Back when I was in the sixth grade, I thought that 60 would be a good time to die. What’s the point, I reasoned, of living to be so old?
This year I turned 60. I long ago realized that sixth-graders aren’t that bright on matters of longevity.
I thought of this last week while watching Ezekiel Emanuel declare that he hopes to die at 75, expanding on an essay he had earlier written in The Atlantic.
By the time I reach 75, I will have lived a complete life. I will have loved and been loved. My children will be grown and in the midst of their own rich lives. I will have seen my grandchildren born and beginning their lives.
I will have pursued my life’s projects and made whatever contributions, important or not, I am going to make. And hopefully, I will not have too many mental and physical limitations. Dying at 75 will not be a tragedy. Indeed, I plan to have my memorial service before I die.
And I don’t want any crying or wailing, but a warm gathering filled with fun reminiscences, stories of my awkwardness, and celebrations of a good life. After I die, my survivors can have their own memorial service if they want — that is not my business.
Let me be clear about my wish. I’m neither asking for more time than is likely nor foreshortening my life. Today I am, as far as my physician and I know, very healthy, with no chronic illness.
I just climbed Kilimanjaro with two of my nephews. So I am not talking about bargaining with God to live to 75 because I have a terminal illness. Nor am I talking about waking up one morning 18 years from now and ending my life through euthanasia or suicide. Since the 1990s, I have actively opposed legalizing euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.
People who want to die in one of these ways tend to suffer not from unremitting pain but from depression, hopelessness, and fear of losing their dignity and control. The people they leave behind inevitably feel they have somehow failed. The answer to these symptoms is not ending a life but getting help.
I have long argued that we should focus on giving all terminally ill people a good, compassionate death—not euthanasia or assisted suicide for a tiny minority.
Emanuel is no sixth-grader; he’s 57, or — as we 60-year-olds would say: “he’s just a kid.”
In the Boston Globe today, columnist Jeff Jacoby takes Emanuel to task.
Maybe Emanuel is merely being provocative. He acknowledges that 75 is an arbitrary age to designate as the boundary between a vibrant life and a feeble one. He admits there are “myriad people I know who are over 75 and doing quite well.” At the start of his essay, he claims “I am sure of my position” — yet reserves the right, at the very end, to change his mind once he reaches his 75th birthday.
Emanuel is 57 now, which gives him 18 years to reconsider his death wish, and to learn, perhaps, that the declines of advanced age can be a blessing as well as a curse. To be able to accept the pains and impediments of mortality requires a measure of courage and dignity that few of us are blessed with — or can even imagine — in our prime.
Emanuel’s own father, now 87, has slowed down considerably. His career is over. His son describes him as “sluggish,” and seems confounded that the old man describes himself as happy.
Emanuel may dread the prospect of ending up like his father. But he’s still young, and not yet wise.