(CN: The right to die; death with dignity; my mother’s death of cancer. This is going to be heavy. Also, fuck cancer.)
You could guess I do support the right to die, right? But not everybody does. Death with dignity is one of the causes that Christians tend to oppose bitterly. In fact I’m hard-pressed to find secular groups or movements that oppose it. The Secular Global Institute explicitly says that “Much of the opposition to the Right to Die and Death with Dignity movements arises out of religious beliefs, particularly those rooted in the tenet of the sanctity of life.” The American Humanist Organization specifically includes “death with dignity” in its Humanist Manifesto. Dying with Dignity Canada notes as well this tendency and adds that it doesn’t think religion’s going to win this fight because, frankly, it’s a monstrous fight done purely to please a god that “fewer & fewer people cleave to in educated, free thinking society.” There are some secular arguments against death with dignity, but overall you’re going to find that it’s religious groups out in the open opposing it and trying to work against it–while one in five doctors gets a request for this assistance at least once in their careers (according to one study in that link there, but that was in the 90s–I’m betting that number’s grown since).
Right now in the news there is a young woman named Brittany Maynard who is facing her own looming death from cancer. She’s thankfully going to have the ability to choose her own date of death and method of passage from this life, but the heated opposition rallying against her decision is just mystifying to me. I’m donotlinking to just one of these opposing people because I find these Christian attempts at concern-trolling and crocodile tears simply revolting, foul, repulsive, and disgusting. In this one, its writer preys upon a dying person’s fears and hopes to try to convert her through an open letter published on a Christian site to convince her in the chirpiest language possible to stick with her disease till it naturally kills her, and incidentally threatening her with Hell if she doesn’t comply. Yes, you heard me. Another very big conservative site is flat-out calling her a coward. Jesus fucking christ, these people sicken me. SICKEN me. I cannot find strong enough words to express my disgust. Their tactics all run about like that: dictating her lived experience to her, negating her, threatening her, cajoling her, tempting her. The less we say about them and their vile, rotted spewing, the better.
But I know a little about what this young woman is going through. I watched my mother die of cancer, and it’s about the most gruesome way possible to die.
Set the Wayback Machine for about ten years ago. I’m standing in a hospital–oh, how I hate hospitals–and my mother is in her bed. A few minutes ago, we just had the last coherent conversation we’ll ever have. A sudden wet throbbing lash of pain has just now stolen everything from her; she is screaming that she’s scared and that everything hurts. (Yes, of course it does; every organ in her body has just given out, but we don’t know that quite yet.) A flock of nurses can’t hold her down. One of them frantically rang a bell a second ago.
I’m arguing with the doctor who just arrived in response to the bell, rushing into the room. I’ve never seen him; he’s just the doctor on night rotation, I think. He’s an East Indian chap, youngish, thin, charismatic, probably about my age at the time (30s), wearing a crisp white coat. I’m telling him that there must be something he can do to ease my mother through this crisis of agony. No, he says, there is not. He can’t give her more morphine, which is what she’s been dining on for the last couple of days, because–get this–if he does, she might be at risk of developing an opiate addiction, and you see, there are rules–
I am simply stunned. An opiate addiction. He is worried about–about–
I still remember my upper lip curling up above my canines as I snarl and turn on him. If he hadn’t retreated until his back was pressed against the foyer’s wall, I’d have shoved him against it. In a very low voice I inform him that my mother–that lady, that one over there, the one screaming and thrashing and crying–is in horrific amounts of pain, and everybody here is well aware of the fact that an opiate addiction is the very last thing she’ll ever have to worry about. Our eyes lock. I point at him. “You will help her and you will do it right now,” I tell him, “or so help me God.” Somewhere in the back of my mind my thoughts whirl in shock: Did I seriously just threaten to hurt a doctor? Yes. Yes, I did. It’s the only time I’ve ever said anything threatening to anybody. But the prickles of sweat blossoming along my bare arms in the chilly room make me realize I’m serious.
The doctor doesn’t seem frightened, but he still studies me–an angry, hissing little kitchen beetle–for a long moment, gauging me somehow. Then he suddenly, finally nods and steps past me to my mother’s bedside. He does some dialing-things with her IV and then some other fiddly things, and suddenly my mother gasps and falls quiet, her labored breathing echoing in the room before becoming soft, rhythmic, and peaceful. That near-silence is the most beautiful symphony I’ve ever heard in my life. After looking me up and down once more, the doctor leaves. I don’t ever see him again.
I spend the night beside my mother’s bed. I can’t even really touch her because the medications she’s on, which I’ve been told make her swollen skin very tender, but I rest one of my hands underneath one of hers, underneath the waxy, jaundiced hand that has held and touched and hugged and helped me my entire life. I hope beyond all hope that this very faint contact at least is comforting rather than excruciating, and I sit like that all night.
My mother never regains consciousness.
The next morning she dies with a rattle and a long sigh of what sounds for all the world like relief.
Her body is so battered and destroyed and consumed that the hospital people can’t even use her corneas.
Her last words were about how much pain she was in and how terrified she was. The last time she directed the movement of her own body was to flail and thrash to escape that pain. I had to almost assault a doctor to get her some kind of relief.
Let’s take a break for a minute.
Everybody back? You can probably imagine that the preceding paragraphs have not been easy to write. I’m still a little fucked-up about my mother’s death and there’s still stuff I’m unpacking about it. I was of two minds about detailing this event. The last thing I want to do is take a spotlight away from someone else who needs it, or to act like what happened to my mom is somehow unique. I have been sitting on this story for days as I mull over the right way to approach this subject.
But in the end it came down to this: I want you to understand what a specific person’s death from cancer was like.
I want you to see the very human face of cancer and understand what dying of it can actually look like and what it’s like to see it happen. And I want you to comprehend what Christians are demanding when they want someone to suffer from cancer in the way they think correct and best. When all the chirping is done, when all the cajoling is past, when the name-calling fades, this barbaric scene is what actually happens. That kind of death is what they are wishing on the people they want to control. That experience is what they are inflicting on someone they don’t even know and will never even learn about, all so they can feel smugly satisfied that nobody, anywhere in this world, is doing something they don’t feel comfortable with or fully approve of.
That kind of death is what they think is okay to force someone to endure, all in the name of narrative.
A narrative is a storyline, a way that an event should unfold. Myths are narratives, as are fairy tales and advertisements on television. Christians tend to have this strong affection for them, and I don’t think they cope very well with people stepping outside the bounds of their favored narratives. Love must look like this; death must look like that. There’s only one way to conduct a marriage, and only one way to conduct the having of a terminal illness. Children have to act like this; elderly people must act like that. Women are meant to do this, men are meant to do that, and there aren’t any other genders or ways of expressing anything. TRUE CHRISTIANS™ are always like this, atheists are like that, and ex-Christians, well, they’re just deluded if they think they were ever real Christians in the first place.
If you’ve ever seen those “inspirational” memes about brave cancer sufferers, you’ll know now why I dislike those memes. I’m really glad that the people in them are doing well. But my fear is that people will see those memes and think all cancer sufferers act like that, and think less of people who don’t have cancer the correct way. My mom was sick for the whole last three years of her life and ate nothing but won-ton soup and Gummi bears and played video games for the last few months of it because that’s all she could handle. She was not going dancing in South America or fulfilling a bucket list. And I constantly had to defend her choices to her worried friends, who all had suggestions and admonitions for her.
I saw then that when someone suffering from cancer doesn’t follow the right narrative, people whose entire worldviews depend on the idea of universality for their narratives seem like they get really threatened. People like my mother remind them that the real world doesn’t work like they think it does, and their response to this bit of dissonance is to either cajole or force people into stepping into the story and roleplaying it “correctly.”
My mother’s passing was not some Steve Jobs-like romp, no metaphysical journey-to-the-next-level. It was not some Victorian romantic event with a sorrowful lady expiring peacefully amid a room full of lilies. Her death was gruesome. Ghastly. Grisly. Terrifying. Undignified. Traumatically painful. Every organ in her body was corrupted and blown at the end, and her last conscious hour of life was wracked with the sheerest agony, fear, and discomfort.
Though she was a lifelong fervent Catholic, her god certainly didn’t step in to help. (Maybe she just hadn’t racked up enough social-media upvotes…?) But I’m not surprised. Cancer is one of those places where dogma and ideology bump up against reality in an especially sticky and uncomfortable way. All the singing and praying and clapping and believing in the world won’t change a thing. It’s no accident that it was my pastor’s death from brain cancer years before that began my journey right out of Christendom. People’s most desperate and wild hopes collide with simple, torturous reality, and unless someone’s in that very situation, it’s impossible to tell anybody how to live or die with this disease. For some folks it goes like it did for Steve Jobs. For others it goes like it did for my mother. And you can’t really tell who’ll go what direction till they’re going down that road.
Now Brittany Maynard finds herself on that road.
I think what drives Christians spare is that she’s beautiful, young, so-very-alive, and yet facing death. Nothing about it seems right. And this bright, lovely young woman is being harangued by people who are trying to convince her to stick with this cancer she’s got till the end “just in case, you never know,” their god might just do a miracle. But if he did, it’d be the first one he ever performed, and certainly he has time to perform this first miracle before she leaves this world; he doesn’t have to wait till the last second like in movies! I find the idea grotesque to offer out as a hope to someone who is dying. I find it even more ghoulish that someone might suggest that she stick with it because of some nebulous spiritual benefit or heroism it will confer on her for having done so. Believe me, there is nothing glamorous or heroic about dying of cancer and there was no fulfillment or great meaning my mother found in that kind of death.
At heart, this issue–the right to choose one’s death–is a matter of consent and bodily ownership, just like abortion is. Nobody gets a veto to use on another person’s body. If she chooses to leave this life and doesn’t want to stay, then it’s barbaric to force her to stay and endure pain, fear, and discomfort. There’s no right way or wrong way to deal with cancer, either, much less a moral way or an immoral way. Every one of us deserves the right to decide how we individually will deal with our own bodies and our own medical decisions. Every one of us has the right to deal with our own impending mortality the way we think best, too, and that includes the use of coping methods that other people might not like.
I know it makes Christians very uncomfortable that Brittany Maynard is making this choice, but their comfort isn’t really important, and neither is their approval. They’re not the ones dying and facing that fear and pain. She is. When it’s their own fear and pain, they are welcome to handle it however they like, and if they choose to endure it to the very end of the line, then I will support them just like I support Ms. Maynard. But this is her fear and pain, not theirs, and she–not anybody else–owns her body and can handle that fear and pain as she sees fit. She doesn’t have to justify her decision to anybody or prove she’s doing the right thing to Glenn Fuckin’ Beck to somehow earn the right to direct her own fate free of his name-calling and plucking and meddling. (If he and his venomous ilk can’t show real compassion to someone in great need of it, then the rest of us will show it double.)
I find it ghoulish and repulsive that the people who say they care most about “life” care so very little about individual people’s particular lives. I suspect such folks are using her as a pawn to advance their own agenda of control and power over others. And I’m glad she is refusing to allow them to seize control of her life and body. I say often that this may be the only life we ever get and that we must use our finite lifetimes as best we can. That idea applies double to someone dying of a dreadful, horrible disease.
If I were in Ms. Maynard’s position, knowing what I know about what a death from cancer looks like, I don’t think I’d be doing anything differently. And I’d have done anything, given anything for my mother to have had a similar option. I don’t know if she’d have taken that way out if she’d had it; as I mentioned, she was very Catholic, and her religion is run by joyless, evil, soulless, vile, heartless bastards who don’t care that their ivory-tower policies and dictates increase suffering exponentially in the real world. But I really wish she’d at least had the option.
I can’t give that option to my mother anymore, but you’re damned right I support Ms. Maynard in whatever she needs to do. I hope her efforts to raise awareness result in greater understanding of the right to die with dignity. And may her remaining days on this earth be spent exactly the way she wants them to be spent–with those she loves, doing what she thinks is right. May her passing be as dignified and as stress-free and pain-free as possible. If at the last moment she decides not to take advantage of the option she’s now chosen, then that’s her choice too. Whatever she decides, I support her–as I support every other cancer sufferer’s right to direct his or her own fate.
Also, fuck cancer.