Sunday, March 27, 2005

Terri Schiavo

It seems the debate rages everywhere. So many conflicting opinions. So many who, after watching the videos of Mrs. Schiavo on the internet, are quick to diagnose. The rhetoric, the cries of "Murder!" and "Torture!" and "This is just like the Nazis!", the hysteria, the media circus, the is all too much for me. Lost in all the questioning of "But what really are her wishes?" is any concern about whether or not Terri Schiavo would wish to be the pawn in a legal and political battle, or whether she would wish to have videos and photos of herself plastered everywhere.

Some personal thoughts that I posted to an online discussion:

I could watch the videos and read the various conflicting medical reports endlessly but, since I am not a doctor and am not there with Terri in the room, my opinion on her state is meaningless.

Perhaps, as some of the emails I've received claim, this is all some sort of vast, liberal, Nazi (I have a hard time reconciling those two terms politically, but that's another story) conspiracy of murder. Perhaps this is all the slippery slope that will result in my being murdered in my hospital bed should I ever happen to fall and break my hip. Maybe Michael is Satan incarnate and a despicable murderer, and all the doctors and judges and everyone involved in the case are his accomplices.

How should I know? Besides, my opinion is of as much value as the opinion of those who thought that all would be well if my brother just ate organic food. My knowledge about Terri's condition is almost as little.

There are a number of things that scare me about this case. For years, I have followed the "right to die" debates. I've watched, until I got sick of them, the TV movies of the week featuring loving and sweet husbands who courageously and tenderly put an end to their beloved wives' suffering. We live in a society where pain relief is a multi-billion dollar industry. Our medical technology has brought with it all sorts of moral dilemmas. Many years ago, we wouldn't be having this argument. Terri would be long dead. Just because we have respirators and feeding tubes, are we required to use them? Just because we have the means to gently hasten death and end suffering, are we required to do so? Who decides?

For me, these questions are not academic. I had to grapple them up close and personal, without the luxury of detachment. I wasn't watching something on an internet video. I was living it.

Last July, I stood in a hotel corridor, checking my cell phone's voice mail, and heard my mother's voice saying sadly and so slowly, "I thought you should know that at 8:00 this morning..." Time stood still. Agonizingly so. I thought I would collapse. Then I heard the rest of the sentence. It was not my brother who died, but another member of my extended family. Relief, quickly followed by sorrow...

The trip home was punctuated by phone calls from airports. Much, much prayer. I made it to my brother's house in time to see him brought home, for the last time, by ambulance. I stayed there. Bittersweet times. Wrenching, exhausting, heartbreaking times. I will never recover. Ever. Those of you who have been there know what I mean. The innocence is gone and will never return. We know pain now. We know grief. We know the valley of the shadow of death. We will never be the same.

That last night was overwhelming. We said our goodbyes. We pleaded with my brother, tearfully, to go home to Jesus. We begged God to take him. It took tremendous suffering on the part of my brother to get us to this point.

Two memorial services, about a week apart. What was God doing to our family?

Months passed. The older brother of one of my students accidentally shot himself to death in his living room, in front of a sibling and friends. I am still grieving my brother's death. I do not want anyone I care for to taste what I have tasted. The memorial service was almost too much for me. That evening, I decided I needed some sort of distraction and, on the spur of the moment, came up with the idea of going to a movie. (Very uncharacteristic of me!)

Caution: movie spoiler ahead. If you don't want to know how "Million Dollar Baby" ends, don't read the next paragraph.

For some idiotic reason, I thought this movie would be uplifting, some sort of female Rocky movie. Instead, it ends with the heroine being completely paralyzed and begging her trainer and best friend to end her life. At first he refuses but, after she tries to commit suicide by biting her tongue with the hopes of bleeding to death, he agrees. It is all presented as oh so loving and compassionate and wonderful and tender. (Some people I know have disagreed. They say that it would have been more loving if he had ended her life when she first asked.) At this point in the movie, I became completely undone. I was literally sobbing. Somehow we made it out to the car. I wept all the way home, wept my way to bed, and wept until I feel asleep from exhaustion. By the next morning, my face was covered with the salt from my tears.

For those who don't know me, this is not my usual response to sad movies.

There are many who believe in "death with dignity". They call ending someone's life "merciful". Their voices are oh so kind, so compassionate, so gentle. After all, why should we treat our loved ones less mercifully then we do our dogs? How horrible to die the undignified death of cancer. How torturous to die of starvation and thirst. Does not love compel us to end suffering?

Less than a month after the death of my student's brother, the mother and wife of some of my other students died of cancer. I wish I could be some sort of shield, keeping death at bay. No one, no one should have to lose someone they love.

Yes, there is hope. I will see my brother again. I know. I will get to meet the young man whose memorial service I attended. I will see my students' mother and wife again. But, in the meantime, children are crying for their Papa while others cry for their Mommy. Spouses are bereft. Siblings weep. Parents mourn. Friends grieve.

I recently asked a grieving mother, two years after her daughter's death, how she was doing. Of course her faith is sustaining her. But, she said, "It never gets easier. The pain never gets less. You just get stronger."

I have not yet gotten stronger.

Recently I happened to be around when a debate erupted over the Terri Schiavo situation. One person was going on about how horribly torturous and inhumane to allow someone to die of starvation and thirst. Someone else shot back, "That's how your son died."

You see, death is everywhere. It's not neat. It's not tidy. I've seen more deaths in my day than I've wanted to and usually intensive suffering was involved somewhere along the line. I've handed loved ones the paperwork to sign to have life support and artificial feedings removed. When people die of cancer, they often (usually?) stop eating and drinking on their own. They dehydrate. They starve. This hastens their death. Is it more compassionate to view this as part of the natural process of dying? Or is allowing someone to dehydrate akin to torturing them to death?

It scares me when the rhetoric of those who are pro-life begins to sound an awful lot like what I've been hearing from the "right to die" folks. The truth is that none of us like suffering. And, quite honestly, the temptation to throw around words like "torture" and "murder" and "Nazi" is too great for many to resist.

Did I mention that I hate suffering?

Today, Easter Sunday, our interim pastor preached---of course---on the Resurrection. He mentioned, among other things, that this hope and truth gives meaning to our suffering.


But...I'll be completely honest. I can contemplate the Resurrection over and over, and I still don't know why my brother had to die, especially after such lengthy suffering, or why a young man had to shoot himself in the head, or why a beloved mother had to suffer and die. It makes no sense to me. I cling to some sort of redemptive hope. But now---today---suffering and death are horrid and ghastly.

Thank God that my brother's pastor, when we were planning the service, had the glorious honesty to say, "In this life, death still stings." But then, he had lost his sister to the very cancer that took my brother. He knows.

Those of us who are the walking wounded, who have sat vigil at deathbeds of loved ones, who have faced the difficult dilemmas---please do not use words like "torture" lightly around us. Live long enough, love hard enough, and someday you too may be where we have's kind of like being on a train headed for a train wreck. Those who have survived the wreck know what I mean.

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