The Working Title is…You Might Want to Shut the Hell Up

I was in Target this morning having a crisis of conscience that haunts me just about every six weeks. Standing in the laundry detergent aisle, I was again asking myself, “What would happen if I didn’t buy the high efficiency Tide and just got the regular old Tide to save a couple pennies?”

As I pondered the potential ramifications of ignoring the “HE” logo attached to my washer, I imagined myself in the middle of a Brady Bunch episode. It was the one where Bobby uses the whole box of laundry soap and bubbles fill the entire laundry room and seep into the kitchen. Classic.

That’s why I was smiling when you turned the corner.

You said, “Hello!” so loudly that my “Hi,” was meek in comparison as I tried to place how I knew you.

That was short lived because it became immediately apparent you weren’t talking to me anyway. You turned your head, and I noticed the thing in your ear that looked like a flash drive. I couldn’t hear the person on the other end of the line, but clearly you were trying to gain control of the conversation. Your “No, wait, wait, wait, you aren’t going to believe this,” was so loud that people in the toy department on the other side of the store listened with rapt attention.

I made my selection and was turning my cart around when your next line had the dramatic effect of making me stop dead in my tracks. You loudly proclaimed, “I don’t know what goes on in their house, but my kid would never do that.”

Then you began naming names and giving hints as to what atrocity this deviant child had committed. I was drawn to the conversation like a moth to a flame, which is how I found myself standing with you in the small appliance aisle.

Yes, I admit, I followed you and was totally eavesdropping, (or whatever the term is for listening in as someone shouts into an earbud) but I couldn’t help myself. I was on the edge of my seat spellbound by this dramatic tale you were telling. And the fortunate byproduct of my stealth-like reconnaissance will come on Christmas morning when some lucky person on my list unwraps a pretty sweet crock-pot.

You are much younger than I am, and we don’t know each other, but you might want to shut the hell up, for a couple of reasons.

First, while Detroit may be ranked #14 of the largest US metropolitan areas, this is a small town, and while I didn’t personally know you or any of the names you were spewing, I am certain that I could have that mystery solved in less than two phone calls.

Second, and more importantly, it’s the parenting kiss of death to say, “My kid would never do that.” You’d be much better off thinking “there but for the grace of God go I” whenever you hear of a child’s bad judgment or misbehavior, and for good reason. Kids, teens, young adults and even adults are dumb. We make dumb mistakes. No matter how good your parenting might be, your child will screw up. And it’s our job to teach our children the error of their ways, enact appropriate punishment and hope they learn from their mistake.

But we also have a role to play when it’s someone else’s child that makes the mistake. It’s called forgiveness. Far too often we continue to stand in judgment of other people’s children who have suffered the consequences of a bad decision.

I don’t know all the facts of your story because, quite frankly, I became annoyed with the sound of your voice and walked away, but I do know you are not alone in the opinion you were shouting to your friend that this child should be further punished.

In the last few weeks, I have heard two other stories about kids who made really dumb choices, apologized to all involved and accepted their punishment, only to have additional penalties, including public humiliation, imposed.

What has happened to redemption? Our reactions to a child’s bad decision has become so punitive that I fear our kids are being unfairly and permanently labeled when they screw up. If they commit the crime and do the time, then we have to let it go. (Oops, is that song stuck in your head now too?)

No one, child or adult, should be solely defined by any one act, be it a gross error of judgment or a moment of shining achievement. We are the sum total of all of our actions. And kids, in particular, should know the power of redemptive behavior.

When I stopped semi-stalking you, I went back to the detergent aisle to follow the rules and buy the high efficiency Tide. Not for fear of experiencing my own Brady bubble bewilderment, but more so because, despite being momentarily enthralled by your story, I couldn’t help but notice how pilly your sweatpants were. So if you’re not going to shut the hell up, maybe you should learn to hang your lululemon out to dry…instead of your son’s friends.

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The Working Title Is…Until Death Do Us Part

Last weekend, a 29-year-old woman named Brittany Maynard took her own life. She was suffering from terminal brain cancer. After careful thought, she chose a path she believed would be the most dignified given her painful and incurable illness.

I am sure it was a decision she did not come to easily. I pray she was at peace when she chose to act. And I hope those who loved her can find comfort through their sympathetic support of her choice.

I just can’t agree with her decision.

The end-of-life debate has challenged me academically, professionally and personally for more than 30 years…longer than Brittany was alive.

In the early 80s, I was part of our high school’s Forensics Club. We were super cool, despite what the yearbook photo might suggest.

I wrote a speech in support of withdrawing life-prolonging medical treatments when cure was no longer an option. I would build my case to a dramatic conclusion and stomp my argyle-sock-filled penny loafer declaring, “Simply because a technology exists, does NOT necessitate its use.”

Again, it was the early 80s. The end-of-life debate was just beginning to grab headlines, and my speech was not always well received. People would tell me that what I proposed was one step away from mercy killing. They would challenge me saying, “But what if you did nothing to prolong a life, the person died and a cure was found the very next week?”

I knew what I felt in my heart, but I learned at this young age that the most provocative debates could quickly turn inflammatory. No matter how hard I tried to articulate my position, I couldn’t truly capture what I believed.

In the early 90s, I started my decade long employment with Hospice of Michigan. It was a time of exponential growth for this model of healthcare. The board and administrators were dynamic, compassionate and smart. I was proud to be associated with an organization that embraced families during life’s most difficult days.

When hope for a cure was no longer possible, Hospice helped redefine hope for the patient and family: pain free days, controlled symptoms, making the most of every moment.

One day, I learned that one of our new patients had been consulting with Dr. Kevorkian. She had even appeared with him on Phil Donohue’s talk show discussing physician-assisted suicide.

I was perplexed and intrigued and asked my boss if I could meet with the patient. I was certain that I could convince her that Hospice, not Dr. Kevorkian, could best support her journey.

Again, it was the early 90s. This was well before HIPAA was even a thing. I didn’t work directly in patient care, but I pulled her chart and read it cover-to-cover. She was entering the end stage of ALS. She was confined to a wheelchair and had limited use of her hands. Her speech was often slurred and unintelligible. The social work notes, however, were the most telling. For many years before the patient became sick, she was a not a very nice person was now estranged from every friend and family member.

(To complete the back-story, I was 25-years-old, totally consumed with the details of planning my wedding and feeling more than a little self-important.)

I first met Marguerite in her barren hospital room. The physical effects of her disease caught me off guard, but I could clearly understand the, “Who the hell are you?” that greeted my arrival.

She was mean. And she was fighting a horrible disease. Alone.

I started to explain who I was and where I was from, and, just like in high school, I had trouble articulating my thoughts. I knew what I felt in my heart, but words failed me.

Feeling defeated, I left for a moment and went to the gift shop. I returned with flowers, a stuffed bear, magazines and some Russell Stover chocolates that my grandma used to love. The room was now not so barren, and as I babbled on about my personal love affair with chocolate, Marguerite actually turned and made eye contact. It was clear that her loneliness was more painful than any physical manifestation of her disease.

I stared into those eyes and said, “Ok, do you know why I really wanted to meet you?” Her brow furrowed, and I confessed, “I saw you on the Donohue show, and I wanted to hear all about Phil. I love that guy!”

And there it was… a smile.

We chatted for almost an hour, and she asked if I would visit again. I promised I would. As I left, I watched her struggle to turn the pages of the magazine, and so began my preoccupation with this woman and her devastating disease.

For the next five weeks, I visited most Tuesdays and Thursdays. I would bring a little something each time, but no gift was more appreciated than a simple office supply…a little rubber finger thimble that I took from my fiancé. He used it to whip through piles of paperwork, so I thought it might help Marguerite as she struggled to turn the pages of her magazines. The look on her face when we realized it worked is etched in my memory forever.

Most of the time, ok, all of the time, I got our chats started by talking about myself. I brought her my wedding planning binders and would share all the details of my impending nuptials. In the conversation that followed, she would reference her family, but I would never push. I would go back and tell her social worker what I had learned with the hope it may prove helpful in rebuilding relationships.

Early in December, I brought a swatch of the fuchsia fabric that my bridesmaids would wear. Her eyes brightened and in a combination of garbled speech and notes on her whiteboard, she told me the peonies that grew on the side of her house were this exact same color. She said in the spring she would have me over for lunch so I could see. Maybe they would even bloom before my wedding day!

On a Tuesday afternoon a few weeks before Christmas, my boss entered my office with tears in her eyes. Marguerite was dead. Dr. Kevorkian’s suicide machine had ended her life and that of another woman inside Marguerite’s home; steps away from the dormant fuchsia peony.

Again, I couldn’t find the words to explain what I felt in my heart. But now, I was angry because instead of acknowledging the patient’s depression that accompanied her terminal illness, I knew Dr. Kevorkian exploited her to advance his cause.

Time marched on, and as we moved into the new millennium, my principal role became one of caregiver. I was raising young children, caring for my aging dad suffering with Parkinson’s and assuming greater responsibility for my brother in his lifelong battle with mental illness. And as the decade drew to a close, we faced my husband’s brief illness and death.

I can’t begin to calculate the amount of time I spent in hospitals, doctor’s offices, assisted living centers and nursing homes. I can’t count how many times I thought things like, “Really, God? What’s the logic here? Why would death come to a young person with an entire life yet to live, and yet, this elderly person who suffered a stroke that rendered him in a near vegetative state has survived for years?”

I hear and understand the arguments presented by the proponents of physician-assisted suicide. I can truly empathize with the fear Brittany Maynard faced. But I continued my struggle to put my position into words.

Last week, someone whose faith-filled example inspires me on a daily basis suggested I check out Notre Dame’s daily gospel reflection. So I signed up to have it sent to my email every morning.

On Monday, my television announced Brittany Maynard’s death, and my email gave me the perspective I’ve waited thirty years to find.

Rebecca Roden, Notre Dame Class of 2012, was reflecting on Luke’s gospel where Jesus goes to the house of a Pharisee and tells him to “invite a bunch of randos” (my words, not those of the eloquent Irish alumna) to his banquet.

Neither the gospel nor her reflection had anything to do with assisted suicide, or death or dying. And yet, the author’s words sung to me.

She wrote, ”Often I catch myself thinking or acting like my life is a story about me. I discover I have fallen into assuming that I am the protagonist in my own saga, and my family and friends are the supporting cast.

Christianity, however, tells a different story—one in which this life is only half the tale, in which God is the main character. Naturally, if see ourselves as the main character in our story, we will want to be surrounded by our own particular supporting cast.

Our place is to be a true supporting character. Everyone beloved by the Lord also becomes our beloved as well. God’s concerns become ours; our time becomes God’s.”

Oh, thank you, Rebecca. That’s what I’ve been holding in my heart, yet unable to put into words.

Out time is God’s. Our life is not our story to tell alone. We are not the lead character in this drama. Our every word, our every move and every path we choose impacts a much greater story, one in which we are neither the author nor the editor. We are, simply and profoundly, the essential supporting characters.

So when I see the tiny woman reclined in a massive wheelchair, unable to communicate or feed herself, my thought of “to what purpose…?” is interrupted by seeing the nurse’s aide come over and adjust the woman’s blanket and gently hold her hand. A nurse’s aide whose job provides her the insurance she needs to pay for her son’s heart surgery. A son who, should he survive, has untold potential to change the world.

As supporting characters, we all have the potential to change the world. And as difficult as it may be, we should never knowingly discard any one of those days regardless of what we fear they might hold.

In concluding her reflection, Rebecca Roden wrote, “Christ calls us to participate in God’s story. Let us pray for the grace to follow.”

I promise to pray for that grace, until death do us part.

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