Choosing Joy

When my first husband and I started dating, I realized very early on that I had a decision to make.  I knew that he had cancer, and I knew that his prognosis wasn’t good, although there were still treatments that had yet to be tried.  He had hesitated for months before asking me out, because he wasn’t sure that he was in a position to be dating anyone.  In the end, though, he decided that that was a decision that I needed to make for myself, so he asked me out.  I surprised myself by saying yes, and then I was even more surprised by how much I enjoyed our dates.  I remember after we had gone out on a couple of dates realizing that if I dated him for much longer, I could potentially fall in love with him, which could potentially lead to a great deal of suffering.  I also realized that it was early enough in our relationship that I could just walk away, and there would be relatively little suffering involved with that.

As I thought about it, however, I realized that if I walked away because I was afraid of suffering, of being hurt, that I would be making a mistake.  I realized that if I spent my whole life trying to avoid suffering, then I would never truly live.  Many of the most beautiful things in life inherently involve a great deal of suffering, as well as a great deal of joy — friendship, motherhood, marriage, just to name a few.  If you close yourself off to the suffering, then you also close yourself off to the joy.  So, I made the decision that I only wanted to walk away from dating Peter if it turned out that we weren’t a good match, not because I was afraid of what the future might bring.

The future did bring suffering, since Peter died a few weeks before our first anniversary, but it brought an immense amount of joy too.  There are some decisions in life that I might do over again given the chance, but dating and marrying Peter isn’t one of them.   I became a much better woman through being married to him and grieving him, than I was before I met him.

Before I met Peter, I think that I was more likely to make decisions based on reducing the amount of suffering that I would experience as a result of the decision.  Now I wonder what possible joys I missed out on by making those kinds of decisions.  I want to make it clear that I’m not advocating that everyone should go out and specifically add suffering to his or her life.  Many of the saints have counseled against that, and have noted that generally suffering will come to us, we don’t need to go out and find it ourselves.  Nor am I claiming that I joyfully embrace suffering in all situations (I think that my husband and children can attest to that!).  I do think that I need a reminder, though, that some of the hardest experiences in my life have been the ones that brought me the most joy.

 

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“The Answer is Jesus”

Once again, I find myself with a great many moral theology topics that I could discuss, but what is on my heart is something else entirely.  I was reading an article the other day, and the writer, who would consider herself “spiritual,” but not “religious,” was musing about the story of the birth of Jesus as she was preparing for Christmas.  She was very honest about her beliefs, and stated that she really had no problem believing in God, but believing in Jesus was another matter entirely. She acknowledged that his birth was the reason that we celebrate Christmas, but she was conflicted about what he meant, said, represented, etc. and wasn’t sure that she wanted to have a creche since then she would have to explain to her children who Jesus is.  In the end, she decided to put up a creche.

This article got me thinking about a challenge that a priest issued to me after Peter died.  I met with him fairly regularly in the months immediately following Peter’s death, and he had walked with us in the months leading up to Peter’s death as well.  As a result, he knew very well the struggles that I was having.  One day when we were meeting I was sharing with him my anger and my struggle to understand why this had happened, and he said to me, “You won’t be satisfied with any answer other than Jesus.  You can try to find meaning in his death somewhere else.  You can run a race in his memory, fundraise for a cure for cancer, or write a book in an attempt to bring meaning to his death.  In the end, though, you will not be satisfied with any answer other than Jesus.  Don’t stop until you find that the answer to your question is Jesus.”

I think that this priest understood that there usually is no answer to the question, Why?  At least, here on earth there is hardly ever an answer to that question.  The answer to our “whys” is found in a manger in Bethlehem and on a cross on Calvary.  There is no generic”God” present there.  Rather, there is Jesus — a crying, living, breathing, hurting, loving God who would rather die himself than see us die.  He is the answer to our questions, and if we choose to not be satisfied with anything but him, we will find him.

I hope that the writer I mentioned above doesn’t strop struggling until she finds that nothing makes sense apart from Jesus.  I hope that she finally finds her answer in Jesus.

Missing Jesus

I really do want to get back to posting about Moral Theology issues, but this morning I was reminded of something that I learned while I was grieving for my first husband.  I remember after Peter died someone sending me a card that said something along the lines of “We’re sorry for your ‘loss’ but as we know it’s not really a ‘loss’ because you’ll get to see your husband when you get to heaven.”  I know that the family who sent me the card (who I didn’t know) meant to be comforting, but all that they managed to do with that card was enrage me.  Yes, I was well aware of the fact that I would see my husband when I got to heaven (God willing), but I was indeed experiencing a real loss.  While my husband’s spirit lived on in heaven, I was no  longer able to touch him, see him, and hear his voice.  I had indeed lost that ability; I had indeed lost something very precious.  I quickly threw the card into the trash and tried not to think ill of the people who sent it.

Many months later, this card came to mind as I was sitting in mass.  I thought about how much I missed the physical presence of my husband, and it suddenly occurred to me how much the Apostles must have missed Jesus when he died, and then later, again, after he ascended.  That was something that I had never really thought about before.  Granted, the time between his crucifixion and resurrection was only a few days, and they were probably so shell shocked as they came to grips with the situation that I’m sure “missing” Jesus was not the first thing on their mind.   I never really thought about them missing his presence on a human level after the Ascension.  Of course, though, they would miss him on a human level.  They had left their entire lives behind so that they could spend three years on the road with him.  They didn’t merely follow behind him, rather, they shared their lives with him.  They ate with him, laughed with him, cried with him, were confused by him, watched people reject him, and learned from him.  They also knew how he smiled when the children came running to him, knew his favorite foods, knew how he slipped away to get time to pray, knew how tenderly he loved his Mother, knew the games he liked to play, and knew how tired he was when the crowds wouldn’t leave him alone.  Of course they missed his presence as God, but they also probably just missed being with him as Man, and talking, walking, eating, and traveling with him.  It then occurred to me that the gift of the Eucharist must have been so very, very precious to them because in the Eucharist they could physically touch Jesus again.  They didn’t have to wait to get to heaven to do that — they could touch him and feel him here on earth.   What strength and peace that knowledge must have given them.

Yes, I will have to wait until I get to heaven to see my husband again.  But, I don’t have to wait until heaven to touch and see my Savior.  He comes to me in a physical way every time I receive him in the Eucharist.  This gift is now infinitely more precious to me.

Carrying Grief

There have been quite a number of moral theology issues in the news in the last week.  I’ve been tempted to write on so many of them!  I will write on them soon, hopefully.  What has really been on my heart lately, though, is grief.   There was a time when I dreaded every holiday, every day off from work, any spare time that I had, because it just meant more time to think about what I had lost.  Over time, though, and with a great deal of prayer, counsel, tears, and help from friends and family, I was also able to remember what I had gained.  Often, all I could do was just hold on and pray that God continued to hold onto me.  Slowly, very slowly, I felt like I returned to life.  I may write more on this in the future, but right now I wanted to say to all those that grieve that there is hope, there is healing.  God will  never let go.

“The everlasting God has in His wisdom foreseen from eternity the cross that He now presents to you as a gift from His inmost heart. This cross He now sends you He has considered with His all-knowing eyes, understood with His divine mind, tested with His wise justice, warmed with loving arms and weighed with His own hands to see that it be not one inch too large and not one ounce too heavy for you. He has blessed it with His Holy Name, anointed it with His consolation, taken one last glance at you and your courage, and then sent it to you from heaven, a special greeting from God to you, an alms of the all-merciful love of God.”

~St. Francis de Sales

” ‘Just Take Me Out and Shoot me’ is Not an End of Life Plan”

The title of this post is not something that came from my own head, it’s a quote from an interview that I heard of Katy Butler on NPR last week.  Ms. Butler also wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal in September that a friend was kind enough to draw my attention to.  The gist of her interview was about her book (“Knocking on Heaven’s Door”), which I admit that I have not read, although I might add it to the long list of books that I need to read.  Basically, she was arguing that despite the fact that we talk extensively about wanting to die a “good death,” we act as if we are actually never going to die.  As a result, we end up engaging in ever more intrusive medical interventions in the hope of extending our lives as long as possible.  The end of all of this is that instead of dying peacefully at home, surrounded by relatives, most people will actually die in the ICU of a hospital.  Ms. Butler’s argument, at least in the interview and in the article, was that we need to think much  more carefully about surgeries, treatments, etc. and whether or not they are truly needed or necessary as we age.  Additionally, she argued that we don’t often weigh the risks and the benefits of treatment.  Her own mother refused a serious, but relatively routine, heart surgery when she was 84 because of the stroke and dementia risks associated with the surgery.  With the surgery, she could’ve lived until 90, while without the surgery she had a 50/50 chance of dying within 2 years.  The doctors didn’t understand her decision not to have the surgery, but she was adamant that she wanted to live out the remaining months, or years, of her life as fully as she could, and she didn’t believe that the surgery was worth the risk.

At one point in the interview, the interviewer read out questions and comments that listeners had.  One of the listeners said that her father’s end of life plan was that someone should “just take him out and shoot him,” but that he hadn’t been more specific. Ms. Butler’s response was, “Just take me out and shoot me is not an end of life plan,” and she encouraged the listener to sit down and have a talk with her father.   As I listened, I couldn’t help but think that most people really have no idea about how to plan for the end of life, other than hoping to die peacefully in one’s sleep after living to a ripe old age.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t often happen, so we are usually faced with difficult decisions about what to do.  Unfortunately, the advice that most people will receive about how to make these decisions is often in line with a culture which views suffering and any type of lack of awareness as a reason to “just take me out and shoot me.”  What about those of us who truly believe that life is a gift, and that life is not to be ended prematurely?  What about those of us who believe that there is value in suffering, and that unfortunate diseases such as cancer, dementia, Alzheimer’s, and the like do not diminish the underlying dignity of the human person?  How are we to make these types of decisions?

There was a time in my life, not too long ago, when I was in the midst of needing to make these kinds of decisions.  These are the types of decisions that my first husband and I needed to make when we were making decisions about how to treat the liver cancer that would ultimately take his life.  Fortunately, I was also blessed to be taking a class in Bioethics, so I had access to the information and the people who could help us navigate these difficult and emotional decisions.  The important lesson that I learned that helped both my husband and I as we approached these decisions was the knowledge that as Catholics, we are required to engage in “ordinary means” of treatment, but we not required to engage in medical treatment that would be considered “extraordinary means.”

First, “extraordinary means” doesn’t mean treatment that is “out of the ordinary” or “unusual.”  Rather, it means treatment that would be more harmful to the patient than it would be beneficial.  “Ordinary means,” is treatment that would be more beneficial than harmful.  The burdens that one might consider when thinking about extraordinary treatment are pain, cost, inconvenience and discomfort, among others.  It is important to remember that what will be extraordinary in one case, might be ordinary in another, depending on the factors involved.  Also, it would not be “wrong” to pursue extraordinary means, although one would not be morally obligated to do so.

My first husband battled a rare form of liver cancer several times over the course of his life.   The first two times, he was able to beat it, but the third time that it came back it was inoperable, and the more conventional treatments that he had used previously were no longer open to him.  As a result, he was left with pursuing experimental treatments, which he did with courage and hope.  One of the treatments seemed to be working, but after he developed a blood clot in his liver, he was no longer eligible for the treatment and his liver began to fail.  At this point he was in almost constant pain that would send us to the emergency room many, many times.  Any treatment options had less than a 1% chance of working, and they would almost certainly result in him being hospitalized for dehydration, pain, or illness.  In addition, the treatments themselves would’ve required us to spend extensive amounts of time at the hospital.  My husband made the decision that if he only had a few months to live, and if the treatment had virtually no chance of success, he would rather spend the time that he had remaining with his friends and family.  As a result, he made the decision to discontinue treatment and to enter hospice.  We had a wonderful hospice experience, and since the hospice was able to give him IV pain medications at home, he was able to live out the rest of his life pain free, for the most part.

In my husband’s situation, pursuing further treatment surely would’ve been extraordinary means.  The treatment had virtually no chance of success, and would have made the remainder of his life miserable.  While it wouldn’t have been “wrong” to continue treatment, it was a good, and moral, decision to stop treatment.  Because he made the decision to stop treatment, he was able to die at home, peacefully, rather than in a hospital.  Although I don’t know everything about Ms. Butler’s mother’s situation, it seems like she also made a good decision to refuse treatment that was extraordinary in that it had the potential to cause more harm than benefit.

One of the things that Ms. Butler discussed in her interview was that a death in the ICU of a hospital can be traumatizing for the family members, and can actually lead to post-traumatic stress because of all of the decisions that have to be made.  In the weeks leading up to his death, my husband told me that what he wanted most was to be able to say goodbye to his loved ones before he actually reached his deathbed, and to have peace and quiet in the house when he actually was in the process of dying.  For the most part, both of these things were able to happen, only because we were not in the ICU of a hospital.  He received Last Rites, said goodbye to everyone, and passed away peacefully in his sleep.  It was an incredibly sad, difficult and powerful few days for those of us who walked the journey with him.  But, the manner of his death, I think, helped me to begin to process my grief more quickly.  Rather than being forced to make all sorts of medical decisions in those last few days, I was able to just focus on him and the last days that I had with him.  I would say, therefore, that he did have a good death.

 

In the beginning…..

For the last few years, I’ve kicked around the idea (mostly in my head, although I did discuss it with a few friends and my husband) of starting a blog about moral theology issues that I see raised in the popular culture.  I’ve hesitated to step into the waters of the internet for several reasons — first, I wasn’t sure that I had all that much to say that anyone would listen too, second, I didn’t feel qualified to comment on issue of such ultimate importance to salvation, lastly, I suppose I was just afraid of looking stupid.   A couple of things happened this week, though, that convinced me that now might be the time to begin to put some of my thoughts on “paper” so to speak.

So, here goes……..