How my beloved cousin chose to die on his own terms
IT was a phone call you never expect to receive. Certainly not at 11am on a Tuesday morning.
“It’s Mike,” said my cousin, although I’d already guessed that from the +31 dialling code that had flashed on the screen as my mobile vibrated for attention.
Mike had lived in Holland the best part of three decades, maybe more.
“I’m just calling to tell you that I’m going on Friday 25th of January, and my funeral will be on the 1st of February,” he said, as if it was the most normal conversation opener ever.
Mike, who had been battling cancer for two years, had finally had enough. He’d decided he wanted to be euthanised. The final papers had been signed.
It’s a surreal experience, hearing someone talk about their death in such matter of fact terms. Just the mention of euthanasia still very much a taboo subject for many people.
Yet, here we were on an otherwise very ordinary day discussing the fact that in less than two weeks time, Mike would be gone. Forever.
His decision didn’t come as a complete shock. He’d popped home for a weekend just before Christmas to see the family.
We’d done the reunions, the cousins all being scattered around the country now, remembered the good times and caught up on each others latest news.
Mike’s wasn’t the best. Immaculately turned out as always, the Burdiehouse boy was frail but hid it well.
Two years earlier, in another unexpected call from Holland he’d broke the news that he had cancer. The prognosis was not good, he’d told me “weeks possibly, maybe a few months”. He wasn’t sure if he’d see his 60th birthday.
Obviously he did. That was thanks to a revolutionary new treatment he took part in trials for, it gave him the extra time that let him celebrate not just his 60th birthday, but his 61st and 62nd too.
The really cruel thing about Mike’s illness was that before it materialised, he was one of the fittest and seriously party-loving 50-somethings you could hope to meet.
Photography, cycling, running and raving were his passions, not necessarily in that order.
He’d cycle for miles, a popular pass time in the flattest country in the world. He could also be found training daily for the many marathons he completed.
However, at weekends it was his love of rave and dance music that was king and he’d regularly head off to whatever open-air festival was happening nearby.
Consequently, trying to get my head around that ominous phone call was, simply put, a mind-f**k.
My mam and Mike’s mammy were sisters. They were always very close. As a result the cousins too were close and summer holidays would spent visiting them in Burdiehouse or with them at our bit in Leith.
We grew up together until we were old enough for our lives to take us our separate ways.
Mike was a few years older than me but, he being the youngest of my aunty’s boys and I being the oldest of three, we developed a special bond.
I remember exploring his record collection as a kid when we’d sneak into the ‘boys room’ on Southhouse Broadway, discovering bands I was just too young to know.
We reminisced about this when Mike visited at the end of the year.
It would be his last visit home he told me and he was adamant that he would decide when he went, not the cancer.
Thinking out loud he reckoned that might be a year down the line.
He’d been offered more experimental treatment, but declined. He’d done his bit and while It may have prolonged his life expectancy, the quality of that life was diminishing rapidly.
Euthanasia wasn’t a choice he’d come to easily either. He’d been required to attend numerous sessions with his doctor.
Only when she was convinced he knew what he was asking for and that it was the right thing for him to do, did she allow him to move to the next stage.
He then had to see an independent doctor who would have the final say. Without both doctors’ signatures the process would end right there.
With those signatures now in place, that visit was very much his farewell to the city of his birth and the people he grew up with, both family and friends.
It was a lot of fun. All together again. You would never have known how ill he was, in fact, few realised.
The day before he passed away, I flew to see him, to say goodbye.
It’s impossible to get your head around the fact that you sitting, chatting, and drinking whisky with someone you have known all your life in the knowledge that in less than 12 hours they’ll be gone.
That awkward moment of not quite knowing what to say had passed quickly when he walked into the room.
We hugged. It was then that, despite his smart attire affording him a healthy frame, it became apparent just how frail, how thin he was.
We talked. I had to know that he was still 100 per cent committed to going through with it.
He understood and said he was. He was tired of the pain. Tired of the debilitating nature of his illness. Tired of the fact that he couldn’t digest food or eat with out being ill.
It was, he insisted, time to go.
He explained that in the two weeks since sharing his decision he had managed to get his old life back.
Before that, he’d spent months on the sofa in his flat too ill to move. Making the decision had, ironically, given him a new lease of life.
He’d had lots of visitors to party with. Found himself dancing again with younger family members and singing at his very own going away party that had been attended by hundreds.
Just like old times and a testament to his popularity.
“What a way to go,” he said. “I’m ready. It can only go downhill from here.”
Despite the bravado, Mike constantly referred to things in the present tense, whether it be his new computerised fork-lift truck at work, which he couldn’t wait to explain, or just general chat and everyday observations.
There was no sense that he would never see or do them again. It was as if the plans for the following day would never happen.
Talking me through his final hours, he was candid. His immediate family and best friends would arrive at his big brother’s house, where he would be euthanised, at 9am to say their farewells and share a dram.
It was strange to think that by that time I’d be back in the UK.
At 10am the paramedics would arrive and give him a series of injections to anaesthetise him, block any pain and let him drift off to sleep.
An hour later, the doctor would arrive to administer the final injection. The one that within minutes would stop his heart.
I wondered if talking it through helped him accept it.
As Mike told me this, occasional flashes of his wicked sense of humour burst through.
He’d decided to head home at midnight, to try to sleep.
He wanted to be fresh, to make the most of the experience the next morning,
“If I sit here drinking with you all night, I’ll probably end up falling asleep and die in my sleep and miss the big day,” he quipped.
Similarly, as he was leaving to head home on a bitterly cold night with frozen pavements and lying snow, he joked that knowing his luck he’d slip and break something and they’d make him wait to get it fixed before letting him go.
As we said our goodbyes it was emotional.
What do you say?
There are tears in my eyes as I recall it. We told each other we loved each other. He told me to look after myself. I told him I was proud of him. We kissed and hugged a final farewell.
As he left, he remembered something. Came back, and we said goodbye all over again.
This happened three or four more times. It was as if he didn’t want to go. He knew he had to, but somewhere, deep down his subconscious was saying, ‘I want to stay. I want to rave. I want to laugh and sing again. To cycle. To run. But I can’t’.
He waved from the gate, his wee sister by his side, and I watched one of the bravest men I am proud to call not just family but a friend walk into the night.
A few hours later I landed in Edinburgh just as Mike would have been wakening, if indeed he slept, and preparing to for his last hours.
It’s still doesn’t seem possible. Often it feels unreal. Like it never happened.
Euthanasia is legal in the Netherlands, still many doctors refuse to entertain the idea either on ethical or religious grounds.
It’s treated as an unnatural death and a report has to be submitted afterwards to the Dutch equivalent of the Procurator Fiscal.
For many, Mike’s choice will be a controversial one but I admire him for having the strength to take back control of his life in such a final way.
His final moments were very dignified and peaceful, I am told.
I only hope that if I ever find myself in the same situation, I will have the same resolve.
Sleep well Mike.