Six or seven years ago now I sat next to Bob, a friend of my father’s, at a dinner following a public talk given by the author of a new book. I hadn’t seen him for at least eighteen months and so we had quite a lot of catching up to do.
Towards the end of said meal he asked me if I knew what his biggest fear in life was. It was a non-question really, because (without him having previously advised me) how could I possibly know?
He then told me.
As he progressed through old age, the one thing he wished to ensure above all was that he would not become a burden to his family in his declining years. In this context – with increasing restrictions these days upon how many prescription pills one could buy at any one time and the medical profession now so jumpy about negligence claims and the Hippocratic Oath – he was worrying about how he might enough drugs to kill himself should he ever decide he’d had enough of life. At the moment, he added, he was steadily acquiring a supply of [some brand name or description of pills I did not recognise] but, the difficulty was, he didn’t know many he needed to ‘do the deed’.
He emphasised that as we spoke he had zero intention of going down this ‘difficult’ path, of course, but (projecting forward to a time when he might potentially be falling apart) these issues were currently preying on his mind.
Bob went on to say that in the old days, if a person was ageing, in pain, fed up to the back teeth, weary, depressed and desirous of ending it all, it was standard and unremarkable practice for his local GP simply to come round on one of his routine calls and helpfully administer something that would hasten his end. Whatever formalities were required, including any coroner’s contribution, the paperwork would then be suitably fudged to avoid any suspicion as to the circumstances, the deceased laid to rest – and that would be that, to the eternal gratitude of both deceased and possibly his family.
Yesterday I was at the same venue for a quite different gathering. Finding myself sitting next to another friend of my father’s, we fell into conversation and had an opportunity for a quick catch-up before the meeting was formally called to order.
By chance – and sadly – Bob had died the previous week, in his tenth decade and just six weeks after he had been on the operating table for a serious but, on the face of it, scarcely hazardous procedure in normal circumstances.
We talked briefly on this. My companion mentioned that that there might have been an element in his passing of Bob, having come through the operation, but with his descendants all now abroad, living alone, perhaps a little lonely, subconsciously deciding that ‘he’d had enough’. [I remember my father once saying that George Bernard Shaw, who lived to a ripe old age, reached a certain point both medically and mentally and then basically ‘gave up’, supposedly on the basis that he could no longer see the point of carrying on].
Having skirted close to the point, my companion then added “Of course, I’m not suggesting that Bob took some pills or anything …”
Later in the evening, several hours after the meeting, sitting in front of the television watching nothing in particular after my dinner, I revisited this exchange – and then recalled my conversation with Bob of six or seven years earlier.
For a brief moment I wondered whether Bob might have … well, you know … but then dismissed the thought from my mind. It’s no business of mine whether he did or not. It’s all in the past now and it doesn’t matter anyway.