I was in Okinawa when I got the call. “Mom’s not expected to live much longer,” my younger brother said. “You might want to come home.” I had just arrived on the island a few days before and had to fly back to mainland Japan. As I waited another three days for the next plane back to the States and began to wonder if I’d make it home in time.
Two years earlier, when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, my brother built a room onto his house so that she could live with him and his family. The time had been difficult but the past few months had been especially hard on them. On the ride home it was made clear that the prodigal son would be expected to take his turn shouldering the burden.
The cancer had taken a toll. I was shocked by seeing my mother so gaunt, bald, and weak. I’d sit on her bed at night and prepare her medicines, swabbing the shunt in her chest with rubbing alcohol. It seemed absurd to worry about an infection when the tumors were destroying her from within. But I didn’t say anything and performed the task as if it were making a difference. She often drift in and out of sleep as I fumbled clumsily with the syringe.
I’d load the needle with morphine and feel a strange impulse, similar to the urge to jump that overcomes you when you stand on the edge of a bridge. All it would take is an extra dose, I thought. My family would wake in the morning to a sense of guilty relief and damned up grief. No one would know. There’d be no questions. There’d be no autopsy. The waiting and the pain and the dying would be over.
But the longer I sat watching her labored breathing the more I realized how precious was life, even in the midst of such suffering. I carefully measured out the correct amount, sometimes slightly less just to be safe. I stayed for three weeks, giving the shots, attempting to make her comfortable. We made it through Thanksgiving before it became obvious that she wasn’t finished living. I had to return to Japan. Mom held on for several more weeks before passing away peacefully in her sleep.
Until the cancer made her unable to work, my mother had been a hospice nurse. She had been with hundreds of others at the end of their lives and knew what to expect. I, on the other hand, was completely inexperienced. While I had never been afraid of death I had always viewed it with curious detachment. I thought is was an inevitable, unfortunate, but natural process.
I was wrong. Death isn’t natural. Life, given to us by an abundantly generous Creator, is natural. Death is the enemy that separates us from ourselves, from our loved ones, and most importantly, from God. It is such a curse that it required the Son of God himself to remove it so that we might live once again.
There is no dignity in dying. Dignity is derived from the Latin word for “worth.” There is no worth in dying; the worth is in living. The dignity is in how we live as we near the end of our lives. No matter what physical condition a person may be in at the end of their life, they are still alive. They still have the dignity of being created in the image of God.
To be pro-life, however, does not mean avoiding death at all cost. When the process of dying becomes irreversible or imminent we should transition from curatative care to comfort care. While this may require removing artificial means of life support or, when the digestive system fails, artificial hydration and nutrition, we must not take measures to hasten the ending of life. My own experience with my dying mother taught me to appreciate that life is valuable even when it is near the end. As the Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper reminds us, loving a person is way of saying “It’s good that you exist; it’s good that you are in the world!” Being pro-life requires that we remind those who are nearing the end that it is good that they exist, that they are still in the world. And that we are with them till the end.
[Note: Being pro-life also means bearing the responsibility for the decisions about what care and measures should be taken at the end of one’s own life. Because God allows us to make choices in our lives, we should take the initiative to communicate to our families our own wishes and desires. The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity offers an Advance Directive Kit ($12) that contains an Advanced Directive Form and an 80 page booklet on End of Life Decisions (the enclosed form can be copied for every member of the family). Before I began working at the Center I never gave much thought to the issue. But the Schiavo case has made me realize the necessity of taking such precautions. It’s a simple, inexpensive step you can take to ensure peace of mind for both you and your own loved ones.]