Years ago, I lived in an old brown house that had been converted into apartments. Next door lived a Dutchman, older than I was and divorced, with a son who visited him on weekends. One winter night, for his fiftieth birthday, he invited me in for a bowl of soup with Madeira in it. I remember sitting on his floor, cross-legged by the fire, my bowl balanced on my knee, watching splashes of shadow play on the ceiling while we talked.
My apartment was a transient’s place—bed, desk, chair, and books—while his exuded a tidy and determined Old World cheerfulness. Two pairs of wooden shoes, blue and yellow, waited in a neat queue by the door. Painted wooden tulips bloomed on the windowsill. A series of photographs and collages ornamented the landlord-beige walls: the work of his mother, he told me, a fashion journalist and artist, who was then, in her late seventies, living and working in Amsterdam.
The images were striking, and I wish I could remember them in detail, but after all this time I recall only one: a child’s hands, my neighbor’s son’s. The hands are raised as if to catch a ball, but, instead, flowers tumble from them, upward to the sky. It was a beautiful image but a strange one, full of the kind of hope that springs from rewriting a natural law.
It’s been decades since we were neighbors, this man and I, but we have maintained a sporadic correspondence. Years pass between letters, but eventually one of us remembers that it’s been a while since we exchanged notes. His Christmas cards are always homemade, a photograph or a drawing, and generally they contain some piece of news so encrypted that I have to ask him to translate. One year, for example, his card featured a black-and-white photograph of himself taking off a mask, a plaster cast of his own face. This meant, obviously, as he explained in exasperation, that he had retired.
Occasionally there would be news of a more straightforward sort. He bought a house. His son grew up. His grandson was born. His mother was still living. Into her eighties, then into her nineties, she went on living in Amsterdam: writing, taking photographs, receiving visitors, spurning with asperity any suggestion she might be growing frail.
And then, after a long silence, a few days ago I received in the mail a slender book, self-published, spiral-bound: a personal memoir of sorts, its cover illustrated with a photograph of an ornate Art Nouveau door. The title, Life With and Without My Mother, answered the question before I could ask. Taking the book for a tribute to a long life well lived, my heart full for my friend, I sat down and began to read.
At ninety-six, still on her own, this vibrant and stubborn woman was beginning to fail. Always possessed of great physical beauty and vitality, with each visit she appeared more unkempt, more listless. Instead of proclaiming her independence, she began to demand help. This was difficult, and she was difficult about it. She was petulant in the manner of the very old, becoming childish again in her inability to know or to say what it was that she wanted. She complained of pain, which nothing seemed to make better.
Though her son visited from America as often as he could, it wasn’t enough. By his own admission, he found the invasion of his privacy and the interruption of his affairs difficult to bear. He felt haunted, too, by twin specters: the mother he had once known, whom hindsight’s clarity had revealed as overbearing and repressive; and the mother he knew now, overbearing, repressive, and infinitely needy.
I knew that in 2002 the Netherlands had led the way in legalizing euthanasia. I knew that, as early as 1972, the Dutch Reformed Church had affirmed voluntary euthanasia “under certain conditions” as a humane response to suffering. It is one thing to know that such things go on in the world. It is another to be privy to the thoughts of someone as he sits in a cafe with his journal, writing, “I feel that the doctors need to give her the helping hand she deserves. Why let her suffer? Really, the fun for her is over.”
The fun is over? I set the book down on my knees. So much, I thought, for Saint Paul’s quaint admonition that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” Here we have no suffering. Never mind the millions who endured the atrocities and privations of the Second World War and felt their lives were still worth clinging to. We don’t think that way any more.
If a third world war began tomorrow, it would not be entirely, derangedly unreasonable to suppose that a population this wed to euthanasia would be the first to die. They would die not from bombs or bullets or anthrax mail but from despair. It would not be entirely, derangedly unreasonable to extrapolate the suicide of an entire culture from that picture of a man in a cafe, musing on his aged mother whose fun is at an end.
Advocates for euthanasia, like abortion advocates, don’t talk in terms of culture, preferring always the person of the moment—the particular individual who has decided, on the basis of “unacceptable suffering,” to renounce the gift of life. They opt for such words as release, as from a prison. They speak in terms of mercy and love. In her 2006 essay “At Death’s Window,” Anne Lamott describes a man who “gave his wife an overdose, and then sealed her upper body in a plastic trash bag with duct tape. Then he had done this to himself, and they died holding hands.” “What love!” Lamott declares.
Apparently, in my friend’s view, love meant listening to an old woman plan her deliberate exit from this life and never once saying, “Are you out of your mind?” It was this revelation, page after page, that gave me emotional whiplash. She had filed—with the death bureaucracy, an entity that still seems incredible to me—one official euthanasia request form after another. She had discussed this option routinely with her doctor, who had put her off, smiling, “Your time hasn’t come yet.” But as the months passed, she remained fixed on the idea. She would ring her son, at home in America, to declare her intent to move to some assisted-care facility, but always, always, the needle in her mind swung back to the point of simply checking out. And as her apparent suffering worsened, her son said nothing except, “Why not?”
Paging through my friend’s memoir, generously illustrated with his own photographs, I was struck by the unassuming loveliness of the placid canals, the winter trees, the brittle blue sky, the orderliness of bicycles chained to a railing. Like his mother he has an eye for beauty and form, and I could easily imagine him seeking refuge in long walks with his camera.
But once I understood where the story was heading, these quiet scenes began to seem not beautiful but sinister. The bicycles, all facing the same direction like a clump of grazing cattle, seemed to whisper of a darker consensus. So did other images, in which anonymous people walked along the canals, sat over coffee in the cafes, came and went from elegant Dutch buildings, all of them consenting to participate in this orderly culture in which, on the very same page, an aged woman’s aging child sat with a doctor, in a routine consultation, to decide that “continuing her life would serve no purpose to her or anyone else.”
As I read, I could picture the man I remembered, wearing a raveled purple sweater, glasses at the end of his nose, reading his mail on the front steps. I could hear him whistling on the other side of the kitchen wall. I could see, in the front yard of our apartment house, the walnut sapling he and his son planted in a moment of faith—or maybe of denial: Who plants a tree in a rented yard? I prayed, with each turn of the page, that my friend would wake the next morning in Amsterdam and find his mother already flown.
This prayer was not granted. On a wintry Saturday morning, my friend breakfasted on yogurt and granola, let in the cheery housekeeper, and made small talk with the relatives who had assembled, one by one, outside the bedroom. At 10:30 the doctor came. The family gathered at the bedside. His mother, my friend observed, appeared “barely visible” amid the bedclothes. She seemed to have shrunk overnight. The doctor explained the procedure—the “process implementation”—for a final time. Goodbyes were exchanged. “You were a dear,” his mother told her son. The doctor asked the mother once more whether “the euthanasia way” continued to be her wish. She responded emphatically that it was, adding, “This probably won’t work.” “Oh, yes, it will,” said the doctor firmly. And it did. There were no photographs of this moment, I noticed.
In “At Death’s Window,” Lamott narrates her own participation in the suicide of a friend with cancer. She is shocked, over lunch one day, to hear herself offering to help him end his life; she is even more shocked when, shortly afterward, he takes her up on the offer. “I’m not that kind of girl,” she writes. How does it happen, then, that she turns out to be that kind of girl after all, securing through “underground” means a lethal dose of barbiturates, which she crushes in applesauce and feeds to her friend, as if he were a baby?
Again I think of my own friend, of everything I have ever known about him: a kind neighbor, a loving father, a friend who keeps faith with people who move away. I think of the Christmas cards. I think of the tree in the yard. And I cannot square all that with this book which even now is propped beside me on my desk.
But of course, in truth, I can square this equation. I can square it by acknowledging that even the good are fallen and all of us carry death in our hearts. I can square it by acknowledging that the process of extrapolation works both ways: If I can extrapolate cultural suicide from one man in a cafe, then I can also extrapolate, from the fact of a culture of death, the easy transformation of any decent, law-abiding citizen into a murderer, into a murderer’s willing accomplice. If you build it, they will come, goes the hokey-mystical mantra in the movie Field of Dreams. Similarly, if you legalize it, it will happen.
Safe, legal, and rare. Isn’t that how the abortion chant goes? In reality, as a culture, Americans have allowed abortion to become the standard medical treatment for children prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome. Ninety percent of such children are aborted: That’s how heroic our moral struggle has been. That’s how often a loving mother is persuaded that her only merciful option is to assent to the death of her child. It’s a tragic fact of the human mind that, once it begins to entertain a proposition, however outrageous, the proposition becomes not a mere proposition but a sane and rational course of action.
No, make that the sane and rational course of action. From might to may to must: zero to sixty in a cultural instant. In the slipstream, even now, doctors in Amsterdam are packing up their things, and families are filing out of darkened bedrooms into the barren light of a Saturday morning.
Sally Thomas, a contributing writer for First Things, is a poet and homeschooling mother in North Carolina.