I was sad to see that Brittany Maynard followed through on her determination to kill herself, although I was not entirely unsurprised; it seemed as if nothing would change her decision to take her own life. She claimed several times that she was “not suicidal,” and that she “did not want to die,” although this was a self-evidently pedantic distinction, for she committed suicide, and now she is dead.
This is sometimes how it is: people make strange decisions for reasons all of their own and nothing can sway them. I suppose there might also be a ghastly possibility that Maynard felt the smallest species of pressure to end her life after her intention had become something of a social media sensation. She was only human, after all, imperfect and flawed, and it is not inconceivable that she might have been worried about the worldwide reaction if she were to change her mind at the last minute.
We do not know, for she is dead. I remain confused and troubled by her death. She stated repeatedly that she wished to “die with dignity.” I genuinely have no idea what this means. Cancer—even the terrible brain cancer with which Maynard was afflicted—is neither dignified nor undignified; it simply is. To ascribe a qualitative value like “dignity” to an illness like cancer, or the death that results from it, is to miss the awful point of cancer entirely: that it strikes capriciously, it is unfair, and it is often inexplicable and bewildering. Dignity has nothing to do with it; there is neither honor nor shame in such a death, only death.
My Father, Contra Brittany Maynard
Maynard seems to have ascribed “dignity,” or the lack thereof, to the effects that brain cancer would have had on her remaining months on Earth: “I probably would have suffered in hospice care for weeks or even months,” she wrote. “And my family would have had to watch that…I did not want this nightmare scenario for my family.” It is, again, entirely puzzling as to why this death would be “undignified,” as if one’s body is concerned with the concept of “dignity” in such a state.
Nevertheless, whatever nebulous concept Maynard wished to affix to her death, it is clear that she did not want to make her family witness and deal with the physical and mental deterioration that inevitably accompanies a glioblastoma. I have witnessed and dealt with this myself, as has the rest of my family: my father died 14 years ago from the very same tumor. It was not pleasant and it still, very occasionally, pains me to think of it nearly a decade and a half later.
But it would have never occurred to my father to take his own life for fear of putting his family through a “nightmare scenario”—for what nightmare could be divined from a family’s taking care of a man they loved, treasured, and valued? Were we called to do it for “months,” instead of the few weeks he was bed-bound at home, we would have done so, unquestionably. We would never have turned away from the responsibility of having to “watch that.”
Caring for a Dying Loved One Is a Privilege
My father needed help using the bathroom—first simply to get there, and then eventually to clean up afterwards. We helped him. After a while he could not get out of bed at all, and so needed a diaper. He could not bathe himself, so had to be bathed by someone else. Occasionally, he threw up. Someone was there to stay up with him at night. It was quick, but not quick enough that we did not see him become helpless and entirely dependent upon us.
It was not a happy time. Yet my mother and we three Payne boys and other family members and friends helped him through it, and he would have done the same for us—as he had done for each of his three sons when we were but little babies, dependent upon him in the exact same ways he had then become dependent upon us. Nobody ever cried out that it was a “nightmare:” we were awake, and we had work to do. Nobody ever worried that my father was dying “without dignity.” He was as dignified in his death as he was in his life. How could a tumor change that?
I wish that it had not happened, that he had not died, that he could be here to see me get married next summer. But I would never have surrendered the supreme honor of having helped care for my father in his dying moments; I will never wish that he had simply taken a handful of pills and ended his life “with dignity.” I am not sure why anyone would wish to hasten a person’s death rather than allow her family the privilege of caring for her when she most needs it.
I am concerned for this country, where a woman can publicly announce her decision to kill herself and receive an enormous outpouring of support from around the nation. I am worried that the culture of death is slowly but surely winning: first at the beginning of life, with more than one million abortions performed per year, and now at the end of it, where a woman’s illness and her physical needs are considered a “nightmare” rather than simply a reality which loved ones attend with care and grace. Mostly I am worried that more and more people have begun to think of life—precious, breathing life—to be an annoying inconvenience and an optional consideration. It is an awful future to consider; there is no dignity in it.