Thursday, October 9, 2014

Death, Be Not Proud

     I knew it was going to happen just as soon as I saw the story on my newsfeed. Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman had moved from California to Oregon in order to end her life. Granted, she is facing the possibility of a painful death after being diagnosed with an inoperable terminal brain tumor and so she went to a doctor who told her she met the criteria for the prescription of the "death pill." She is planning on taking them on November 1... a few weeks from now... after celebrating her husband's birthday.
     I knew that I would address it with my students. At first I thought I would simply make it a writing prompt, but then they started asking questions. Some of them had never heard of Maynard. I showed them the video of her interview and watched them watch her and it occurred to me that something was very wrong.
     Growing up in the 1980's and 1990's, it was a rite of passage to write a research paper, at some point, about euthanasia and Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Dr. Death, they called him, and despite having been thrown in jail three times, tried three times and acquitted three times, Dr. Kevorkian was determined that people should have the option of dying with dignity.
     Dr. Jack Kevorkian, old, blunt in speech and possessing eyes that seemed almost black was the face of "death with dignity" to me. Brittany Maynard, young, well-spoken and articulate and possessing a spirit for adventure was the face of "death with dignity" to the generation of students I taught... She was appealing and what she said seemed to make so much sense...
     Except for the student who was back at school for the first time after watching her aunt die from cancer. The death had lasted a week. There was no magic pill... and according to my student, there shouldn't be. "I am so grateful for every single minute I had with her," she tearfully explained to the class. "I am inspired by having watched her fight so hard."
     That was when things changed. The "what if's?" began circling overhead. What if she has more time than they think? What if they discover a treatment that works? What if she takes the pill and then changes her mind? What if the pill doesn't work like it's supposed to? What if the doctors are wrong? What if, her entire reason for being alive, the entire purpose of her life, is buried in what she perceives as something so insufferable and horrifying that she won't even give living a chance?
      There are so many layers to this happening. First, she speaks very passionately in the interview, which is actually a PSA for death with dignity (a phrase that I'm pretty sure is supposed to replace 'euthanasia'). She speaks about "seizing the day" and living each day with small goals in mind for "the time she has left." Yet she has already received the pills. Already decided on the day. Already asked her mother to meet her "spirit" on top of Machu Picchu. She is choosing to end her life and she explicitly says in an interview with People magazine that she does not want to die and does not have a suicidal cell in her body. She is merely choosing to pass on instead of suffering the consequences of a disease. Such a contradiction, and kind of a slap in the face to those who have lost a loved one to suicide due to depression. Does that make their grieving wrong? Does that make the choice that their loved one made suddenly acceptable and brave? Does it lessen the pain? No, and it never will.
     It will not be popular to speak out against Brittany. She is being perceived as brave, as a warrior, and as far as I am concerned she is, as is ANYONE who is ever diagnosed with any type of cancer. It's a horrible disease. I watched my brother nearly lose his life from stage 4 rectal cancer.  Last year, I sat with my father-in-law for weeks as he slowly moved past this world. To suggest that either one of them lacked dignity at any point in their fight for survival, whether it be lost or won, is ludicrous. They lacked neither dignity or bravery. And I treasured every moment of the last moments that my father-in-law was here.
     I have faced death. The birth of my son was a last ditch effort to save one of us; I was sick enough that they were certain I was going to either die or end up killing him simply by keeping him in my womb. I was ready to die for my son. I told the doctors if they had to choose one to save, save him. That doesn't make me better or braver than Brittany Maynard; that just makes me grateful that I had something worth fighting for.
     I told my students today that I didn't know what the right answer was. I explained to them that when I was their age, Dr. Kevorkian was considered a devil and euthanasia was not an even considered option, ever. I asked if they thought this was going to set a dangerous precedent, because what about people who are caretakers of others? Do they have the right to request the pill for their loved ones? I asked them if they understand that this was a very slick way for the media to make this a more palatable idea, to put a pretty face on an ugly idea? I asked them if they understood that this was a slippery slope and that a dangerous precedent could be set?
     Then I told them the God's honest truth. There is beauty to be found in everything. Sometimes you have to look; sometimes you have to wait; always you have to have faith. But there is beauty. And that is why I will mourn the death of Brittany Maynard because by doing this thing, she just may be missing out on the greatest beauty she would have ever known.

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