Friday, 21 May 2010

An eventful life and a cruel end

Jeannette Brugner was born in 1925 in Alsace, which meant she was French. Her father had been born in the same region, but a generation earlier, which made him German. In that part of the world, at that time, the nation you belonged to was a question of history, not geography.

She was given a powerful object lesson in that truth fifteen years later when the Germans turned up again in Alsace uninvited, though perhaps not unannounced, and declared her home to be part of the territory of the Reich. The war years left her with a disrupted education and an abiding dislike of goats’ milk, shared by most of her family: with the shortages of the period, the only milk available at times was the pungent type produced by goats, and it put them off the stuff forever.

Things got off to a confused start for Jeannette. It used to be the custom in Alsace, and it probably hasn’t completely died out to our day, that while a new mother was recovering from childbirth, the father was out celebrating with his friends and getting well lubricated in the process. The father would then pop down to the town hall and register the birth, which sometimes led to some strange names being recorded.

Her mother favoured the name Jeannette but her father had always wanted her to be called Elise, and that was the name he recorded with the authorities. Jeannette’s mother was a woman of some spirit, however, and when she saw the ‘Carnet de Famille’ or ‘Family Book’ that the town hall issued her she simply erased the name she didn’t like and substituted the one she did. Now a ‘carnet de famille’ is an official document in France and tampering with it is an offence probably punishable by condemnation to the galleys, but hey, this was a village in deepest Alsace, and it didn’t always comply with the strictest rigour to laws made in Paris hundreds of miles away. The whole village knew that Jeannette was Jeannette, and the local authorities saw no reason not to issue her with an ID card and passport and all the other paperwork which brings so much joy into the lives of French citizens.

Eventually, however, her only daughter Danielle married a foreigner from the foggy side of the Channel, and he had the peculiar desire to take out French nationality. Now my claim to French citizenship was based on Danielle’s own nationality and, as her father was actually Swiss, that in turn rested on her mother’s being French. We were asked to produce a certificate proving Jeannette's claim to French citizenship. When we asked for one, back came the response ‘there is no such person as Jeannette Brugner’. Poor Jeannette: her son-in-law involved her in some months of correspondence with the authorities to establish to their satisfaction that ‘Elise Brugner’, who did officially exist, was the same person as ‘Jeannette Brugner’, who didn’t.

Jeannette’s life had more than its fair share of tribulations. Her relationship with Danielle’s father broke down. Despite that, she found an outlet for her generous spirit and warm disposition when she took over Danielle’s job at the YWCA in Basel, following the departure of Danielle and her French son to join me in Britain, where she produced two little Englishmen – but that’s a different story.

By this time Jeannette was in her mid-fifties but had a real new burst of youth from her contact with all those young women and their problems (to parents concerned about the difficulties their adolescent sons cause them, my advice is just to be grateful they don’t have adolescent daughters: girls tend to be easier for their first thirteen years and then absolutely awful – with notable exceptions of course, but generally – for the next thirteen).

Then misfortune struck. Riding her bike home one evening, she was knocked over by a car turning across her path. As ill-luck would have it, she fell into some roadwork excavations and onto a metal spike. One hip was shattered, the other leg injured too. All this happened over twenty years ago, but she never really made more than a relative recovery: she gradually experienced increasing difficulty walking until she was confined to a wheelchair, and finally became completely bed-bound in a nursing home in Strasbourg where she had moved to be close to her daughter, not many years before I took her away again to England.

As time went by, Jeannette graduated from being in great discomfort to being in serious pain, until she was in constant, searing agony . She lost the strength even to move herself in bed, so she couldn’t roll over to relieve her discomfort and was forced to rely only on analgesics. These were doled out to her with extraordinary parsimony by a doctor who seemed to feel that the long-term effect of painkillers on her health was a more serious threat than the intense pain that was making her life insufferable right then. This was a view he clung to although the prospect of her ever recovering her health was already long gone. Again and again she would plead to be allowed to slip away; again and again, if she developed an infection – she regularly suffered from pulmonary diseases – he would have her hospitalised, an experience that always caused her increased suffering, and she would be pulled through by intensive treatment.

Finally, Jeannette could stand it no longer. She had found it difficult to sleep for a long time and had been prescribed powerful sleeping pills. Somehow she managed to hide them for many days, perhaps two or three weeks, during which time she presumably managed barely to sleep at all. Once she felt she had saved enough, she took them all.

Again discovered by the doctor, she was hospitalised and her stomach pumped. Danielle travelled to Strasbourg to be with her. For the first time ever, the hospital doctors offered her the option of not treating Jeannette any further and Danielle had no hesitation over a decision that was painful but clearly right for Jeannette, as she confirmed as soon as she regained consciousness.

With treatment over, Jeannette was moved back to the nursing home and Danielle took up a position by her bedside which she was hardly to abandon for sixty hours. The doctor promised that Jeannette would feel no further pain, and it fell to Danielle to ensure that the commitment was fulfilled, which sometimes meant protesting energetically, even angrily, to have morphine doses increased. By acting as her advocate in this way, as well as by her simple presence, by her touch on her mother’s hand, Danielle was able to reduce the bitterness of the the final stage of what had become a period of torment drawn out over two years. It was harrowing for Danielle to watch her mother through her last moments, but her presence ensured that Jeannette suffered far less.

In one of her last moments of consciousness, Jeannette saw Danielle in tears and said ‘ist nicht schlimm’, roughly ‘there’s nothing to cry about’, in the German dialect of Alsace which had been her mother tongue and was the language of her end.

Jeannette died late on Sunday evening, 9 May 2010. She had suffered far more than she need have done, at the hands of doctors who hadn’t understood the principle ‘thou shalt not kill, but need not strive officiously to keep alive.’

I share the misgivings about euthanasia of many, the fear at the idea that some people should exercise a right of life or death over others. However, in the face of such needlessly prolonged pain, it seems unforgivable to allow our own fears to deny others the mercy of avoiding unecessary treatment when there is no hope of recovering health. There comes a time when the humane option must be to provide palliative care only and if that means analgesics at dosages that are eventually lethal in themselves, then so be it. As Jeannette’s case shows, many lives end in conditions where the only treatment is pain reduction anyway, so why extend the suffering needlessly beforehand? For Jeannette, that meant two years of intensifying suffering. She’d done nothing to deserve them and we don’t condemn our worst criminals to such inhumanity.

There were 25 members of her family at her cremation. Danielle and I, our three sons and our granddaughter scattered the ashes on a Strasbourg river in the evening. That gave a quiet dignity and warmth to the very end of Jeannette’s time on earth which I only wish she could have enjoyed in the final stages of her life.


Mark Reynolds said...

Wonderfully written. We didn't know she had passed.

Amynah said...

A very moving blot-post.

Anonymous said...

Thank you David.

pino said...

Thank you David.
Your words are not only very lovely words to Jeannette and Danielle, but also "courage giving" words, "energyfilling up" words for all people who will have to manage similar situations, who will have to take the right no pain decision.

Anonymous said...

A clearly heartfelt piece which I found very moving.

David Beeson said...

Thanks for all the comments. It's been a moving time: the family came together and generated a great deal of warmth, and I think we were all overcome by the courage both Danielle and Jeannette showed, in their different ways. For all the moments of great sadness, the last couple of weeks have been anything but joyless.

Anonymous said...

thank you, my favourite father in law! You made me smile and cry. very moving.

David Beeson said...

Many thanks, favourite daughter-in-law! Great to have a comment from you.