Late last Monday night, my mom and I were driving home from my cousin’s Catholic confirmation, which had been at a church about an hour away from where we live. I’d been her sponsor. David was home with the children, having tucked them into bed hours earlier. Mom and I were about five or so minutes away from my house when the headlights of a truck appeared in my lane. We’d been talking, and my eyes play tricks on me at night, so at first I wasn’t sure. But we were on a road that’s getting a lot of construction, so there are big boundary barrels and lane changes along the part we were traveling. It’s a confusing road to drive, even in the daylight, so I usually avoid it, but I figured that at 10:30 at night, traffic wouldn’t be quite as bad. I stopped talking, squinted at the lights ahead of me, and my heart dropped. I felt myself get very, eerily calm. Yup, was my first thought. The truck had missed the turn of the lane and was now traveling straight into mine. My second thought was, Dave and the kids. My mom. THE KIDS. The truck was approaching quickly and steadily, like he’d no idea I was there. How did he not see me? Why did he not move over?
I took a second to assess my options (very calm, indeed, don’t you think?). I was going entirely too fast to pull some Fast and Furious action, but it had to be done. To the left of me was the opposing lane and a curve of grass that ended in a hill right at the shoulder of the road. I was worried about hitting any cars that had stayed in the proper lane, and then the hill itself. To the right was a series of those big construction barrels and equipment along a shoulder that was jagged and torn up. I picked my poison and swerved right, aiming the car in between the barrels, where there looked to be plenty of room on the wide shoulder behind them. But the drop onto the shoulder of the road made my wheels change direction, and in a split second we were headed straight into a barrel. If we hit it my mother would have felt the force of the impact. My mom. So I swerved back onto the road. The other truck was still in my lane. I saw the headlights. My mom, I thought. My kids. Mykidsmykidsmykids. And I swerved right again. This time I managed to clear the space in between two barrels and came to a screeching halt right in front of a big claw contraption. The instant the inertia set in, I looked up to see the truck, still in what had been my lane, switch into the right one the moment he passed me. There was a car immediately behind him. So if he’d hit me, there’d have been another car that would’ve have plowed into the both of us.
I looked at my mom, who still wasn’t quite sure what was going on. And then I burst into some sort of hysterical tears.
This happens to people all the time, I know. But I’d never seen a car’s headlights heading right at me before when I was the driver of a car traveling fifty miles an hour. My family feels like its grown so, so small, and all I could think, in that moment, was that my entire immediate family–the one I was born into, the one I gave birth to–was connected to the two people in that car. Me. My mom. Poof.
This happened the same day the news broke out in full force of the death of Brittany Maynard. While it seemed that everyone on social media was cheering her “courage” and “bravery,” I definitely I felt…uneasy. I didn’t know Brittany Maynard, but she was capable of reducing me to tears.
She chose to die on her own terms, they said. And all I could think was, no she didn’t. If she was to truly die on her terms, I’d bet that she’d want to be old, really old, and go in her sleep, knowing she got to see her children and grandchildren grow. The cancer determined the terms. She just moved up the deadline.
She got to die with dignity, they said. And that just pissed me off. What does that mean, “death with dignity?” So they’re telling me that the person who suffers from cancer to the true end, the one who dies in agony, the one who fights through chemo and radiation and the fear and everything else that goes hand-in-hand with terminal cancer has a lesser death than others? Are you kidding me? I watched my dad die from cancer. It was horrible, horrible, horrible. It was not what I’d expected. It was frightening and terrifying, and my God, I will tell you straight up and down that in no way did my dad deserve to go out that way. But I will also tell you this–and yes, I have a faith to fall back on–was that there is no doubt in my mind, either, that there was a whole lot of behind-the-scenes supernatural action going on during that time. And that, I know, is something that I would never want to take away from him. Maybe he had to fight to get to that point. Maybe he didn’t, and death is just terrible. But honestly, there’s so much pain involved with creating life, I don’t understand why people think losing it is supposed to be a walk in the park.
I thought of the person who prescribed the deadly dose of barbiturates and wondered what kind of doctor thinks it’s okay to end life rather than sustain it. Hippocratic Oath, my butt. “It’s my right to die peacefully!” people shouted. No, I thought. No, it’s not. It’s not always about you.
I wondered what’s going to happen to her husband and family after this, how they’ll feel once the dust settles. I read that each of of them planned to open up one of the capsules containing the drug and mix it into the glass of water that she would drink. Will they still feel grateful that they were able to give Brittany what she wanted? Will they regret having a hand in it? I just…wondered.
I talked to David about it that morning, and I asked him what his gut reaction was when he read the news. I’d been going through Twitter, reading tweet after tweet congratulating Brittany on her brave exit. He said that he wasn’t judging her. And that’s the thing–those of us who are healthy have no right to judge those who are sick and in pain and frightened. He said that he was just…sad. Sad that she was in that much pain, or that frightened of pain, that she felt this was the best way out.
I’m not mad at Brittany Maynard. She wouldn’t have cared if I was, anyway. She was in a place, physically and mentally, that most of us don’t want to even imagine. I hope that she has found peace. I hope that her family can find peace. When I think about what she was facing, I am terrified. I think I’m really just mad at the death-watchers, the people cheering her on. I’m angry at a world where people demand so much–of their children, of themselves, of their Netflix choices–that their insistence on getting their due extends to even death.
I think of myself as a mom, and a daughter and sister and wife. I think of my children, and my gut instinct is to urge them to live. Live, live, live, fighting tooth and nail and up and down, all the way to the end. Do not go gentle into that good night, my children. Just live. As much as you can, in the face of the dying, milk the very last drop out of this life if there’s still more left in the bottom of the cup. A funny thing happened that night the truck accidentally played chicken on the road. It wasn’t the thought of my death that freaked me out the most. My fear was for my kids and my husband, my brother and me, losing one of their own. Death isn’t always about you, as I said. It’s also about those who love you.
The thing is, I say this as a healthy person. I say this as someone not having seizures every day, or suffering in agony, or facing the prognosis of an end that is scarier than I can even fathom. But I come from two families that sort of have cancer in their DNA, so who knows what will happen down the road (get it?! The road?). I’d rather not look that far down at the moment, thank you. Because for now, I am lucky. So I do not judge. I cannot judge.
All I get to do is live.
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