A Tsunami Cannot Be Drawn in Pastels: On Dignity and Suffering

When I was a little girl, our family knew a Frenchwoman. I don’t recall her name, but I remember her vividly. She seemed to me very glamorous and mysterious, forever wearing a too-bright shade of lipstick, smelling of a heavy overlay of carnation and a dim underlay of what I now recognize as vodka. She would always gravitate toward the children, where she joined in our games or (endlessly) corrected our accents as we sang “Frere Jacques.”

Part of what made her seem so glamorous was the suggestion about her that she knew something we did not know—that she had made an acquaintance with darkness and had never completely broken free of it. In retrospect, of course, there is nothing glamorous about that, but when you are five or six and you come to understand such a thing, you feel almost heady in your wisdom, included in something very, very grown-up.

The reminder that this madame had something bubbling beneath her too-gay surface was always the same. At some point of an evening’s cheer she would cover her ears to protect herself from hearing any bad news. “Ah, non. Do not say! It is too, too sad; I cannot bear it!”

Non, non,” she would insist, “these colors are too dark! Give me only the pastels!” When I was five or six, that seemed like a grand plan by which to live one’s life. It sounded wise, and sad, and true.

The Frenchwoman has been very much in the fore of my reveries lately. I hear her soft pleading when I turn on the television to see endless pictures of unspeakable loss in Southeast Asia and of the devastated tsunami victims. She echoes in every piece of “compassion-minded legislation” that purports to relieve suffering through the magic of government intervention. More and more frequently, I recall that tremulous “non, non—give me only the pastels” as I try to categorize the images of a much more personal tsunami: my brother’s impending death.

Through four months of shared caring, first at home and then in an excellent hospice, our family has been saying a long good-bye to a middle brother who is now lingering somewhere between heaven and earth. In that time we have shared moments of suffering with him, as well as moments of spontaneous and keen humor, which can approximate joy if one is looking for it. There have been evenings full of grace, both the natural and supernatural kinds, most particularly on a night when our brother’s room seemed suffused with a gentle light and with a pleasing, indescribable scent that one experienced nurse identified for us. “We call that the scent of heaven,” she smiled. Amid such circumstances, and with our brother still able to talk with us, to pray with us, and to share his thoughts and feelings, it was not difficult to feel some awe at the whole process of dying and to find an appropriate pastel-shade with which to regard it all.

That has changed, of course, as we knew it would. Over the past two weeks our pastels have been used up, and as I make the journal entries I feel compelled to write, it seems as if only the darker shades remain. After months of lingering on the periphery, our family has finally and fully stepped into the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrows. “Non, non, it is too, too sad… I cannot bear it…”

No, I cannot yet bear to write it. It is too, too sad. Yet the images churn inside me, begging release, and there are so many of them. We have watched efficient nurses administer pain medicine to my brother and then, with eyes brimming, give him sound kisses on his forehead. “I don’t know what we’re going to do when he leaves us,” one nurse choked to me, “we all love him so, and it’s not going to seem right without him here.”

Another nurse, her shift ended, was discovered sitting by his bed in the wee small hours. “I just wanted to keep him company and pray for all of you,” she offered. Our brother has lately gone quiet. He moans and coughs. When he does speak it is a word or two, soft and hoarse and largely unintelligible. Our visits are less conversational. The time of sharing memories and managing a smile or two is past. Now, it is all about stepping outside so that our brother can be turned and resettled, stepping back inside to help him eat, stepping back outside while he is turned again.

Many would contend that what life our brother has left is only pathetic, a life of suffering and sorrow, that counts for nothing. Many would say it. What I say in response is this: My brother’s life today is exactly like his life ten years ago. It is huge, it is love-filled, and it is fraught with humanity. It is the life he has.

The Way of Sorrows is the Way of the Cross. It is a process of being open to, and acknowledging, and fully living through those times in our lives when we know humiliation, or hardship, or failing, or shared suffering. One of the stops on the Way of the Cross is entitled “Jesus Meets His Mother,” and we have seen that powerful image played out over and over in these past weeks.

A few days ago, I watched as Mom fed her dying son his supper, patiently holding small spoonful after small spoonful to his lips, encouraging him to swallow and take a little more, offering him a drink, dabbing at his lips. Occasionally, watching him do the hard work of simply eating, she would shake her head sadly at his condition, then she would offer another bite.

I watched this unshrinking woman—a woman who, ten years ago, would have told you that she could not possibly endure such a reality—feed her son a pureed meal from his dish, while she nourished him—and the rest of us present—in a completely different way, with her unconditional love. Forty years ago, she had fed her son as she feeds him now; back then it was a delightful game, now it is a heavy sadness. But both meals had been flavored by the constancy of her love.

This is no image in pastels. Nothing this heroic can be portrayed in pinks and yellows and blues. Only the starkest of colors, boldly cast, can be used to relate what we are seeing. Recently, we stepped outside—once again—to allow the nurse to turn her patient in his bed. We know she used the utmost care and delicacy in handling our brother, and yet we could see, upon re-entering his room, how exhausting it had been for him. I stood at the foot of the bed and saw his face as Mom drew near. Too exhausted for words, he reached for her and she took his hand. His eyes saw only his mother, and they said, “Mommy…oh, my Mommy,” and her eyes said the rest: “Son…oh, my son.”

But this is too sad… It is. Oh, it is. Life is so very sad. And so very beautiful. Some will scoff: “Beauty? What beauty? What kind of sick mind can find beauty in this pathetic pietà? It would be more beautiful to assist your brother in ending his suffering. Real love has nothing in common with pain. What is to be gained from all of this beside some medieval Catholic satisfaction in suffering?”

I can only answer that question with a question: Do you think that giving my lionhearted brother a “compassionate” needle would truly lessen our suffering, or his? By cutting short the process, do we step off the Via Dolorosa and avoid it all, or do we merely thwart a plan for our own lives? Should we steal from our brother the opportunity for him to reach out a hand and have it immediately grasped, to have everything about his existence affirmed, over and over?

Should we steal from ourselves the opportunity to love?

What has been gained here? Brothers and sisters and cousins and friends who had been supremely caught up in the seemingly critical issues of their own lives have brought those “important” issues to a screeching halt, and they have come together to help our brother, and each other, through these last months. We have all gained the understanding that our love for one another is not as buried as we had perhaps thought. We know, now, that no family or friends will be left behind. We know that if any of us become ill, our ordeal will not be a lonely one we all understand that we have enormous value to each other. And we know that if life becomes difficult, no one is going to be “put down” as a matter of expediency. These days, that is a tremendous message to gain.

We have witnessed each other’s strengths and weaknesses and have learned to respect the one and forgive the other. We have gained knowledge of our brother that has moved beyond the superficial and headed into the supernatural. Along with the early pastels, we have used bold colors with him, because it is a bold and courageous thing to say, “Yes, I will walk this hard road with you, for as long as it takes,” and not to go wailing off into the night, hands over the ears, pleading for someone to take it all away, and somehow to make love, and life, pain-free and easy.

We have learned that the strength to do things we never believed we could do resides within us. Or, as a better, and better-known, writer has put it, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

It is not a popular notion these days to be comforted by strength. Perversely, strength—in matters both political and personal—is seen by too many as something threatening and boorish, lacking nuance. But we now know we are strong, and there is tremendous nuance in that strength, because it is strength born of grace.

Living is not easy. Nor is dying. And the great paradox of love is that for all the joy it brings, it also brings pain. Love and pain cannot exist exclusive of each other, and joy fits itself, somehow, between the two.

It is said that God does not give us more than we can bear. That is not merely a pretty idea. It is, in fact, an answer to the paradox of love and a clue to how genuine indeed is the holiness of life and the limitlessness of human potential.

We have been trained in the secular world to disregard life as something holy and to understand that our human potential is inextricably tied to our personal freedoms and our domination over those uncontrollable matters of life: death, pain, and joy. This is a great deception. The truth is, just as human expansion upon the earth depended upon someone being willing to explore those uncharted waters marked, “Here be monsters,” our human potential can only grow when it is open to exploring the Unknowable. The vehicle for that exploration is faith. If the monsters of life are pain and suffering, fear and doubt, moving through them is what leads to discovery, growth, and—yes—holiness. God does not give us more than we can endure, but we cannot ascertain on our own precisely how much strength we possess.

It is impossible to explore the depths of our potential, or its limits, if we steadfastly refuse to take the journey. But increasingly, that refusal is being regarded as wisdom.

In the United Kingdom, the House of Lords has proposed a bill to promote assisted dying for the terminally ill. The bill will “enable a competent adult who is suffering unbearably as a result of a terminal illness to receive medical assistance to die at his own considered and persistent request….”

On the surface, this seems like a humane idea; why not allow the terminally ill to choose when and how they will die? In the weeks prior to the public debate on the legislation, prominent members of the British press and certain politicians worked at guiding public opinion toward support of the bill. Journalist Polly Toynbee, writing in the Guardian about her mother’s wish to end her ordeal with cancer, throws angry barbs at “the cult of the natural,” which includes “the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Roman Catholic cardinal together claiming ‘the respect for human life in all its stages is the foundation of a civilised society.’ That is a religious view humans must endure, whatever their creator ordains. But 80 percent of the population don’t think the dying should suffer beyond what they can bear.”

Right behind Toynbee’s pained essay came Baroness Warnock in the Sunday Times announcing, “One of the things that would motivate me [to die] is I couldn’t bear hanging on and being such a burden on people…. I don’t see what is so horrible about the motive of not wanting to be an increasing nuisance. If I went into a nursing home it would be a terrible waste of money that my family could use far better.”

Both women pish posh the idea that, in suffering and death, something greater might be at work than what our limited, earthbound sensibilities can comprehend. Neither cares to look at how such a law might allow “assisted death” to become routine whenever someone deems that another’s life is really not worth living.

Neither woman pauses to consider whether “assisted death,” much like abortion, serves to cut off avenues of love before they are fully traveled. Nor do they seem to grasp what the “cult of the natural” and the “religious view” have been trying to teach: that life brings love, and love is God; that life interrupted is love interrupted, and love interrupted is God interrupted. Nor does either woman wonder what or who is served by such interruption.

This is a bill, and a mindset, that scream out: Give me only the pastels! And the only things that can come of them are a terrible social weakness that thwarts the means by which we may grow and be strengthened—and a graceless and ignoble cultural death. For there is nothing noble or courageous in “not being a burden” on the family and finances, as the baroness recommends; rather, nobility is found in the humility of allowing oneself to be sick, in allowing others the opportunity to minister and grow through you and your ordeal. And while I cannot gainsay Toynbee’s grief regarding her mother’s death, I cannot agree with her that a quick injection could have put a better face on her mother’s end-of-life experience.

I have read that in Holland, where human beings are routinely “assisted” to their death, some feel that closure is achieved by families as they gather about a loved one to say farewell before the injection is administered. I cannot help but wonder if that is genuine closure or an easy illusion. So much that is unutterable can be expressed in the clutch of a hand at a quiet bedside. Deep calls unto deep. Can it really be so very cut and dry as the proponents of death suggest?

Did I mention how the Frenchwoman of my childhood came to her end? Not much to tell. There was nothing noble in her death, nothing glamorous or wise. Too many pills, too much vodka. Was it suicide or an accident? We never knew. I gathered, from the tones around me, that such an end was not really much of a surprise. Nor is it surprising that this death-embrasure movement called “assisted death” is gaining momentum in Europe. Increasingly, the mood there seems to be one of pastel expediency; the proper response to hard realities and difficult situations has become two carefully placed hands over the ears and a faraway glance—”No, no…it is too, too sad… Don’t make us look; don’t make us feel; don’t make us engage. Whatever you do, don’t make us get on that damned Via Dolorosa anymore.”

After the terrible tsunami of December 2004, the archbishop of Canterbury said something that the world really needed to hear: “We can’t see how this [tragedy] is going to be dealt with; we can’t see how to make it better. We know, with a rather sick feeling, that we shall have to go on facing it and we can’t make it go away or make ourselves feel good.” It was an admission that standing before the mysteries of grace and life and pain and love, one feels very small and looks to faith.

Unfortunately, the headlines ignored that wisdom for the more sensational lede: “The Asian tsunami disaster should make all Christians question the existence of God… [writes] the Archbishop of Canterbury” and that bleak and unhelpful message was the one that traveled the globe. One sees such a willful distortion of a statement and understands that post-Christian, postmodern Europe has grown weary of being strong. She is nestled in the dark arms of the culture of death, reaching out for a pastel-colored injection that feels like love to her.

And so she will soon die, but it will be a lonely death, with the best possible face put on her demise. An accident? A suicide? Who can tell? As foolishly moralistic America still debates abortion and resolutely refuses “assisted death,” Europe is a sad Frenchwoman in bright lipstick, sipping a drink and crooning the torch—and endlessly, endlessly, correcting our accents.


  • Elizabeth Tecla Mauro

    Elizabeth Thecla Mauro, the author of The Way of the Cross in Times of Illness (Liturgical Press, 2004), writes from New York State. Her much-loved brother passed away on the morning of January 14, 2005.

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