Saturday, 8 August 2009

Assisted suicide, old style

[I'm on hols and blogging in occasional moments of respite from the pool, etc.].

I haven't been following the debate on assisted suicide closely (it's a bit depressing, after all). So when I say I haven't heard much acknowledgment that there's always been a fair bit of it about, often sponsored by understanding members of the medical profession, it may be because I've missed it.

In any event, I believe the usual procedure is that, following a family conference involving sympathetic doctors, an excess of opiates is administered to the patient for the purposes of - with some understandable euphemism - 'pain relief'. I'm not sure that in every instance the patient consents.

I would have thought most families have some connection with this situation and my family is no exception. However, one instance, confirmed by my Great-Aunt J____ just before she died last year, had the emphasis unduly on the assisted end of the process. Indeed, the element of suicide was negligible, and only present at all if we engage the sentimental concept that Welsh men of a certain temperament have a tendency to self-destruct.

My paternal grandmother (Nain in Welsh*), Auntie J____'s sister, was from a farming family that had once enjoyed considerable wealth from coal undertakings. A direct ancestor was the archetype of the widowed little woman who takes on her late husband's enterprise, and makes an improbable success of it. She was so successful as to be considered a founder of the British export coal trade, a trade that established the metropolis of Cardiff, whose docks early last century shipped more coal than any in the world. She must have been worth a few bob. I believe she appears, as herself or thinly disguised, in a number of romantic novels.

But the wealth was created a couple of generations or so before the arrival of my Nain and, as is often the way, by then there was very little of it left. A disadvantageous second marriage, which diverted wealth down another branch of the family, and ensuing litigation were factors. But probably just as important were inheritable and somewhat contradictory family tendencies to unbalancing overwork and reckless hedonism (tendencies seemingly present at the inception: I was told the matriarch lost her husband to a faulty coal-crusher, inspected on a Sunday whilst wearing an over-long cloak; but this may have been an earlier family member).

The matriarch's son was known as The Gentleman. The soubriquet may have contained an acknowledgment that one of the things that gentlemen could afford to be was heedlessly dissolute. He enjoyed luxury and gambled a fortune away. Family legend has it that in some game of chance he lost a street of houses in Cardiff to the Marquess of Bute (the local magnate).

Following the assiduous efforts of The Gentleman there doesn't seem to have been a lot left other than a few farm tenancies and some way-leaf payments (one of the subjects of the litigation I believe). My father grew up on one of these farms and I was born on another (see this post for a story connected with the latter).

So the Gentleman's son, Nain's Papa, was probably dealt enough to give him a sense of position but not enough to afford it. He was stereotypical, in a way, being the martinet to his wife and six children at home and indulgent to self and others in free-and-easy fashion when out and about, which he very often was. I remember Nain recounting with tears in her eyes how she took on the milk-round as soon as she was big enough to drive a horse and cart, setting off at dawn or earlier year after year, but almost never being shown any signs of appreciation, let alone love (I think he may have stroked her hand once).

Drink and women were his downfall (gambling wasn't mentioned, though he had a weakness for horses – as did most of the family, so perhaps it didn't seem worth mentioning). One apparent virtue was hard work, but in reality and as with some other family members, the form it took added it to his vices, being manifest in unsustainable bursts of intensive labour that left him laid up, sometimes for days.

You've probably already guessed that his wife, Nana as she was known to me (she died shortly after I was born), was a matriarchal angel, long-suffering and almost endlessly tolerant. She exhausted various avenues in the attempted reform of her husband, including removing all alcohol from the house and successfully persuading the village's pubs not to serve him (she was formidable too).

But it was to no avail: apparently his lady friends in the village would host him in turn, lavish with their home-made wines and ciders (photographs show him as handsome, in a high cheek-boned, wolfish sort of way with a twinkle in his otherwise milkily pale, rather vacant eyes; I would bet he also possessed some charisma).

So the years passed. Uproarious, swinish drunkenness was interspersed with bursts of insanely hard work, driving himself and others. Bacchanalian absences exchanged themselves for similarly long periods spent in bed. Hare-brained schemes chased themselves into oblivion. His lack of appreciation of family was compounded by fierce, irrational tempers. And by the time he was in his fifties he was pretty much what the Welsh call 'twp', loosely translated as 'off his head'.

An extended stay at Bridgend (the usual locational euphemism being used here too) was medically recommended. But the shame of it! And anyway what sort of life could the silly bugger look forward to now? Thankfully, Auntie J____ was a sister at the Cardiff Royal Infirmary, she had contacts with understanding doctors. And following the usual conference there was what I would hope was an atypically early and heavy administration of the right sort of narcotic. Papa passed away; peacefully - if unavoidably - compliant for once.

* As a South Walian in those days, she was not a Welsh speaker (she did, though, use a number of Welsh words without being fully aware she was doing so), making it unusual for her to be called 'nain'. However, her husband, my Taid, was a Welsh speaker from the North and they adopted his family's naming habits.


Sean said...

Its only a hop skip and a jump from socialized medicine and assisted suicide to eugenics, mainly through state rationing policy.

It seems to me its off the utmost importance to keep the state well away from the sick bed and the dying.

I am sure the "left" will be all for it and the "right" will be all against it, personally we should let the doctors like out secret service agents, get on with what they need to do for us.

You start trying to proscribe and codify what the dying and doctors can and cant do, you will end up in a worst situation, with doctors not helping things along, and people knocking themselves off all over the place, and being encouraged as a civic duty to do so.

Thats "progressive" politics for ya!

Gadjo Dilo said...

What an interesting family you spring from, Mr Gaw. A close famliy member of mine had planned self-assisted suicide most of his life and eventually did it when he contracted cancer, which he saw as a good enough reason. Depressing subject, sorry, but it seems there's a society one can join that provides the necessary info, and not just in Welsh either.

Kev said...

An interesting family history, reminds me of this.

The people who we tell stories about and remember always seem to be those it would have been difficult to know and actually live with. Lives of quiet virtue seem terribly boring by comparison.

Gaw said...

Sean/Gadj: Sean, I agree with you! Re the law, I do think where there's a will, there's a way, as your relative demonstrates, Gadj.

I wonder when the last successful prosecution of a suicide or assisting in a suicide happened?

Kev: V funny! But Gwilym - not a likely name for a shagger somehow. The Onion isn't the only one: Anthony Burgess thought that all Celtic nations have a special vice, and for the Welsh it was fornication. I believe he meant this well.

Gaw said...

I meant 'attempted suicide' in second para, for obvious reasons!