Do you know Brittany Maynard? You should. She is the woman whose story has gone viral, especially in the right-to-die community of which, admittedly, I am not a member.
I had only heard of this woman from headlines. I did not know much about her story… only that she was sick and that she was going to commit suicide before she became too sick. My initial reaction was that she was making a mistake… that she was being somehow selfish… that it is not up to us when we die, but rather how we live, no matter how long or short we have. Plus, I’m Roman Catholic, and we have this whole thing against suicide.
A few minutes ago, I read the headline that she had decided not to take her own life on November 1st, and to be honest, my reaction was not compassionate. I think it was akin to ‘If your view of life is so negligible, why are you backing out? If you say you’re going to do it, do it.’
And for this, for speaking or thinking before I actually tried to learn about her story, I am an asshole. However, now I’m a conflicted asshole. A little history on Brittany:
In January of this year, Brittany was diagnosed with a brain tumor that is going to kill her. In March of this year, she was given six months or less to live.
Earlier this past summer, Brittany made the decision to move to Oregon. Oregon has a “Death With Dignity” law on the books that allows you to legally take your own life when faced with a terminal illness. Her goal is to take her own life via lethal injection at her home on November 1st… two days after her husband’s birthday. Brittany, herself, is only 29… the same age I was when I was diagnosed with cancer.
I guess what made me angry with Brittany’s situation was that I felt that she was treating life like it was something to throw away, instead of the gift that I believe it to be. I have seen and known so many people on both sides of the cancer battle: those who are able to fight, and those who choose to live by their own terms.
One example from the “Let’s do this” side is my friend, Hannah. When she was 9, she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma. It took a chunk of her leg, and one of the side effects of her initial battle was leukemia, which she also fought and beat. She is now cancer free.
One example from the “I’m done” side is my friend, Todd. He had battled cancer when he was in his early 20’s and beat it. When he was diagnosed again in his early 40’s, he’d had enough. His last diagnosis only lasted a few weeks before he was gone, but he lived his last days on his own terms.
I even have a friend from the terminal brain tumor world… my incomparable friend Deb, whom I still talk to every time I see a penny on the ground.
But in every case, the end was never predetermined.
So at this moment, I hope you understand my state-of-mind in regards to Brittany’s decision. With that said, my mantra “Theirs is not my life to live” popped into my head again, so I thought that instead of just being pissed off at someone who was about to throw the gift of life away, I should at least find out a little bit about that life, and her reasoning for thinking it was not worth living.
It was clear from the get-go that this brain tumor was going to kill her, and quickly. It was also clear that the lead-up to her death was not going to be pleasant. The major signs of the progression are seizures, some of them severe enough that in the aftermath of having one, she could tell the man in front of her was her husband, but she could not remember his name. This is not even including the vocal paralysis or excruciating headaches she must be experiencing.
As I watched her video, I realized that while I don’t agree with her ultimate decision, we share many of the same sensibilities of life. For instance, she wants to die before the potential hardships of her husband, the love of her life, having to care for his utterly invalid wife. And then it hit me that this was my exact mentality when I had cancer: to do everything I could for myself, and not “be a burden” to anyone.
Of course, it only occurred me much later that in my haste to be burdenless on anyone, I shut out the very people who could have helped me handle my emotional stress more effectively. They wanted me to trouble them; it made them feel needed.
In regards to the physical, many, if not a majority, of Americans believe that they should not be kept alive on a ventilator if they are considered brain-dead. It is entirely possible if not probable that Brittany could end up in the same position, save for the ventilator.
I’ve already had the conversation with my wife about the fact that if I’m ever declared brain-dead (and no, not by my friends), that I should not be artificially kept alive.
Which brings us to why she’s not taking her life on November 1st: as so often happens, the doctors were wrong on her six-month prognosis. As she is still able to enjoy the time she has with her husband, she said she wanted to continue to do so.
And at that moment, I realized that she was not doing this to throw her life away, or as an abstract “F-U” to her situation. This is about her way of going out on her terms, not on cancer’s terms.
Now if she was to ask my advice, I would first tell her that this is about the one fight that she has left: to not allow cancer to force her hand. But then I come back to the conclusion that cancer forced my hand on several occasions, like the time I took my hair before I let cancer take it.
Do you see the conundrum in all of this?
And I would also be lying if I said that I hadn’t prayed for death at one point. Right before I was diagnosed with cancer, before I actually knew what was wrong with me, my pain had ceased to cease. Translation: it stopped going away. At 29 years old, I would lie in bed at night, almost sobbing from the agony, telling God that I couldn’t picture another forty years of this, pleading with him to take the pain by any means necessary.
And I meant by any… means… necessary.
So then the question becomes, “What is the right answer?” Unfortunately, there isn’t one. People of strong religious faith believe that if someone violates the natural order of life, the afterlife isn’t going to be all that pleasant. Those who believe faith is poppycock might think that there is no point in going through this pain and heartbreak; hell isn’t in any afterlife… hell is right now.
She is a remarkable person, trapped in an unsurvivable situation, with no good answer for how it ends. Because I am someone of faith, I hope that she ultimately decides not to take her own life. I do believe in the natural order of things, as well as the potential consequences of violating that order.
Yet if she does ultimately end her life, I will never condemn her choice, even as a person of faith, nor should anyone else. Her life is not ours to live, and ours are not for her. And most of us can’t ultimately say what we would do when faced with the same situation.
For me, all I can do is apologize for prejudging something I didn’t fully understand, and say thank you to her for giving me perspective to something I would never have had before…which is a rare gift these days.