On Sunday afternoons we observe post liturgical nap time. It is a sacred time where the apartment is absolutely still as we go to our respective spots and either nap, read, or rest in general. We have done this as long as we have been married and I don’t believe it will ever change.
This Sunday I curled up on our impossibly soft couch with an article in the New Yorker called “The Death Treatment”. What is normally a restful time was interrupted by a chilling read.
The article centers around the story of Godeleiva and Tom, a mother and a son in Belgium. In September of 2011 Godeleiva sent an email to her son and daughter telling them that she had filed an euthanasia request with a Doctor Wim Distelmans and was waiting the results. Her reason? Psychological distress. She had been in therapy since she was 19 years old and was now 63. She was done, finished – it was time to die.
Wim Distelmans, a Belgian oncologist, has become a sort of celebrity in Belgium. His accomplishments are not artistic, though some may call them so; instead he is seen as one who is promoting a “tremendous liberation” for promoting assisted suicide as a human right. He lectures across the country – at clinics, schools, and even at cultural centers.
When Tom received the email declaring his mother’s intent, he talked to his supervisor who basically told him there was no way Distelmans would approve the request without first talking to the family. But the next time Tom heard from his mother was the day after she was euthanized. He received a letter written in past tense saying she donated her body to science. The rest of the article dives deeply into the Belgian law and it’s intersection with Tom’s personal story and his struggle to come to terms with his mother’s decision.
The practical implications of the law in Belgium gave me an icy chill and at one point I thought I might have to stop reading the article.
In the past five years, the number of euthanasia and assisted-suicide deaths in the Netherlands has doubled, and in Belgium it has increased by more than a hundred and fifty per cent. Although most of the Belgian patients had cancer, people have also been euthanized because they had autism, anorexia, borderline personality disorder, chronic-fatigue syndrome, partial paralysis, blindness coupled with deafness, and manic depression. In 2013, Wim Distelmans euthanized a forty-four-year-old transgender man, Nathan Verhelst, because Verhelst was devastated by the failure of his sex-change surgeries; he said that he felt like a monster when he looked in the mirror. “Farewell, everybody,” Verhelst said from his hospital bed, seconds before receiving a lethal injection.
The laws seem to have created a new conception of suicide as a medical treatment, stripped of its tragic dimensions. Patrick Wyffels, a Belgian family doctor, told me that the process of performing euthanasia, which he does eight to ten times a year, is “very magical.”
I know people with all those illnesses and disease states. I know them and I love them. They teach me much about what it is to live well in the midst of suffering.
For terminal illnesses, the Belgian law requires that two physicians consult on the case while the non-terminal cases require three. But, the article states, doctors are applying “increasingly loose interpretations of disease”. Indeed, 13 percent of those euthanized in 2014 did not have a terminal illness.
“We at the commission are confronted more and more with patients who are tired of dealing with a sum of small ailments—they are what we call ‘tired of life.’ ”*
Six hours from Boston, in the city of Rochester, New York, a man I love very much is nearing the end of his life. He is 91 years old and he is my father, my dad. He has a cough that stuns the onlooker and his body is weakening by the day. He can no longer do the things he loves, the things he has done his entire life – some simple, like driving, others more involved, like traveling across the country and the world.
Yet, despite his body betraying him, he continues to fight to live. “We live by degrees – we die by degrees.” As long as he has breath he will fight to live. He sees life as a gift, a gift from God. He does not see suffering as something to be avoided at all costs, but something that can, and is, redeemed. He does not see suffering as a mistake, an omission of God’s love, but a place where his love can shine through.
“Suffering is not the absence of goodness, it is not the absence of beauty, but perhaps it can be the place where true beauty can be known…That last kiss, that last warm touch, that last breath, matters — but it was never intended for us to decide when that last breath is breathed.”**
My dad is suffering, but he is still living. Because living matters. Because my dad’s story matters. Because my dad’s story is not complete on this earth until God says it’s complete, until he enters into the glorious grace and arms of his Father and hears the words “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
As I finished the article, the light was fading into dusk. Autumn’s soft chill had me wrapped in a blanket and light from both outside and in bathed the room in a soft glow. My mind was alive with thoughts and feelings of life and of death. I often struggle with tears as I think about the universal suffering in the world and the personal suffering of individuals. But as I thought about the article I had just read and contrasted it to my father’s fight to live, I had a moment of crystal clarity: My dad’s fight to live is a beautiful grace.
“I do not feel like I have the courage for this journey, but I have Jesus—and He will provide. He has given me so much to be grateful for, and that gratitude, that wondering over His love, will cover us all. And it will carry us—carry us in ways we cannot comprehend.” from Kara Tippetts
*From the article: Although their suffering derives from social concerns as well as from medical ones, Distelmans said that he still considers their pain to be incurable.