April 16, 2005
Some years ago my father—at a time when we least expected it—had a stroke. He survived, and then with tremendous effort managed to carve out a diminished, but still productive, life for himself. But then he had another. And another. And another. Each one slowly draining him down to a level of being and existence he never imagined would happen to him. And then finally he had the last one. At first it didn’t take his life, but it certainly took his soul.
I remember the night, weeks later, when we finally gathered around his bed in tears and torment for the meeting that every family dreads, and we discussed aloud for the first time whether we should let him go or keep him here, not wanting to admit that it was over. Our grief and fear was like a physical presence around us that we could feel and touch. That night we cried and prayed and hugged and looked deep into his eyes for a sign that there was something still there, still present, still hearing. But there was nothing. We could find only a deep and terrifying absence, an emptiness. The natural arc of his bodily functions was bending toward the end, and our love and memories were holding him back. The doctor, a friend of the family and a man of great faith himself, stood with us, about to lose an old friend, and said that the future was in God’s hands now and that he could do no more to help my father. My brother, an atheist since childhood, held our hands and prayed words he never knew he had, and felt the mystery of the presence of God in a way that can only come when one is overwhelmed with the horror of the pending death of a father he loved and could never conceive of life without.
We prayed for a wisdom that was larger and more pro-found than we in our weakness could envision on our own. We asked God whether and why and how this body should continue when the life in my father’s eyes had grown vacant and cold.
And finally we made the decision, an awful, revulsive decision, to release his body to God and allow him finally to join the company of saints in everlasting peace. It was terrible, it was wrenching, and we’ve prayed continually since that time that we were right.
Today we look back on our decision that grueling, difficult night as a moment of sacred wonder. We stood frail and helpless at the door of death and touched the face of God. And in the process we felt loved, and held, and com-forted. For us at that time and that place it was right to tell the doctor to ‘let him go,’ to let his body take its natural course, and I think, in the deep and everlasting mystery of life and beyond life, that my father somehow knows that, and agrees with us, and is glad.
And I also think how lucky we were. Not blessed, for that would be like God was playing favorites, but just lucky. We were just lucky to live in an age in which only a very few people could conceive that our personal painful decisions might be regulated by federal law. We were lucky that our difficult intimate choices were pushed onto us before we had a Congress that believed it right to tell families how and when to let their loved ones die with dignity.
And I pray that God will forgive us for allowing such madness to be promoted today in God’s name.