01:02, May 29 189 0 theguardian.com

2018-05-29 01:02:09
The writer Katharine Whitehorn would rather die than live like this

This a terrible thing to write – but I know that the old Katharine Whitehorn, the wittily honest Observer writer, would not have flinched. That’s what her two loving sons say and they want it written the way she would have. Her friends and former colleagues have been told, yet it may appal some lifelong admirers to have it said out loud. But her ability to confront hard truths and break old ideas of decorum is the reason so many read her for decades. With her usual no-nonsense rationality, she wrote with fearless clarity on the end of life.

Katharine is now 90, living in a care home, suffering from Alzheimer’s, with little understanding left, no knowledge of where she is or why. She often doesn’t recognise people, can no longer read and curiously sometimes talks in French, not a language she knew particularly well: she will never read or understand this article. In other words, she is not herself. Her old self would not recognise herself in this other being who sits in the care home dayroom. What or who she has become is a difficult philosophical question, but she is no longer Katharine Whitehorn as was.

Pause here to celebrate the real Katharine, the breaker of conventions with pioneering humorous columns about everyday life. Now standard fare, her Observer column delivered an electric shock to women’s pages of the 1960s, then filled with woollies, jellies and the etiquette of hats and gloves. Her 1963 praise of “sluts” – slovenly women, nothing to do with sex – made her famous for asking, “Have you ever taken anything out of the dirty-clothes basket because it had become, relatively, the cleaner thing?” Frankness about untidy lives was her hallmark. After joining the Picture Post in 1956, she wrote as a single woman in London; her Cooking in a Bedsitter remained in print for more than 40 years.

When I started out on the Observer in 1968 as a junior on its miscellaneous Pendennis column, she was a megastar columnist, 20 years older than me, culturally and politically of another generation in another firmament. Though unswervingly for women, she never quite belonged to the feminist waves that followed her. Her warm insight into women’s actual lives – married to difficult men, coping, juggling – cast a caustic eye on mundane details and great questions alike.

Her sons say without doubt that if the real Katharine could see herself now she would be horrified, never having wanted to end up as she is. Indeed, most people find the prospect of this ending a negation of self, denial of a life’s work and character, a mortifying indignity no one should suffer. Who wants to leave family and friends with a final memory of themselves as a vegetable, a distortion, an alien being?

But even those who think carefully about how they definitely don’t want to end up find that rational plans, made in good health, usually slip away during a step-by-step medical decline, no longer in sound enough mind. Too late to say stop. St Joseph, the patron saint of the good death, deliver us from this evil – though it’s the religious, with their 26 bishops and other believers in parliament, who have repeatedly prevented us from gaining the right to die in dignity, despite years of overwhelming public support for this final freedom.

Katharine wrote often of this, so we know what she thinks – or thought when she could still think. Ten years ago she reported for the Guardian on Oregon’s right to die laws with strong approval – except she thought only allowing the terminally ill to choose death didn’t go far enough. “Oregon at least shows the way forward for dealing with a problem that is not brought about by too little health care, but almost by too much – by our ability to keep people alive long after they would once have served their term.” In a YouTube interview you can see her airing that view.

In 2013 she wrote a column headlined What the Death of My Cat Taught Me About Assisted Dying, asking why it’s cruel to keep a sick and suffering pet alive, but not a human. She complained that the current endless debate on assisted suicide would “limit it to people who are pretty certain to die in a short time anyway. If it were me, I would dread, far more than suffering just weeks before the end, the prospect of being incapacitated … Nobody insists that a cat has to be within weeks of death before we let it go; surely we should not deny release to humans with nothing but wretchedness ahead.” She ends, “How I wish one could wear a poison ring, as featured in Jacobean dramas, and refuse ever to be parted from it. No assistance would ever be necessary.”

But that mystic ring that, with one magic touch, one kiss, sends its victims to instant death is denied to us. The dying are forced to stay when they long for the end: my mother dying in pain asked the doctor acerbically, “Where’s Dr Shipman when you want him?” Not there, no easeful death. No doubt the law will change, by slow degrees, allowing a slight hastening of death to those with imminent terminal diagnoses. But the greatest horror of all is Katharine Whitehorn’s fate, not dying, yet dead to all that makes life worth living.

If there is value in an existence living only in the minute, a mind with no yesterday, and no tomorrow beyond the next meal, that’s not an existence she valued. And surely the real Katharine Whitehorn, the one in her right mind, is custodian of herself, arbiter of what or who is her real self and when to discard an empty husk? (And no, this personal custodianship has no bearing on the rights of disabled people.)

Yet that’s denied to her, through no one’s fault. She wrote a living will, which her sons say demand she not be officiously kept alive beyond her wits. Yet there she sits, in a state she strove to avoid. She is on no life-sustaining medication that could be withdrawn: a body can long outlast its mind. She has survived cancer. Her sons say if she ever suffered pneumonia – once called “old man’s friend” – they would obey her and tell doctors to withhold antibiotics. Until then, she sits in God’s waiting room, surely a wicked God to wipe out all that makes a person who they are, without taking their life.

How many times have I sat with friends, promising one another that we won’t let this happen to us. Yes, we’ll find the pills to do the deed, find the willing purveyor on the dark web. (No, none of us knows how to access the dark web.) We will know the right day, just before losing our minds. But that’s a comforting delusion. Chances are, we will not be in charge of our fate. Under current tyrannical law, a living will can’t save us from dementia. Mostly, Katharine Whitehorn is placid, but in rare flashes of depressed lucidity, her sons say she asks for it to end, to stop now.

Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist

Topics