I hated going to Granny's house.
Had you asked the 16-year-old me why then, I wouldn't have been able to explain. I probably would have given you a superficial reason - oh, it's boring, everything edible has been pickled, and it's hot enough to convert into a paisley-patterned Bikram yoga studio.
I couldn't have told you the real reason, because I've only just figured it out. And by "only" I mean in the last few weeks, when I was trying to write my submission to the committee on assisted dying.
It came to me via way of my mum, who had taken me out for coffee so we could talk about our submissions. Somehow we got on to swapping stories about Granny. (We're not just uninspired conversationalists - Granny died at this time about three years ago.)
I was telling Mum how I hated visiting Granny's flat and its suffocating, dead air. It wasn't that I disliked Granny; we had a friendly cordial relationship by English standards. We weren't close, but I loved her in the distant way self-involved teenagers love something that's not in front of their nose. So it wasn't visiting her that I disliked. It was just that every time I was there, I felt a numbness creep along every nerve, vein and ventricle in my body. Something was wrong.
Mum listened to me silently. When I was done, she looked at me and said, "It was because she wanted to die."
Granny had told her after Grandpa's death seven years previously that she didn't want to live any more. She felt she had lived a full life. She had lost her best friend, lifelong mate and confidant. Now it was time to call it a day. (She probably even used that expression, given the English fondness for twee cliches that cover heartbroken truths.)
Her feelings had only been compounded by a painful, inching decline into long-term illness. I was never told what Granny was going through, because I was a teenager. I was told she was having a "funny spell". After some niggling, my older brother, who has always known the family's secrets, eventually told me that there were frequent "screaming days". That's all I know.
And of course, with the descent into pain, there was also a loss of pride. Granny had been an accomplished battleaxe in her day. She'd been a code breaker at Bletchley, then gone on to a career in social work where she specialised in not taking sh*t. Her battles with consultants against them sending elderly hospital patients back to empty homes became the stuff of family folklore. This tenacious, fearsome force of social justice had been reduced to asking her grandchildren to feed her.
And so she wanted to die.
As soon as Mum said this, I realised that this is what I'd felt in the flat. Visiting her was so unbearably upsetting because we all knew (albeit subconsciously for me) that she wanted to die. Her life had become a shuffle towards death. It was our job to sit in the after-life's antechamber and watch.
It's bad enough having to fruitlessly watch your Granny ask to die because she's old, lonely and sick. I cannot imagine the pain of watching your 30-year-old boyfriend asking to be relieved from the pain of terminal cancer. Let alone being the person actually suffering the illness. They're in pain, watching others suffer because of them, and have also been stripped of the fundamental right and ability to determine their lives.
Having had a brief glimpse of someone who wants to die convinced me that I needed to make a submission to the Commission on Assisted Dying. The select committee inquiry is responding to a petition that asked the House of Representatives to investigate public attitudes towards legislation that would permit medically-assisted dying in the event of a terminal illness or an irreversible condition that makes life unbearable. No, I don't have experience with a loved one dying from a terminal illness. But my sliver of insight has convinced me that those with terminal illnesses deserve to have their wishes listened to. So Mum and I made our submissions. Now we can only hope that the committee reads them and agrees.
I also hope that Granny is reading this - hopefully from some heavenly bridge party with whiskey on tap and lots of cheese and pineapple chunks on toothpicks. I hope she sees it as a tribute to a fine battleaxe who always fought for those in need.
We are supposed to be compassionate people. Who deserves more compassion than the dying?
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