ESSAY- Terminal? More than breath required for 'life'

It's a good thing I'm not Irish, because if I were, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for me to ever again celebrate St. Patrick's Day. Not after what happened to me this past March 17, after I had returned from a breakfast interview.

Eager to get to my typewriter to transcribe my notes, I tripped, introducing my right knee to the concrete edge of an unforgiving curb. X-rays and an MRI revealed that the injury to one of the body's most intricate parts was devastating, and after three days in the hospital, I was transported to a facility for seven weeks of rehab.

The place where I received the required care and physical therapy is upscale, a fine Charlottesville facility. But the time I spent there was– and still remains– a period of trauma, not so much physically (although the pain in my knee was unrelenting) but psychic.

I was the only one there for therapy; the rest– 99 percent of whom were women– were permanent residents, living in tastefully furnished rooms. One of the nurses told me that many had been there for decades; some had no visitors. The average age, I was told, was 94.

Three times a day, those not confined to their beds made pilgrimages– via walkers or wheelchairs– to a common dining room. I chose to take my meals in my room, and did my mandated cane-walk when the halls were less traveled.

Although friends visited, brought me my mail, and brightened my room with flowers, my mood remained dark and despairing. I had torn my right knee– would I ever be able to drive again? Be free of pain again? Not need a cane again? Be my own free-spirited self again? The doctors' reviews were mixed and not definitive.

There was, however, an even more chilling fear. Was I previewing a production in which, one day, I might be the "star"? I'm a senior, a childless widow with no family. Would I end up, one unfine day down the road, like those who passed my room, most of whom had forgotten who and what they once were?

I lost count of the times someone wheeled or propelled herself into my room, mistaking it for her own. On one occasion– still so vivid in my mind I know it will forever remain– a woman in a wheelchair came in and started to get into my bed. I was sitting in a chair watching the evening news, and I confess I screamed, "This is not your room! It's not your bed!" But I was stupidly screaming at someone incapable of comprehension.

I slowly began to respond to therapy, and my mobility increased, but my fears didn't leave. Were I to become bereft of mind and memory, I too could be living a non-life. I too could be a mere shell, unaware and uncomprehending.

Yes, I have a strong medical directive, and the foresight to have made my intentions abundantly– and even redundantly– clear to my doctors, attorney, and friends. But should I not be terminally ill and thereby denied the humanity of Hospice, I might find myself a permanent resident of a facility similar to the one of which I write.

As a country, we do not recognize the cruel and unusual punishment of allowing life to be prolonged long after the very word "life"– let along its quality– has lost its essential meaning, its cognitive powers of memory and reason.

In our misguided, pious, faux pro-life reverence– and who can forget the Terri Schiavo horror?– we sacrifice dignity in favor of maintaining non-functioning shadows of former selves. I used to be pro-life, but years before my knee injury– indeed, years before the Schiavo spectacle– I underwent a change of heart and mind. Today, the sole procedure I oppose is partial birth abortion.

Those who condemn assisted suicide, those who consider euthanasia "evil" and contrary to God's will as sole determiner of life (and the end thereof), are undoubtedly sincere. Yet there is little outcry form them about the fact that we are the sole– ostensibly civilized– country not to have a national healthcare system.

To display what to me is a faith-based reverence for non-life– while denying coverage capable of prolonging productive life– is the kind of irony fine literature illuminates.

Life is more than inhaling and exhaling, whether with assistance or not. It is more than a body fed via tubes. To be alive is to be aware, a thinking, sentient being, able to fully respond to and comprehend the everyday joys and sorrows of life.

So why am I writing this now, when I have been home for two months? When I am able to drive, and when I believe the day will come when I am able to discard my cane? I write because my memories of the residents at the facility will not leave me. Because it is past time to confront the hurtful and callous irony of calling euthanasia "a slippery slope," of calling what is surely an act of compassion "murder."

I write because it is past time for acknowledging the truth that more than one's physical self can be terminal. Today we use the throw-away expression "move on" as a synonym for getting over it– whatever "it" may be. As a nation, we would do well to move on and join the growing number of realists who recognize the difference between people who are truly alive and those merely capable of enduring an incurable, twilight form of existence.

Wiring this has been cathartic, but my memories and anticipatory fear– mixed with equal amount of compassion and outrage– remain vivid and unsettling.

This essay marks the author's first appearance in the Hook. Longtime Charlottesvillians know that her writing credits include every other publication in town including, but not limited to, the Daily Progress, Albemarle, C-ville, and the Observer.


I lost count of the times someone wheeled or propelled herself into my room, mistaking it for her own.