In the film The Shadowlands, C. S. Lewis describes facing the fact that his wife Joy has cancer as merely coming up against a bit of experience. My father is on a respirator and has been unconscious for over a week. He abused alcohol his entire life and has been in decline for a year and a half, but the onset of this episode was so sudden and devastating that my family has been forced to confront the possibility of his imminent death. My cell phone is working a permanent groove into my head right now, and I seem to have little time to read and write about daily happenings in the world of bio-ethics.
That said, I wanted to share something. One of my sisters and I were discussing my father’s condition. The doctors had tried to ease him off of the respirator to see if he could breathe on his own, but his respiration rate accelerated and it became clear that without aid from the machine he would stop breathing all together. The doctor told me they would try again today and see if it went better. My sister asked me, “How many times will they do this?”
“What?” I asked in response.
“How many times will they try to take him off and fail before they stop trying?”
There it was. I write about this stuff all of the time and talk about it to the great irritation of anyone who disagrees with me, but now my family and I were sorting these issues out for real. I am the official next of kin on record, so ultimately the doctors will look to me to provide answers. How hard will we try to preserve his life? How long will we fight? What is left of the man I once knew?
The fact that I have so thoroughly thought these matters through is of great comfort to me right now. His physicians are not oracles who inform me when my father’s life ceases to be of value. It is easy to see how we can make that mistake, though. Some people in my family are not so prepared and they hang on every word the doctor’s utter as if it will settle the terrible question that haunts us all. “Is this the end?” I have tried to calm the storm of misinformation and competing diagnosis that fly through the ether in the never ending barrage of cell phone calls by assuring everyone, “The doctors can’t answer that yet. They are telling us all that they know, but they do not know everything.”
It is my opinion that we do a disservice to the medical professionals by asking so much of them in this area. They should be free to diagnose and treat my father. I am then free to hold his hand and pray for him. I can reassure him while he sleeps that no matter what he has done to his body through alcohol abuse, no matter what he has done to our relationship through the choices he has made, his son never ceased to love him. And I will continue to love and cherish him as long as I live.
Never have the stark differences between medical/scientific knowledge and spiritual knowledge been so painfully and glaringly apparent to me. The doctors and medical professionals will give me a full assessment of his physical condition and prognosis. Then we, my father’s family, will make our decisions. They have their job, and it ought not to include telling us when our loved ones cease to matter.