Editor’s Page


Winter 2016-2017

Dear Readers,

For this issue I have given the Editorial Page to one of our editors, Jean Zorn, and her longtime friend and previous Persimmon Tree author Christine Stewart (Winter, 2013). Together they have an intense story to tell.

Sue Leonard, Editor

 

Christine Stewart

Jean Zorn

Christine has idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. Idiopathic means they have no idea what causes this particular illness in anyone. Pulmonary, of course, means lungs. And fibrosis means that the membranes and tissues in her lungs are turning stiff, little by little, causing progressive decline in lung function as the tissue scars and hardens. She has reached the point where she cannot sit up without entirely losing her breath and coughing uselessly. Oxygen is no help because there is nothing that what is left of her lungs can do with it.

Luckily, she remained in (almost) good health long enough to see through to publication her enormously influential book, Name, Shame and Blame, which was published by the Australian National University Press in 2014. It is available both in paperback and as a (free) ebook. It is influential because it is essentially the first in-depth, anthropological study of the ways that homosexuality and prostitution – two forms of consensual sexual behavior, usually thought of as very different  – are actually viewed and therefore treated very similarly by both law and culture.. It is set in Papua New Guinea, but is being used now in anthropology classes and law schools everywhere.

Dr. Christine Stewart is in her sixties. She has been, at one time or another and sometimes concurrently, a lawyer, an anthropologist, a legislative drafter, and a cattle rancher. She is from Australia, but spent significant portions of her adult life in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and Nauru. She was among that very small band of renegade whites who embraced the PANGU party and freedom and self-rule for Papua New Guineans in the 1970s, and has continued to work for the PNG government and for those ideas ever since.

Christine and I met in Papua New Guinea, first as student and professor, when Christine was a member of the first class ever to get a University of Papua New Guinea law degree, and I, barely weeks after getting my own law degree, was teaching there. We moved, very quickly, from teacher/student to a friendship that has lasted ever since. In the early years, after I moved back to the States, there were long letters every couple of months, and get-togethers every couple of years in Australia, or New York, or Papua New Guinea. We have the kind of friendship where, no matter how long it’s been, we pick up from whatever the last sentence was when we saw each other last.

After a lifetime of legal work, primarily in the Pacific, interspersed with significant periods herding cattle on Dundundra, her farm in the New South Wales outback, she went back to the Australian National University to do graduate work in gender studies, and was awarded her PhD in 2012 at the age of 65.

 

Since being felled – physically, but definitely not mentally – by the pulmonary fibrosis, Christine is experiencing a slow painful death measured out in months, and now in weeks and days. She has often said that, had she known what this sort of prolonged dying was like – and had she been aware of how the dying are warehoused in nursing homes – she would have advocated more strongly for the adoption, in her home state of New South Wales, Australia, of the right of the dying to choose the time and manner of their deaths. Since assisted suicide is, however, not legal in New South Wales, she has chosen to hasten her death without assistance, by giving up all food and almost all water. She has been on this regimen since mid-November, and is hoping to be gone before Christmas.  

Since she is unable to sit up, she can no longer use her computer, and instead had to tap out her article on her cell phone, an exercise that took many hours, as she tired easily, and had to stop quite often, send what she had to herself, and then pick it up again later. But the subject meant too much to her to put it down undone. So here’s Christine’s latest, and probably last, article:

 

“Happy and Comfortable” is a Horrible Myth

by

Christine Stewart

What kind of a society are we living in? We torture children in the name of law-and-order and crime control, when they should be allowed a chance at a decent life. We lock up innocent families trying to escape the horrors of wars we support, and give them the choice of perpetual prison or return to the war zone and certain execution. And our terminally ill elderly are denied the basic human right to end their lives peacefully and legally, surrounded by loved ones, and instead are obliged to plot ways of torturing themselves to death, alone and in total secrecy, not even able to get comfort from those loved ones for fear that they will incur criminal charges.

I lie here crippled, unable to get painkillers on demand, not even simple ones available in any supermarket like ibuprufen or paracetamol, because this so-called civilized society of ours has set up so many Rules to satisfy the medieval religious beliefs of a few, and their alliances with cronies with deep pockets. And these few care only about the amassing of more power and wealth, and deflect any criticism with lies and cover-ups and whitewashes and urban myths designed to persuade the general population that the interests of the terminally ill, even if they are hysterical with pain and misery, are best served by protecting them from the possible evil intentions of putative money-hungry relatives. The general population is best protected from crime by torture and punishment and closure of rehabilitation services.

And all this is done in callous defiance of a host of investigations and reports and international conventions and examples of many other countries which, despite all their shortcomings, must surely be less uncivilized than ours, and most of all in defiance of the fundamental right to die as and when we wish.

My biggest fears are not of death itself; I have quite come to terms with that. I fear pain, but even more, I fear that if I try to end this life, which is not life but merely existence, I might fail. And whether I do succeed or not, I fear that I might expose my beloved friends and relatives to criminal charges. And those who make the Rules dare tell me that this miserable existence will make me happy and comfortable!

I wish to say too that I do not for one moment blame the carers, nurses, staff, and the doctors and other associated service providers, who have all done the best they possibly can for me. But they too are bound by those horrible Rules. I thank you all.

Christine Stewart

 


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10 thoughts on “Editor’s Page

  1. norma gardner

    Christine: What a thought provoking piece and what a friendship. I ask for comfort for you in your final days. I am at an age that life will one day soon be complete for me. I ‘m not sure how it shall end, or do any of us. It is the mystery of life. But for you to share this beautiful piece with all of us makes me even more proud to be a writer. How else could you convey to others if it were not with the written word. Up to the end you have shared your talent and we have reaped the reward. Peace to you and everyone at Persimmon Tree. Thank you for sharing with others.

  2. Judi Getch Brodman

    Thank you for sending this email. Although reading the editorial brought
    me both to tears and to my knees, I thank Christine for the strength to
    put into words what she was feeling in her last moments. And thank you
    for printing and distributing it. I myself sat by a dying friend as she
    slowing ebbed away. Long and tortuous does not begin to describe the
    end. May Christine’s passing free her to breath again and fly freely
    and bravely into the unknown.

    And may it give those who fight Christine’s battle for the “right to die”
    strength and courage to pursue their convictions.

    1. Jennifer Pickering

      Thank you for publishing this piece which is especially relevant to women who live longer than men. Also, thank you to Christian. If you were in California you might die with dignity.

  3. Moira Sauvage

    A very moving piece… I completely agree about one ´s right to chose the moment of one ´s death, as it is as impossible in France as in Australia… Courage, Christine!

  4. Robin Gross

    Dear Christine,
    I admire your courage and tenacity to write this article. It sounds like you have made many contributions in your life, not the least of which is being a caring friend. I’m sure it must be so painful for Jean and other friends to watch you go through this dying process but at the same time I know they are proud that you are sending an important message and sharing your talents with the world til the very end.
    I hope you will be in peace in your journey.

  5. Christopher Zorn

    Dearest Christine, you have been a friend And family member for As long As I’ve known you. You’ve inspired me when inspiration seemed impossible, and you Are one of the strongest women I’ve ever known, just like mom.
    I’m sorry you had to suffer this way And sorry I didn’t know. I love you And hope your strength helps others Avoid the pains you have endured.
    I will always remember you like the time we spent in Bega together.
    Forever and always yours,
    Christopher

  6. sunny lockwood

    Dear Christine,
    Thank you for your caring life and for this final column of yours. My heart goes out to you and to your friends and relatives who long to ease your suffering.

    My mother died of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. As you well know, it was a long and torturous death. My husband suffers from extreme chronic pain and, like you, is having an almost impossible time getting pain pills. The current obsession about opioids leading to heroin abuse punishes people like him and you who need relief from excruciating pain.
    And so the suffering continues.

    Thank you again for all you have done to make this world a better place.
    And may peace be yours.

  7. Janis

    Many years ago my grandmother’s best friend was a Christian scientist. I asked what she would do when the time came to die if she would not go to the hospital to”get better”, as I believed as a child. I remember my mother telling me, rather matter of factly: “oh, she’ll just stop eating and then, you know, after a while she’ll die”. I think it was her delivery that made it seem like the natural course of life, and one that we each have control over. As a hospice nurse I now see that, indeed, if doctors and family leave the dying to their dying process it is a natural process to stop eating and drinking and then stop breathing, as well.

  8. Daniela Gioseffi

    Dear Christine,
    How I feel empathy for your situation. I have a friend who just decided not to eat and slowly faded away less painfully after the first pangs of hunger subsided. She fell asleep from lack of food and passed comfortably. Just telling you how she managed, though your situtation may be entirely different. Stay as brave as you obviously ae, and know that we appreciate your work, your intelligence and your life, and feel as much compassion as we can, though we can’t completely understand your dire situtation as much as you can. I agree with everything you’ve said about the uncivilized elements of our laws here, especially those suffered by the dying. Much light and love to you. And thank you for what you’ve said and written and done. Your life is appreicatef by many. May you have more peace in dying. May I offer something that Mark Twain said that comforts me with a bit of Twainian humor, if it’s worth anything to you?
    “I’m not the least concerned about dying. I was dead for thousands of years before I was born, and it never caused me the slightest inconvenience.” Somehow that comforts me in my old age. I don’t know if it offers anything to you in your difficult plight, but I send it with sincere warm good wishes for your peace and comfort in going beyond this “veil of tears.”

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