A sixty-something man I know has been paralyzed for years, from the neck down, a result of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Whenever I’ve seen him, I couldn’t comprehend how he tolerated living like that. I’d say to myself, ‘I never could.’
When I saw the cover story in The New York Times Magazine this past Sunday, I devoured every word because it was about another man, also paralyzed from the neck down, from a horrific bike accident. An English professor, this 71-year-old gentleman is fed through an eating tube, breathes through a ventilator in his trachea, and uses a battery-operated machine that paces the movement of his diaphragm.
Often depressed and in pain, he still teaches a class, reads voraciously and loves his adoring wife, with whom he’s shared his life for over three decades.
His wife, a professor of philosophy who (coincidentally) writes about end-of-life bioethics, has always believed that a patient with a grievous or terminal illness had the right to determine how he or she would die. Suddenly, however, she wasn’t so sure how she’d feel if it were her husband who wished to die.
“Alongside her physically ravaged husband, she would watch lofty ideas be trumped by reality—and would discover just how messy, raw and muddled the end of life can be,” the article states. “’Can I imagine standing by while his ventilator was switched off?’” she told the author of the Times article.
While focusing on the confusion into which she’s thrown by her husband’s state, the article doesn’t address how the wife would feel if the roles were reversed. Maybe we can really never know, and if we’re lucky enough, we won’t ever find out what we’d decide if faced with the terrifying choice whether to live or whether to die.
Even if the Times piece made me a little less certain how I’d personally react to this nightmarish scenario, it’s also reinforced something I’ve been feeling for the last few years: We must thank God (or whomever you chose to thank) when we wake up each morning and consciously take our first breath. And we must stop self-pitying, complaining, whining, and all that other stuff that prevents us from enjoying every unencumbered breath after that one.