On December 25, 2014, I arrived at her house at four p.m. She was in bed. The TV was on. No one else was home. I sat in the chair in the corner.
She had had a really bad autumn. There were times in autumn, 2014, that, as I left the various institutions, I thought I might never see her alive again. She was in three different institutions. I failed to see the point of moving her so much, but I was not in charge.
The bad stretch began in late summer. Against doctor’s orders, she had been doing heavy labor in her garden. She fell; the cut became infected. Her daughter was furious. “Why was she working in the garden?”
“Because she’s a Polish woman,” I wanted to say. I kept mum. Her clueless daughter: so much never passed from our generation to hers.
My sister was slipping away from us, and no one could explain why. She was terminally ill. We knew that. They had informed us with the brutality of a hammer blow in May of 2013, after she was stopped by police for driving erratically. If her daughter or her husband used verbs that seemed to indicate too much of an investment in any kind of future tense, the oncologist would summon us into the hallway and he would stare at them, his brows as heavy as cement. He specializes in a cancer, nicknamed “the terminator,” that removes his patients within a matter of months. How he does this I do not know.
But, with all that, in autumn of 2014, Antoinette was sicker than seemed appropriate. They kept saying that at that point, given the surgery and the radiation, the tumor was only the size of a pea. Later it would grow so fast that the nurse who saw the MRI looked at Antoinette’s daughter and she, the daughter, saw the nurse’s facial expression and burst into tears and it was all too undeniable. But that would come later.
My sister should have been relatively okay during the fall of 2014, and she wasn’t. One night, Halloween, I showed up in my costume to amuse her. Both of our birthdays fall on autumn holidays – the equinox and Columbus Day. She and I had loved to play dress up together. I was dressed as an Eastern European peasant, our go-to costume. We always had, stuffed away in hope chests, embroidered aprons and colorful shawls from the Old Country.
In the hospital that Halloween night, Antoinette, once an expert seamstress, kept making motions with her hands as if she were sewing something. Her hands were empty. Her eyes were dead. Nature writer Aldo Leopold wrote memorably about shooting a wolf. He approached the creature and watched “a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.” Antoinette had crackling green eyes and seeing her eyes that Halloween night I knew every pain Leopold felt.
The allusion to Leopold’s work is doing double duty here. My sister had hurt me a lot. I still adored her with the devotion of a little sister whose mother was just about always away at work in a factory or cleaning houses. Both Leopold and I most acutely recognized the value of a fearful ferocity as we witnessed it flicker and die.
Later in autumn, the antibiotics kicked in. Antoinette re-inhabited her body. Doctors released her and she was home on Christmas, 2014. Her daughter and her husband had their own things that they wanted to do that day. They asked me to come by and I got into the old car I broke a lifetime of car-less-ness to purchase, the old car that I purchased exactly for moments like this, and I drove out there.
Christmas is an annual challenge for alone-in-the-universe types like me. I often hike or go to the movies. Sometimes I plunge into a book. A Christmas world obsessed with family removes any distraction and relieves my dyslexia and ADHD. I am surrounded by a cushion of emptiness and silence.
Antoinette and I had not celebrated Christmas together since we were children. For years there was nothing between us. No letters, no phone calls, no contact. If I told you what prompt that separation your hair might catch on fire. My loved ones are nothing if not skilled at crafting the kind of scenarios that can lead to years of unbroken silence. Let’s just say that Antoinette had done something really hurtful.
Anyone who is honest and has a heart knows that families cause pain, and that some families cause more pain than others. Anyone with a heart knows, further, that those barbed families are no less human, no less emotionally inescapable, and indeed, in the end, when you apply the advanced mathematics that calculates how much pain people have had to endure versus how much pain they have caused their loved ones, often no less innocent than happier families.
But when we were kids, oh, we were together on Christmas. Days in advance, we’d stay up late grinding walnuts and poppy seed for kolache and Slovak Christmas cookies – fat crescents of butter, sugar, and rich, earthy flavor. Our kitchen was so tiny that Phil used to eat on the washing machine as the rest of us ate at the table, but when we were preparing for Christmas, we burned up as many calories, and built up as many muscles, as Olympians do in giant gymnasiums. We’d exhaust ourselves, and yet we were energized. To this day, when I’m trying to do something demanding, I remember that manic, electric, Christmas-kitchen energy and try to tap it.
We’d open one present on Christmas Eve. One year Mommy gave us matching rosaries. Antoinette’s was lavender. Mine was sky blue. I still have the iridescent box. So, so pretty.
Then we’d head out. We’d step through cold and blackness, past deep, silent woods. Under a streetlight, snow slicked with ice crystals freely scattered the sparkle of diamonds. The snow crunched underfoot, in the distance, snow chains on tires churned out their garbled animal roar.
We smelled nice, with some little girl perfume we’d just gotten as a present – Heaven Sent. I can feel the unfamiliar pantyhose, the satiny interior of a serious, grown-up woolen coat, a couple of sizes too large. Stained glass glowed red, purple, and gold; its glow splashed across the snow blanketing the church lawn. There were already many cars in the parking lot. We hoped we’d get a seat. Only sinners arrived so late they had to stand in back.
We giggled like idiots when the passage from Isaiah was read “The pole on their shoulder.” Tee hee hee … we’re Polish … Pole on the shoulder … Get it, get it?
“What Child is This” – her favorite Christmas carol. She told me that Henry VIII composed the tune. She was always telling me stuff: urine is sterile; egg whites should be beaten at room temperature, cream when cold; never mix ammonia and bleach. Some of these turned out to be wrong, but that’s okay. She filled my head full of stuff I could later fact check.
Shoulders, elbows, hips collided, and everyone just put up with the jostling. The church was so full some couldn’t get beyond the vestibule. There were muffled coughs and vague scents of moist wool, moth balls, and cedar blocks. Old Italian ladies who spoke no English prayed their own prayers under black lace mantillas.
One of our regular church ladies walked up the aisle to receive communion. Her head was always tilted. An injury? A birth defect? I always wondered and I never knew. I found out years later that Mrs. Gilpatrick was a PhD and a published and praised novelist, and yet she gave her life to our blue-collar parish. I found out years later that our high school janitor, Mr. Van Wilpe, who was just about invisible to me, at risk to himself, helped rescue shark-menaced sailors from the sunken USS Indianapolis during World War II. We were surrounded by strong, wounded people who carried their wounds with fortitude and dignity. We took their solidity for granted and only recognized it years later when we inhabited worlds where they were merely a memory.
I missed those old church people so very badly as I traveled the world. When, four continents later, I returned and they hugged me at my mother’s funeral, I wanted to grab them and never let them go, to hold them back from the rush of time that was taking them from me, both their aging physical bodies, and their culture, one being rendered superfluous by new attitudes.
Before 2014, my last Christmas with my sister was 1981. We were at Aunt Phyllis’ house, a haunted Victorian. Antoinette had previously given her tomboy little sister feminine presents. I would open up a package of bubble bath and look sad and she would scream, “Nothing satisfies you!” and I would feel as horrible as only a child on Christmas Day can feel.
That year, 1981, I received a small package from Antoinette, and given its size, shape, and clunky sound, I shrank inside. Lipstick! She’s giving me lipstick for Christmas! I unwrapped a Swiss Army knife. I was ecstatic. Finally! She sees who I am! Finally! A gift I like! I burst into tears.
“Oh my God, you’re crying?” she shouted. “I thought you’d like it!”
I didn’t like it; I loved it.
I just opened the kitchen drawer and touched that knife. It is still here. I cut my nails with it. The images are crisp in my mind. The tree. The Victorian’s bay window. The uncles and cousins standing around. “Urine is sterile.” I can hear her say it. How is it that the Swiss Army Knife and the memories are still here, but she is gone? I really don’t get it. I am such a slow learner.
So Christmas, 2014, was the first time Antoinette and I spent Christmas together since 1981. I had brought my computer and I was paging through Facebook. Antoinette didn’t need all my attention. She couldn’t use it. She kept trying to use the remote control. She couldn’t use it correctly. My last TV was black and white with rabbit ears and a dial. I had no idea how to orient the remote. I tried. I managed to get a movie to appear. We loved movies and watched so many together. Then she demanded the remote again and the screen reverted to static. I retrieved it and brought up another movie. She recognized this one. She offered an analysis. “Not his best work,” and, “I really love this character. She’s in the background, but essential to the plot.” And we’d chat and a few sentences would make sense, and we’d talk as if it were the old days, but then she’d say something I could not decode, and she’d drift away again.
When we were kids, Antoinette, Greg, and I slept three to a bed. No matter what else was going on, we were a big family in a small house. People had to sleep and bathe together. The three of us made each other laugh so hard Mommy and Daddy would shout at us to stop. We’d pound our stomachs, trying to pound the remaining laughs out of ourselves, so we could sleep.
We told each other stories. We invented games. We ate raw cookie dough. We swam in the Wanaque River and the Atlantic Ocean. We had our secret languages we could speak in front of grown ups. All of that was really good.
No less good, I discovered. Showing up in a Halloween costume and discovering that the only thing I could do to reach my sister was to rub her feet. “That feels good,” she mumbled. That was no less good. The hours that I spent with her when I could do nothing to rescue her or rewrite her fate in any way were some of our best hours together, ever.
One day I was trying to make conversation. “My car is slow to accelerate.” Of course it was; it was an old, budget car, and after not driving for decades, I was not exactly putting the pedal to the metal.
She turned to me with the vibrant force of her youngest, most domineering days. “I want you to get that checked! Go to a mechanic! Today! Stop putting it off!”
Where did she suddenly muster that energy, that clarity? She had been in a fog just moments before. She was on her deathbed, and still ordering me around.
“I want you to be safe,” she said. “You’re my sister.”
I felt like I had suddenly entered another dimension. My sister – my healthy sister, the one I’d previously known – would never express concern for me in such an overt way. I don’t know if she had ever called me her sister before. And the way she said the words “my sister” was possessive, full-blooded, intimate. It was the closest she ever came to using the L-word.
She was a nurse. She knew her diagnosis. On another day, I changed her diaper. She punched and swore. She didn’t understand why I was removing her clothes, or maybe even who I was. She suddenly had a strikingly lucid moment. She rose up in the bed, looked me in the eyes, and said, “I am suffering. My family is suffering. I could make it all go away by killing myself. But I will not. I am Catholic, and that is a sin.”
Said just like that, one blunt truth after another. She had given the matter much thought. She knew where she was going, and she know how she would get there. In accord with her faith.
As Christmas night wore on, I climbed into her bed. She and I were the only ones in the house, just Di and Toni, two sisters in bed surrounded by a big, dark night. When we were kids, the obvious metaphor for the dark unknown surrounding us was life; now, of course, it was death. It had all gone by so quickly.
I realized, Christmas is always hard for alone-in-the-universe me, but this was the best Christmas I’d had in a while. I knew it was the last Christmas of an imperfect person I could not possibly love more, and that no matter what would occur in the coming year, my next Christmas, and all the ones after that, would never be better than this one.
On October 24, 2022, La Maison Simons, a Canadian fashion retailer, released a three minute video entitled “All Is Beauty.” The video celebrates the October 23, 2022 suicide of Jennyfer Hatch, a 37-year-old Canadian music therapist. Hatch had Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. She died through “medical assistance in dying,” or MAID, that is, Canada’s euthanasia program. In the video, Hatch is shown shedding one tear. A large, illuminated paper or cloth whale is suspended overhead in what appears to be a woodland grove. She is then shown on a beach, in a simple dark shift, drawing a spiral in the sand. Friends, in unstructured, monochromatic, linen shifts, blow bubbles. There is a banquet, twinkly lights, and dancers carrying illuminated, jelly-fish-shaped, paper or cloth sculptures. A song rises on the soundtrack. Waves rise and wipe out the spirals Hatch drew in the sand. The words “For Jennyfer” and “All Is Beauty Simons” appear on the screen over film of ocean tides. The high production values of this video are comparable to what one might see in a mainstream Hollywood film.
Hatch was a member of the Vancouver Unitarians. Their homepage advertises their commitment to “Diverse beliefs, Shared values, Spiritual growth, Social justice. Meeting on Musqueam land.” The reference to “Musqueam land” is what is known as a “land acknowledgment.” The old jokes goes that Unitarians address their prayers “To whom it may concern.” This is because Unitarians reject the conviction that any one faith bespeaks any unassailable truth. Rather, Unitarians pick and choose appealing passages from a variety of faiths and weave those into eclectic services.
The Judeo-Christian tradition has influenced the West’s traditionally negative view of suicide. “suicide is fundamentally incompatible with Jewish law and values,” reports My Jewish Learning. Catholicism has long been staunchly opposed to suicide. Prominent Catholics advance a “seamless garment” or “consistent life ethic” in which abortion, euthanasia, suicide, and the death penalty are all to be avoided. Not all belief systems oppose suicide; compare, for example, attitudes toward suicide in Japan. Atheists appear to have higher suicide rates than persons who exhibit greater religiosity.
Traditional Western opposition to suicide is reflected in many of the comments under the “All Is Beauty” video on the YouTube site. Commenters likened the video to a Pagan or Satanic ritual sacrifice. Some cited Biblical beliefs. Some noted that the persons depicted in the video are white, and that this preponderance of white faces in a video promoting suicide is noteworthy at a time when diversity dominates in visual media. Representational viewer comments from the YouTube site are quoted, below.
“This is the first commercial with all white actors that I’ve seen in a long time.”
“So am I the only one that thinks this commercial looks like a ritualistic sacrifice?”
“Welcome to Canada, where hope comes to die.”
“If you call the suicide hotline in Canada they say ‘when do you want us to book you in?'”
“In a world where nothing is sacred, not even life, human sacrifices are just a daily ritual brought to you by the elite.”
“It seems peaceful until they bring out that wicker man.” (“Wicker man” is an allusion to a 1973 horror film depicting Pagan human sacrifice.)
“You know what the most absurd part is? They require that you’re fully vaccinated.”
“The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD. – Job 1:21 I seek refuge in God from the secular culture of death.”
“Y’all would make Stalin blush.”
“I’ve always supported ppl’s choice in this matter … what scares me here is that govts have been pushing us to an extreme of depression, PTSD and fatigue with their extreme policies … I could have mistakenly taken this option in my youth, cuz sometimes human life can become a real rollercoaster, but I’m glad this exit didn’t exist at that time. I worry when these ppl are getting closer and closer to our kids, and when they start romanticizing something as delicate as this.., They are not making living easier, but dying.”
The most popular reader comments accompanying New York Times coverage of the same story are very different. The New York Times, of course, is an elite publication that leans left. New York Times readers, in expressing support for MAID, conflated that support with hostility to Biblical religions and their adherents.
Ross Douthat is a New York Times columnist. He is a Catholic and a conservative. On December 3, 2022, Douthat’s op ed column labeled the intellectual foundations of MAID ” inherently destructive ideas” destined to “forge a cruel brave new world.” This brave new world will arrive thanks to “a tamed conservatism offering minimal resistance to social liberalism.” “The most intense objections” to euthanasia “come from biblical religion.” As “de-Christianization proceeds,” a new religion rises to fill the vacuum. In that religion, euthanasia is a sacrament.
The most popular reader comments in response to Douthat were very different from those found at YouTube, a less elite, less left-leaning site. Populare comments by Times readers expressed outrage, not at MAID, but at religious people objecting to MAID. The highest-voted reader comments are below.
“Most of us are glad to have the option to make a free choice to end our lives if we are suffering. Just as we like women to have a free choice to end a pregnancy … We have free health care … It’s not just life that’s important to us. It’s quality of life. America could indeed look North and learn something.”
“I watched my mother and others die long lingering illnesses where the suffering of the patient and the family was prolonged.”
“The author may find nobility in people lingering in unending pain and misery, many others do not.”
“Canada” allows “people to depart from this life with their dignity and humanity intact.”
A 94-year-old mother-in-law died a “beautiful death” with MAID. “Far better than the one my Mother suffered, who died of debilitating & humiliating dementia.”
“I think conservatives have a lot of nerve to demand that other people suffer needlessly just so that they can feel morally superior.”
Things are not as simple as these New York Times MAID supporters would like them to be. The world is not black and white, with evil religious conservatives on one side, and benevolent supporters of MAID on the other.
There are complications to the Hatch story. Hatch sought help dealing with her chronic illness, but did not receive that help. Hatch is quoted as saying, “Our health-care system is set up so it’s really bouncing the patient around … not really addressing the underlying … issue … From a disability and financial perspective … I can’t afford the resources that would help improve my quality of life. Because of being locked-in financially as well and geographically, it is far easier to let go than keep fighting.” Bothersome Canadian patients who do not mention MAID are nudged toward euthanasia by their health care providers. Alan Nichols’ “application for euthanasia listed only one health condition as the reason for his request to die: hearing loss.” The 61-year-old was euthanized. Canadian Michael Fraser, 55 years old, was not terminally ill; he chose death partly because he was poor. The doctor who ended Fraser’s life said, “poverty is pushing people to MAID … he had trouble paying his rent; [that] made it harder for him to be in this world.”
In a December 16, 2022 article, Britain’s Daily Mail reported that Les Landry chose MAID primarily because of poverty. A doctor said to Landry, “‘I can see why you’re doing this,’ and he told me he’d administered MAID to people he knew were doing it because of poverty.” “Mr Landry, who is waiting for his assessment by a second doctor, says he sees himself and other poor and infirm people as victims of a government determined to cut costs albeit ‘under the guise of sympathy and compassion.'” “Dr Ellen Wiebe … has performed more than 400 euthanisations” (sic). “Poverty was definitely involved'” in some of her patients’ decisions to end their lives.
In response to this article, a reader posted on the Daily Mail website, “Im not a religious person, so I don’t understand why people don’t have the right to die at a time of their choosing? Ive witnessed a couple family members pass on from this world & the experience was horrendous.”
It is astounding that anyone could read the dire facts in the Daily Mail piece and say simply, “I’m not religious” and see MAID as a black-and-white issue. This “not religious” commenter chose to ignore that Canada’s health care system is suggesting MAID to patients who never bring it up, and apparently doing so for financial reasons.
Years ago, I worked as a nurse’s aide. My patients required diaper changes, and to be spoon fed. Most suffered from some degree of dementia. My first day on the job, all I could focus on was s–t. Over time, as I got over my squeamishness at human waste, blood and vomit, pus and spit, I realized that my patients were as human as anyone else. I reacted to them as I reacted to any other human, with love, anger, impatience, humor. Their lovable humanity emerged. St. Francis had an aversion to lepers. One day, according to the tale, he hugged and kissed a leper, who promptly turned into Jesus Christ. I had a minor version of that experience every day as a nurse’s aide.
Working in the Third World, I encountered people living lives that few in the West would call “dignified.” I volunteered with the Sisters of Charity, Mother Teresa’s order, and washed abundant lice and fleas out of elderly and sick people dumped on the street by their families, and gathered up by the Sisters.
I have dealt with considerable pain in my own life, both physical and emotional. I’ve received devastating medical diagnoses, for chronic illnesses as well as cancer. I’ve been prescribed opioids several times. I don’t take them, because I don’t want to become addicted. Pain management has at times been a day-by-day, hour-by-hour, lifelong battle. Suicide is a debate I have with myself on a regular basis. I know that many would assess my life as not worth living.
The elderly in nursing homes; the poor in the Third World; the chronically ill; those dying of terminal illnesses: all of us have been judged “ugly” and “undignified” by the proponents of MAID. These assessments of human ugliness and lack of dignity carry echoes of Nazi values.
The Catholic Church’s stance on abortion, suicide, and euthanasia is rigid. The supporters of MAID quoted above also adopt a rigid stance. It’s all bad v. it’s all good. I’m in neither camp. I do see shades of gray. I’m merely observing that as the Judeo-Christian tradition loses influence, new conversations emerge about the value of human life, and people end up choosing euthanasia because they are poor or because they can’t manage their pain. By purely material, utilitarian standards, humans have been and can be deemed life unworthy of life. If we are to insist that the Judeo-Christian tradition should exercise no influence over our values, if we want to avoid killing people for the crime of being poor, “undignified” or “ugly,” we need to have new conversations. Those arguing for abortion on demand and celebration of euthanasia have not offered satisfying answers to the questions we all ask about life and death. Peter Singer, a rock-star atheist ethicist, has tried, but many of us are alienated by his pro-infanticide arguments, and his insistence that a rat has comparable value to a human infant.
I held my mother’s hand as she died. I was rubbing Antoinette’s feet as she died. I had difficult relationships with both my mother and my sister. My being present at their final moments altered my life and my soul. Death, even deaths assessed as “ugly” and “undignified” by the proponents of MAID, is part of being human, and we are less when we try to avoid that part of ourselves. Sick people, wounded people, vulnerable people, dying people – which, ultimately, we all are – offer humanity vital gifts unavailable in any other package.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery