I am sure I am not alone when I say that if ever I were to have a stroke or become dependant on others for basic care then I’d rather be dead. These ill-thought-out words usually happen when, amongst friends, we hear about a fellow being who has had a life changing accident, injury or illness that results in dependency on others for the most intimate of personal and psychological needs. We see ourselves in that context and dread that it could ever happen.
Never giving much regard to how I would choose my life to end or if I would have the wherewithal to do the deed, if necessary and if at all possible. The thought of “I’d rather be dead” re-emerges from time to time when I hear about or read the many heart-felt stories of courage and conviction of those who are in a position where they are living a life I believe I couldn’t bear to live. With the advent of assisted suicide clinics in Switzerland, and other such centres, the wherewithal to opt out has become, although logistically fraught with difficulties, somehow possible.
The death of our friend and neighbour Manolo has resurrected my concerns for discontinued well-being and as re-ignited internal debate on living my life on the balcony of hell, a term I will explain.
Manolo was 63 when he died, suddenly but not unexpected, at home, over breakfast. When we first moved to the village Manolo was one of the first neighbours we got to know. He was a kind, gentle, carefree, bohemian who liked a few drinks, enjoyed a smoke and savoured a joint. He rarely dressed smartly; he never took note of time and seldom appeared to have many troubles.
A retired telecom engineer, Manolo could turn his hand to anything, he was constantly making, mending and maintaining, reusing, reshaping or redesigning anything and everything within his kingdom. When we would call to see him, we would follow a trail of beer bottles, some half full, others empty, to an ever-busy Manolo, grafting hard in the garden or fashioning bizarre wooden sculptures in his workshop. Always full of life and engrossed in his day, we’d chat, curse and swear with him, rarely gossip, and frequently solve the worries of the world at large.
If we had a problem either technical, relating to machinery, or practically, such as bud grafting, building work or wall building, Manolo would have a solution. If we couldn’t get something to work, Manolo would either fix it or lend us his own until we managed to get it fixed. If we needed a supplier or supplies, to know when to collect walnuts or to learn how to make do and mend, Manolo would be there with a ticking engine waiting to take us on yet another adventure. Adventures were the norm with Manolo.
In essence, Manolo was content with his life; he was comfortable in his kingdom, a kingdom full of simple pleasures and a freedom to reign without being dependant on the will of others.
Three years ago Manolo’s life changed dramatically. He suffered two major strokes and was left with life changing problems. He was partially paralysed and his speech was slurred and incoherent. Shortly afterwards Manolo was diagnosed with a small but operable tumour on his vocal chords. The treatment resulted in a weak vocal ability and a legacy of not being heard in company, this was exacerbated by his reliance on a wheelchair for many months which made him feel invisible to many, pitied by a few and ridiculed by difference.
For three years Manolo battled to regain his ability to walk, grasp, talk and laugh. He managed the first three to a point but his engaging laugh was never heard again.
Manolo withdrew, he rarely ventured far and lost his passion for his kingdom. The small terraced balcony from where he regularly surveyed his lot became for him, in his own words, the balcony of hell. The balcony of hell led from his house, down or up steep stairs to either the garden or his workshop. The balcony became the confines of his world, a physical barrier and a constant reminder of adventures beyond, no longer within his ability, reminding him of crazy plans and schemes now shelved and faded, of lazy days and hazy days pottering about in his well-kept and eccentric garden, without a care in the world.
I will always remember Manolo with fondness and recall his truth about his balcony of hell. I believe that he had come to realise that his kingdom was no longer within his grasp, that he would never again be allowed to reign without relying on others for help and that his life was now without the dignity that enabled him to live in his own bohemian and carefree way. Rest now in peace my friend, you are free from your balcony and you will be missed.
Perhaps, if I am ever unfortunate enough to experience similar life changing events, when I recognise my own balcony of hell, my life will extinguish without assistance, perhaps if I am very lucky, I will never know.