I hope you don’t mind that I call you Anne. It’s your Christian name, and you may call me by mine: Susan. I’m writing this publicly in part because I have no idea how to get your address. I guess your story has been so public I feel I can address you publicly as well. But also because even though I am addressing you, in a sense, I am addressing many.
Anne, I have heard you say that even though you call yourself a foot washing revival tent born-again Christian, and have written numerous memoirs and essays about walking the Christian life, you don’t feel especially accepted in those evangelical circles because of your background and politics. Well, I’ll be straight up: I’m Catholic and sometimes I feel the same way, mostly because I reject both political parties and am as close to a pacifist as a person can get. I’m happy to be Catholic, devoutly Catholic, and by the way, a big Pope Francis fan-girl (I bet you are too): but I know the feeling getting labeled “outsider.” So I write this to you hoping we can eschew labels for a few minutes and recognize each other as one friend of Jesus Christ to another.
I have read your essay “At Death’s Window” many times over the years, where you write out how you came to help in the assisted suicide of a long time friend and cancer sufferer named “Mel,” at his request. I can understand wanting to help a friend who is suffering. I hope every Christian, indeed every human can understand that. It is certainly the way of Jesus, who never turned away a person who cried for help. But every time I read it, I stumble straight out of the shoot when you say:
He and his wife still loved each other very much, but he’d lost the ability to do the things he had most loved to share during their 30 years together: to cook and overeat, hike and travel. He had always been passionately literary, but he was losing the ability to read and write, which had defined his life. Both elegant and down-to-earth, with lifelong depression and a rich, crabby sense of humor, he was 60 when he was diagnosed with cancer. …
Everyone recommended that he contact a hospice provider to help with pain management, but this was not his way. He said that if it was just his body deserting him, maybe. But his mind? His ideas? His self?
The essay goes on multiple times to say Mel would no longer soon be himself. And that prospect pained you and perhaps terrified him. So you offer to help him “end life on his own terms.”
Here’s what I wonder, with sadness. What would have happened had Mel continued to live until his natural death? OK, let’s get it out there: let’s assume given the nature of his disease he would have been mentally absent at the end, and yes, that would have been terribly hard, maybe the hardest reality of his life. He would have needed the constant care of others for feeding, toileting, bathing, and medication for comfort. 24 hour care. Yes.
But this man, who you say dealt with lifelong depression–and a symptom of that is an inability to feel loved–would have had love lavished on him in the most concrete ways. I know you would have done this, Anne, and it sounds like his wife and other friends would have rallied as well. Maybe, mental constructs frayed, he would have felt loved in a way he couldn’t before. If people responded by saying “I love you and will help you live and die as well as possible, because no matter what happens, you are so much more than your mind, your ideas, your ‘self’? Your goodness is not qualified by what you can do….” What would have happened? Another symptom of depression is constant questioning whether your life has meaning. What would have happened if people said and did the hard thing: I will stand by you throughout this passage because you are you, you have meaning to me and to God, no matter what this disease does to your body? Would something have clicked? Would it have been a witness, a pointing to our dependance on the goodness of God? The thing is, with assisted suicide, you’ll never know. And although I do not think you consciously meant it this way, what does it say to agree with a person that your life is what you can do, to the point of ending it when you’re not as productive anymore? There are all kinds of examples throughout history of people deciding for others that they no longer meet the mark of usefulness, and end their lives.
Now, this is where you say, Anne, “But he requested this. This was his free choice.” And you’re right, that’s true. We all have free choices. (Hey, don’t argue free will with a Catholic–we’re all for it!) But the choices have consequences. I’m not going to say he knowingly committed an ultimate rejection of God in choosing to end his life before its time, because I cannot know whether he fully understood what he was doing there. Who knows?–not me, certainly, only God. But choosing to end his life through assisted suicide had consequences: who knows what possibilities (and yes, life still has rich possibilities even on your deathbed) were closed off through this act? Who knows what love was unexpressed? The death scene you describe sounds relatively idyllic, but I read it and thought–where are their adult children? Or other friends who may have thought there were months to live, to connect? To put it as directly as I dare: an experience of Jesus Christ changed both of our lives, Anne. He gave us meaning and hope in some very, very dark times. How do we know that Mel wouldn’t have been given that grace as well?
At one point in the essay, you say you were sure that God would be with him and all of you no matter how this shook down. I’m sure of that too, because God never abandons us. God is kind of nutty in love with us that way: that’s the cross for you. But we need to choose to live our lives–and honor others’ lives–in such a way that opens US to God’s love for us, and trusts God can work in some flat out lousy and hard circumstances. I’m recalling two other lines from different books you have written: one is “God loves us exactly where we are, and God loves us too much leave us in that place” (that’s a paraphrase, sorry), and the culminating line of your conversion, after sensing Jesus’ presence for days: “Alright, $%& it. You can come in.” (Yes, its a family friendly blog). When someone close to me is suffering or dying, I would invite (in fact, beg) Jesus to “come in.” I would remind him that he has said he loves us too much to leave us in this awful place and act, do something, help us see where he is in this, help my dying friend have courage and peace.
Why am I writing? Honestly, Anne, I want you to see that dying is hard but it can also be a place where God is especially present, the veil lifted. I do want you to see that ending another’s life is wrong, not because I’m a rule freak and lacking in compassion, but because we need to trust Jesus and let him be in control. Jesus Christ IS our compassion, and he will manifest it for us and through us if he let him come in, and take our sticky hands off the wheel (I think that is one of your lines too). Assisting someone’s suicide is seeking a control over life and death that belongs to God. And for all of you who agree with Anne, who take the movie Million Dollar Baby as your moral guide, please: this is for you as well. Just put your name in Anne’s spot.
Finally, Anne, I’m not sure if Mel’s final gift to you (the framed picture of Lincoln before he was shot, the deep sorrow and compassion in his eyes) haunts you. It haunts me. Please, think about it. And you may hate me for writing this public letter, or not. I hope not. But you can contact me if you wish (my email is pretty easy, it’s on the sidebar), and I promise I would keep any communication confidential from here on out.
As a Catholic, we honor November as the month where we pray for the dead. I will pray for Mel. I will also pray for you. Perhaps you can pray for me as well. We are family.
Peace and all good,