“Only now, at the end, do you understand…”
Not exactly wise words, and certainly uninspiring ones. Geeks will know where the quote comes from – but I chose not to embarrass myself by identifying it for everyone else. Those were the words that came to me when I read that Terry Shiavo’s feeding tube had been removed.
Only I don’t understand. Not at all. I understand all the little details, but the big picture is as elusive as what’s going on in whatever is left of Terry’s mind.
Here’s what I know.
My own wishes. If the time comes for me, I want the plug pulled. I want the respirator switched off. I want the feeding tube removed. I’ve always felt this way, but recently the point was driven home. Two Decembers ago I held the hand of the husk that had once been my grandfather, only moments after the doctor had removed his breathing tube – as dictated in his living will. Grandpa remained warm as I watched the numbers all drop to zero. I think in that moment we both found some peace. I’d want the same for my family.
Terry’s wishes. Young and foolish – the two are basically synonymous, and I mean no insult – Terry never made her wishes known. Or if she did, she did so only off-handedly and to only one person. If you want to be kept alive by any and all means, that’s your call. Get a lawyer to write it down for you. If you don’t, then ditto; but underlined and boldfaced. Terry didn’t, and that’s the main reason we are in her mess. If that sounds cruel, it’s a kindness compared her situation.
Terry’s parent’s wishes. Frankly, I find their hope for their daughter’s recovery to be sad and misguided. But that’s my own personal opinion, based on my own wishes – and not necessarily on Terry’s actual condition. We’ve all read conflicting reports on whether or not she’s actually brain dead. I believe she is, but I could be mistaken. My beliefs (or yours) should not in any way impact on what Bob and Mary Schindler choose to think.
Terry’s husband’s wishes. Michael Shiavo seems like a cad. That’s a snap judgment based on what little I’ve seen of him on the news, but it’s one I can’t shake. What he looks like to me is someone who would rather be seen as a tragic widower than a man who divorced his sick wife. However: Michael wants Terry’s feeding tube removed and Florida law gives primacy in this decision to the husband, cad or not. Do I agree with him? Yes, I do. Should that matter one whit? No, it should not.
Here’s what I don’t know.
Is the Florida law just? Certainly, it isn’t to the Schindlers.
What would Terry want? We have only her husband’s say so.
Is Terry really and truly brain dead? Very few can really say for sure, and not even they all agree.
The rest of this essay I shouldn’t write (or at least not publish) but will, anyway. You’ve been warned.
So what if Terry Shiavo starves to death? What are a score of days of slightly increased agony, compared to fifteen years of agony, to be compounded by another fifteen? Or thirty? Or fifty? I see no nobility in suffering for suffering’s sake. I do see that needless suffering is all that Terry (if there’s any Terry left in there at all) has to look forward to.
I get no joy from her death. I get no satisfaction from “my side” “winning” the “debate.” All I see is a sad end to a sad life – and none of it had to be this way. I hear a lot of sound and fury about how Terry represents some noble ideal to some crowd or other.
“Death with dignity!”
“Right to life!”
“No, you’re evil!”
Oh, shut up already, all of you.
There’s no good here.
There’s no winning.
There’s only the shell of a girl who was once beautiful, who suffers needlessly in life and will suffer needlessly in death – whether her death is 15 minutes or 50 years from now. Whether she dies of starvation, or whether she dies of “natural” causes.
These are the things I don’t believe. I don’t believe in the Christian concept that suffering is the measure of life. I don’t believe in the humanist concept that suffering should be the measure of death. I don’t believe that anyone grandstanding on either side, can come away from this with clean hands. I don’t believe that any greater good can come from any of this.
These are the things I do believe. I believe a young woman could never picture herself dying – the definition of youth, if there is one – and so she never made a living will. I believe there is a husband whose self-image is so wrapped up in being the suffering widower, that he can’t accommodate the wishes of his in laws. I believe there is a family clinging on to hopeless hope so hard that they can’t accommodate their son-in-law’s wishes.
But Terry’s case is life and death. It’s one or the other. There can be no accommodation.
And so the circle goes on and on until, whenever, however, Terry ceases to go on.
So, if you’re planning on riding your hobbyhorse to victory, eventually you’ll have to run it over Terry’s corpse.