It takes a whole lifetime to become yourself – excerpt

David Donnison and Kay Carmichael

The post-polio syndrome made Kay increasingly weak. It afflicts about half those who suffered severe paralysis in childhood as the muscles and nerves that were rebuilt to achieve some sort of recovery wear out. It was the muscles in her chest that were giving away. She would wake up in the night unable to breathe: a frightening experience. For some years she was able to keep this growing weakness under control with medication, but eventually that no longer worked. ‘Don’t worry Kay’. Said the consultant she mainly relied on, ‘We have physical treatments that will keep you going.’

She returned from that consultation with her mind made up, facing an end we had often talked about. ‘I’m not going down that road’, she said. ‘I would soon be in a nursing home breathing from an oxygen cylinder. You would come and visit me every day, wondering what on earth to say to me, and I would no longer be able to eat the grapes you brought.’ Childhood memories of the nuns in the Order of St. Joseph of Cluny and the doctors in Glasgow’s Royal Infirmary haunted her. She had already bought a shredder and destroyed papers she did not want to share with the world. The time had come to say goodbye to old friends and to her beloved grandchildren. Some recognized what was happening; some did not. This was a note she wrote at about this time.

… Have I lived? Somehow I have arrived here in my eighties – damaged in so many ways, having lost the experiences that made me feel I was living, they now just seem a dream as I wait, not anxiously, quite calmly – perhaps too calmly – for death. My questions are all about and addressed to my death. Will you give me warning that you are near, working with me, letting me know when you become impatient to claim me? Will you allow me a peaceful, even dignified, end, giving me time to say goodbye? Perhaps you will come quietly in the night allowing me a last deep gasp of air? I know you can’t tell me, but I’m curious and would like to know.

…. Ceasing to believe in hell or heaven came as a great relief. I could see death as a friend.. no longer as something to fear…

She acquired a drug used by the Swiss enterprises that help people to end their lives, and bought a new attractive night dress, ironing it carefully for the day when it would be needed. Her daughter and son-in-law joined us for Christmas in 2006 and we had a great meal together. Next day she wrote a signed letter. This is it – the last document in this collection.

December 26th, 2009

As my time comes to leave this world I want to say that I have had an interesting and happy life which has continued for longer than I had any right to expect, but I am now experiencing increasing pain and helpless ness which can only grow worse. Thus, while I am still mentally and physically capable of making this decision and carrying it out, I am bringing my life to an end.

I am grateful to the many doctors and nurses of the N.H.S who have helped me to get this far and who frankly explained what lies ahead, and to my loved ones who will be accompanying me through these final hours. None of them have encouraged or assisted me in this act, which is entirely my own responsibility.

When the time came for her afternoon nap Kay said goodbye to us, took to her bed and drank the draught she had prepared. I say beside her holding her hand. With grace and gallantry, looking beautiful, she ceased breathing in four minutes. Recalling the stories told by those who have had near-death out-of-body experiences – experiences she had had in her youth – I wondered if she was looking down at us from the ceiling. I looked up and said ‘Goodbye my darling, I love you.. Safe journey.