And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
WB Yeats, The Second Coming
Polly Toynbee’s mother died three weeks ago. Ms. Toynbee has written of it here, while in the throes of exquisite pain and some very plain anger:
My mother died three weeks ago, less than a year after a diagnosis of terminal cancer. From the start she faced its inexorable course with rational calm, unafraid of dying but determined to avoid lingering beyond what she thought bearable. She went to her solicitor and signed a living will. But all the same, linger she did, many weeks beyond what she found either dignified or bearable: it was no way to end a good life…
‘If I was a cat, you’d take me to the vet and put me down,” she would say…
She asked us to put her on a stretcher and take her to the Netherlands or Switzerland. But we blenched at the idea of a terrible journey of death. She begged for enough pills, but I found I couldn’t contemplate grinding up scores of them and helping her force them down. It is one thing to support her wish but quite another to live with the memory of killing your own mother. I was cowardly; she was disappointed in me.
Standing by my brother’s bed, losing a bit more of him each day, I can’t gainsay Ms. Toynbee in her grief. I know all too intimately whereof she writes.
I can’t gainsay her, but I cannot fall in line and agree, either.
Shortly after S was brought to hospice, one of my quieter brothers, deeply hurting for S, wondered why we could not simply help him leave, “isn’t there a way we can end the suffering, isn’t there an injection, or a shot…” he murmured, his voice trailing off as he tossed the thought into a whole pond of rippling thoughts he would rather not explore.
Another brother said, “we couldn’t do that…it would be like putting down the dog, and I can’t do that.”
Some would say that giving our suffering brother “a shot,” something that would simply put him into a deep sleep, from which he would never wake, would be the merciful thing to do. Once upon a time I might have thought so, too. I cannot think so anymore.
Is S suffering? Oh, yes. Is it terrible to watch? God, yes.
Last night my husband and I left S with our hearts breaking, and with no more pretenses of hope. We watched S, who is thinner every day, seem to shrink before our sight. Dark circles appeared under his eyes as we held his hand. Spending three hours with him was like watching a time-lapsed photo of a bloom shriveling up, and hanging tenuously to its stem. The light in his eye had suddenly dimmed and glossed over.
“I think this is the end,” he told my husband.
“We’ll see you Saturday morning,” my husband said, kissing his forehead, and S gave him a look that said, clearly, “you think so?”
S’s death is a rough beast in Advent. In a season of anticipation, of waiting for light, it slouches through our days trying very hard to bring on the dark. On the most superficial levels it is succeeding. We have no heart to string outdoor lights and while we plan to put up a tree, we have not been able to bring ourselves to go pick one out.
But on another level, this beast is failing in its quest for chaos. Had we, five weeks ago, when we were told S’s death would be “a matter of days,” sought out a way to end things for him, to be compassionate and “end his suffering” we would have lost five more weeks of him, five weeks that have been filled with tears and heartbreak, certainly, but which have also brought a great deal of awe-filled mystery and wonder, and surprising, sometimes breathtaking beauty.
I am certain some will read that and sneer, confident that they have the answer, and that the answer is “all suffering is bad, no good can come of it, and therefore enlightened people will always move to end it.”
Can anyone be that certain of something, though?
I know that in the face of S’s enduring courage, in the face of his mother’s unending energy to nurture, in his brother’s willingness to enter into and share this painful love, I can no longer say I know much of anything.
Ms. Toynbee began her essay wondering why “The cult of the natural” insists that a woman try to deliver a baby without medication when modern medicine can make birth “safely pain-free.” She ends it bitterly, disliking the “Archbishop of Canterbury and the Roman Catholic Cardinal” for their “religious views” which oppose euthanasia. She wants birth and death to be painless. She wants the great transitions – those things which are greater than ourselves, and which take extraordinary amounts of love to get through – to not make too difficult a time of it for all of us, as if to say, “can’t we just be detached about it all, rather than so terribly, terribly involved? Let’s not be vulgar, hmm?”
There is a line in the movie A League of Their Own that I always liked. On the eve of the World Series, the team’s star player leaves the game. “It just got too hard,” she explains to the manager.
“Of course it’s hard,” he responds fiercely. “That’s what makes it great.”
My husband touched on this a few days ago when we were sharing a cup of tea and waiting for S’s dressings to be changed. “We can’t control birth or death,” he mused. “The two greatest events of our lives are the most difficult.”
He was right, of course. Birth and death come at a time not of our choosing, and all the anxiety of pregnancy and the shared work of childbirth and child-rearing, all of the agony and the shared work of death, they have to be meant to teach us something. Otherwise, what’s the point? Do we just go through life anesthetized? Feeling nothing, but “fine?”
Scripture teaches us much about suffering. Meditating on the Passion of Christ teaches us more. Do I see the suffering Christ and his Mother when I look at Mom and S, as they reach for one another in a joined attempt to both console and find solace? Need you ask?
Perhaps the pain of childbirth and death, besides being natural, are meant to humble us a little, to make an impression on us, to make us breathe deeply, and look inward and get quiet enough to hear these words: Behold, something greater than yourself!
I could write pages and pages wondering about euthanasia. Would some look at the suffering of Pope John Paul II and ask “gee, Charlie, don’t you think he oughta be given that ‘compassionate injection?’ Look how worn and tired he is.” Would people making that quick and “compassionate” assessment ever understand that the pontiff, while living a life which perhaps not many would choose for themselves, is still working, still loving, still having a life – that by his very suffering, he has something valuable to teach, something to say? Do I want to consider what a “compassionate” euthanasia movement might eventually devolve into? No, not tonight.
Five weeks ago, we were told to say goodbye to my brother, and we held our breaths and believed he would not see Halloween.
Now, it is nearly Christmas; it is Advent, when we say “draw near.” We have drawn near to S and smiled and laughed with him, blown kisses, massaged hands and feet. We have fed and anointed him, and brought cups of fluid to parched lips. We have watched him talk to unseen beings as the room became
suffused with a beautiful aroma, and gasped to realize he was being allowed a chance to review his life, to make amends, and to love, and to love, and to love – it goes on, it fills the room, it feeds our hearts and gentles us in ways unlike anything we have experienced before.
A “compassionate injection” would have robbed S of all of that love, and robbed us as well. We are so grateful for these weeks. We, all of us, S included, are being exposed to something huge, transitional and enduring. It is awful. It is AWE-FULL.
Almost every night that I leave his bedside my mind echoes Revelation 21:5, “see, I make all things new.” Amen, and amen. This is new, indeed.
Standing before the mysteries of grace and life-force and love, one feels very small. One only knows that in five weeks – under circumstances in which some will insist on seeing only physical carnage – we are seeing something new. We are seeing love that has opened, grown and flourished, and is almost ready to take flight and grow some more. Here in Advent, in the bleak mid-winter, the rough beast is being tamed, and we are very near Bethlehem, tonight.