Charlie Hegarty Notebook
Every so often I am invited to sign yet another online petition for a good cause. The most recent was a request to the Coalition not to go further down the road towards euthanasia; indeed, to give the elderly and sick the loving care they need rather than, for instance, push them precipitately on to medical “treatments” such as the Liverpool Care Pathway. (The word “pathway” suggests a gentle walk down a country lane surrounded by the sleepy sounds and smells of nature; I understand the LCP is a little different).
These thoughts were occasioned by watching a Spanish film on DVD the other night. Called The Sea nside , it tells the true story of a fisherman, Ramón Sampedro, who became a quadriplegic aged 25 after a diving accident and who then petitioned for the right to assisted suicide for the next 29 years. Eventually he got his wish; a close woman friend, Ramona Maneiro, gave him a cyanide drink with a straw, telling the resulting court inquiry that “I did it for love”.
The overt message of the film was that Sampedro finally got the justice denied to him for so many years. It was also rather anti-clerical; the Church, in the person of a wheelchair-bound priest, comes out badly. Yet the actual story conveyed to the viewer undercut the morbid message completely: love, passion, sorrow and humour pulsated through it. Paradoxically, although a film about death, it radiated life. Doubtless, its makers missed the irony of this.
What about the elderly? Rather than quote all the popular statistics about longevity and dementia I’ll relate two personal anecdotes. While on holiday in a little town in the Appenines some years ago I was introduced to Giovanna. She was in her 80s and stood about 4ft 8in her stockings. She lived alone in a cluttered basement flat with her budgie, surrounded by photographs of her beloved niece and nephews. She had never married; although she had had several suitors in her youth it appeared that none of them was good enough for her. She was wedded to her independence, her parish, strong coffee, cigarettes, bossing her neighbours – and photography. Never having driven she had turned her garage space into an impromptu “gallery” where she proudly displayed her photographs. These included several dramatic close-up shots of recent local flooding in her town. How had she obtained them? “By hanging upside down from a bridge of course,” she informed me.
Imet Wacek (pronounced “Vatsek”) on a trip to Poland. He is also in his 80s, a tall, spare figure with a craggy profile, living in the same flat for the past 60 years. A devout Catholic and unmarried like Giovanna, he has spent his life in the service of others: this included running a secret Catholic scout troop under the nose of the Communist authorities and starting a local Faith and Light group to help the disabled and their families.
His small flat with its worn, unvarnished parquet floor (Communism had its standards), was full of mementoes of his life: icons, a model sailing boat, sea shells, scouting badges, books, a large paddle from kayaking trips, a pair of skis – even a pile of logs salvaged from campfire days. They spoke to me eloquently of a rich life lived to the hilt, even as Wacek made a magnificent meal for us both, including the best raspberry soufflé I have ever tasted.
These old folk, and countless others more helpless than them, are our heritage. Why, at the close of life, do we neglect this inheritance?