Anniversary season has begun. “This time last year…”
But that is not why I’m writing this. Well, it is and it is not why I am writing this.
Two important movements are happening in North America right now, both of which I feel strongly about. The first is Canada’s Supreme Court ruling that Canadians have the right to end their life with a doctor’s assistance. The second is the ongoing attempt of the anti-choice movement in America to strip away women’s’ rights to safe and legal abortions, brought to a head recently in the US Supreme Court. Both of these important and divisive issues deal with death and choice. What is missing from the conversation, I believe, is life.
“But wait, life is exactly what we’re fighting for!” those opposed to abortion and/or doctor assisted suicide might say.
Yes. And no. What I want to talk about is not the state of being alive. Not a pulse and respiration. I want to talk about what it means to “live”, to do more than exist.
As mentioned, this is the beginning of anniversary season for me. Every day now, I wake up and remember that this time last year I was in Vancouver, driving to Vancouver General Hospital each morning to spend time with my sister in the leukemia ward. Every day now, I wake up and know that the clock is ticking toward dates I would rather forget. Mom’s anniversary will come first—20 years gone. Then Kelly’s, then Dad’s. In the space of two months, I will remember the days I spent by hospital beds, and one-by-one I will count off the deaths of my family.
If I could bring back my sister, alive and healthy, I wouldn’t hesitate. Sell my soul? Where do I sign?
If I could bring back my dad, alive and healthy…I would not. You see, when my dad died on July 25, 2015 that was his second death. His first death happened on June 1, 1996, the moment we stood over my mother’s shrunken body and watched her take her final breaths. That is the day I lost the man I knew as my father.
He tried, in the years after Mom died, to come back to life, but he was lost without her. On the day of Mom’s funeral, he showed me the suit he had chosen. “Does that look okay?” he asked. “Your mother always dressed me.” He would learn to dress himself for important occasions but the larger-than-life man who always had a purpose and a direction, thanks to his wife, was gone forever.
The next two decades my dad spent filling time. Haunted by survivor’s guilt and crippled by a lack of meaning and purpose, he found some peace by spending time with his grandsons, gardening, playing Bingo, baking apple pies. He tried Tai Chi, he volunteered as part of community security program at the local mall, he helped my sister at the community center, but in conversations he would confess to me how empty it all felt. “I was supposed to go first, you know, not your mother,” he would always say.
As his health declined, Dad’s moods worsened, blackened. Much as a human corpse decays, the spirit and soul that had died in 1996 was crumbling, withering, falling apart.
That is why, on July 25th, when a doctor and a nurse sat me down in the little room so similar to the room I had sat in nineteen years previously, and explained that Dad was not going to get better, that he had specifically requested DNR the moment he had arrived at the hospital, and that only the machines were keeping him alive, I did not hesitate. He had been alive for 81 years but he had stopped living a long time ago.
I will tell you, because I have twice made the decision—once on my own, once in conjunction with my father and sister—that no matter how prepared you are, no matter how pragmatic, no matter how much the patient is suffering, no matter how non-existent the chance of recovery, when you are asked to take away the machines keeping your loved one breathing and their heart beating you will, even if it is merely for a nanosecond, feel like a murderer. Overpowering that feeling, thankfully, hopefully, will be the knowledge that there are fates worse than death. The knowledge that we are much more than a heartbeat and breath, that the substance of a human transcends the flesh.
My dad had lost his wife and now his daughter, and he was finished with suffering and merely filling time. It was his choice not to continue on and because I loved him I honoured that choice.
Life is greater than the sum of its parts.
Western society baffles me sometimes. We have fetishized life. Life at any cost! We have vilified death. Dead bodies must be whisked out of sight, hidden, cleaned up and sanitized. Grief should be a quiet, private affair. Shhh, don’t talk about death!
Life and death, both natural processes, both necessary, but we have judged that only one, life, is sacred.
This fetishizing has extended beyond humans. Even animals must not die. The well-meaning movement toward no-kill animal shelters has led not to every pet finding a happy home for life but in some cases to simply another form of suffering. Humans who choose a vegan or vegetarian diet out of, again, the well-meaning desire not to contribute to the slaughter of animals, sometimes will likewise choose the same diet for their pets without doing their homework or considering that some animals are not omnivores by nature. Tens of thousands of years of dietary evolution and we humans, in all our arrogance, decide that our beliefs about the sacredness of life trump an animal’s nature.
As a veterinary assistant, I helped with the euthanasia of several beloved family pets. Difficult as it often was for the owners (and for us), I recognized the procedure as an act of love. These animals were suffering, sometimes terribly, and all quality of life was gone. In a quick, painless moment, their suffering ended.
As a nature lover, I have seen the cycles of life and death acted out in the wild as they have done since long before the arrival of humans. Animals get old or sick and die, animals kill each other—not always pretty to watch but that’s another flaw in us: the tendency to idealize and soften nature. The natural world can be beautiful but it can also be horrific and grotesque, and it does not give a shit about you, tiny human.
We humans are lucky, imbued as we are with the gift of self-awareness. At some point in our development, we realize that our time in these “ugly bags of mostly water” is finite, which presents us with the option to choose how we spend that unknown amount of time. Some of us have more choices than others, some of us can only think about survival—food, water, shelter, clothing—but this awareness means that we can think beyond ourselves and work toward a happier future with more choices for our descendants. And that is exactly what humans have done.
Along the way, we have tried to make sense of our existence. We have developed systems of belief, created rules either based on our beliefs or based on our collective understanding of how a safe and productive society should function. We’ve gotten it wrong sometimes, we’ve had our backslides, but, overall, we have made life better, safer, and longer and I believe we will keep on that path.
But something else has happened along the way. We have gotten so good at this life business that we’ve become obsessed with protecting it, extending it, and forcing others to fall into line with our obsession. We have made death monstrous. Suffering? Oh, suffering is awful, of course it is, but nothing is as bad as death!
One of our noblest human qualities, mercy, we will happily sacrifice on the alter of Life.
The right to die is a social, legal, and philosophical minefield but, at the very least, the Canadian Supreme Court has recognized that it is a right humans should have. We understand that humans deserve as least as much kindness as their pets. As noted in The Globe and Mail, February 6, 2015:
In a brief, powerful opening paragraph, the court explained why it was creating a new constitutional right to autonomy over one’s death in some circumstances: Those who are severely and irremediably suffering, whether physically or psychologically, “may be condemned to a life of severe and intolerable suffering” by the government’s absolute ban on assisted dying. “A person facing this prospect has two options: she can take her own life prematurely, often by violent or dangerous means, or she can suffer until she dies from natural causes. The choice is cruel.”
How we will hammer out the details of this new right will likely be an arduous and contentious process, as it should be, but I breathe a sigh of relief that my country understands that “life at any cost” is not mercy, is not love, it is cruel.
I can always tell when Fred has had a nightmare about me dying or falling ill because I wake up to a set of arms hugging me closely. The subject of my death terrifies my husband but we do talk about it, for both of us. Neither of us wants a traditional burial. I’d prefer to be placed right into the ground, so that my body can feed the earth and its critters, but I’ll take having my ashes scattered to the ocean if my first choice isn’t possible. We are both organ donors. We both prefer death to unending pain and suffering. We both value quality of life over quantity.
When I say I could die tomorrow and be happy with the life I’ve lived, that is not a throwaway line that I utter with no consideration for reality. I love my life. Of course I want it to go on and on. But if it should end I can say that I have lived fully, I have lived with my whole heart, I have lived the life I chose and it has been an adventure every step of the way. I feel incredibly privileged to be able to say that.
One of the choices Fred and I made about our life together, right from the start, was not to have children. Not long into our relationship, before we were legally married, my husband got “snipped” to relieve me from the hassle of birth control and to ensure that no accidents happened. Had life unfolded differently and had I found myself pregnant, I can state without reservation that I would have had an abortion.
Now, I know that if you are pro-life/anti-choice, then no argument will change your mind. You won’t care how science has disproved the myths of abortion, that it’s been proven by more than one highly respectable scientific/medical body that a fetus is physically incapable of feeling pain until 24-26 weeks, or that the only real difference between an abortion and a miscarriage is choice. Your belief about the sanctity of that life is so deeply embedded in your mind that no amount of logic can pry it out.
That is why I won’t try to convince you. I won’t waste our time.
What I will do is ask you to consider, for even a moment, why you want so desperately for life to follow through from conception to birth?
If the reason stems from a god or a religion, for a moment, set that aside—remember, not everyone believes as you do. If there were no gods, no holy texts or decrees, why would you insist on life at any cost?
Do you look around and see that all children on our planet, in your country, in your city, are loved, wanted and cared for? Have you considered that the lives you “save” you might also doom to years of suffering and pain? That those lives might go on to harm others and continue a cycle of suffering?
How many of you who believe in the sanctity of all life have supported unnecessary wars? How many lives were lost in Iraq, for example, based on what some knew and many suspected was a lie? How many more have suffered and will continue to suffer from that criminal mistake? Where was the sanctity of life then?
And what of the lives of the mothers? It is a fact, no matter how much you want to ignore or dismiss it, that without access to safe and legal abortions there are a number of pregnant women who will harm or kill themselves out of desperation. Life at all costs has, and will, cost lives.
I keep coming back to suffering because it’s important. In our obsession with life, we have glorified the will to survive. We label survivors as heroes and look down on those who “give up” on life as weak. The choice to fight on and survive in the face of intolerable pain and suffering is no more and no less admirable than the choice to eschew suffering and die. Likewise, there is nothing weak or flawed about a woman who refuses to suffer through an unwanted pregnancy or to give birth to a child that she knows will suffer.
What is worse than a world where all women have reasonable access to safe and legal abortions?
A world where victims of rape or incest are forced to carry and give birth to the product of that crime. A world where women are forced to carry to term babies with severe and sometimes fatal birth defects. A world where women live in fear of being held hostage by their own body. A world where women risk their own lives to end unwanted pregnancies. A world where we ignore scientific evidence and the rights of women in order to impose our beliefs. A world where we ensure poor women remained locked in abusive relationships by making them dependent through their children.
A world where it is mandated that suffering is preferable to death.
Death and I are on a first name basis. I’ve spent the better part of past year getting to know my “enemy”. I’ve never been particularly scared of Death. I have always lived my life with the understanding that my life will end someday and the best I can do is suck the joy out of every possible moment. But, in true movie villain fashion, Death knew that if he couldn’t scare me with threats against me, he would go after the people I cared about.
The tactic worked. For now, at least. I’m still down, still bloody, still gasping for breath and bandaging my wounds.
With each anniversary landmark that approaches, I know I’ll take another kick to the gut, another sucker punch to the face. But, like every good movie hero, I will prevail because I have learned my enemy’s weakness. What is it?
Death is not the worst fate. Death is not the toughest bad guy. There are far badder bad guys out there.
I will defeat Death not by living forever but by filling however many days that remain to me with love, with meaning, with purpose, with joy, with empathy, with strength, and with mercy.
More than that, though, I defeat Death by embracing it, by acknowledging that it is as sacred and as natural as life. Life is not always the hero of the story; Death is not always the villain.
As I begin this anniversary season, as odd as it may sound, I want to offer thanks to those who continue to fight for the right to end life with dignity and with mercy. You remind me of what is good in humanity, and why it is so wonderful not to merely exist but to live.