Friday, April 01, 2005

Would Terri Have Wanted to Break Her Parents' Hearts?

In planning our eventual move back to South Dakota, Jason has been faced with the reality, reinforced with rib-poking sauciness and endless teasing by me, that in Sioux Falls he will be under quiet, unspoken, consistent, unrelenting pressure to join the Shriners. His father is a Shriner, his grandfather is a Shriner, and who knows how far back the fez-wearing, tiny-car-driving tradition goes? Jason probably does, but I've never asked him, so I can't record that fact. In any event, Jason (who is emphatically not a joiner) will have to decide whether to stand his ground or give in to the Shrine-ness of his ancestors. I mentioned this little item of Jason's consternation to my father (I mention just about everything to my father - he's that kind of dad), and my father said, "Well, of course he'll join to make his old man happy."

I replied, "Oh, I don't think so. He's not merely apathetic, he's antipathetic to the whole idea."

My dad then thoughtfully answered, " he's not to that point yet. Maybe someday he'll see it as a relatively small way to please his father." And he left it at that.

And so, of course, like so many things my dad says in passing, his words continue to resonate, bringing deeper understanding and further dimension to other issues in my life and thoughts.

Like so much of the nation, I was transfixed by the sad situation of Terri Schindler Schiavo in Florida. Unlike so many pro-lifers, I do not get all bent out of shape by right-to-die cases. I know that I wouldn't want to be kept alive artificially on a respirator or some similar device, and I think it's a sin to hold on to earthly life so stubbornly when God is calling you home. That said, I was on the Schindlers' side in this controversy.

First of all, Terri was not terminally ill. She was a severely brain-damaged woman who was kept alive via a liquid diet transmitted through a feeding tube. She was able to swallow her saliva, and, with aggressive therapy, I have learned of no reason to believe that she could not have learned how to eat again, if only through a bottle. Even if she could not have learned this, I don't see how starving a woman who was otherwise healthy is ever an act of mercy. She wasn't even in a hospital. She probably could have been cared for quite well in the Schindlers' home with the aid of a part-time nurse. She was like a big, newborn infant who was probably not ever going to progress beyond that stage, but is that any reason to kill her?

Second of all, I can not, nor will I ever be able to, understand why Michael Schiavo did not just walk away. Many folks say this was because he was deeply committed to fulfilling his wife's deeply held desire to die. I hardly think that an off-hand comment while watching a television show is a "deeply held desire." Who hasn't shuddered at a story like this one and remarked, "I wouldn't want to live that way"? I make off-hand comments all the time - God forbid I be held accountable for them when my life is at stake. I think that Michael Schiavo sincerely wanted to help his wife in the beginning of her incapacitation, but I think that after five years or so, he looked at the next forty or fifty years of this unfulfilling existence stretching before him, and it scared him to the core. How terrible it must be to be barely over thirty and seeing a marital future that holds so little? I think of Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre, fighting off the attack of his mad wife and turning with anger toward the men who have come to accuse him, "This is my wife. Such is the sole conjugal embrace I am ever to know -- such are the endearments which are to solace my leisure hours... Off with you now! I must shut up my prize." Poor Terri - she was not to blame for Michael's feelings of desperation, but it's also not hard to see how he might have felt trapped.

In this way, spouses think differently from parents. With your spouse, love them though you may, forsaking all others as you have promised, there needs to be a common bond that unites you - I doubt that Michael would have exterminated Terri if they had had children together. A spouse is a partner you need for mutual emotional fulfillment and a physical legacy. If the Schiavos had been married for thirty or forty years before Terri's brain damage occurred, I would bet that the bond would have been much more difficult for him to sever. Add to this the fact that Michael did move on to a certain extent - becoming involved extramaritally with a sympathetic woman (who obviously did not possess the qualms that little Jane Eyre did when confronted with a similar option) with whom he produced two children.

Parents do not "move on." They cannot. That's your kid there, nothing will change that fact. Now that I'm a parent, I know that I would never be able to stand by meekly and watch my child die, especially a slow, unnatural death from dehydration and starvation. God forbid that I ever have to. I cannot in the least blame Terri's parents for their decade-long battle to save their daughter's life. No parent worth their salt could do otherwise.

Third of all, the brain is the most mysterious element of the human body. I seriously doubt that we've even scratched the surface of understanding this marvelous organ. Many physicians said that Terri was in a persistent vegetative state - that she was completely unaware of her surroundings and any supposed reaction to stimuli was a mere coincidence. A few physicians said that she was in a minimally conscious state - a hazy, slight awareness of her surroundings with minimal reaction to stimuli. I say that we cannot know what she was able to perceive or the internal workings of her poor, damaged brain. We cannot know if she was able to feel her lips cracking and her eyeballs drying or the sharp pains of her dehydrated organs contracting. We'll never know until Judgment Day, when all the secrets of our inner hearts and the stories of our inner lives are revealed. Would you want to answer for this travesty on that day?

I like what I read on one message board. A woman stated that in terms of technology and medical advancement, the next ten years could have been like ten light years for Terri. You cannot tell from such a distance what breakthrough discoveries will lead to regenerating brain cells or reversing the damage. Why not err on the side of life? We'll never know what treatments might work on patients like Terri if we keep killing them off.

Probably the lamest thing that I heard from the "Kill Terri" side of the debate was from a caller to the Michael Medved radio show. This caller said that, as a Christian, he did not believe that it was right to keep Terri alive because she was in some kind of "limbo state" (not his words, but my own phraseology) in relation to God. He said that since she could not use her mind or willpower to initiate interaction with the Almighty, she was essentially being kept from Him, and it was better to let her die (read: kill her deliberately) than keep her from God. Huh? What Bible has this guy read? Michael Medved then asked him the appropriate follow-up question, which was, "Should we then just kill off every incapacitated child and adult because they lack the ability to initiate this kind of relationship? Where do you stop in determining who is able to interact with God?" I do not remember the caller's reply, but it couldn't have been anything excusable or enlightening, because his premise was so flawed. Our entire relationship with the Creator of the heavens and the earth is based upon His initiation, not ours - His saving grace, not our ability to tell Him what we need - and our proclamations of faith are merely outward evidence of His grace, not vice versa. This guy probably would have looked at my mother, lying in a near-coma, cancer eating through her body, and thought that she had no ability to interact with God. I know for a fact that he would have been incorrect. If you think that Terri was not held continually in Jesus's arms everyday, especially while she lay withering and starving, then you have put God into a box that does His greatness - His absolute inability to be defined and constrained - no justice and will not do you any good at all. God communicates with His children in an entirely different way than humans communicate with each other (maybe this guy gets telephone calls and e-mails from Jesus, but I doubt it). To try to evaluate someone's relationship with Him based upon a person's medical condition is just as futile as trying to read a locked diary. Don't assume there's not good stuff in there, just because you can't see it and no one is telling you anything about it. I bet this "Christian" fellow also thinks that ripping little babies from their pre-born homes is no big deal, because, hey, it's not like they were in any state to initiate a communication with God. What a sad sack!

Anyway, it was such a heart-wrenching case - another example of our nation's entrenchment in the "culture of death." I know Terri's at peace, and I hope her parents will find peace soon. I hope Michael is able to find forgiveness from God for not doing the right thing and walking away and letting Terri's parents have their daughter back. I think that it probably just became a control issue for him. He became so desperate to get out of his marriage to Terri that he grasped onto this (presumably) off-handed comment she once made (which I have little doubt that she did make), found a despicable attorney who latched onto this as a "right-to-die" case to promote his own little warped view of "quality of life," and then he couldn't let it go. How many times have I personally seen people hanging on to bad arguments and ideas after they've been thoroughly shown valueless or even reprehensible, just because letting go means the other side wins? It's a fatal flaw of human nature that we hate to back down from a side we've taken, even when we're wrong, wrong, wrong. This kind of stiff-neckedness can ruin marriages, friendships, international relations, and, as we've seen, lives.

So, here's my final view on this matter, and it's one I haven't really seen addressed anywhere else. It goes back to my initial little story about Jason and the Shriners. Jason is twenty-seven. He's a young guy with young parents, and he's busy with his own life and pursuits. Right now, he has no interest in doing things for his folks for the sole reason that it'd maybe tickle them pink if he did. That doesn't mean he does not love his parents - I know he loves them greatly. He's just not at that stage yet, as my dad said. Who knows? In a few more years, as his dad gets older and frailer and Jason realizes that he will not be around indefinitely, he may reconsider his stance and join up just to give his dad the warm-fuzzy (warm-fezzy?) of having his son continue the tradition. Having lost my own mother at a relatively young age, I've come to that point earlier than most kids. There's nothing I wouldn't do to give my dad a little bit of pleasure - even if it went against my own nature and desires. You do these things because you are so grateful to your parents - for what they've given you in terms of their own sacrifices and love.

So, say Terri at the age of twenty-six really did look into what her future as an invalid might be - dependent on a feeding tube, needing "diaper" changes, unable to read or watch movies or walk or speak - and she did shudder with revulsion and believe in her heart that she would "never want to live like that." Say that everything Michael Schiavo said about his wife was true. Say that by "artificial means" she really did mean nutrition and hydration and not merely the respirator that most of us think of. I can believe that.

But all of the above does not mean that, at the age of forty-one, Terri would have wanted to break her parents' hearts by ending her life. Terri Schiavo, not in pain, perhaps knowing, seeing, feeling more than anyone suspects, would have been so touched by her parents' vigilance - their unceasing devotion to her - their commitment to loving her for the rest of their lives in a way that her husband could not have been reasonably expected to. Could not the twenty-six-year-old have grown to be a woman who wanted to honor her parents by giving them the last thing she could - her life? Would she not have looked into their grief-stricken, desperate eyes, clinging as they did to any avenue of hope for her custody, and said, "Okay, Mom and Dad, I'm yours"? My best guess is, yes.

Peace to the Schindlers. Peace to the Schiavos. Peace to all, and may God forgive our often misguided country.

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