When I told my mom that I had joined the Marines she fretted as all moms do. “What if you die overseas and I’m not there,” she said. I laughed and told her that even if I were a civilian and died in the United States she most likely wouldn’t be there. Still, she worried that one day she would get “the call” that something had happened to me.
My mother never got that dreaded news. Instead, over a decade later, I was the one who 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 temporary duty in Okinawa and had to fly back to mainland Japan. As I waited another three days for the next plane back to the States, I 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 past few months had been especially hard on them. The weekly trips to a Dallas hospital, two hours each way, for the chemotherapy treatments had worn them down. When they picked me up from the airport they tried to be warm, but it was strained and they were tired. On the ride home it was made clear — politely but unmistakably — that the prodigal son would be expected to take his turn shouldering the burden.
I hadn’t seen mom since she was diagnosed and was shocked by the change. The red-headed, vibrant woman had been replaced with a bald, weak shell of a human being. The reunion was awkward and bittersweet.
I masked my discomfort by falling into a regular routine. At night I’d sit on her bed, prepare her medicines and swab the shunt in her chest with rubbing alcohol. Concern about an infection seemed to be an absurd worry when the tumors were destroying her from within. But I performed the task with the utmost care and pretended that it was making a difference. We would make small talk and she’d drift in and out of sleep as I fumbled clumsily with the syringe.
During the first week, four or five nights after I had returned home, the ritual took a peculiar turn. I began loading the needle with morphine when I felt a strange impulse, similar to the urge to jump that overcomes you when you stand on the edge of a bridge. An extra dose, I thought. That is all it would take. My family would wake in the morning to a sense of guilty relief and dammed up grief. There would be no autopsy, no questions. No one would know. An extra dose of morphine and the waiting and the pain and the suffering and the dying would all come to an end.
I sat with the syringe in hand, watching her labored breathing. My mother was in the process of dying. But the dying are still the living. And the more I thought about the process of dying the more I realized that life was precious, even in the midst of such suffering.
After that night the routine changed. I’d say a prayer and carefully measure out the correct dosage — sometimes slightly less just to be safe. I stayed for three weeks, giving the shots, attempting to make my mom as comfortable as possible. We made it through Thanksgiving before it became obvious that she wasn’t finished living. My leave was running out and so I returned 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 provided care to dozens of people as they entered the dying process, staying with them to the end. I asked her once what the morbid job entailed. “Mostly waiting,” she said. “You just stay with them and make them comfortable. Let them know they are not alone.”
Her words remind me of Jesus and his followers in the Garden of Gethsemane. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells three of his disciples: “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death…. Stay here and watch” (14:34). Then, going a little further into the garden,
[Jesus] fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. Abba, Father, he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me, yet not what I will, but what you will.” Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Simon,” he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptations. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” Once more he went away and prayed the same thing. When he came back, he again found them sleeping because their eyes were heavy. They did not know what to say to him. Returning the third time, he said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough! The hour has come, Look, the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”
Commenting on this passage, Christian bioethicist John Kilner notes:
The suffering of Jesus portrayed here is about as intense as suffering gets. He is “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” His response is to recognize suffering for the evil that it is and to voice His desire to escape it. Yet, He acknowledges a more important agenda — God’s agenda — which He is committed to follow no matter how great the suffering must be endured.
Kilner contends that this example provides a model for how Christians should avoid any temptation to request assisted suicide when they are enduring suffering at the end of their lives. Choosing to live is in accord with God’s agenda, even when we are in the dying process.
To be pro-life, however, does not require us to endure enormous suffering. As bioethicist Arthur Dyck explains:
I would like to emphasize that one can fulfill God’s purposes simply by refusing to ask for [physician assisted suicide] or euthanasia, even if what one does request is to spend one’s very last days heavily sedated. This too, is a witness to the incalculable worth of life, and as Pope John Paul II indicated, no moral imperative heroically to endure severe pain should be imposed by the followers of Jesus.
Choosing to live also does not mean avoiding death at all cost. When the process of dying becomes irreversible or imminent, we should transition from curative 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.
If Jesus provides the example for those at the end of their lives, his disciples provide an example — or rather a counterexample — to what is expected of the rest of us. Our task, as my mother told me, consisted mostly of waiting, letting them know they are not alone.
God’s agenda for the living is for us to be near, watching and praying and loving those who are dying. 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; it’s good that they are still in the world. And that we are with them till the end.
Copyright 2008 Joe Carter. All rights reserved.