For weeks now the world has followed Brittany Maynard’s story of life and death. Regardless of where you stand on the issue of right-to-die, there is much to be learned from this young woman’s passion for living. By facing her own imminent mortality, Brittany Maynard gave herself and her family the gift of living.
She did so by making the quality of her days count. Each minute. Each hour. Each day. She traveled and read and triumphantly lived her bucket list, all with a clear mind and open heart. She loved her husband. Her dogs. Her family. Her friends. She loved the world and was brave enough to accept that while she did not want to die, she would in fact die within months from the incurable tumor that had lodged inside her brain.
We go where we need to go. For Brittany Maynard, that meant choosing to end her life while she was still mentally and physically able. For others, including my first husband Brett, who died of a different kind of brain tumor (a medulloblastoma) in 2004, this meant fighting until the last true moment. That moment came nearly six and a half years after his diagnosis when a grand mal seizure landed him in the hospital for several days. He’d had it all—surgeries chemotherapy, radiation, gamma knife, an Ommaya reservoir, palliative care, you name it. By now his bucket list was simple: he wanted only to go to work each day so that he might continue providing for his young wife and toddler children.
But there would be no more going to work for Brett because now he was falling against the walls in our New York City apartment even with his cane. So what did he do? He picked up his briefcase and imagined working from home.
We battled over Brett’s desire for normalcy because it clouded reality. He was a dying man and couldn’t he please just stop and spend whatever time left being wholly present to his life and death. Couldn’t we please just acknowledge our fears as husband and wife and parents? Couldn’t we please have the conversations about where he wanted to die and what kind of funeral he wanted and where he wanted to be buried?
You see, I’d already buried him hundreds of times in my head, a natural response to premature anticipatory grief, so, really, couldn’t we just have these end of life discussions? As it happened, we spoke none of this…even though Brett did manage to do the toughest thing of all, to write a letter to our twins.
Brett died at Calvary Hospice in February 2004 in a script I would never have written.
“I don’t remember all the tiny moments of that day, or how it came to be that a crowd of seventeen shared your death…At the time, it felt wrong, the idea of all these people witnessing such an intimate moment…They circled us like a halo, the force of their gentle chant building. ‘Let go. Let go. Let go.’ The room quieted…’Let go, let go, the chorus of angels began again, softer now. ‘Let go.’ You died in my arms at 4:45 p.m…Some time passed. I can’t say how long but when I looked up from the bed I thought I saw a shaft of window light fall upon the room.”
I am of the belief that there is no right and wrong when dealing with a terminal illness. Who are we to judge another’s decision unless we walk in their shoes?
We go where we need to go. I didn’t learn this lesson until long after Brett died. This is why I’m so struck by Brittany Maynard’s courage. Because she was able to give voice to her fears in ways I couldn’t have pictured my young self doing. Which in no way casts blame or shame on Brett or me; we managed as best we could, and in the years since Brett’s death, I have worked hard to integrate the whole of my fractured story into one.
My own experience has taught me that we have to be brave enough to face uncertainty and adversity, and to hold all the dualities of joy and sorrow, health and illness, past and present, and life and death together. Anyone who has faced loss – which is everyone – understands that all these paradoxes co-mingle.
We have to be brave enough to have tough conversations, and to put ourselves on the path of living every day.
This I know: the best way to memorialize a loved is to choose life. In the light of Brittany Maynard’s death, live bold. Write the narrative you want to live for today. And please, please live it well.