A Very Easy Death

Simone de Beauvoir

The night nurse had fumbled, the liquid had flowed under the skin and it had hurt Maman very much. Her blue and hugely swollen arm was swathed in bandages. The apparatus was not attached to her right arm: her tired veins could just put up with the serum, but the plasma forced groans from her. In the evening an intense anxiety came over her: she was afraid of the night, of some fresh accident, of pain. With her face all tense she begged, "Watch over the drip very carefully!" And that evening too, as I looked at her arm, into which there was flowing a life that was no longer anything but sickness and torment, I asked myself why.

AT THE NURSING HOME I did not have time to go into it. I had to help Maman to spit; I had to give her something to drink, arrange her pillows or her plait, move her leg, water her flowers, open the window, close it, read her the paper, answer her questions, wind up the watch that laid on her chest, hanging from a black ribbon. She took a pleasure in her dependence and she called out for our attention all the time. But when I reached home, all the sadness and horror of these last days dropped upon me with all its weight. And I too had a cancer eating into me—remorse. "Don't let them operate on her." And I had not prevented anything.

Often, hearing of sick people undergoing a long martyrdom, I had felt indignant at the apathy of their relatives. "For my part, I should kill him." At the first trial I had given in: beaten by the ethics of society, I had abjured my own. "No," Sartre said to me. "You were beaten by technique: and that was fatal." Indeed it was. One is caught up in the wheels and dragged along, powerless in the face of specialists' diagnoses, their forecasts, their decisions. The patient becomes their property: get him away from them if you can! There were only two things to choose between on that Wednesday—operating or euthanasia. Maman, vigorously resuscitated, and having a strong heart, would have stood out against the intestinal stoppage for a long while and she would have lived through hell, for the doctors would have refused euthanasia.. I ought to have been there at six in the morning. But even so, would I have dared to say to N., "Let her go"? That was what I was suggesting when I begged, "Do not torment her," and he had snubbed me with all the arrogance of a man who is certain of his duty. They would have said to me, "You may be depriving her of several years of life." And I was forced to yield.

These arguments did not bring me peace. The future horrified me. When I was fifteen my uncle Maurice died of cancer of the stomach. I was told that for days on end he shrieked, "Finish me off. Give me my revolver. Have pity on me." Would Dr. P. keep his promise: "She shall not suffer"? A race had begun between death and torture. I asked myself how one manages to go on living when someone you love has called out to you, "Have pity on me" in vain..

Excerpted from Simone de Beauvoir's A Very Good Death, translated by Patrick O'Brian and reprinted with permission from Pantheon Books, New York.

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