Dying was the easy part. When my children moved to Amsterdam, and later, when my husband departed this world, I endured difficult times. But hardest of all was the day I accepted the only way to escape my agony was to leave my body behind.
With each passing year, I lost friends and family to illness, and the dull aches in my joints became louder. By the time I was seventy, I could no longer walk. I couldn’t eat with a knife and fork, and while some people were worse off — paralysed, or with brains lost to dementia — that was no comfort.
That difficult day came at Utrecht General Hospital. The doctor informed me my bones were too brittle for replacements, more chemical painkillers the only option. My daughters Sanne and Lara stood either side of the bed, hanging on the doctor’s every word.
‘What about marijuana?’ I asked. ‘Some people at the residence use it.’
My daughters suddenly stood to attention. It can’t have been easy hearing their mother asking for the drugs they warned their children about.
The doctor replied without looking up from his notes. ‘Some patients find it useful, but for marijuana prescriptions, we are required to provide proof that the opioid medications have been ineffective.’
I found them ineffective. They numbed my body and made me feel sick. Wasn’t that proof enough? I lived my life from pill to pill in constant search of equilibrium. They stole my appetite, so I came to resemble a broomstick with wiry hair. My bruised pincushion hands hung by my sides.
‘That stuff will make you cloudy-headed, mother,’ said Lara.
I knew the effects. I was young once. Light up a joint and it gives you that warm, safe feeling, but when it wears off you feel like you’ve forgotten something. My Edward used to call it a cocktail of happy and sad. Even if it provided a brief respite from the pain, I resolved to source some cannabis.
‘This can’t go on, doctor,’ I said. Then, I got tearful. My body crumbling so early was cruel. It was the first time in a long time I’d cried. Lara put her hand on mine before remembering that it caused me discomfort. She passed a tissue and I dabbed my eyes. I drew breath and asked the question to cast it out of my mind. ‘And what about assisted suicide? Is that possible in my situation?’
‘Mother! How could you say such—’
I cut her off by raising my hand. Sanne gave me the same stare abuse victims use for the accused on the dock. That hurt me more than the arthritis.
The doctor told me that they make assessments. I’d need appointments with a counsellor. A long process.
We drove back to the residence in difficult silence. We were together, but from then on I’d also be alone, against them. My girls would go for coffee and formulate a plan to keep me dependent on the prescriptions and appointments. I didn’t blame them but it broke something between us. From that point, death was the beginning of a pain-free existence, not the end of painful life.
After eighteen months in the retirement community, I had friends. William and Mary were a lovely couple, older than me, and in better health. Then I watched them go. The fourth player in our card group, Stijn, went to hospital with a faltering heart.
We had our own rooms and access to a modern cafeteria. The communal lounges filled with residents talking over the babble of the TV. The card group sometimes played with the four students granted free accommodation in exchange for their help with the day-to-day running of the place. But time whittled my bones. It pained me that I could no longer walk in the gardens, or turn the pages of a book without help. Increasingly I wished for the peace that death would bring, just as one pines for home after a long journey.
The Tuesday after the hospital visit, my grandson Kees visited after his music classes. The boy had a spirited soul. Sanne complained about his bad university grades and social faux pas, but the boy would go far in life. He had the same long-haired charm as my Edward.
‘Grootmoeder Anniek. Grootmoeder Anniek,’ he said, dancing on approach.
‘Hello, my boy. How were your classes?’
‘Eesh. Tons of reading.’
It would be a good qualification, even if he did want to be a DJ. I listened to his latest electronic composition through his big headphones. It was too intricate and fast for my understanding, beats firing like lasers.
The registered nurse arrived to give me my daily injections. Kees winced as she struggled to find blood vessels. ‘Does it hurt, grootje?’
It hurt whether I had them or not. Pain is a constant when you have arthritis. ‘Have you ever ground your teeth by accident?’ I asked. ‘That’s what my bones feel like.’
We sat there while the nurse continued. She massaged the solution into my fingers and wrist, then moved on to my right hand. Then she moved on to another patient.
‘Kees. Could you bring me some marijuana next time you come? They won’t give me a prescription.’
He didn’t laugh. He took me seriously. ‘Does the medication not work?’
I’d tried medication. I’d tried meditation, controlled breathing, imaginary writing, group therapy, electrolysis, pills and injections. ‘Nothing frees me completely, so I’d like to try.’
Before he left, my grandson promised to buy me some marijuana sweets — edibles he called them. I never much liked smoking.
As a precaution, I asked Nasser, one of the student residents to sit with me while I swallowed the strawberry-flavoured gummies. I didn’t want to end up slumped in the corner. For a long time, nothing happened. We just looked at each other. It took more than half an hour before a Caribbean warm glaze washed over me. My skin tingled as if sprinkled with salt water droplets drying in the sun.
‘How are you feeling, Anniek? Do you need a cold drink?’
‘No, my darling.’ I sat and stared while my thoughts came slowly into focus. I considered my achievements and failures, my loves and losses, my children, and my favourite drug-dealer grandson. My pain morphed from a nagging ache to a dull glow. I asked Nasser something that had been rattling around my mind for some time. ‘What do you believe happens…’
Nasser smiled, readying himself for the question.
I finished my thought. ‘… when you die?’
He thought awhile. ‘We believe that Malak al-Maut appears to the dying in order to take their souls.’
I admired that about Muslims. They had an unwavering belief in their righteous path home. I looked around the room, concerned about eavesdroppers. ‘What about the sinners?’
It seemed like an eternity before he replied. When he did, he spoke as if quoting from the scriptures. ‘Sinners’ souls are extracted in a most excruciating way, while the honourable are treated kindly.’
I didn’t ask what percentage of people deserved a dignified death. Most of the residents who had died in my time at the retirement community had faded away to nothing, their friends and family absent in their last days. I saw no dignity or honour.
The effects of the gummy sweet distorted my world into a time-lapse video with each moment appearing in high definition. I watched the other residents shuffle to and fro in the lounge. Each move in checkers took hours, but the game flew by. The lottery numbers appeared on the television but were gone before anyone noticed them. Staff clattered endlessly in the kitchen. Nasser studied his book.
After watching this scene unfold, I told Nasser I’d like to die.
He wasn’t as shocked as my daughters. ‘You mean assisted suicide? We studied this for our human rights class.’
He clasped his hands in a scholarly way. ‘Almost five per cent of all deaths in The Netherlands are euthanasia.’
‘The doctor told me it was reserved for the hopeless.’
‘And do you feel hopeless?’
‘My only hope is that I’m heading towards another life, embracing it. It will bring peace.’
He was quiet for a full minute. Muslims don’t believe in euthanasia. He said he was sure I had considered all of my options, my family too.
In a way, Nasser was right. I considered what I would do and where I might go in the afterlife. However it turned out, it was a better option than my illness grinding me to dust. I thanked him for listening and he returned to his study.
As the effects of the drug lessened, my nerves prickled into focus. Perception of the present moment sharpened. The whole feeling swelled and ebbed; it was bittersweet. Only dying could bring me the feeling of wholeness I desired. I could live pain-free and watch over everyone whom I loved. The infinity of death stored memories, and I wished to reconnect with them. The residents had retired to their rooms. Nasser sat close, still reading his book on law.
In the months that followed, I started the process of seeking my own death. The doctor signed my forms, and they passed the review panel. My condition worsened. Bed bound with little interest in food. The looks of concern from the nurses changed to those of resignation.
Kees came to visit each week and played me his digital music. I told him I didn’t want any more of his candies. Then I asked him to do one thing for his grandma — take down a letter to my daughters. He agreed and I began to dictate.
Sanne, Lara, grandchildren, this is my suicide note.
We will say a final goodbye before I go. The date is set one week from now. I am so grateful for the love and times you provided, but the only way to process all that I have lived is to release myself from pain.
I hope I have been a good person and that my journey to the next life will be an easy one. Although we cannot stay together, I will be glad to leave my body behind. It is no longer fit for this world.
Live your best lives.
Your loving mother.
Seeing that boy’s hand shake as he wrote was another moment of happysad. It would be his last visit, and we were fiercely proud of each other.
The day I died was one of my better days. My girls arrived with lillies, which brought the scent of summer into the hospital room. I wore my own clothes, not a hospital gown. The doctor connected me to the barbiturate and would administer the lethal dose once I was under.
We looked through a photo album that Lara had compiled. Faded colours, silent acknowledgement, family holidays in France, birthdays, anniversaries, Edward’s long hair, the girls’ graduations, newborn baby Kees. Sanne read a letter from her two children. She didn’t get halfway through before breaking down.
‘Girls,’ I said, ‘I am travelling towards these memories, not away from them.’
Though they drew close, the souls of their eyes had retreated. There was nothing left to say. I had no more tears. It must have seemed callous, but I’d cried them all out. The thought of boosting the euthanasia numbers by one pleased me. Five per cent of deaths, I’ll always remember that.
Sanne and Lara held one pincushion hand while I gripped the medication trigger in the other. The doctor watched from the corner of the room, his clipboard cradled like a baby.
‘I’m going towards peace,’ I said, and with one last agonising squeeze of my right hand, I depressed the dosage button.
As I departed my body, the illusion lifted. The physical simulation of a life is only one millionth of true freedom. After death, your history, your actions and the purpose of all the events in your life become clear — they build experience for your soul to live in its real home. Releasing myself from the chronic pain of life was my greatest achievement.
In the afterlife, you may interact with any person or event with which you’ve had contact. I’ve spoken with the 6,231 other souls who committed legal suicide that year. I’ve visited the coast of France again and felt the breeze on my skin. I move freely and without pain.
The afterlife is everything and nothing. Exactly what I am now is unknown. Perhaps I’m trapped in the exact moment of my physical death, and in that millisecond, I experience my personal eternity. The veil of time lifts. I will visit every place I’ve known, thousands of years into the past and into the future. I’ll visit loved ones at any point in their lives as if they’re here with me. Reality becomes malleable. I can replay and edit any conversation, sound or sensation from my seventy-five years on the planet.
It pleases me to know I lived a good life, at least according to Nasser’s principles. Along the way, I discovered that life in your physical body is just a fact-finding mission, a collection of sensory data. I went along accumulating it all, filling my afterlife with precious possessions for me to enjoy forever. My loves, my failures, my accomplishments, my pain. Every emotion I experienced, every lesson learned now blends into empathy and understanding. Perhaps that’s what happysad really is.
The afterlife is waiting for my children, my grandchildren, those in the residence and all who will pass. It is waiting for you and it is beautiful.
Philip Charter is a British writer who teaches writing to non-native English speakers. His work has been featured in FlashBack Fiction and The Lit Quarterly among other publications. In 2018, he released his debut short fiction collection, Foreign Voices and in 2021, he won the Loft Books Short Story Competition.
Unlike many other Arts & Entertainment Magazines, STORGY is not Arts Council funded or subsidised by external grants or contributions. The content we provide takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce, and relies on the talented authors we publish and the dedication of a devoted team of staff writers. If you enjoy reading our Magazine, help to secure our future and enable us to continue publishing the words of our writers. Please make a donation or subscribe to STORGY Magazine with a monthly fee of your choice. Your support, as always, continues to inspire.