Humiliation and Grace
I register something I haven’t thought about before: freedom means you can have vices and bad habits and can reveal bad thoughts. Life here is pent up in ways that multiply as I make my way in. How conscious is the goal to punish through the humiliation of hundreds of small, meaningless rules and through an endless denial of all indulgences?
I read those words today in the article “Dangerous Worlds: Teaching Film in Prison.” This evening, Lisa and I watched the documentary “How to Die in Oregon,” a film about the Death with Dignity laws in effect in Oregon and, later, Washington state. We agreed that the content of the film was so overwhelming that we’re not in any state of mind to consider whether it was actually a good bit of filmmaking. We’ll come back to that another day, maybe.
One of the primary figures that director Peter Richardson follows is Cody Curtis, a brave and smiling woman with a family that seems to be, at once, shell-shocked and supportive. How can you want to die? How can you want to leave us? How can you not want to fight? But they accept her decision, if not easily.
Maybe you don’t agree. Life is special. Yes.
The thing is, what this film affirms is that life is special. Ms. Curtis chooses to have her children remember her as a lucid, loving person, by which time she is on 75mg of morphine per hour and she is not stoned out of her gourd. It’s enough pain relief to keep her lucid and slow. I don’t think my friends Anthony or Lucka would have chosen this end. They both died unwillingly, fighting almost to the last. I don’t think my friend Jen would have chosen this, but she was fortunate in her passing, unconscious, going into a surgery with trepidation and hope that this was going to be the surgery that made the difference. It’s the end that Ms. Curtis hopes for, a peaceful passing in the night. “My body is too strong,” she mourns.
Ms. Curtis’s liver is failing and her abdomen is filling with fluid. As her doctor says in regards to the volume, “It’s the equivalent of going from being not pregnant to nine months pregnant over the course of one week.” The fluid presses against her ribs and makes her feel like they’re going to crack. She can’t eat because her stomach is compressed. She can’t take deep breaths, so she is constantly wheezing and tired and can’t walk easily.
When our cat Gilbert died, cancer-free, it was from a symptomatically similar condition. His lymphatic system filled his chest, plasticized his lungs, compressed his heart. When he found a place to die, the bottom shelf of the bookshelf where it took me forty minutes to find his body, it was the night before the morning that I was going to take him to the vet to put him down. Ms. Curtis notes, “I grew up on a farm. We put our horses and dogs down. We didn’t let them suffer.”
The suffering we mandate upon each other in the name of generosity, in the name of a “culture of life,” in the name of “do no harm,” seems to me the description of humiliation offered to prisoners as described by author Ann Snitow. With the best of intentions, we mandate humiliation. The laws in Oregon and Washington do not create “death panels.” Only the patient can self-administer the fatal dose of medicine and they’re allowed to change their minds at any time. They create a possibility, an option.
We live together but we die alone. Fair enough. But the rules that we put in place around death, our rejection of death as a culture, rules that I believe are put in place with the best of intentions, serve for many people to inflict shame and misery. Lost your mind? Lost just enough of your mind to know that you’ve lost it? Incontinent? Incapable of feeding yourself? Too bad. You’re alive, and we’re going to help you stay alive, even if it hurts.
There is a great deal of grace inherent in allowing yourself to accept the generosity of friend and family who surround you.
There is also a great deal of grace inherent in accepting that death is a consequence of life, and that we don’t have to leave in the most reduced of fashions, but with our heads held high.