'I have control of when I want to end my life'

By Cory Taylor

One of Australia's most celebrated novelists, Cory Taylor, reveals her desire to decide when enough is enough in her battle with terminal cancer.
Novelist Cory Taylor.
Novelist Cory Taylor.

About two years ago I bought a euthanasia drug online from China. You can get it that way, or you can travel to Mexico or Peru and buy it over the counter from a vet. Apparently you just say you need to put down a sick horse and they'll sell you as much as you want. Then you either drink it in your Lima hotel room, and let your family deal with the details of shipping your remains back home, or you smuggle it back in your luggage for later use. I wasn't intending to use mine straight away, and I wasn't fit to travel all the way to South America, so I chose the China option.

My Chinese drug comes in powdered form. I keep it in a vacuum-sealed bag in a safe and secret place, along with a suicide note. I wrote the note more than a year ago, a few days before I was due to have brain surgery. I had melanoma in the part of my brain that controls the movement of my limbs on the right side - incurable, no guarantee that the cancer wouldn't return after the surgery. By then I had deposits of melanoma elsewhere too, in my right lung, under the skin on my right arm, a big one just below my liver, another pressing on my urethra, which had necessitated the insertion in 2011 of a plastic stent to keep my right kidney functioning.

I had been first diagnosed in 2005, just before my 50th birthday, after a biopsy on a mole excised from the back of my right knee came back positive as stage-four melanoma. Since then the progress of my disease had been mercifully slow. It was three years before it showed up in my pelvic lymph nodes and another couple of years before it began to spread to other parts of my body.

I had two rounds of surgery, from which I recovered well, and in between I suffered no debilitating symptoms. In that time I managed to keep my illness a secret from all but my closest friends. Only my husband, Shin, knew the whole story, because he'd accompanied me to my regular scans and specialist appointments. But I had kept the details from our two teenage sons, trying, I suppose, to protect them from pain, because that was my job as their mother. Then, in late December 2014, a seizure left me temporarily as helpless as a baby and I could no longer deny the obvious.

So we convened a family meeting in our home: Shin, our younger son Dan, his girlfriend Linda, our older son Nat and his wife Asako, who dropped everything and flew home from Kyoto where they'd been living for two years. Over the next few days, I took them through all the paperwork they'd need to access if the worst happened - my will, their Powers of Attorney, my bank accounts, tax, superannuation. It helped me to feel I was putting my horse in order, and I think it helped them because it made them feel useful. I even revealed my interest in euthanasia drugs and evasively said they were on my wish list for Christmas. I called it my Marilyn Monroe gift pack.

"If it was good enough for her, it's good enough for me," I said. "Even if I never use it, just knowing it's there would give me a sense of control."

And to the extent that they didn't object, I think they understood.

My mother's first love was a lawyer, killed in the war. He was on a reconnaissance flight over a beach somewhere in the Solomons when the plane slammed into a tree and crashed in a ball of flames. By sheer coincidence her brother Peter was on a ship not far offshore and saw the whole thing, but he didn't tell my mother until years later.

The truth was, my mother's parents were relieved when Mum's paramour was killed, because he was from Melbourne and half-Chinese and therefore unsavoury on two counts.

Growing up, I was haunted by this story. It might have turned out so differently. The lawyer might have come back from the war and married my mother. And they might have had children, who were not my sister, my brother, and me, but entirely different people. In which case, my sister and brother and I would not have existed, ever, anywhere. We would have been nothing. It was only because an accident intervened that we were here, the replacement, the lucky ones.

The accident of birth is just that. And so is everything that happens afterwards, or so it seems to me. How many times I could have died before now, and in how many different ways. And yet I came close only once: a speeding sedan ran a red light, hit three other vehicles and jack-knifed into my rear wheel a split second after I'd stepped out of my parked car.

A bystander described the scene to me later.

"You were a millimetre away from losing your legs," he said.

I hadn't seen a thing, only turning as the sedan came to a halt and the teen driver emerged unhurt.

"My brakes failed," he said, shaken and apologetic. "I couldn't stop."

So many times I've wondered what might have happened to me if I had lost my legs, or even just my right one, where my first melanoma appeared two or three years later. If I'd just been a second slower stepping away from the car, I might not be dying now. I'd be legless, of course, but still in good health. Of these fateful forks in the road are our lives made up. We are all just a millimetre away from death, all of the time, if only we knew it. The Hagakure is a samurai manifesto, written in 1716, to remind its readers of this incontrovertible fact. "It is silly," writes the book's author, Tsunetomo Yamamoto, "to spend an entire lifetime struggling and worrying and doing things we don't want to do; after all this life is like a dream, so short and fleeting."

It's a good piece of advice, even now.

And, of course, I wonder why I was not more vigilant about checking my skin, because if I had been, I would have picked up that first melanoma before it turned bad, and saved myself a lot of heartache. When I was first diagnosed, I was angry with myself for being too lazy and stupid to bother with anything but the occasional quick examination. But then I decided that kind of thinking was a waste of my time, because we start dying the moment we are born.

I know that now. The knowledge has changed from a first illuminating but soon forgotten premonition into an undeniable lived reality.

I imagine at the very end I might feel a little like my mother did when her long unhappy marriage finally died. Oh God, what have I done? I've crossed the line. What started out so well, and seemed so full of promise, has come down to this, a big zero. But that presumes that I will be lucid until the last moment and able to think this final thought. If I'm being realistic, that isn't the most likely scenario.

As far as I can tell, I'll either succumb to some opportunistic infection, for which I've refused antibiotics in advance, or, having similarly declined forced feeding, I'll starve to death.

Every day my body demands less and less fuel and, although I still enjoy food, I eat like a bird, much to Shin's disappointment. He's always been the family cook. He's been feeding me since the day we met. Everything I know about Japanese food I know because of him. So now that's another pleasure gone, perhaps the greatest. I don't know how long it takes to die of starvation, or whether it hurts, but I dread it, just as I dread my sons watching me go like that. Because that is what they will remember, their mother reduced to a bag of bones. What it will do to Shin I can't bear to contemplate.

And all the while my Chinese drug offers me an alternative way to go. I'm grateful to have it. It helps me feel that my autonomy is still intact, that I might yet be able to influence my fate. Even if I never use the drug, it will still have served to banish the feeling of utter helplessness that threatens so often to overwhelm me.

I have heard it said that modern dying means dying more, dying over longer periods, enduring more uncertainty, subjecting ourselves and our families to more disappointments and despair. As we are enabled to live longer, we are also condemned to die longer. In that case, it should come as no surprise that some of us seek out the means to bring a dignified end to the ordeal, while we are still capable of deciding matters for ourselves. Where is the crime in that? A sorrowful goodbye, a chance to kiss each beloved face for the last time before sleep descends, pain retreats, dread dissolves and death is defeated by death itself.

Extracted from Dying: A Memoir by Cory Taylor, published by Text Publishing, $30.

- Canvas

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