Notes on Mortality

I read an article from the New York Times today about the ill health of the most beloved figure in the history of South Africa, Mr. Nelson Mandela. According to the article he is very near death. A reality that has caused mixed reviews in the nation that he once ruled. While most people are praying for his health to improve at least one woman has accepted the mortality of the former leader; “It is not easy, but we must think of his pain. He has given us so much. He deserves to rest.” When I came across this statements that was made by a 30-year-old South African woman it startled me a little. Her thoughts are so contrarian only because they are so real. When we agree to resuscitate those who no longer have the desire to live and when we refuse to pull the plug, are we really doing it for them or are we being selfish?


If we really believe in heaven after earth then why are we so reluctant to let our loved ones go to paradise? My grandmother suffers. She’s alive and she remembers us and we can still kiss her once smooth but now prickly brown cheeks. We literally keep her alive. We make sure the medical staff at the convalescent home where she lives knows that we’re there and those of us who practice medicine make sure that she is getting optimal care. It makes us feel good when we put them in check. After we make sure they change her catheter and increase her dosage we feel like we’ve done the right thing. The only issue is she no longer wants to live. She’s expressed this to us in very plain terms. She wants it all to be over. We disregard what she says. We disregard the words of the wisest woman we have ever known— our mother, our grandmother, our great-grandmother—because we feel like she no longer knows what’s right. This only causes her to slip further and further into depression.


As a society we have been taught that to save the life of an individual is an outstanding deed, however, often times we fail to realize that some people don’t want to be saved. Don’t they have that right? It is a sin for a person to take his or her own life but the bible does not frown upon those that merely allow death to happen. In the case of my grandmother— who used to care for me everyday before I started school. Who taught me the most basic lesson of being a black man in America; “When someone hits you then you hit them back?” Who drug me along with her throughout the entire county of San Francisco on Muni, BART, and on foot—I think our main impetus for not letting her pass on is we don’t want to feel sad. We don’t want to plan a funeral. We don’t want to lose the center of our family. But what about her? Does her opinion of her own life even count anymore? Isn’t it wrong of us to disregard the suffering of another human being so that we sleep better at night?

My grandmother has lived nearly 90 years. She’s perfectly content with the impact that she’s had on this world but we can’t let her go. Even though she is mortal we seem to want her to live forever.

Is it ever ok to just let a person die?


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