It was a beautiful butterfly: colorful, mesmerizing, malignant. Try as I may, I couldn’t tear my eyes from the display. “Can we turn that off?” her husband asked the doctor, “I don’t like it.” Who could blame him? What danced on the computer screen was the latest image of the glioblastoma eating her brain. It had already taken her balance, cohesive awareness, spatial acuity, and parts of her memory. Soon, it would claim Johanna’s life.
We listened somberly to the neurologist’s compassionate and frank description of the progress of the disease. She disagreed with the steps the oncologist planned to take next. Whatever quality of life remained would be severely hampered if she signed on for the proposed chemical cocktail. Surgery and chemotherapy had done enough damage. And the butterfly spread her wings across the biological hemispheres that housed the thoughts and memories of our dear friend, defiant to all the drugs thrown at it thus far. In that room we were starkly put on notice that the time was short.
We were near the end of a year-long battle. What had started as bad headaches and an inability to find her way home had degraded to the debility of being wheel chair bound and diapered. Not very dignified. Not pretty. Definitely not romantic. But she was beautiful; wondrously courageous, full of love and grace. And she gave to us all her moments to her last breath. As I stood guard over her body, making sure the morticians handled her with respect and care as she was wheeled from her home, I was certain that I had never seen anyone live so fully or die so well as she.
It is no doubt because of her example of selfless love that I find myself saddened and angry at the celebration and celebrity of a woman who kills herself in the face of this deadly disease. As she had announced she would, Brittany Maynard committed suicide on November 1st with an overdose of barbiturates prescribed by her doctor for that very purpose. In this pro-choice nation of doctor assisted suicide and medical infanticide, the notion of “first, do no harm” is hypocritical not Hippocratic. Death with dignity? I’ve seen death with dignity. I watched it as my father’s life ebbed away. I admired it as my friend loved her family with the last joules of her strength. Suicide with the dew of life still on your cheeks isn’t it.
I have compassion for those in pain from a terminal illness. I understand the need to make people comfortable in the face of their suffering. But I have a problem with the hubris of terminating one’s own life. Our culture is one of convenience. We avoid like the plague the natural struggles of life that add depth to our souls. We borrow for what we can’t afford to keep. We divorce from those we can’t be bothered to love. We hide our disfigured and disabled. We have little regard for the value of struggle, grief or pain. Pop a pill, plunge the syringe. It’s easier that way. No one will have to change my diaper. And I can die dignified. I’m sorry, but to me it smacks of the shallowness of a beauty pageant.
In typical government speak, sanctioned suicide flies under the banner of “The Right to Die”. Newsflash: death isn’t a right, it’s an eventuality. Should the good Lord tarry, we are all going to die. To live, however, is a right; a right and a responsibility. If you are reading this, then I will make the strong assumption that you are alive. And since you are alive, I will make the further assumption that you are loved. And loved ones need to be together in the passing – not an artificially elongated or shortened passing, but the natural passing as the spirit struggles with the body that can no longer contain it. In those months, weeks, days, hours, and moments loved ones can say goodbye, unburden their hearts, forgive old wounds, love generously.
As tragic and traumatic as watching a loved one die of a terminal disease can be, I don’t believe it can compare with the utter shock of a sudden departure. The mother who receives the midnight call about her son’s fatal overdose has little chance to process with him all that is left unsaid. The same woman who nursed her husbands to their dying days took those blows much better. In this sense, a terminal disease is a deadly specter bearing gifts. We are given time to show compassion, engage faith, and learn the real depth of our hopes. It is a pain that bears much fruit. It takes true courage to see it to the end.