My wife and I watch "L'Amour" tonight at our local art house movie theater. It is a 2012 film that tells the story of an elderly French couple, self-sufficient until the wife is felled by a stroke. The husband struggles to care for her, as she becomes more and more debilitated, soon becoming little more than a gibbering shell of herself.
Having lost my Mom to a stroke nearly 11 years ago and my wife's mom to dementia in 2010, the film struck close to home. It is hard and heartbreaking to accompany an elder on a journey into incapacity. And the journey often lasts more than the couple of hours it took in this movie.
Not that I have a better answer, but I do question whether the Church's insistence that life must be preserved until natural death is the best one. From personal experience, I know that there is grace and healing possible at the end of life. For the dying person, it is humbling to accept the little crucifixions that come with inhabiting a failing body. As we are subject to the indignities of age and debility -- loss of memory, incontinence, inability to control one's movements, and so on -- there is a chance to shed the egotism that motivates so much of our daily thoughts. This can be a real hell -- or purgatory -- for those attached to their self-image. But I can understand the value of coming closer to God by killing off our limited horizons and smallness of heart. Our loved ones can gain as well, having the opportunity to reconcile over past hurts and express love and affection.
But at what point does all of this become too much of a good thing? When does a celebration of the value of life turn into an egotistical grasping for a few more heartbeats and a few more breaths? Does the Church's stance on life's ending -- that life must continue until our bodies give out -- become less of an answer than a moral abdication -- a refusal to grapple with the issue of death by vesting it in absolutes?
I am uncomfortable when human beings decide to end their lives prematurely because they don't want to live with the limitation of illness. While the libertarian in me kind of accepts their right to end their lives when they wish, the moralist in me is repelled by the way that good life is equated with 100% ability to function. But while the religious worry that ending life early will become a fad, the pragmatist in me realizes that early suicide will not become fashionable for people. Human beings do, after all, have a strong instinct for survival. Flip a canoe or stand in the path of a moving bus and you'll see what I mean. So I am hardly advocating euthanasia for everyone.
The insistence that life continue until "natural" death strikes me a little like the old joke about the man stopped for running a red light. "I'm sorry, Officer," he says. "I'll stop twice at the next one." Given that many people die suddenly (from heart attacks or car crashes), or do not gain consciousness after an illness or accident, it's not always possible to have the leisurely death that allows for reconciliation and healing.So do we make up for that by insisting that those with lingering illnesses remain on life support until their bodies wear out and stop on their own? My mom took two days to die after her higher brain functions had been erased by a stroke. The hind brain has to be overwhelmed by unexcreted blood poisons before it will stop firing.
Sometimes I think we are more humane with our pets. When they are in pain and we are unable to spend the funds to make them better, we reluctantly put them down. This is hard when their lives are not fully lived. While I might fight to see one more sunset, we do not give this prerogative unreservedly to our animals friends.
I don't know what the answer is to the question of when life ends. But here is a rough guide. When further benefit to the dying person is no longer possible, and all opportunities for reconciliation have been taken, and there is no one left to benefit but priests and canon lawyers, the time to say goodbye and pull the plug is either near or gone by.
I hope that when it is my time to go, this advice will still feel right.