small it may seem, a slave to serve their own personal purposes.

    That is simply wrong.

  13. #13 |  Highway | 

    I disagree, jb. Enlisting the freely given aid of other people or hiring others with specialized equipment and knowledge of means and methods is not considered slavery in any other field, is it? I’ll agree it should be non-coercive, but that’s not what’s being talked about. A person’s life should be their own to determine whether it continues or ends. Having willing help for that end should not be considered ‘slavery’.

  14. #14 |  abhisaha | 

    I am a bit surprised at the reactions of some people here. I guess I have very strong (libertarian) opinions on this particular issue, but I simply cannot take seriously many of the reservations expressed. Highway gave an excellent response to those worried about hastening someone’s end. There are also many other safeguards one can put in place. In any case, this hasn’t been a serious problem in Switzerland, where Dignitas operates. And personally I plan to choose the moment of my death and bow out while I am fairly fit and in full control of my life.

    And I do not understand jb’s response. Who is talking of “coercing” someone to assist in this goal? If they help you freely, or in exchange of money, or even emotional pleadings, its not coercion. Not everyone is in the physical state to use a gun or a plastic bag.

    I like it how Radley titled this post “The last freedom”. I once wrote a short post on Dignitas years ago, and called it “The last human right”.

  15. #15 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    Telling a person how he is allowed to die makes you an ass-hat.

  16. #16 |  Ed Dunkle | 

    Does the U.S. need a constitutional amendment asserting the right of an individual’s control over their own body?

  17. #17 |  André | 

    But, but but… DEATH PANELS!!!1111 We need to keep this illegal for THE CHILDREN! Think of the CHILDREN, Radley!

  18. #18 |  jb | 

    Read my dang words again . . .

    Geezopete. How hard are they to understand? Quit trying to make them mean something else. If you want to off yourself, fine. Do it in free fashion, do not force coercion at any level—professional, legal gummintal. That is enslaving someone else to your desires, by whatever force.

    Did that cover all the bases?

  19. #19 |  Lefty | 

    David’s slippery slope argument is akin to saying same sex marriage will lead to people marrying there dogs. It’s all about consent. If I was dying of als it would be no one else’s damn business if I chose to do this.

  20. #20 |  Maggie McNeill | 

    #16: Apparently so. “My body, my choice” could have been a great slogan for libertarianism and the right to autonomy had it not been co-opted as a slogan for abortion rights and nothing else.

    Americans as a group are for some reason obsessed with quantity rather than quality; they think more is always better, even if it’s more pain, humiliation and powerlessness. As far as I’m concerned, when one dies isn’t remotely as important as how one lives.

  21. #21 |  Lefty | 

    “if you put a steak and a liquor drink in front of me for 5 days and I don’t touch either… by definition, I’m done!”

    Absolutely! I would not want to live like that or have that hanging around the necks of loved ones.

  22. #22 |  Lefty | 

    # 16

    That should include cognitive freedom as well.

  23. #23 |  BamBam | 

    It’s simple: if you own your life, then you should be able to choose what you do with it as you see fit with no legal action taken against you. Because the obvious retort is “legal action can be taken against you for trying to end your own life, or get the help of someone else”, then it follows that you do not own your life. If you do not own your life, then who does, why, and how did these people gain dominion over your life?

  24. #24 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    Z & Highway,

    Part of the problem is that we have a large and vocal group of people who are quite prepared to enforce their morality, while denying that it is a morality based on religious belief. We call them Atheistical Western Intellectuals (which is ironic, since by and large the last thing they use is their intellect). Their denial that their opinions are largely religious means that they feel they can viciously attack anybody who holds DIFFERENT religious opinions, on grounds of ‘separation of Church and State). If you disapprove of something these people like, you get shouted down, and accused of being a religious fanatic. This, it is unacceptable to frown on Homosexual Males, but perfectly acceptable to frown on Heterosexual Males.

    I’m an agnostic, but I get very very tired to the Faith the Atheists have in their lack of religion.

  25. #25 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    Bam Bam, in theory, I agree with you. I am bothered by some of the aspects of this history of these ideas, though. Feel free to correct me if I have the facts wrong, but what I think I know is as follows;

    The modern Swedish State legalized prior refusal of treatment, suicide, and assisted suicide fairly early on. Gradually it became an accepted social norm for Doctors to have a good deal of input in such cases …. and since then there has been a long series of outbreaks of scandal – almost like an episodic disease – concerning euthanasia and eugenics. What strikes me is that, in my personal experience, the Swedes are among the nicest people on earth …. and their medical officials STILL can’t refrain from playing God.

    That makes me very nervous.

  26. #26 |  Lefty | 

    Atheism is a religion like bald is a hair color.

  27. #27 |  Highway | 

    jb, your words leave a huge hole between “do not involve anyone else” and “Coercion”. I took that to mean that you are stating that *any* involvement by anybody else would be coercion and / or wrong. My disagreement is with that interpretation: Involving other people who freely consent or for a fee is fine for me.

    Your second post still doesn’t clear this up.

  28. #28 |  jb | 

    Well, then Highway, you need to make some serious distinctions.

    I did not enter “people who freely consent” because that, at least among libertarians and anarchists, is fully understood. But laws, and the medicinal institutions, as has happened already in Europe, take it upon themselves to “assist” those who have no death wish . . .

    And to make a single issue of any of it gummint policy is to embrace statism and the usual marxist model.

    So either read what I say (I do write fairly concisely, or examine your own beliefs. I said “what is” very clearly the first time, said again even more clearly a second time, and I know precisely what I am talking about.

    The only “huge hole” is not by my definition whatsoever. I am quite clear, and I will state it again for your benefit:

    You are free to off yourself. You are not free to coerce (look up the definition) by law or statute or regulation or whatever, to force (as they do in Europe with assisted suicide), to in any way force another to assist you in offing yourself. If you find someone with a magic cocktail, great, but that is not to become societal policy, but individual policy.

    And if that doesn’t cover the nineteen bases of the other two, I don’t know what else to tell you.

    I defend your right to die whenever you wish, I do not defend a public policy that in any way forces a single other individual to participate in that against their will.

    Got it?

  29. #29 |  Zeb | 

    jb, your writing is not as clear as you seem to think it is. Sorry. I’m pretty sure I agree with you, but I’m still not quite sure.

    I think that the biggest reason why ending one’s own life when and how one wants it ended should be legalized is to protect the loved ones of the dying person and to allow them to participate or at least be present. When suicide is not legal, a person who wants to end his own life cannot ask their loved ones to be present when they do so, since they would be legally obliged to try to prevent it or alert the authorities.
    This guy will probably have to die alone to protect his friends and family from criminal charges and that is just sad.

  30. #30 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    Lefty, I am not particularly bothered by Atheists who don’t have a lot of beliefs that they take on faith and want to push of on others. The problem is the people who use “atheist” as a way to duck out of explaining in short words just why people should follow THEIR faith instead of some other. For example; I don’t think that any Atheist can prove by reasoned argument that a human fetus isn’t human. Certainly I have never run into a Pro-Choice argument on the subject that wasn’t chock-full of assumptions. I’m pretty sure that there is one out there …. or I wouldn’t be for legal abortion (which I am). But so far what I hear from much of the Pro-Choice crowd sounds an awful lot like “Their beliefs are Religious, so our beliefs (which are based on faith, rather than reasoned argument, but we’re Atheists so that doesn’t count) should triumph.”

  31. #31 |  JOR | 

    “We call them Atheistical Western Intellectuals (which is ironic, since by and large the last thing they use is their intellect).”

    Well a lot of them aren’t atheists, but just because someone disagrees with you doesn’t mean they’re not using their intellect. Just because a belief is “religious” doesn’t mean it isn’t intellectual and doesn’t indicate that it’s incorrect. Also, people can use their intellect and be wrong; intellect is just as fallible as anything else human.

    *Also, I see that some idiot has responded to you with “atheism isn’t a religion”, which is true as far as it goes (theism isn’t a religion either), which isn’t very far. There are plenty of religions and cults that are perfectly compatible with atheism e.g. humanism (classical or modern, including Objectivism), Buddhism, various sorts of progressivism and scientism, various sorts of spiritualism. Personally I find the question of whether a belief is “religious” or “faith-based” uninteresting; what should matter is whether the belief is correct or incorrect.

    **Also: The notion that people should be prevented from imposing certain kinds of moral beliefs on others is itself a moral belief to be imposed (maybe rightly, maybe wrongly).

  32. #32 |  Lefty | 

    There’s no over arching system of beliefs for atheism. There’s no dogma so there’s no atheistic faith. None. The religious have a very hard time understanding that there are non religious people and non religious ways of thinking.

    I believe pluto exists even if I haven’t seen it personally because it can be verified. Given evidence to the contrary I would change my views. That isn’t faith. Faith is believing something despite or in spite of evidence. I require proof to believe something.

  33. #33 |  Howlin' Hobbit | 

    I just found out that my mom has leukemia. She’s 72, not in such good health otherwise (i.e. besides the damn leukemia) and has decided she’s not going to do chemo, etc. to try and extend her life by whatever small period of time that would give her.

    She, unlike me, is deeply religious. She feels that fighting to hang on for however long would be insulting her god. It’s like she arrived at the same conclusion as I have from the polar opposite point of view.

    I’ve been telling her ever since it was just a suspicion instead of a confirmed diagnosis that I agreed with her. I was of two minds about telling her this, at least initially, because I love my mom and wasn’t sure that she’d understand where I was coming from.

    Mr. Clendinen’s essay may help that. I’m going to write her a letter (as in an old school letter, with my own hand, not an email) and try to tell her how much I love her and respect her decision and I’m going to include the link to Mr. Clendinen’s essay because it so clearly sets out what I have believed for so long.

    Thank you for finding and sharing this.

  34. #34 |  Lefty | 

    I’m really sorry to hear that.

  35. #35 |  Duckie | 

    Did anyone else get all misty reading this essay? It was the line about Leonard Cohen that got me – “tough and sinewy and loving as an old tree.”

    Also, Lefty’s comments on the old canard that “Atheism is a religion too!” have been spot on.