This past weekend, I found an injured mockingbird in my yard. It appeared that though he could move his wings, he did not have any use of his legs and could not fly. I got a box, put some grass and leaves on the bottom, and placed him in it. I got a little dish for water and another for bird seed. When I placed his head next to the water dish, he took a few beleaguered sips. It was clear that he was suffering tremendously, and that he would not make it much longer. It pained me greatly to see him struggling, and I thought about how I could possibly end his misery. I could not bring myself to take any of the actions that crossed my mind, however, so I gently rubbed his head and tried to give him some peace in his final moments.
Yesterday, someone told me that her neighbor had found two baby squirrels, and after leaving them overnight to see if their mother would return, she took them to her home to try to save them. She tried to feed them formula with an eyedropper, but they would not eat. She knew that if they would not eat, they would not live. At the time I had spoken to her, one of them had already died and the other was on his way. She struggled, as well, with recognizing the imminent death of these little creatures and wanting to end their suffering, but not being able to take any action to do so.
Reflecting upon these experiences rekindles memories of the time when my mother was dying of cancer and the discussions I had with her about ending her life. It angered my mother that our society felt that it was the right thing to do to put animals to sleep when there was no hope for their recovery, but that it would not allow humans to end their lives in a similar way. Why must she endure the intense pain and steady decline of her body as the cancer consumed her, yet someone’s dog suffering the same demise could be put gently to rest?
Though a part of me understood why my mother talked of wanting to end her life before the cancer did, I also got angry and hurt by the thought that she did not want to be in our lives for as long as she could, to see me get married, to see her grandchildren, to be there to stand by my side through all of life’s moments. At those times, she would cry and say of course she wanted to be there for me, but the truth was she could not be and she would not be.
No matter how awful that truth was, that was the truth we were facing, though each of us from very different sides. My mom had accepted her death, and I was still fighting it. On some level I knew she was dying, but the thought of living without her was so frightening that I could not accept it as a certainty. I knew my pain, but I did not know hers. I did not know what it was like for her to be dying, how awful the cancer felt or how sad, and undoubtedly terrifying, it was to see your health and your life slipping away.
There is no question that I wanted to have my mother around for as many days, weeks, or months as possible. At the same time though, it became increasingly difficult to witness the deterioration of her body and the agony she went through. There came a time when I knew that if she wanted me to help her die, I would do it. There came a time when I prayed to God to take her and release her from these Earthly pains, and he did.
This past week, I heard that Dr. Kevorkian had been released from jail. A family member of one of his “victims” expressed her anger that he was free and how it brought back the pain of the loss she had experienced. I do not know the particular circumstances of her loss, nor of the illness her family member suffered from or the reasons why that person chose to end their life with Dr. Kevorkian’s help, yet is seemed like she had not come to terms with her loved one’s wanting to die peacefully and under his own terms.
It is natural for us to want to keep those we love in our lives forever and to be angered when they are taken away from us, as we see it, prematurely. It is natural to be hurt that they might have chosen to end their lives before an illness does, for they have deprived us of precious time with them. It may seem to us that they are giving up, not only on life but also on us, because we want them to fight, and we do not want to let go. Yet, we must remember, that for them, death means something very different. While their death may mean the beginning of our suffering, it is the end to theirs. We can accept this with the animals in our lives, and we need to accept it with the humans as well.
My mother taught me that what may seem like giving up may actually be acceptance. That our mortality is something we must all face alone. That in the end, though we may share them with others, our lives and our deaths are our own.