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Monday, November 17, 2014

Living & Dying Tidy

Brittany Maynard's brain tumor was the size of two fists, a large chaotic cloud disturbing her otherwise beautifully symmetrical brain.  Her doctors were surprised the twenty-nine year old functioned so well for so long.

I read about Brittany in the October 27th issue of People magazine, intrigued by her decision to end her own life rather than ride out the cancer storm for the next few months which meant more expense, pain, and the inevitable loss of her mind.  "My [cancer] is going to kill me, and it's a terrible, terrible way to die," she told People.

Brittany wanted to die on her own terms, so she, her husband and family moved to Portland, Oregon which has a right-to-die law.   Her plan was to dissolve 100 capsules of the sedative secobarbital in water and, surrounded by loved ones, slip into a permanent sleep.  The proposed date was November 1st.

I watched the calendar after reading the story.  Her life had been magical.  She was smart, accomplished, beautiful, happily married, well-traveled.  Now her days were numbered, and she knew the count.  We all did.

On November 1st, as planned, Brittany passed away.  Although her death was an assisted suicide, the official cause of death was listed as a brain tumor.  She'd written in her final Facebook post:  "Goodbye to all my dear friends and family that I love.  Today is the day I have chosen to pass away with dignity in the face of my terminal illness, this terrible brain cancer that has taken so much from me...but would have taken so much more."

Three days later a top Vatican official condemned her decision to die, calling assisted suicide "an absurdity".

Was it?  Was it ridiculous, foolish, incongruous or unreasonable?  Did Brittany's action manifest the view that there is no order or value in human life or in the universe?

A friend just lost his young wife to the same type of brain cancer, a glioblastoma.  The prognosis is most often 99% grim.  The young wife lived one year then died in hospice.  Her children watched her suffer.  I juxtapose the two cases, Brittany and the other young wife, and I can't tell you what I would have chosen, but I can say that I'd like to have a choice either way.

Hopefully I will never have to consider suicide or palliative care, but chances are the subject will come up.  Dying will most definitely come up.  So the question is, what now?  How do I want to live?  What's more frightening to me than dying is dying unprepared, dying with a life in limbo.  There are not only things I haven't accomplished yet, but things in the way.  My life is cluttered.  This must be how purgatory feels, to be neither living nor dying.  I'm stuck.

I've been reading and thinking about purging my house for the past six months.  I've gotten rid of a few bags of clothes and toys so far, but now I'm getting more serious.  I've noticed that when my house is tidy, so is my mind.  Both worlds, which may be mirrors it turns out, are more peaceful, clear, balanced.  Once fully purged of the things that are no longer useful, things that no longer bring us joy, there's a sense of ineffable freedom and lightness of being.  We lose those final ten pounds or complete unfinished projects.  We quit the dead-end job or loveless marriage.  We move again, finally able to see the wide open spaces beyond the choke hold of clutter.

In the end, if we're lucky, all that remains are treasures.  We're surrounded only by the things we need or love.

I've been surrounded by clutter for more than three decades.  There are clothes that don't fit, irrelevant stacks of papers, books I'll never read, broken Christmas ornaments and stray pieces of junk rattling in forgotten drawers.  There are drawers filled with makeup items that seem to have duplicated themselves over the years.  I keep replacing what I already have, stacking taller and taller mountains around my life.  I no longer know what I have, need or want.

My soul can't breathe.

Brittany gave away her possessions just before she died.  When she moved to Portland, I'm sure she purged thoroughly with the help of friends and family.  There were boxes to keep, to donate, to throw away.  There's a picture of her sparsely furnished bedroom in People.  In the photo is a four-poster bed, two matching nightstands and lamps, photographs of Brittany's husband and family.  The flooring is a light honey-colored hardwood.  The white window blinds are drawn up, completely open.  The bedspread is white, walls sand, ceiling fan a buttery cream.  The room is flooded with golden sunlight.

This is where Brittany died.  In this clean room full of light and loved ones.  She did not die in a hospital bed beneath harsh fluorescence.  She did not die with plastic tubes snaking in and around her head and body, with needles in her arms or neck.  She did not die surrounded by strangers, mechanical beeps, ventilators, the smell of plastic and Clorox.

She died at home, surrounded by love.