As our government decides whether or not to permit euthanasia, my good friend Chloe and I reflect upon old age; as women in our earlier twenties, our knowledge of the end of life is limited, so we draw here from the times our young lives cross with those much older. For me, that’s a life drawing class. For Chloe, her medical training.
Hayley: Naked Elderly
I love to draw. My grandfather taught me. Early into my university study I realised there wasn’t much room for drawing and painting – a BA is all about words. So in an effort to keep that visual part of me awake, I started attending a life drawing class once a week.
I’ve been going for about three years now. Each class is pretty much the same: A room of about twenty people – some suited up, some with dreadlocks – sit quietly and draw whoever is modelling for one hour, then we all have tea break (20cents a cup), pay Tama our five bucks for the class, and get back into the drawing for another hour. At the end everyone calls out ‘thankyou!’ to the model, packs up their things, and leaves.
The only variation comes from the model.
It could be a women. It could be a man. She could be hairy. He could be hairless. She might be round. He could be stick-like. She might be pregnant. He might have some scars. She could be tattooed. He might be twenty. She could well be eighty-eight. In my experience, you can encounter pretty much any bodily variation at life drawing.
This is part of the reason why I like it; it inverts much of what I’m use to looking at. In the advertising that’s all around me, everything is subject to change except the body. There is endless variation in backdrop, font, colour, scale, sound, and so on. And yet, in every varied image the body is likely to remain exactly the same: white, thin, female, busty, hairless, aged 18-25.
I hate the thought that my eyes would become so accustomed to seeing this one sort of body that all others would appear as mistakes or deviations. It’s too narrow to encompass the great variety of humans that exist.
And I wonder at the possibility that this might happen (or have already happened) with the end of life. That we might become beholden to an image of what life is that is too narrow to include its fragile end. I want an understanding of human life that doesn’t cut off any edges: too fat, too thin, or too old.
Chloe: How would you describe the pain?
Mrs. T is a 65-year old woman with terminal mesothelioma due to asbestos exposure of unknown origin. She is slim and reports anorexia and weight loss. Pain in her left thorax is well-controlled with long-acting analgesics and occasional rapid-acting painkillers. Breathing is normal and patient appears well.
Apart from the fact she is about to die.
She was a former model but
She was not a model patient
She did not make terminal illness appear trendy.
She did not radiate optimism
She did not possess an indomitable will to beat her illness
She had not given her cancer a suitable pseudonym
To assert her dominance over this unsolicited invasion.
Her neighbours did not bring around lasagne
Her husband was long gone (“a widow 25 years”)
Her son was expecting his third child
So would not have time for her.
She had friends who were dying too
They sometimes went into respite care, so their husbands could have a break
Her husband was dead
So she did not qualify
Although she could have done with a break from looking after herself.
She spoke of an in-between feeling
Not the sensation of the mesothelioma creeping in between the lungs and chest wall
But the in-between of
Not knowing if it was weeks or months
The in-between of waiting
To be sick enough for hospice
Even our conversation swung between
The difficulties of dying
And favourite coffee brands.
She spoke of fear:
Her biggest fear was dying alone.
Her biggest fear was that she would be put into a rest home.
Her biggest fear was a long, drawn-out death.
Watching hospice friends die, one by one, she was afraid she would be next.
I think she was also afraid she would be last.
She nearly cried
Talking about her husband dying
her friends dying
the shock of her diagnosis
the lack of support
I nearly cried too.
The day before, I had observed an interaction
Between a doctor and a body that had metastatic bowel cancer
Brought in by its owner, a bubbly 40-something, and her husband.
The three discussed the body’s calcium levels and thyroid problems,
Fatigue and the gas in the stoma bag,
“More blood tests!” was what the body needed, and the couple had agreed
This was much easier.
I had seen dying before, but from a distance,
Not this prolonged, lonely dying –
I had not sat for so long in this place where questions have no answers
Where problems have no solutions
I had not looked straight into a dying face
And asked how it felt to be there.
I could only make feeble observations:
“That sounds really difficult.”
“So it seems like you feel quite unsupported?”
“It must be hard not to know.”
What else could I do?
I have learnt the skill of using stethoscopes,
Tendon hammers, sphygmomanometers, butterfly needles
I would like to learn the skill
Of putting them down
Knowing when a patient has had enough of being a primary-tumour-poorly-circumscribed-
And today, just wants to be a person.
If there are right things to say,
I would like to learn these.
If there are no right things to say,
I would like to learn this too
And learn how to sit in this space
Where we cry in between
Eating chocolate chip biscuits
And drinking Hummingbird Crave.
Some more info can be found at: http://www.goodlife.org.nz/what-is-euthanasia/