Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Rage Against the Dying of the Light

"Isn't it beautiful?" Sean asked.  "It's like he's saying goodbye to the world."

We were laying on our backs in his studio apartment, all of the lights off, with just slits of sun shinning through the blinds and a candle burning.  He said that was the only way to listen to Johnny Cash's last recording, "When The Man Comes Around," a perfectly selected combination of one new song, a handful of personal hits, and a few covers.  My favorite Johnny Cash performance can be found on that album, his late recording of "Give My Love to Rose."

Though wise men at their end know dark is right. . .

Even when imagining the darkness, I can still see in my mind the layout of the apartment, the location of the bare furnishings, the book of Dylan Thomas Poetry on the TV stand.  The box of his own poetry, open on the day I discovered his body to a poem he'd written years back - His goodbye.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light. . . 

The two years after Sean's suicide when he was just 26 years old were followed by a cluster effect of regulars from Charly's who, one way or another, brought about their own end.  First Scotty, 25, who shot himself; then James, 25, who also shot himself; then Nick, the first guy I dated after Sean, also dead at 25 from a fatal heroin overdose.  After law school my bar exam study partner and Trial Advocacy teammate, Crystal, also shot and killed herself just weeks before sitting for the bar exam a second time.

The ten years since Sean's suicide have left me wondering every day how life would have been different if he had just stayed.

Do not go gentle into that good night. . . 

New attention has been brought to physician-assisted suicide with the very public terminal illness and suicide of Brittany Maynard.  The debate has been framed as though she is somehow different, somehow some exception to what it means to kill yourself.  She's some sort of martyr because she allegedly had all of her mental facilities when she made the decision to end her own life.

I can't accept that framework.  I can't accept that the same world that has been telling me for years that Sean was selfish, now finds Brittany Maynard's decision to check out on her family some fort of selfless act of love.  Maybe it's not the hip thing to say, but Brittany Maynard was a coward.  Brittany Maynard had the gall to go to her parents and say, "I'm going to do this.  I'm going to kill myself.  And I hope you'll stand by me.  And I'm doing this for you."  What is a parent to say to that?  What would I say?  I hope that I would put my every effort into changing her mind.  I hope that I would take her hand, and say to her, "You are not a burden to me.  You could never be a burden to me.  I love you, and I will care for you, always."

"But it's not that simple," the world says.  "She was terminally ill," we maintain, as though that is some excuse for cutting our numbered days short.  "She was dying anyway."  Well so are you, and so am I, because we're human, and that's what we do.  But until we're dead, we're also living.  So where does the line begin and end? It's been dangerously blurred.

She was dying anyway.  Gabriel was dying anyway.  Yet every day that he was here on this earth was another day that he got to feel the Bakersfield June heat on his skin, the warmth of his mother's arms, the strength of his father's hands, the care in his grandparents' embrace.  Every day was filled with love.   Brittany Maynard's life was filled with love, and loved ones.  And she turned her back on them.  She robbed them of the opportunity to care for her, nurture her, look after her in her time of need.  She robbed them of the opportunity to do the things a mother and father sometimes must do for their child.  She stole from her husband the chance to be there, even in sickness.  She stole herself from them.

I resent that Oregon calls its physician-assisted suicide laws the "Death With Dignity Act."  The name implies that to die any other way is to die without dignity.  To die old, or sick, or requiring care makes you an undignified burden on those around you.  Where is the dignity in shirking our responsibility to the ailing?  Where is the dignity in bringing your own curtain down?  Where is the dignity in asking your friends and family to stand by while you kill yourself, purporting that you are doing this both for them, but also to die on your own terms.  Just yours.

She was dying anyway.  He was dying anyway.  And that's supposed to provide us with an excuse to kill.  The willful, deliberate taking of someone's life is no more than killing.  Life is not ours to end at our human whim.  Not yours, nor anyone else's.

I'm not mad at Sean.  I've never thought he intended to be selfish.  I understand his desperation.  I'm just sorry I didn't hear his cries for help because if I had, I would have cared for him.  I would have begged him to fight.  I certainly wouldn't have pulled the trigger.  The doctor who prescribed lethal medication to Brittany Maynard to end her life simply pulled a trigger.

Sean was suffering.  Brittany was suffering.  You suffer.  I suffer.  Gabriel suffered.  THis life is not without its sufferings, and our suffering is not for nothing.  Our suffering is an opportunity to grow in strength.  The suffering of those around us is an opportunity to show compassion.  As a Catholic, I believe that the suffering we experience on earth helps to free the souls of those in Purgatory.  When I recall the suffering of my son during his last day on Earth, I pray that his soul helped set someone else's free.  Maybe even Sean's.

My son suffered.  He struggled for several hours, though he was medicated with compassionate care from our hospice providers to minimize his suffering.  I suffered.  I held him in my hands, as though I was holding my own beating heart, and I comforted him in his hour of dying.  His father and I held him tight and gave him the freedom to go, told him he had been stronger than we ever could have asked, and told him to take God's hand.  He stayed because he wanted to stay, because it's our basest human instinct to hold on to this life, because no matter what you believe happens on the other side of death, one thing is certain and that is that this life is only temporary.  Right here, right now, it's all we've got.

Death will take me kicking and screaming.  Death will take me from my bed only upon a fight, and I pray that's a fight that lasts 100 years and that at the end of that battle I am surrounded by love.  And as my body gives way to death I will pray that I have done enough in this life to see my son again and I will look forward to that moment when our eternity together begins, but still, I will fight for every last breath.  I will fight because Sean didn't.  I will fight because Gabriel did.

Do not go gentle into that goodnight,
Old age should rave at close of day;
Rage against the dying of the light.  

Rage.  Fight.  Live.