In my last post, I talked about prolonging life.
Today’s is about speeding death.
Two very different newsmakers coincided this past week: Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer who went public with her decision to end her life this Nov. 1.
And Pope Francis, who opened his Synod on the Family with these words to the prelates gathered to discuss the nitty-gritty of family life: “Let no one say ‘this cannot be said.’” That is, don’t hold back because of fear of what other bishops, or he, might think.
Maynard has spoken very openly about her belief in her right to choose how she will die and when. Without in any way judging that decision, absolutely without any intent to condemn it, I’d like to speak equally frankly and openly about an alternative. Not for Maynard’s benefit, but for those whose lives, or deaths, her decision is influencing. And since this is a blog about exploration–mostly mine, but hopefully, also yours–I hope you’ll join in the conversation. Though in respectful dialogue, as Pope Francis has requested on other occasions: listening as much as talking, and attacking not at all.
Maynard seems to be a young woman who’s leapt into life full tilt, and if you haven’t followed her story, click on one of the blue texts and read it and watch her video for yourself. She is choosing euthanasia (definition “easy or painless death”, from two Greek words meaning “good death”) because physicians have explained to her that her natural death may include morphine-resistant pain, as well as the loss of her faculties. And because she is young and otherwise healthy, it’s possible that she will linger in this state for some time.
She wants, instead, her death to be on her own terms. At a time she chooses–Nov. 1, the day after her husband’s birthday (ironically, All Saints’ Day); in a place she chooses–her own bedroom; in a manner she chooses–with a pill her physician prescribed, and which she apparently carries with her at all times. It’s a “great relief,” she says, to know she has it.
Be honest here. We all want a “good death.” We all want an “easy death.” Which generally translates into one with as little pain and suffering as possible, yes?
Which is pretty much also what we all want out of life. That it’s pain-free. Easy. “Good.”
Which latter we know is pretty much impossible. Or at least, not always in our control.
Remember when you first had to say to your child (not in these words, exactly, but in some gentler and more nurturing way): “life isn’t fair.” And, “life is hard”?
Remember the first (or last–mine was only this morning) time you had to remind yourself of this?
Living is about coping and very often just putting one foot in front of the other even and especially when we most don’t want to.
Some of us, myself included, have reached points where the pain of life was so unbearable that we were prepared to call it quits, and if anyone among you doubts the existence and the at-times unbearableness of psychic or emotional pain, let me congratulate you at having had a blessed life. I didn’t.
But in the words of some Sondheim lyric or other, “I’m still here.”
Yet isn’t it in these hardest moments that we’ve learned, grown, the most? Isn’t in those hard moments of our children’s lives that they’ve grown the most? So that even if we parents wish we could ease their passage, we know, deep down, they’re better off if we don’t?
There’s a wonderful bit in author Louise Penny‘s latest mystery, The Long Way Home, which describes what happened when an elderly woman who’d taken on herself the incubation of a pair of duck eggs helps one of them to hatch. Because it seems to be having trouble pecking its way out, she gently breaks open the shell. Freeing it. The duckling hatches fast, but–it’s forever weakened by not have had to fight its way out. And it dies young.
By taking its passage into her own hands, her control, the well-meaning woman essentially kills.
We can’t know what grace or gift will emerge for us as we endure suffering and the moment of our death. Nor, perhaps more importantly, do we know what gifts, what strengths, what blessing our suffering will give those who stand close beside us.
Many people believe of the late, now Saint, John Paul II, that of all the vital, vibrant years of his long papacy, which included staring down communism, the most powerful were those final ones in which he literally wasted away in front of our eyes from Parkinson’s. He allowed us to watch as his former athletic, globe-trotting body became a shell barely strong enough to contain his soul. Yet even and almost especially when he was unable to utter his blessing to the throngs gathered in St. Peter’s Square on Easter Sunday only a few days before his death, his very presence was a blessing to those he made himself visible to.
He gave the world one example of death with dignity.
Kara Tippetts, a young mother of four who is dying of breast cancer, wrote an open letter to Maynard urging her in the most loving terms to reconsider her decision. She offers another such example.
I wonder: how can we know what our very-human desire to avoid pain will make us miss? How can we know what those who might witness our suffering will miss?
Death is terrifying. The prospect of pain and helplessness is perhaps more terrifying. But are we so fearful of the struggle, of the unknown, that we’ll do anything to avoid it? To avoid feeling it?
More importantly, have we so accustomed our children to the notion of a life without pain that we’ve taught them to do everything in their power to avoid it?
I wonder this also: have we so immersed ourselves in a society where activity and achievement are gods that we believe life without them isn’t worth living?
Surely JP II’s life was no less valuable, less courageous, when he was no longer able to “do” anything.
Surely the lives of our crippled, our elderly, our comatose, are no less valuable because they aren’t–in our society’s view–“producing?” Or “achieving?”
The prospect of life with the erosion of our faculties is terrifying. But most of us face that, either in the slow natural way of things called aging, or, as in the case of Maynard, rapidly, brutally, tragically.
Yet our lives, even those last gasps, are still precious. Our presence still matters. In the words of the old Maxwell House coffee commercial, “good to the last drop.”
Can we believe that? Do we? And–are we teaching our children to believe that?