“I wish I could die.”
“Don’t say that!” These words are a knee-jerk reaction, an involuntary verbal response to the five words I dread most as a CNA.
“But it’s the truth,” Mrs. T replies. “I hate this…this shadow of a life that I am reduced to now. I hate being utterly useless, a drain on society and a burden for my family.”
“You aren’t useless,” I say, a bit savagely. I defend my residents’ humanity to the rest of the world, must I defend it to my residents themselves? “Really, you aren’t useless. Nobody is useless, not even people who are truly helpless…which you aren’t quite, my dear.”
But apparently, my words do not comfort Mrs. T. “Of course you don’t understand,” she sighs. “You’re young. You may have known doubt, uncertainty about what to do with your life…but feeling useless, having to sit in a wheelchair while you remember everything you used to with your time and talents…you don’t know what that feels like. I hope you never feel like you’ve outlived everything good about your life.”
I can’t help but remember all the times us CNAs have debated quality of life, wondering if our residents are truly happy with the little scraps of humanity we’re able to keep for them.
“I wish I lived in a state that has right to die laws,” Mrs T continues. “Oh, don’t screw up your face like that, little girl: I have the right to wish myself free from pain. I’m never getting better, so that means wishing myself dead! And if you really cared about me, you wouldn’t want me to have to linger like this, useless and in pain. Life is better when it has a purpose and I don’t have one anymore. You don’t know how much that hurts…even worse than the physical pain.”
That’s going to far for me: I would never dare tell somebody how they should feel, but I expect the favor to be returned. “What kind of caregiver would I be if I wished you gone? If I didn’t believe that your life right now has value? And you’re not useless: you make me smile. I love coming in your room and never knowing what the heck is gonna come out your mouth!” This current conversation being the exception, perhaps…
Mrs. T smiles a bit herself at that, a weak and rather watery smile, but the best one I’ve seen on her all day. “I’m sorry, but after a lifetime of doing real, tangible good for my community…making one person smile seems like such a small thing.”
“Excuse me,” I say frostily, “but my happiness is a huge thing…to me.”
That startles a laugh out of her. We laugh together, and if a few of the tears rolling down our checks are born of something besides mirth…well, who can blame us? I hate these conversations: there’s no right thing to say. If I agree with her, I’m saying that I think the world is better off without her—something I most vehemently do not believe.
If I disagree, I’m denying her the validity of her feelings of pain and grief for the life she can no longer live. And I’d be lying if I said that the thought of me being in her position doesn’t fill me with dread.
“Look,” I say eventually, “I can’t—I can’t pray for you to die. I just can’t. But I can…I can pray for you to find peace, in whatever form takes.”
“That’s a good prayer,” Mrs. T murmurs. “And, since I’m stuck here as our state does not have right-to-die laws…if my new purpose in life is to enrich your life, honey, you’d better make damn sure your life is good one. You make something of yourself, little girl, for my sake. Deal?”
Since becoming a CNA, my feelings about quality of life and the right to die have morphed dramatically. On the one hand, I’ve seen the beauty of life shining through the most debilitating circumstances. I’ve seen human dignity when society saw only brokenness.
On the other, I’ve seen pain needlessly prolonged because the family could not bring themselves to let go, long after the resident was ready to go. I’ve seen unbearable suffering dragged out, a natural death that stretched on for days and weeks. When the end finally came, there was no grief, only relief that the pain was over for everyone.
I suppose I wish for peace for all my residents, peace in their last years and in their final breaths. Peace, as I’ve learned, is not always the complete absence of pain, but at least I wish for my residents to meet their ends without agony or anguish.
Whatever else I may believe, that, as Mrs. T said, is a good prayer.