Last month millions of people from around the world were instantly beamed into the rapidly changing world of a young, vivacious and soul-baring woman who would soon decide that November 1, 2014, would be the day she would likely ingest a lethal pill that would end her life as she knew it.
I watched, transfixed and with tangled emotions as Brittany Maynard, 29, spoke into a camera, a smile seeping through while she tried to stop each tear in its track before it fully escaped her vibrant green eyes, but there were too many to chase. She explained her wishes for her soon-to-be-widowed husband to continue to move forward after her passing, to start a family of his own; a dream that the two of them were working towards before their journey came to an abrupt halt last April. Brittany was told that she would have six months at most to live, due to one of the most aggressive, insidious and fatal forms of brain cancer -- glioblastoma.
Like many, I began to feel invested, entranced and deeply affected by this young lady's journey. As a mom, wife, friend, and daughter, I couldn't help but attempt to mentally swap places with her in a distant effort to empathize with all of the roles she inhabited while facing imminent death, and reflect on a life-altering role she would sadly never realize -- motherhood. In a selfless yet agonizing interview, she explained through a cracked voice that she could no longer try for a family in knowing that the baby would be motherless.
Through extensive research about her condition and the end stages of it -- not far off on the horizon -- Brittany decided that she didn't want to live her final days and weeks suffering in excruciating pain or battling endless seizures, blindness, or paralysis. In the span of three months, her physical self had morphed into something she could no longer recognize as the medications to treat her pervasive symptoms had induced a 25-pound weight gain; an internal discomfort challenging to reckon with and one that runs far deeper than vanity. In one YouTube clip Brittany explained:
"I don't like spending a lot of time looking in the mirror and I'm not full of self-hate or loathing, it's just that my body has changed so quickly. You really kind of stop recognizing yourself in a way and that's very personal." While I watched one of Brittany's recent interviews, my three and a half year old daughter gazed over my shoulder, studied her for a few seconds and said, "she is so beautiful."
Brittany also struggled to sit comfortably with the idea that her family would endure the roller coaster of tribulation while they witnessed her 'deteriorating body and suffering' during her final chapter. Upon learning more about Oregon's Dying With Dignity Act (one of five U.S. states that permits it) -- an option for terminally ill patients to end their life at a time of their choosing with a prescription -- Brittany, her husband and loved ones uprooted from California to a little yellow house in Oregon where she planned to live as fully as she were physically able, until the end.
In the subsequent weeks Brittany continued to plow through her 'bucket list' as she blanketed as much of nature as possible, traveling to Yellowstone, Alaska and the Grand Canyon. Her outward appearance was deceiving as she appeared to be as physically healthy as any other woman of her age, but there was a war raging internally and multiplying exponentially and she was being reminded of that much more frequently through seizures, stroke-like symptoms, debilitating pains and periodic loss of cognitive functioning. After experiencing two seizures in a single day she explained, "I remember looking at my husband's face at one point and thinking, 'I know this is my husband but I can't say his name.'"
Brittany's mild yet confident voice in her videos, unexpectedly reverberated to the core of millions; many who pour their sympathy in abundance while others chastise her for her choice, labeling her path, 'without dignity,' or 'not brave,' or simply, 'suicide.' In reading some of the more respectful, thoughtful rebuttals and commentary in disagreement of Brittany's decision, I've been able to see a window into both perspectives, albeit I'm still confused and bothered by some of the abrasive backlash.
From my angle I see a woman who embodies an infinite thirst for life and exploration, a new wife desperately yearning to build a family with a man she is deeply in love with, and a determination to create a future abundant with rich memories -- not a woman who wants to die -- but as her body is ravaged by terminal illness, she is already on her way. So why are people so severe toward her; compounding the unfathomable, surreal abyss that Brittany already has to walk with and toward each second of her final days?
I tried to peel back the layers one by one to uncover the root of the opposing belief -- to sit in the shoes of those who feel so strongly that Brittany should wait until her final breath to pass and by no intervention of anyone else except the disease's natural progression. One word prevailed: Fear. It's often our own fear, propelled by a lack of understanding that fuels us to either recoil or allow the anger to rear its head. The society in which we live is ripe with trepidation about death and topics associated with it, especially as people such as Brittany actively choose to approach an imminent death in an unconventional way, enabling us to subsequently challenge ourselves to more closely feel the texture of the fragility of life and navigate its final chapter.
I've read some opinions that state regardless of terminal illness, bravery sits in the battle to 'live' until the last breath, no matter physical or mental state and suffering. Perhaps for Brittany, living was defined as laughing with her loved ones, walking in nature or being able to say her husband's name with affection. The cancer was already eroding these fundamental aspects of life that so many of us sometimes take for granted, but she could feel them escaping her more often and she knew that when her disease progressed -- likely just a few weeks in front of her -- that 'living' would be redefined and likely diluted to a rhythmic string of mechanical breaths.
A woman in the prime of her journey and eager to create new life, doesn't equate within our minds as the image of someone whose time on earth should be obstructed by disease within months of marriage, let alone become the face of Death With Dignity. Our instinct is to urge her to raise her weak, painful arms and fight even when the strength has left them; to stand up and persevere even when her legs will no longer allow it; to enjoy every rare, beautiful moment that's left, even when she can no longer feel them. Possibly, we fiercely advocate for Brittany to weather this course and criticize her for opting out of it a bit sooner, because we're afraid of our own road ahead and it stirs the emotions within, to a point it boils over.
The process of accessing the Death With Dignity option isn't as easily achieved as some might imagine. The journey is involved, requiring multiple physicians to attest to the severity of the terminal illness as well as the patient's mental health. There are several waiting periods in between verbal and written requests to DWD by the patient, and other measures in place to assess each individual case. Unfortunately, at present time the terminally ill would only have the ability to seek DWD if they have the means to transplant themselves to one of the five states that offers it. The Act went into effect in 1997 and of the hundreds of thousands of terminally ill patients that might have access to the prescription medication -- that would end their suffering should it become unbearable -- 756 have actually taken it.
Four days ago, on November 1, 2014, Brittany Maynard took to her bed -- that sat beneath a dollhouse-like window -- and as she had hoped and planned, passed away gently and peacefully, enveloped by her loved ones in the little yellow house in Oregon.
It's all too easy for us to say that we know with confidence, what we would do should we step into Brittany's shoes, but do we really? We don't have to agree with Brittany's choice to have taken her life quite literally into her own hands, ending it before the cancer's power took over. Nor do we need to consider DWD as an appropriate route in our own lives should the circumstance of terminal illness knock on our door. But at the very least perhaps we can extend our hearts in compassion -- opposed to shelling criticism -- for those who carry the existing burden of having lost the option to live at all.
Brittany's voice has compelled us to examine life and death with a magnifying glass. She has introduced us to new avenues that lead to the ways in which we experience our departure from this life but most importantly, she has demonstrated a graceful and wondrous way to live in the face of death and the twenty-nine years prior. Once we learn to wade through our own web of stifling fear, discomfort and anxiety that encircle our immortality, my hope is that we'll become more accepting of the process that others endure or choose, even if it looks different than the journey we're trained and accustomed to seeing.
Debbie Ziegler (Brittany's mother) described her daughter's character and penchant for adventure in an interview. She spoke with visible pride and a noticeably broken heart through each segment but there was one moment when she displayed a steel conviction and contagious calm -- her words were a ray of light that washed over me and still intensely resonate with me now: "It's not my job to tell her how to live or die. It's my job to love her through it."
Brittany's husband, Dan Diaz, similarly expressed his sentiment in the same video about the ways in which the recent months had affected his perspective.
He explained, "it sounds so cliche, you take things one day at a time but that's the only way to get through this. You take away all of the material stuff; all the nonsense that we all seem to latch onto as a society and you realize that those moments are really what matter."
"Seize the day. What matters to you? What do you care about? Pursue that. Forget the rest."
- Brittany Maynard (November 19, 1984 - November 1, 2014)