Defining life and death

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

I first met Stephen the summer of my 13th year.

He was 9 years old and a lifetime resident of Ridge Home in Arvada, Colo., a state-run institution for the then-termed mentally retarded where I briefly worked as a volunteer.

The details of his particular impairment escape me these many years later, but I can still see him -- his growth stunted, his mind in perpetual infancy, lying in an oversized crib. More than content, he was serene. I watched him for hours, his countenance was one of peace and intrinsic joy. His parents had relinquished custody at birth, a common occurrence in the late '60s. According to staff members, they never visited, also a common occurrence and so they missed his joy.

Larry entered our lives in the early years of our marriage. Our rented bungalow was on the route from his parents' home, where he lived, and the corner grocery store. He was the elder brother of our friend, Frank, and so knew our home was a safe place.

Larry had an unusually clear sense of vision back then and he would often lament, "How come there is so much evil in the world?"

We didn't have a satisfactory answer for him then, nor would we now, but we knew that safe places were very important to Larry.

Larry was always a bright spot in our days, he always had an encouraging word and though he sensed the darkness that surrounds us all, he lived in perpetual light.

In 1985, Mary Joyce, Danny's half-aunt, married Gary, though she had languished for many years in the state home for the mentally retarded in Pueblo, Colo. When she was carefully weaned from years of prescription medication, a definite personality emerged and she embarked on an entirely new life, eventually learning to take care of her own daily needs. She contributes to her household budget with work suited to her ability and thoroughly enjoys her life.

Each of these people, if born today, may find their very existence threatened, if not today, then at some tomorrow some believe isn't far away.

A case in point is being heard even now in Texas, which has inspired a noted author and speaker, and mother of a disabled child, Linda Evans Shepherd, to write in part, "If Emilio were an endangered species like an owl, a fish or even a worm, the public outcry would be heard all the way to Washington. But he's a Hispanic baby boy.

"This is prejudice of the worst kind. If we don't cry out, how many other children, elderly, and disabled people will die at the hands of hospital ethics committees, committees who have taken both God and the value of human life out of their death-decision calculations? Their formulas will become more blood-thirsty, to the point that any American with a sudden disability, stroke or aging issue will be at risk for execution."

In a phone conversation with Linda on Tuesday, she shared some of her experiences over the past 18 years as she has dealt with doctors, legislators and hospital ethics committee members struggling to deal with the issue of euthanasia.

"Hundreds of people have quietly died of starvation in Colorado hospitals," Linda reported, "the families advised to withhold fluids and sustenance, so as to hasten what they (the doctors and hospital ethics committee) have determined is the inevitable end."

Linda's daughter, critically and severely injured in a violent car crash at 18-months of age, was deemed to have been in a persistent vegetative state, not unlike the diagnosis given to Terry Schiavo, and the Texas hospital where she was a patient, would have "gladly ended Laura's life if they'd had the power to do so."

Laura proved the diagnosis wrong and vindicated her family's battle to save her life when she woke up a year later at the sound of her newborn brother's cry.

Now 20, Laura, who remains on life support, is now "a happy, young adult; though disabled."

Life is at issue, and remarkably enough, so is eternity. According to Linda, by prematurely ending a person's life, you may be affecting their eternity.

I couldn't agree more. When Ralph, my best friend's late husband, lay comatose in the hospital, his grown children urged Joanie to "just let him go." And though she knew he was suffering, she just couldn't let him go.

"God wouldn't let me," she said.

When Ralph woke up, his first words, written on a legal pad in barely legible penmanship revealed that saying "no" was the right thing to do. In his comatose state, Ralph, an agnostic at best if not an out-and-out atheist, had met the Lord. His life and Joanie's were never the same. They had shared so much of all life had to offer but now they shared a deep and abiding faith. Ralph went easily from this life to eternity at his appointed time, and Joanie was able to stay with him as he died, loving him all the way to heaven's door.

Linda shared Tuesday that one day she said to Laura, "I believe that when you were in a coma, you saw Jesus." Laura, though paralyzed, responded by thrusting her arm in the air.

"I know that's why she has so much joy," Linda said. "She's been on the other side."

The baby in Texas will surely die. His diagnosis is terminal. Let the child die on God's terms, give the mother time to learn how to say "good-bye." We're all going to die some day. That is a given. The decision of when, however, shouldn't be left up to legislators, hospital ethics committees or insurance adjusters. The decision, ultimately, is God's. And God seems to be the one part of the equation that is being left out of too many discussions.

"The last enemy to be destroyed is death." I Corinthians 15:26 (NIV)

Things you won't see in heaven: Wheelchairs

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