Yesterday, lots of churches in North America recognized “Sanctity of Life Sunday”, reminding us of the tragedies which have resulted from the western world’s access to “free, safe, legal abortion.” And we need this reminder, and to rise to the tasks before us and fight it boldly.
But what I want to talk about is an entirely different kind of sanctity of life. And that is the sanctity of the lives of the elderly and infirm. We heard a story yesterday about a man named Richard Rudd who was deemed brain-dead after a motorcycle accident, and whos doctors and even his own father believed should not be required to continue living in his vegetative state, until Richard indicated by eye movement that he was still able to think and communicate. And so the decision to end his life was reversed, and he lives today, having surpassed all expectations for his recovery. You may read the story there at the link. His story may cause you to reconsider your opinions about who should be euthanized, and what is the best way for doctors to treat patients who appear to have slipped beyond the scope of rehabilitation.
In my own family, we have a story which is somewhat similar, and is very close to my heart. (I want so much to say that our story is better actually, though I am sure the Rudd family would take issue.) Many people have heard some of this story, a few have heard it all.
It’s the story of my mother’s stroke, which occurred on March 3, 2007. Actually, this is the story of how two grown children of a woman in a semi-vegetative state were faced with an agonizing decision concerning the life of their mother. I’m going to write the whole long tale here today in honour of Sanctity of Life Day, and also in honour of National Heart and Stroke Month which is in February here in Canada, and also in honor of my Mom.
Almost four years ago, my Mom went to church looking elegant and polished as usual. She visited around with all her many friends there after worship service. And then, at a scheduled seminar organized by the ladies ministry at that church, she gave a talk to a group of people who wished to offer care to elderly people. Her talk was on the subject of how we can best serve home-bound members of the church and keep them feeling supported in their confinement. I have the notes to her talk, which she folded into her Bible when she was finished.
Afterward, driving home, she failed to take the right turn onto her street. And a block further down the road, she careened over a median into a pharmacy parking lot. She then walked into the store, where she was able to communicate to them that she was in trouble and that she would like her son to be called. So those lovely people in that pharmacy in Arden, NC called an ambulance and my brother………… and got her some good help.
My brother was with her for the next 48 hours….and then for days, watching her spiral down hill and loose herself, her personality, her ability to speak, to comprehend, to move on the right side, and then to even respond at all. When I arrived from Canada two days later, I found that my young 73 year old gregarious, fun, fashion savvy mother was in an unresponsive vegetative state in the neuro-intensive care unit. She who had always looked so cute, so together, so spunky, alert and involved in the world around her was lying on her side in a fetal position, looking older than her own mother had looked at the time of her death at age 91.
This happens to people all the time. There comes a day when we lose our parents. But my brother and sister and I were so completely taken by surprise. I’m sure we appeared completely incompetent, and were the very image of the deer in the headlights. The ironic thing here is that my husband is a stroke neurologist, he deals with families like ours every day. We were living out an episode that he had done over and over again, only we were on the other side of the glass.
And he had flown to Norway on the day of Mom’s stroke……he was there celebrating his own mother’s 80th birthday. I really wanted to get through our crisis without asking him to cut his trip short and come rescue me.
In order to paint a clear picture of my own mental state, I have to include here the fact that when Mom had her stroke, I had a six week old daughter whom Mom had never seen, except in photographs. I had a bit of a crazy, obsessive desire to somehow persuade my mother to open her eyes and see my baby. I was advised not to take that baby into the ICU, but I would smuggle her in under my coat. Ever watchful for the nurses, I would then set this eleven pound lump of perfection down on the bed in front of my mother’s closed eyes and whisper “Mom, wake up and see what I brought.” Sometimes I would just beg her to come back. I was so afraid that she would never know her last grandchild.
And the docs, who wanted to be compassionate and helpful, told us that the best we could hope for was for Mom to be in a permanent semi-vegetative state.
She would never walk.
She would never know her family members.
And when Jon did arrive, he got a copy of Mom’s brain scans which showed a huge area of damage. He was even more pessimistic than her doctors, at least from a medical standpoint. The neurologist who was directing her care took me aside and suggested that I’d be wise to take her home, stop introducing food and water, call hospice for support, and give her plenty of morphine to keep her comfortable. He said it would only take a week or so, and then she would pass away. I think that I just expected Mom would die, and I was incapable of lifting a finger to assist. I did not want to be a part of helping her die.
But she had a living will, she had all the proper paperwork advising and allowing us to not pursue any means to unnaturally extend her life. Both my brother and I were a bit lost for a while there. In order to obey Mom’s wishes, and do what the doctors were recommending, we had to do something we really could not do.
For many of us, maybe for most of us, there will come a time in life when decisions have to be made for a parent or a spouse, maybe even for a child. And nobody ever comes into this decision with a clear understanding of all the facts and how they may come together in a predictable outcome. These moments are bewildering, and we cannot manage them alone. But it is such a lonely experience. There was something like a wind howling through my mind, and for three weeks I could not see what the best step was. My mom had a legal document all prepared, which left ample room for the decision to be made to stop feeding her. She had stated that she did not want to be left in a vegetative state.
There have been many many times in my life where I have felt that constant prayer was the only way to get through the day. But in those weeks, I found that I would pray through the day, then through the night. I could not sleep, and the weight of the decision seemed so heavy, I don’t think I ever even lifted it. I just sort of looked at it and said “Lord, please carry that, because I can’t.”
My brother and I could not let the legal document or the doctors lead us, we had to lean on Christ. And He did really carry us. There was amazing peace, comfort and grace because I believe God was waiting and ready and delighted to pour peace and grace on us…..and He always is when we confess our sins, seek His face with all our hearts, and pray in humble reliance upon him, obeying Him in all that we know, and walking in his ways. (2Ch 7:14, Jer. 29:13, Jas. 5:16, I Jn. 3:22).
None of us knows when these times might come. We cannot be entirely prepared for every possible eventuality. But I do think that we can be prepared to lean on Christ. I think that if we build that habit into our lives when there is no trouble on the horizon, it is a sweet and comfortable, natural habit to release yourself into His good care when the difficulties are too great to bear.
If you call out for insight, and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver, and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding. He holds victory in store for the upright, He is a shield to those whose walk is blameless, for he guards the course of the just and protects the way of the faithful ones. Proverbs 2:6-8
From infancy you have known the holy scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 2 Tim 3:15
We prayed and didn’t sleep much and marched into the hospital every day like zombies, looking for something encouraging.
And she opened her eyes, but she didn’t know who we were. We offered her food, but she could not swallow. We tried to jar her memory, but she was blank.
Then one day, as I left the hospital after another day with my unresponsive mother who was drifting away, I realized in the parking lot that I had forgotten the diaper bag. I send David, who was 12 at the time, up to grab it for me.
So David went, alone, onto the Neurology floor, to his grandmother’s room. He found her there with her eyes open. And he spoke to her. And she responded.
Minutes later, he returned to me at the parking deck, all bubbly and full of good news. He was saying to me that he had said to her, as he left, “Goodnight Dearie, I love you” and that she had responded very hoarsely “I love you, too.”
And did I say “Oh wonderful, so good to hear!” ?
No, I’m ashamed to say that I doubted him.
I said “Please don’t give me false hopes….” and I went to pieces right there in the parking lot. I was praying for God to work, but when I heard good evidence that He was working, I didn’t believe it. I could not accept it.
The same night, my brother looked at me with this intense look that only he can get, and announced…..it was like an announcement…….that he was going to pray for Mom to be brought to a full recovery. And I looked at him and thought to myself “Oh, my, He does not understand. He doesn’t get it. How can I explain to him that he’s asking for something impossible.” But I just said, “Oh, OK, that’s really bold.” I admired his faith……but I thought he was naive.
But I was wrong. Almost all of us were wrong. The doctors were all just so very, very wrong about my mother. And I was wrong about my God.
My mother did recover. She did fight her way out of that pit. She learned to swallow again. She learned to sit up again. She learned to walk, and to talk, and to take care of all her own personal needs as if nothing had happened. She has even learned to read a bit again. But it drives her bananas that she can’t drive anymore. But she does fly Delta, and that’s how she comes to visit us. And that is such a miracle! Not only does she walk, she can fly.
God did heal my mother. And I know that doesn’t happen in every case, and I cannot understand why we received so much grace and mercy in this situation. But what a gift it has been to my family and my children and to me.
And here is one of my most delicious, most favourite photographs. My mother and Maggie. They are great friends now. My mom says of Maggie “You know, she’s just like my mother…..” and I almost burst with thankfulness that she can recognize that, because I know Mom is absolutely right.
And here is my mother on her 75th birthday, eighteen months after her stroke. Isn’t she lovely!
Be well practiced in the habit of leaning on Christ. These difficult days…..whether they are similar or different…..difficult days will come . And the God of Christ is eager to carry you.
And just by the way, if anyone knocks on your door asking you to donate to the Heart and Stroke Association, I would say “Be generous!” It’s a worthy cause.