The tears surprised me. I pulled over, blinded by them.
The incident is sharp in memory because it was a turning point: the moment I finally accepted the unacceptable. My mom was going to lose her battle with breast cancer. She was going to die.
My sisters and brother had already come to terms with it. I was the one still clinging, stubbornly and defiantly, to an expectation of miracles. To do otherwise felt like a betrayal of my mother. And of my faith.
But that day back in 1988, acceptance finally forced itself on me. Cancer had made her a stick figure. It had clouded her mind with hallucination. And it had reduced her to a toddler, her hand feather light in mine as she tottered down the hall.
I left her bedside at a trot. Got in the car and drove until I couldn’t see.
As you’ve probably guessed, I’m writing about Terri Schiavo, who died Thursday. And I’m doing what I guess we all do when we contemplate her tragedy. I am personalizing it.
How can you not? On the one side, there is Michael Schiavo, ordering removal of the feeding tube that sustained his wife for 15 years because, he said, she would not have wanted to live in a vegetative state. On the other, there are the parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, begging in tears for their daughter to simply live, in whatever state she could. It is only natural to run such a painful conundrum though the filter of experience – or imagination – and try to tease out truth you can live with.
Here’s mine. Acceptance is hard. Acceptance hurts like hell.
For as much time as we’ve spent discussing spousal rights, political opportunism and the meaning of life, I think that’s the signature lesson here: Conceding the inevitability of death is one of the hardest duties of life. And maybe the longer you put it off – the Schindlers and Michael Schiavo have been fighting for seven years – the more difficult it becomes.
Which is why the denouement of this drama has been painful, even for those of us who were not directly involved. Watching the increasingly naked desperation of the fight to keep Terri alive came to feel intrusive and voyeuristic. You wanted to turn away, but there was no place you could go.
So you watched as the Schindlers strained credulity with claims that their daughter tried to say “I want to live” even as her feeding tube was removed. And never mind that, five years ago, according to a report in the Miami Herald, the couple openly conceded that Terri was insensate, her brain destroyed.
You watched as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, in a stunning illustration of the axiom about politics and bedfellows, spoke out on behalf of the Schindlers, a boogeyman of the liberal left making common cause with the religious right.
You watched as House Majority Leader Tom DeLay denounced as “barbarism” the removal of Terri’s feeding tube and trampled the constitutional separation of powers with extraordinary legislative maneuvers to keep her alive, yet neglected to mention that he raised no similar objection 17 years ago when his father suffered a massive head injury and the family decided it was best that the elder DeLay be allowed to die.
You watched as people went just a little bit nuts.
And maybe, if you were the praying type, you said, Hey, God, how about a little help here? When should we stop waiting on the miracle? When is it OK to give up hope?
But God, as far as is known, kept His own counsel. Maybe He felt He’d said what He had to say 15 years ago.
Terri Schiavo’s death, hard as it was, feels like mercy. For her and for us. Once again, we can avoid confronting our irresolute feelings and fears.
There is, however, wisdom here, for those to care to seek it. Roughly distilled, it goes like this: to face reality is not to betray faith.
God answers every prayer, a preacher once said.
Sometimes, the answer is no.
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