We chose the day of Papa's death.
At the end of his week in the ICU wing of Harborview Medical Center, his eighth day of lying already lost to us in a coma, we signed our permission as a family to let him go. We'd seen the brain scans all week long, our daily exposure to Rorschach images that were sickeningly unsubjective, not sure exactly what to make of them except the progressive growth of darkness swallowing his brain.
That was the first part of him to die, I guess. His brain.
I'd fought it hard, the first time members of the medical team sat us down in a sterile conference room and matter-of-fact asked us what we wanted to do about his life. Our options looked grim either way: removal from life support and probable death; or transferal to a nursing home for an indefinite period of time and fraction of possibility for his living a semi-conscious life, what we often refer to as "vegetables." I wasn't ready, at that point, to surrender him to death. It knifed through me like the most permanent kind of betrayal: giving up on his life. So we asked for more time. We were given a few days.
I tried to play the scenario out in my head, the one where Papa lay in a coma in a nursing home, one foot in this world and one in the other. Tried to imagine Mom's life in limbo for years on end, and ours, too, but moving forward in ways a spouse's cannot, tethered to the shell of him. I tried, too, to imagine a scenario where he was miraculously healed after a period of time, if we only had the fortitude and faith to hold on, but I couldn't summon it.
So much happened in those eight days, experiences and emotions crammed in on top of one another, it felt like years flew by in pages, and with each page, the acute awareness of there not being enough time. I felt robbed. Of being able to say a proper goodbye, one where he was awake and could look into my eyes and we could speak in words or none at all. But in the end, I knew. No more days added on would give us back what we had lost in the way of hoped-for opportunities. We had to patch our goodbyes together with what bits of him and ourselves we still had intact.
In the end, it's possible people could argue we cut his life short. They could write letters to us and blog posts about how we deprived the world of the opportunity to see us walk out our suffering and grief to its Divinely-appointed end. They could say we weren't brave.
* * * * *
Maybe this is why I have felt a lack of confidence regarding "sides" as people all across the nation are discussing Brittany Maynard's decision to die on her own terms in a matter of days. Maybe this is exactly why she's been playing at the edges of my thoughts and in the pools of memory in my heart, all week long, as I imagine her trying to come to terms with living out the last of her days. I know nothing of her or her family's anguish, but I can empathize with the grayness of it all. And while it's not for me to say whether I would do the same in her position, I think the biggest part of me has secretly wanted her to have the dignity in her death I feel my Papa was stripped of in his.
And if I'm getting down-and-dirty-honest, right or wrong aside: dignity I felt we were stripped of.
Who knows, but him and God, what Papa's experience was in death. It could have been beautifully peaceful, and him, keenly aware of the loving presence of God and family that surrounded him. But I do know mine.
It left me traumatized. And then, it left me changed.
* * * * *
I wasn't prepared for any of it, but especially not the sounds of death. Had I known, I'm not sure if I'd have chosen differently, to stay or not to stay, but I stubbornly refused to leave his room until he passed fully from us. The last, great stand of my twenty-seven years of stoicism before I cracked and crumbled.
Six hours of this front row seat of death.
My memories still, six years later, are of the horrible sounds. The change of color in his skin. The feeling of suffocating along with him, of feeling my skin was crawling, on fire, and desperately clawing to get out of it while the walls closed in. My utter helplessness.
I remember not being able to pray, except one silent, seething, anguished plea: Take him.
I remember feeling God was cruel and this was not beautiful or sacred or peaceful. Looking back through the lens of time and distance, of course, my eyes see differently. No part of me actually believes God is cruel - not one ounce of me - and I've been offered glimpses of grace strung through this story, lighting the darkness of memory. But this experience is how death itself is branded in my memory, beyond what my intellect or even faith declares, the raw imagery of it all, where I cannot reach in and alter it with perception.
And so, I can find it in myself to wish something different for Brittany. For her loved ones. That they all would be given the gift of saying goodbye while she is still in tact, heart-wrenching as it will be to let go of each other. Because of my experience, I can believe that, whatever her choice is on Saturday, it will be a brave one, even if the death she experiences comes a little sooner than it might have. Does someone have to face the full gruesomeness and violence of a death like brain cancer to be considered worthy of the title Brave, or for us to learn something from the way she lived? The way she suffered, still? The way, ultimately, she dies?
No matter the circumstances, saying goodbye is always a tearing and an act of courage we are never ready for, no matter how ideal - or not; how peaceful - or not; how soon it comes - or not. But pressed for a choice, I cannot deny I would want a lucid goodbye with loved ones around, holding my hands while I crossed over, taking with me their gifts of love - if, indeed, we can take these immaterial things with us - and leaving with them mine to plant in the soil of grief.
Those seeds of a life that long outlive our bodies.
* Please note: Many of the things I write here today are not meant to be taken as statements from a theological standpoint, but as a human being grappling with the human experience of death. I know the bible well, and I know the positions on both sides of this argument, but these are not primarily what I'm speaking to in this post.
Also, what I write about experiencing my Papa's death, I do not write for sympathy, but as a backdrop against which I can look at another's situation with compassion - in this case, Brittany Maynard's.
Above all, my prayers and sadness of heart are with her and her family.