Orthodox America

 Redeeming the Time Dying and the Orthodox Christian  

A Personal Reflection by Fr. Alexey Young

Last November 7, 1993, my mother died following a very long and hard terminal illness.  She had initially been given only six months to live: but God determined that she was to remain on this earth for two-and-a-half more years.  She died in the "old-fashioned" Christian way, letting nature-and God-take its course.  She was not hooked up to wires and tubes or respirators.  Nothing was done to either artificially prolong the process of dying, or to foreshorten it.  She did this by choice, even though there were plenty of doctors and nurses urging her to do otherwise. She died at home, with her family around her, praying.  She died the way monks on Mount Athos still die today; the way most people in "underdeveloped" countries still go to their deaths-in a natural way, with only minimum and appropriate medical support.

During the same period of time my mother was terminally ill, the media in this country began to "hype up" the "assisted suicide" issue.  We began to hear, on an almost daily basis, about a certain Dr. Kevorkain, otherwise appropriately nicknamed "Dr. Death."  Unfortunately, we are going to hear a great deal more about him as the media slowly tries to turn our culture in the direction of accepting suicide as a "basic human right."  And, as with so many other issues in this agenda (abortion, sexuality, etc.), the media is going to win this one, too, and the next generation will come to see non-suicidal death as "unnatural."  We know how this brainwashing works; we've seen it all before.

Another kind of person, someone who is not a conscious Orthodox Christian with the strong convictions of my mother, might have seriously considered the possibility of suicide, assisted or otherwise. Under other circumstances, the nature of her illness would have made her a prime candidate for "Dr. Death's" tender ministrations.  After all, she was suffering from end-stage diabetes, which created multiple strokes.  An invalid, she was completely bedridden the last six months of her life. Slowly she lost her sight and the power of speech.  She could not even move her bowels without help.  Because she remained mentally alert until the end, she knew everything that was happening to her.  With outside help, we were able to take care of her in our home until the moment of death-but this, too, was hard on her, to see her own children having to change their mother's diapers on a regular basis.  Her sense of personal modesty and dignity seemed to be cruelly taken away.

Her dying was not without physical pain, either.  The strokes affected the nausea center of her brain, and it was not uncommon for her to vomit several times a day.  Sometimes the vomiting was so bad that she hemorrhaged.  Ultimately, she refused food because she couldn't keep anything down.  She began to waste away.  As she did so, her muscles atrophied and her feet and toes began to painfully curl under,  It hurt her poor body dreadfully when we had to turn her in bed.  She also suffered painful bladder spasms because of recurring infections-the result of a long-term catheter needed because her own bladder was paralyzed. There was nothing anyone could do except to put her in a hospital with an IV-which would only have artificially prolonged the dying process. Recovery was impossible-too much damage had been done to her brain cortex by the strokes (or, as they euphemistically call them now, Cerebral Vascular "Accidents").  Mom would have been a delight to a Dr. Kevorkian. He would have been all too ready to "help" her end her suffering-having already "assisted" a number of people who were in far better condition than she was.  He would have helped her to see that her life no longer had any "quality."

Well, from the purely physical standpoint, she certainly had little "quality."  But there's more to "life" than just that.  Something else was going on inside Mom.  Something very, very important.  And that "something" had its own chronology, it's own "time-line."  It couldn't be forced, hurried along, or prematurely stopped.  It had to do with the spiritual work that God was doing inside her-a spiritual work that, I believe, determined her eternal salvation.

Nine months before her death, Mom converted to Orthodoxy, saying, "I don't know why I didn't do this years ago."  From the moment that she first began to receive the Life-Giving Sacraments-especially Holy Communion-something began to happen, to change, to grow within her, and God began His "work" on her.  Her sufferings now took on a special meaning: she was being refined and purified and made ready for the separation of her soul from her body and the ensuing encounter with the judgment of the Living God.  This could not have happened without her terrible and, at times, frightening illness. During her last six months she never once complained or expressed frustration about what was happening.  She accepted everything tranquilly as God's will-something she had rarely been able to do when she was healthy and something of a complainer.  In this way, her entire, long, dying process took on a meaning it would not have otherwise had. While she had less and less "quality" in terms of biological life, her soul awakened from its slumber and began to shine like gold.

About ten days before she died, Mom unexpectedly regained the power of speech for just a few hours and urgently told us how "a little, bearded old priest" had been appearing to her regularly.  Unbeknownst to her, we had been praying to Blessed Archbishop John to take her with him to heaven. When she told us about this, we knew that he had heard our prayer, had come to her bedside, and was quietly waiting for her.

But there was more.  If there were two obvious passions or vices in her personality, they were these: she was a heavy smoker, and she had always been over preoccupied with food.  She had never been really obese, but had been over-weight because of her inability-or unwillingness-to discipline her appetite.  As her illness progressed, however, she stopped smoking altogether and, because of vomiting, was unable to eat, becoming quite thin.  At last, by God's grace, these passions had been finally subdued, as though God were saying, "You haven't been able to take care of this on you own, so now I'm going to do it for you."

The rougher edges of her personality (something from which all of us suffer) were rubbed smooth, too: whereas, before, she had been quick to judge, and quick to express unasked-for opinion, she now acquired an almost ineffable sweetness and detachment.  She had never been a "difficult" person-she always had unconditional love for her children, even when we, as teenagers, broke her heart-but now everything in her personality that was even slightly negative or shadowy was stripped away, as she cooperated more and more with the grace-filled "work" God was doing in her soul.  It was as if, before our very eyes, day in and day out, we were watching her spiritual transformation.  After she drew her last breath, one of my sisters said to her: "You did well, Mom; you showed us how to die." This was our mother's last gift of love to her children: to die as an "old-fashioned" Christian "redeeming the time."

None of this could have happened if she had chosen the dreadful path of euthanasia (which she in fact never considered).  Yes, artificially ending her life would have foreshortened her physical sufferings, but it would also have deprived her of the ultimate and most important experiences of all, conversion, repentance, and transformation.

We Orthodox Christians who live in these last days are faced more and more with frightful "choices" and "new values" that make it harder and harder for us to remain on the Narrow Path. It is going to get much worse if the terrible spectre of "Dr. Death" is not firmly banished.   Where dying and death are concerned, a new agenda is being set for us.  Suffering does have meaning, if it is embraced under the Cross of Jesus Christ. And so we must know-if we don't already-what has been revealed by God and what we are to believe about these questions, before we find ourselves caught up in medical procedures and "goals" that are actually quite alien to our Orthodox way of life."