Brittany and Lauren: A Diptych for the Dying

Brittany and Lauren: A Diptych for the Dying November 3, 2014

Over this weekend of saints and souls, Brittany Maynard, diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer, took her own life. Lauren Hill, diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer, took her first and last layups as a college basketball player.

Both young women’s stories played out in the public arena. Both challenge, poignantly, Americans’ beliefs about death—that very uncomfortable reality we would rather die than face.

I am not the only one seeing Brittany and Lauren as contrasting icons, two sides of a diptych. A commentary by John Stegeman of Cincinnati’s Catholic Telegraph, written before this weekend’s events, says everything I would have said as a Catholic struck by the contrasts, and says it with deep humility.

Maynard has chosen to promote assisted suicide — what advocates call “aid in dying” —seeing that as a preferable alternative to the likely painful death her cancer will cause. She and her husband, after exhausting treatment options, moved to Oregon so she could obtain medicine that will end her life. She plans to take it Nov. 1, after celebrating her husband’s birthday the week prior.

Maynard made a video for “Compassion and Choices,” an advocacy charity that seeks to expand access to assisted suicide. Since then, many others who are dying have posted blogs and videos asking Maynard to reconsider, accepting that life is worth living even in suffering. . . .

Then there’s Hill.

The 19-year-old freshman basketball player for Mount St. Joseph University has launched a campaign of her own. She can’t control the cancer attacking her, but she can control her response.

She isn’t suiting up for death, she’s suiting up to play basketball (jersey No. 22) and in the process, raise money for research for a cure. She knows the cure won’t come in time for her, but it might come in time for someone else.

Her physical strength has been sapped by her disease and she’s now shooting baskets left-handed as a result. When she plays in her first career game on Nov. 2, she will play in brief stints only. God willing though, she will play.

If she does, it will be before 10,000-plus people who pack the Cintas Center at Xavier University to support a young woman dealing with an immense struggle with incredible resolve. Mount St. Joseph University, a Catholic university that competes in NCAA Division III athletics, usually plays in a 2,000 seat venue at home.

Lauren Hill is using the days she has left not to advocate for a “right to die,” but for research to save more lives. She’s using her time to remind us to live each minute to the fullest. She’s working with The Cure Starts Now foundation.

Read it all.

John Stegeman begins his reflection with the words “I’m not dying.” It’s a merciful stance that acknowledges how far out of the shoes of Brittany and Lauren we walk when we have not been given an expiration date and the description of the particular awfulness that lies in wait for us. But it’s also a lie.

We are all dying.

To be alive is to be moving always toward the weekend of saints and souls. There is no choice involved. What we can control, some of us, partially, is how we choose to arrive there. And we can all choose how to walk with others through that gateway. Compassion demands of us as believers that we pray for the dying, that we offer one another unconditional care—which, to my mind, includes not only Brittany’s mother’s heartbreaking words that it would have been her privilege to assume the messiest aspects of her daughter’s care, but also overcoming the US anti-drug phobia that limits real pain management.

What we must do, for ourselves and as witnesses, is offer and enact a vision of “quality of life” and “death with dignity” that reflects what we know to be true:

None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself.
For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord;
so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. (Romans 14:7-8)

For Brittany Maynard, may her soul, and all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God rest in peace. For her family, for Lauren Hill and her family, and for all those facing death this day, may God hold you in mercy, comfort, and peace.

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