Affirming Life

I’ve been resisting comment on the sad story of Terri Schiavo, because it is all too obvious what is going on: President Bush was losing the debate on Social Security, and it was time for two-year retrospectives on an Iraq invasion that more and more Americans are deciding wasn’t worth the cost. The Republicans needed a distraction, and so here we are, talking about an issue that makes good theatre while having little to do with the problems that millions of Americans face every day. Iraq and Social Security are off the front pages, and we’re further than ever from a serious discussion of health care. Mission accomplished.

Any comment I might make, I decided, would just promote the misdirection. And besides, I hate these Elian-Gonzalez stories that invite us to project our own opinions and experiences onto the lives of people we really don’t know. Depending on who you listen to, Terri’s husband Michael or her parents (Bob and Mary Schindler) may be either saints or devils. Anyone in the story might seem to be going through exactly what you went through, or are afraid of going through. It’s as if they’re just like you, as if you’re right inside their heads.

You aren’t. Get over it.

And yet, against my will, I’ve started thinking about the case. Because I do have personal experience to project onto it, and I keep identifying with one of the characters: Michael Schiavo, the husband.

But I know nothing about him and his wife, so I’ll talk about me and mine. In the summer of 1996, my wife Deb was diagnosed with breast cancer, which had spread to the lymph nodes. It was a stage-two cancer, which puts it somewhere in the middle of the seriousness scale: not a death sentence, but not something you just cut off and forget either. We threw the kitchen sink at it: surgery, followed by high-dose chemotherapy that required Deb to regrow her bone marrow, plus radiation. Treatment dominated our lives for about nine months. But it was worth it. We haven’t seen any sign of that breast cancer since.

Two years ago, she got something else entirely: a gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST). It was huge, bigger than a football by the time they took it out. That cancer looked like it would be a death sentence, but a recent miracle drug (Gleevec) targets it. Sometimes the drug stops working after a while, but nobody can predict if or when it will. So far we haven’t seen that cancer again either.

Deb may yet live to be 90. She may outlive me. Or tonight she might come home from work with some little nagging pain that turns out to be the first sign of the end. That’s how our life has been for eight and a half years now.

Way back in 1996, which seems like an eternity ago, we went away for a weekend to contemplate an arduous nine-month treatment plan with no guarantee of success. What attitude should we take towards it? Was it a gauntlet, a grim period that we would endure in hopes of better times to come? We decided not. Whatever we had to go through, we couldn’t write these months off. Maybe they would turn out to be all the time we had together.

And what should I do with all my what-if-she-dies thoughts? Stuff them down and try to be cheerful? Cling to whatever hope I could, and only face the prospect of a life alone if and when it happened? We decided not. Being together meant facing the real issues in each of our lives, not putting on a happy face for each other’s benefit. If Deb was going to die, she wanted to die knowing that I would be OK, not that my life was going to fall apart as soon as she was gone.

And so, for nine months, we lived one day at a time. Each day we asked what this day would allow us to do. (Or, as we put it at the time, “How is this day not going to suck?”) What did her body allow? If she could walk, we took walks. If she could appreciate a drive, we drove. If she had the attention span to follow a movie, we’d rent one. If not, maybe stand-up comedy on TV would work. What did our emotional states allow? Some days I comforted her. Some days she comforted me. Some days we’d just sit and be scared together.

Here’s why I’m telling you this, the point this story leads to: That’s what it means to choose life. Plucking up your courage and facing this day, whatever it brings, is what pro-life really ought to mean. During those nine months we weren’t always happy, we weren’t always cheerful, and we weren’t always hopeful, but we were more alive than we had ever been. If this day was the last good day we’d ever have together, we’d make sure we didn’t miss it.

That’s the experience that I project onto the Schiavo case. Somehow choosing life and pro-life have gotten twisted around to stand for the denial of death and for the mockery of keeping a body going after the soul is gone.

Michael Schiavo, in the 16 years that Terri’s body has been lying unresponsive in a hospital bed, has gone on to make a new life for himself. In my projection, that was an act of courage, the only truly life-affirming fact in this entire story. And that, in the topsy-turvy world of the pro-life movement, disqualifies him: He’s moved on, he’s forgotten Terri, he just wants to pull the plug to end the inconvenience of having her around.

Inconvenience. The One Big Thing that the fundamentalists don’t understand about the rest of us, as I’ve said at length elsewhere, is that we have moral depth. Whenever they tell our stories for us, we don’t. We’re just trying to push some inconvenient piece off the board.

As I said, I don’t know Michael Schiavo. I don’t know whether he has moral depth or not. But I deeply resent the fact that other people who don’t know him assume that he doesn’t. Because I could be in that situation, and they wouldn’t know me either.

Deb’s mother died of breast cancer. She spent her final weeks on a respirator, because her final conscious instructions were contradictory and nobody had the clear authority to turn it off. We were fortunate that it didn’t go on longer. Deb will not wind up in that situation, because she has signed the appropriate papers and knows that I will turn it off. And I won’t be sitting by that respirator, wishing that I had told her what was really in my heart, or listened to what was really on her mind.

I’m doing all that now. Because that’s how you affirm life.

Doug Muder

March, 2005

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