It's been a dramatic week for people concerned with issues of quality of life, freedom of choice, death with dignity, and reverence for life. The week's events -- the national spectacle of Terri Schiavo's death and the end of one of the most consequential papacies in history -- were brought home to me yesterday as I helped one of my oldest friends move some of his grandmother's things into the memory unit of an assisted living facility. Not long after Will was born, I bid final farewell to my own grandmother who also suffered from Alzheimer's. Last night was very familliar territory.
As I try to make sense of my own feelings upon once more seeing elderly people sitting blankly in visiting rooms and helping my friend figure out what few items would fit in his grandmother's new room (and appreciating the difficulty he faces the today, as she leaves the hospital but does not go home), I've found a couple of things that feel simultaneously true and contradictory.
On John Paul II:
The final legacy of this man will be the way he has died. The way he has fallen apart, disintegrated—physically, emotionally, mentally, embarrassingly—before the world, making a spectacle of himself.
Now [the documentary was filmed in 1999] he can barely say a word. He's drooling, the body is out of control, headed directly to the [final] moment, and still…he wants the world to see…[his] final encounter with the ultimate question.
For him I am sure this was the moment to embody everything he has said. [That] human life is worthwhile, no matter what—no matter how weak, no matter how insignificant it may look….To challenge the world, which is obsessed with image, with youth, with success, with power, with words. Forcing us to look at the aged, either in ourselves or in others. And in the end summing up his very first words to the world: "Be not afraid.” Be not afraid of even being afraid. The value of your life is worth infinity. It can not be destroyed by death.”
On the politics of Terri Schiavo:
The real lesson of the Schiavo case is not that we all need living wills; it is that our dignity does not reside in our will alone, and that it is foolish to believe that the competent person I am now can establish, in advance, how I should be cared for if I become incapacitated and incompetent. The real lesson is that we are not mere creatures of the will: We still possess dignity and rights even when our capacity to make free choices is gone; and we do not possess the right to demand that others treat us as less worthy of care than we really are.
There's some hemming and hawing later on — it's a tough decison, best not to have the state involved, etc. etc. — but Cohen's bottom line is clear: in order to avoid slippery slopes, we should insist on keeping anyone alive who's this side of irreversible brain death. It doesn't matter if you've made your wishes clear. You should not be allowed to control your own destiny. Period. ... If they won't even let me control my own destiny, why should I let them control anyone else's?
There's a lot more here to chew on than I've got time for on a lunch break. I'll likely come back to this soon. But I find myself simultaneously concerned over the choices that might or might not be available to me and my family at the end of my life, and genuinely, honestly inspired by the way John Paul II lived, and died, in the twilight of his calling -- not giving up, and blessing the people throughout his pain.