Category Archives: Death and Dying
Succinctly put, I am not in favor of the death penalty. Troy Davis, a man convicted by a jury of his peers for killing Savannah, Georgia, police officer, Mark MacPhail in 1989, died today by lethal injection, even though there were serious doubts about his guilt. The tragedy of Officer MacPhail’s death is compounded by the death of Mr. Davis, not alleviated by it.
The death penalty serves no purpose in 2011. The culture of the 1800s and before, and perhaps even the 1900s, allowed for such monstrosities to transpire; however in the 21st Century, can we still be so barbaric as to believe that a person’s death is going to have any result other than giving revenge to the victim’s family? There is no punishment in the death penalty. The individual would have had to live in a cell for many years had he lived. This way, he goes to his rest. The victim is not exchanged in this transaction and sadly remains deceased. As for the deterrent nature of the death penalty, a series of studies around the country, including one at the University of Colorado-Boulder, by sociology professor, Michael Radalet and Traci Lacock showed that criminologists around the country, to the tune of 88%, did not believe the death penalty served to deter anyone for committing murder.
I do not mean to suggest that we should treat our murderers and rapists to exemplary living conditions. Quite to the contrary, I’m a firm believer that those convicted of the most heinous crimes are provided too much by the state. Those who know my personal family history will attest that this may be considered an extremely harsh opinion coming from me. Nonetheless, the challenge is not even that an innocent man will be put to death, which I believe is also deplorable. My issue is much more basic: What gives any person in any position the right to take another’s life away from him or her. As a society, what does that say about us as a culture? Not much, to my mind.
I pray for the peace of Officer MacPhail’s soul, and for the likely impossible comfort for his family. I know that God alone knows the truth about Troy Davis, and it is God alone who should stand in judgment of his soul. That certainly is not my job. The jury who convicted him must answer to their mirrors and their makers if in their heart-of-hearts, they feel they made the wrong decision, because Troy Davis is now dead, and he is dead at their hands if he is indeed innocent.
No one’s violent and/or punitive death, except some might say the death of Jesus, has had much, if any, benefit to our community. We are all diminished when one citizen takes another citizen’s life through violence. It must stop. We must learn to find another way to punish those who have committed horrific crimes against others. The loss to our nation when we kill someone, even in accordance with the law, is permanent and tragic.
I haven’t much to say about 9/11, because like important events in my life that brought me great sadness, the difficulty with which I write about these topics is enormous. I cannot let the day pass without a few words, though, about the events of September 11, 2001.
That morning, at about 5:50 AM, I awoke with a start, as though I’d heard an alarm. I never awoke that early because I work in the theater, and I routinely sleep in after working late the night before. That morning, however, I grabbed my remote and turned on the television with a focus rarely felt that early in the day. I turned on the news to see flames roiling from the side of World Trade Center Tower 1. Moments later, I saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center Tower 2. I sat in bed, riveted to the images on my television as I watched in horror as the two towers tumbled to the ground, killing 3,000 people. I saw the attack on the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. as my confusion and grief grew even more. I called my future husband at his house and he was utterly distracted by watching these same events, so I hung up and watched alone until I had to get up to go into my classroom that Tuesday morning.
When I addressed the issue with the middle school and high school students in my vocal music classes, I don’t even know what I told them. I was in shock. I had just watched thousands of people die. I tried to keep these young people calm. We didn’t sing much that day. I know I couldn’t.
A few days later, the Sacramento International Airport contacted our school, a performing and fine arts academy, to ask if we would sing at the memorial. We, of course, agreed. My advanced singing group, Gateway Singers, assembled with somber countenance in the parking lot in front of the terminal. I cannot recall the songs we chose. The truth is, it is all a blur. It is a blur because I could not reason through these events. They made no sense to me and I was left with an emptiness in my heart for people whom I didn’t know,except for the fact that they were Americans. Soon, however, I would hear from people who knew individuals who died in the attack.
We sang together, we wept together, and we held each other as we realized how many families were affected. Those of us who performed at that memorial wore the 9/11 pins that we received from the airport. My heart was full for the small and adult children that were lost on that tragic day. As I put my arms around our weeping students, I couldn’t help but realize that parents, spouses, and children from all over the world, who had prayed in churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples, were gone from our planet.
I will never truly understand why the people who perpetrated this monstrous series of attacks did what they did. How they got to that point in their lives that they believed this was appropriate action to take will allude me the rest of my life. On a larger scale, I know that I do not understand violent war at all. I suppose I was born without that part of my functional mindset. I do not see a reason to destroy lives out of anger, fear, or retribution.
So, today, as we commemorate the events of 9/11, I will sit quietly, contemplating our loss, remembering the day in all its fuzziness, the quality that my brain has probably ascribed to the events to make them tolerable to carry for the rest of my life. I will gaze upon the pin I received for leading our young people ten years ago in lamentation, knowing nothing will make our ache better. Like all loss, we will bear these events as scars on our hearts, hoping we will never see the like of them again.
The one aspect that gives me hope in all of this is the fact that heroism appeared time and again during this process. People on the ground in New York City, the passengers on Flight 93 that sacrificed their lives to thwart the attack on Washington, D.C., and that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and many others who helped the the rescue efforts from around the country, showed their mettle that day. I hang onto that as my memory so that I can move forward. I never forget, and will likely always remember the grievous events of 9/11, but I choose hope for tomorrow to honor those who can no longer hope.
Over the years, as I’ve developed an understanding of my faith in God, I have regularly been confronted by fundamental religion as an extreme. Whether it be the Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or other faith, orthodoxy has alluded me. The question that regularly rises to my mind is, “How can anyone be so sure of anything?” I now find myself on the other end of the question, “How can anyone be so sure God doesn’t exists?”
A young man, who is like a nephew to me, recently became an atheist chaplain at a major metropolitan teaching hospital. Although this may seem like an oxymoron at first blush, after discussion with him, I, along with the head of the department for chaplains, realized this makes perfect sense. His belief in science and free-thinking is as strong as that of the orthodox individuals I know. The fascinating part for me is that I am now the one with the belief in a god that someone else cannot imagine exists. Agnosticism, at least, allows for the possibility for a god, as long as there is proof that this entity exists. Atheism, however, offers no possibility for the existence of a supreme deity, and thereby a relationship with that deity is not an option. His belief system is not my belief system; however, it is one with which I am extremely familiar. My father was an atheist most of the time, or an agnostic, depending on when you spoke with him. Dad and I had many animated, sometimes vitriolic, conversations about God.
As I look to my nephew, I see a peacefulness about him that I cannot understand. To my spirit, I cannot help but question how it is possible for someone to believe in nothing smaller than a quark or lepton, neither of which I understand at all, and nothing bigger than the universe. The only thing I know is that I love this young fellow and know that if this is the path he’s chosen, then it necessarily must be right for him. Although they never push their belief systems on me, I know my friends look at me with perplexed wonder at how a person reared as a Roman Catholic could have such an omni denominational faith. Inasmuch as my loving fundamental Christian friends would rejoice if I said I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior, I know I would be happy if Noel would find a faith in something larger than space. Perhaps, though, this might not be all together true. Would I want for him what he doesn’t want or feel he needs for himself? No.
The spiritual universe I sense informs my awareness that we are each responsible for our own lives, accountable only to ourselves and to our creator, whomever that may be… if any, given the belief system. So, how could I ask him to believe differently than his ethical and moral system tells him is right? I can’t. What I do know is that as he pursues his chaplaincy, he will encounter other systems of belief and faith that are not consistent with his own. That is why I gave him my thanatological research regarding death and dying in many traditions to supplement his already wide breadth of knowledge. The gifts he has as a vital part of a support system and as loving human being in the benefit of other people will be best illuminated by his knowledge of others’ traditions; even those he doesn’t espouse. He then can speak their language while remaining true to his own convictions. This is compassion. This in intelligence used on a personal level. This is my nephew.
I am very proud of this bright, joyful young man. He is a unique and very funny individual who brings rich laughter and deep thought wherever he goes. I know those he counsels, the individuals who are ill and dying, and their families, will benefit from his presence in unimaginable ways. They will remember his tender heart and brilliant mind, and the comfort he brings, long after their difficult journeys have passed.
Good luck, Noel. I am very proud of you!
It’s strange somehow to hear that Dr. Jack Kevorkian died. It’s like hearing that Sara Lee ate cake or Les Schwab had his car repaired. One rarely thinks that those who work in a field actually experience their work as a customer as well. Jack Kevorkian advocated for individuals to have the right to terminate their lives with the help of a physician if both feel their quality of life is at such a low level as to make that life no longer livable. He not only promoted this idea, but participated in physician-assisted suicides many time. Kevorkian had guidelines for this choice; however, they were much more liberal than any state’s that has passed legislation allowing physician-assisted suicide.
My father, a pharmacist and brilliant man, agreed with Dr. Kevorkian. After many conversations with Dad about Dr. Kevorkian and his beliefs, I know that Dad believed that if a person’s life did not meet the standards of quality he or she desired, or if an individual had a condition that would cause deterioration of his or her body or mind, the person should be able to choose death instead of suffering. He also believed that a physician had a responsibility to assist those who could not take their own lives if the patient chose to do so.
My father had a challenge with the chemistry in his brain that caused his mental faculties to progressively diminish. After his death, we discovered that his condition could have been remediated with medication, but my father did not want to be on that type of medication for the rest of his life. I suspect he knew the side effects would leave him different from the person he was before. The problem was that he had already changed dramatically, but because of his condition he could not recognize those changes. He honestly thought he was the same person he had always been. He was wrong. He had become paranoid, angrier, and posed a threat to himself and others. He made rash decisions and often spoke with vitriol when he felt slighted or ignored. We felt we could not discuss this with most people as it would further damage my father’s reputation. The community he served so loyally, respectfully, and compassionately over the years wanted nothing to do with my father as he grew more unpredictable and unpleasant. Our family understood their response, although it hurt us very much nonetheless.
Dad read Kevorkian’s book and learned about the options for suicide should his life take a negative turn. In 1999, my father’s worst fears became a reality. As his mental deterioration continued, our family decided we had to make a decision about placing him in a facility for his own safety and the safety of others. He was trying to buy a gun to protect himself from people he was certain were trying to kill him. No one was trying to kill my father. No one at all. Although we tried very hard to keep our plans from him, through an error at his physician’s office he found out. After a great deal of planning, on July 30, 1999, my father drove to a secluded spot in the mountains around his home, put a hose from the exhaust pipe to the back of his covered truck bed, started the car, climbed into the back of his truck, and there, alone, died from carbon monoxide poisoning. I suspect Dad chose this method to die because he read that this type of death was painless and fairly quick. In his meticulous planning, he sent a note to my mother that day telling her where he could be found. The next day, when the letter arrived in the mail at my aunt’s house where I had sent Mom to ensure her safety, Mom had the police and two of our closest friends go to the spot Dad described. He was there, dead, no gas left in the GM truck, and his mission accomplished. He did not want to live a life that was less than he dreamed. What Dad couldn’t see is that his death, let alone in this fashion, was not what we had dreamed either.
As Kevorkian lay in his hospital bed dying, surrounded by those he loved, listening to the classical music he so dearly enjoyed, I wonder if he thought about the lives he changed in which he may not have actively participated, but inspired nonetheless. I wonder if he understood the anguish of the parents, spouses, children, and siblings who have to deal with the choices these individuals made. It’s not Kevorkian’s fault certainly, but, at least in my father’s case, he played a role in my father’s choice.
In my faith tradition, suicide has spiritual consequences with which I, for one, would not choose to engage. I recognize that not everyone agrees with me on this topic. My father clearly did not agree. Neither did Jack Kevorkian. Although I’ve actively cared for people at the end stages of their lives due to cancer and other conditions, I do not claim to understand the depth of agony individuals experience at the end of protracted and savage illnesses. I can say that I understood from the outset why my father chose as he did, but it didn’t help ease the grief for us, especially for my mother.
The irony, of course, is that Kevorkian recently said that he was not ready to die yet because he still had missions to fulfill in his life. One might contemplate whether a part of Kevorkian’s karma is dying with his life ending unfulfilled. Perhaps for families like ours was in 1999, his unfulfilled missions are our blessing.