The End. non-fiction by Susan Glickman

Pastel drawing of Rachel and Toby, 2021, by Susan Glickman

The End

A dear friend had to put her dog down recently, and in commiserating with her I found myself reflecting, not for the first time, about the inconsistency between our society’s attitude to the silent suffering of our pets and that we maintain towards the (not always silent) suffering of our human companions. Too often I’ve watched people I love endure treatments that don’t work until they are ultimately consigned to “palliative care” – which may be, in fact, neither palliative nor caring. For example, a nurse in one such facility explained that she had to ration morphine “because it is addictive,” despite the fact that the patient she refused to give it to was my dying 85-year-old mother, who had insufficient time left in which to become an addict.

Veterinarians advise us when it is time to say goodbye to our pets, confident that they can read their body language. They believe, and we usually agree, that it is truly compassionate to ease animals into a painless death rather than forcing them to carry on until whenever their bodies finally collapse. We hold them and comfort them and tell them we love them, and then we let them go. But doctors do not recommend this for our friends and relations. On the contrary, most physicians will encourage us to try whatever procedures are available to ward off the inevitable.

We have all become victims of aspirational statistics: not just patients, but their families as well. Sometimes those families have to make decisions for patients too ill to choose for themselves and if there is the slightest possibility of even a few more months of life, no matter how pitiable that life’s quality, they feel compelled to take it. The result can be putting people through torture in the hope that they might live just a wee bit longer.

I used the word “torture” advisedly. Not because I think doctors are sadistic or that people are unloving, but because that is how ailing bodies experience many potential cures. This is especially true of the surgery followed by chemotherapy that every dying person in my own cancer-prone family underwent, and that failed to prolong anyone’s life significantly once you subtracted all the time they spent getting and recovering from such procedures from the time those procedures supposedly “added” to their lives. But every single one of them opted for radical intervention.

Why? Because doctors offered it to them.

Doctors cannot help themselves, being professionally compelled by what Abraham Kaplan called “the law of the instrument.” That is, to a person with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Deciding to use that hammer may be easier in countries like Canada with socialized medicine, but my American friends and relations don’t seem to hesitate either, whatever the expense. Mexicans may dress up as skeletons to commune with their departed loved ones on the Día de los Muertos, but in the northern parts of this continent we aren’t very good at accepting that death is the natural end of life.

Or we weren’t, until Covid. The pandemic inspired many folks to suddenly make wills and put their houses in order. Everyone was sorting, filing, and purging. Farewell, jacket worn once and held onto for sentimental reasons, shoes that pinched, garish scarves; Au Revoir, Lego bricks belonging to now-adult children, their abandoned teddy bears and jigsaw puzzles; Adios, unconsulted cookbooks and unread novels. Because Goodwill shut its doors and the usual charities were not accepting donations, fearful that the coronavirus might be transmitted on castoffs, anonymous stuff piled up on sidewalks for passersby to forage through or was advertised as “gifts” on Facebook neighbourhood groups.

Not all this discarded gear was broken or tattered. Perfectly good musical instruments, sewing and knitting supplies, exercise equipment, and travel guides were tossed because of their owners’ belated recognition that some possible futures were mere fantasies. As Samuel Johnson remarked, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Having attended far too many funerals before I was legally an adult and having lost far too many friends subsequently, I myself have always been prepared to depart. I never go on a trip without thoroughly cleaning the house, paying the bills, organizing receipts for the current tax year, and reminding my children where to find important documents, passwords to bank accounts, keys to the safety deposit box, and so forth. I have drawn up a living will as well as instructions for my literary executor about what to do with my unpublished manuscripts and all those bankers’ boxes full of book drafts and literary correspondence.

 Death has always perched on my shoulder like a pet raven.

And yet. And yet. My own beloved dog is almost seventeen years old, and every day I get with him now seems like a gift. If he got ill, would I have the heart to say goodbye a nanosecond earlier than necessary? He cannot talk, so he cannot plead, “Let me go please; it’s time.” He cannot give me absolution in advance, as my grandmother did when I offered to cancel my flight back to England so I could stay with her until the end. “Go, darling,” she said. “There is nothing more for you to do here.” Forty years later, when I was about to travel in the other direction after a visit to a dying friend, my darling Helen simply said, “We shall never see each other again.” I was the one who broke down crying, not her.

When the time to say goodbye arrives, will my dog be able to tell me so?

And will my family let me go, when my time comes?

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Susan Glickman grew up in Montreal and lives in Toronto where she works as a freelance editor and is learning to paint. She is the author of seven books of poetry, most recently What We Carry (2019), four novels for adults, including The Tale-Teller (2012), a trilogy of middle-grade chapter books, a work of literary history, and a selection of essays, Artful Flight (2022).

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Published by darcie friesen hossack

Darcie Friesen Hossack is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers. Her short story collection, Mennonites Don’t Dance, was a runner-up for the Danuta Gleed Award, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading Evergreen Award for Adult Fiction. Citing irreverence, the book was banned by the LaCrete Public Library in Northern Alberta. Having mentored with Giller finalists Sandra Birdsell (The Russlander) and Gail Anderson Dargatz (Spawning Grounds, The Cure for Death by Lightening), Darcie's first novel, Stillwater, will be released in the spring of 2023. Darcie is also a four time judge of the Whistler Independent Book Awards, and a career food writer. She lives in Northern Alberta, Canada, with her husband, international award-winning chef, Dean Hossack.

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