Paralysed from the neck down at the age of 23 after his car collided with a moose, Steven Fletcher, fully and intellectually aware while locked in a body that would not move, refused to be placed in a personal care home, to be tended to as a useless invalid for the rest of his life.
He fought authorities and bureaucrats, insurance adjusters and politicians, and in the end he made it back into the world. To understand the battles he had to wage to be restored to meaningful life is to understand the true meaning of life.
My first book about Steven, What Do You Do If You Don’t Die?, covers the 10 years from the date of his accident to the 11th anniversary of that dreadful event, revealing the courage and personal growth of a truly extraordinary Canadian, a man who made history when he became the first high level quadriplegic to be elected to Canada’s Parliament.
The second book, Master of My Fate, newly released, chronicling Steven’s life from 2006 to 2015, has been written in response to countless requests for “more”.
Steven’s second decade as a catastrophically injured individual continued to be an inspiration to severely disabled people and to people of all abilities. An active member of Parliament, he had accepted with sorrow the loss of his career as a geological engineer and the exhilaration of canoeing and kayaking in Canada’s wilderness. (Steven was an outstanding athlete, twice Manitoba’s kayak champion and a competitor in the Canada Games.) Clambering around rocks and paddling wild rivers was to be experienced now only in memory and dreams. He sought other pursuits for personal expression.
Encouraged by many, Steven began to write articles. He began to publicly ponder a profound moral issue that had been long avoided by authorities at all levels. “What is the difference,” he questioned, “between existing and living?”
Having looked death in the face on more than one occasion and having not only survived but triumphed, he understood that it was not death itself that was to be feared, but rather the terror of living a life of unbearable agony, waiting for the merciful escape from torment that only death would grant. Readers started to share their stories with him, their sorrows, their anguish and grief about what it is like to endure unrelenting pain and to face a cruel death with no assistance to help shorten the agonies of the dying period.
Profoundly moved by all he had heard and experienced, on March 27, 2014, Steven introduced two bills in the House of Commons, to legalize physician-assisted death and to establish safeguards to prevent abuse of the new law.
Master of My Fate deals extensively with the impact of those two bills.
It is not often that one gets to sit down with others – friends, family, complete strangers – and delve into intense and sometimes passionate discussions about life and death. While writing this book, I have had many such opportunities and I have discovered, as Steven has, that the vast majority of people favour permitting physician-assisted death, with strict safeguards. They have as many reasons for their viewpoints as there are stars in the sky.
Facing the unknown
People who are approaching the completion of a normal life-span have specific worries about the way in which life will end for them. They worry that a stroke might incapacitate them and they will lose their independence. They are afraid that they may become devastated by cancer and waste away. They are frightened by the thought that they or their spouses might end up in a prolonged coma or vegetative state or die a terrible death. They have seen many in their generation suffer these indignities and they don’t want to suffer them also.
They don’t want to live so long that the only thing left for them to desire is death. Those elderly folk who die suddenly or peacefully are thought to have had a “good death”. “At least he didn’t suffer,” and “He’s free of his pain now,” are two commonly heard thoughts expressed by seniors attending funerals. They are revealing statements. At the end of the day, if there is pain, they just want the hurting to stop.
The younger members of our society tend to support physician-assisted-death for a more philosophical reason. They are very “rights conscious”. The upcoming generation will be demanding rights that have never yet been considered. Among these is the emerging insistence on self-determination, on doing things “my way”.
Whatever the age or the circumstances, the majority of people with whom I discussed the issue overwhelmingly supported legislation allowing assisted death, with appropriate safeguards.
Will there be scoldings
Those who oppose such an idea also have a variety of reasons for the positions they hold. They question the long-term effects on society by asking, “Will a cultural shift in attitude make severely ill people feel obliged to choose death over life in certain circumstances? If the severely ill complain that they ache, will they be told that they shouldn’t complain because, after all, it had been their ‘choice’ to live? Will they be judged and chastised for not making a decision to die?”
Others opposed to physician-assisted death point out that wanting to die is very different from making death happen. God alone is the determiner of life and death, they believe, not us. There are lessons to be learned from the natural ending of life and the focus should be on the eternal, not the immediate. Moreover, many assert, there are reasons for suffering that are beyond our grasp to understand.
Whatever our opinions may be, the thing that I have learned as I wrote this second book is that the debate Steven Fletcher has stimulated is one we need to have. With scientific advancement and the ability to sustain life in ways not dreamed of in days gone by, it is right to pause and consider the meaning of life … and its ending.
Linda McIntosh is an artist and author who lives with her husband, Don, on the shores of Lake Agimak in the boreal forests of northwest Ontario. A former Manitoba cabinet minister, McIntosh has been Steven Fletcher’s friend and confidante for many years. Master of My Fate is her third book. Her two earlier books, What Do You Do If You Don’t Die? and Child of Lamposaari have been praised by both critics and readers.