A Faith Story – Part Six
It was Good Friday, 2018 when Tamara and Samantha, two sisters with very different life experiences, met to discuss the final arrangements for Samantha’s death and make sure everything was in order and ready. Tamara was a respected doctor with a successful career and fulfilling marriage with a husband who loved her very much. Samantha was a much loved mother and grandmother who had lived some of her life on the streets and had often struggled to stay alive. More times than she could count, Samantha had wished she was dead. Now, it was about to become reality.
Samantha’s disease had progressed quickly and she was now in the last few months of her life according to her doctor’s prognosis. It was an inexact estimate as such a disease might advance more rapidly than expected or possibly even take longer than expected. Either way, Samantha was ready to die and had enlisted her sister’s help. It was almost a year since the two sisters had reconnected after some thirty-five years of separation and one of the first things Samantha had asked of her older sister was that Tamara help her with medical assistance in dying. At first, Tamara had rejected such an idea, but after months of thought, reflection, and most of all, a very unusual conversation with Samantha’s then five-year old granddaughter, Faith, who was also very sick, Tamara had decided to accept her sister’s request. It had not been an easy decision by any means and Tamara had changed her mind more than a few times, so unsure was she of the right or best thing to do. Then, one day, the answer had come to her in what might be described as a burst of clarity or shining light.
Tamara had been sitting by herself on a park bench that looked out over a snow covered meadow with a frozen stream snaking through the middle of it in one of the city’s parks. Tamara had been wearing a winter coat as it was almost Christmas. She had been thinking about a recent conversation between her and her husband. A very intelligent and successful businessman with a great love for her, a genuine heart for all people, and a strong faith in God and the Christian message, Tamara had asked him what he thought she should do about Samantha’s request for help in dying.
Not one to make such heavy decisions without serious thought and deep prayer he had declined to give her an answer except to say she should make the most loving choice she could. He had also told her that he would support her in whatever decision she made, without any judgement on his part. One final comment had struck home with Tamara. He had asked her what she would want him to do for her if she was in her sister’s place. Would she want him to help make arrangements for medical assistance in dying or would she prefer to die in the hospice they supported financially?
As Tamara had sat on the park bench, she thought about his question. It was a hard one for her to answer and she had to admit she probably wouldn’t know for sure unless she was actually in Samantha’s situation. However, she was beginning to realize that she might very well make the same choice Samantha was. Did that mean she was a coward or brave? If she chose to end her life on her own terms would she be going against God’s will for human life or simply going along with God’s will for her life? There was no doubt that Samantha was going to die soon – her doctor’s had confirmed that. All the steps necessary for medical assistance in dying had been followed and adhered to. Everything that had to be done had been. One thing that had become clear was that Tamara could not be part of the process as she was too close to the situation to be objective, which was a huge relief for Tamara. However, Tamara could certainly be present at the time of death and support her sister through it. Samantha had understood this when it was explained to her and accepted it.
A small, brown bird had flown past Tamara as she sat on that park bench and she had watched it fly back and forth, finally landing on the bench she was sitting on, slightly out of her reach. It must be used to people, Tamara had thought, to be so bold. Just then a brown squirrel with a bushy tail had popped its head around a tree trunk a short distance from her. It had hesitated and then made a quick dash to her bench, also sitting a short distance from her. Tamara had wondered why the bird didn’t fly away. For a moment, Tamara had held her breath, not wanting to frighten either one of them away. Maybe they thought she had some food for them she wondered. The three of them had sat silently for what must have been a minute or two, until a shadow from a hawk or other large bird flying overhead had crossed over them. Instantly, the bird and squirrel had both dashed for cover, obviously afraid for their lives. They had not come back.
That’s when Tamara had her flash of insight. Either one of those small creatures could have been killed by that hawk, if that was what it was that had cast that shadow over them, if she had not been present. She had been their protector, without even being aware of it. Yet, it was also because of Tamara that they had been on that park bench, exposed to the hawk in the first place, if they were hoping she had food for them. With the simple act of sitting on a park bench, without any forethought or planning on her part, Tamara had put two of God’s small, vulnerable creatures in danger and then, simply because of her presence she had saved them.
Tamara had been struck by the fact that she had been playing God with these creature’s lives without ever intending to. Their continued life or sudden death had been in her hands. Yet, she had not intentionally done anything to make either one a possibility. Neither had she done anything to control the outcome. Both the bird and the squirrel had decided on their own to visit her on the park bench and sit there in plain view of any predatory bird flying overhead. Both the bird and the squirrel had decided to run for cover and safety when they saw the hawk’s shadow cross over the bench. Everything that had happened or didn’t happen to them had been because of the choices they made, even if those choices had been influenced by what Tamara had done when she sat on that park bench in the first place.
That’s when Tamara had come to her decision about helping Samantha with assisted death. She had suddenly realized that Samantha was in the situation she was because of choices she had made, even though she had made some of those choices because of what other people had done to her or hadn’t done for her. Tamara had realized that it wasn’t her fault Samantha had been abused as a child and neither was it her responsibility to save Samantha when she found out about it later. Samantha had forgiven Tamara when Tamara had asked for it, even though Samantha hadn’t ever told Tamara it was necessary. Tamara was finally ready and able to forgive herself for things she had never known about or been guilty of. That had been Tamara’s first burst of clarity.
The second had been the awareness by Tamara that she was not responsible for her sister’s life choices now, either. Samantha had been right when she had told Tamara that, like many doctors, she was playing God and she had to stop doing that. As a doctor, Tamara was committed to healing people and helping them to live as long as possible, not helping them to end their lives any sooner than they had to. Tamara knew that she was trying to do for Samantha what she had done for that small bird and squirrel – she was trying to protect Samantha and save her when it was not Tamara’s responsibility to do so.
Tamara had suddenly understood, or believed might be a better word for it, that God could very well work in the world in much the same way. Humans are given life through a very natural process, the same as any other animal, and make choices throughout their lives that might or might not put them in danger. When Tamara had sat on that park bench, her presence had drawn that bird and squirrel to her looking for nourishment. That choice made by them had put them in danger, but they had been saved from death simply because of Tamara’s presence. In a similar way people often feel drawn to God’s presence, looking for nourishment, only to discover sometimes that the choices they make put them in danger. Yet, God is always present with them, able to save them from their bad choices if they are aware and react appropriately. If that bird or squirrel had decided to ignore the hawk’s shadow and stopped on the white snow in the middle of the park, easy prey for a hawk flying overhead, they probably would have died on that day. Instead, they had made better choices and had been able to enjoy life for a while longer.
Tamara knew that life’s circumstances had given Samantha a bad rap, through no fault of her own, and she had suffered because she had trusted the wrong people. Tamara also knew that certain circumstances and people Samantha didn’t even know had saved her when she hadn’t known who to turn to and given her the chance of a better life. But it was Samantha who had taken that chance and done the right thing with it. It was Samantha who had dared to turn her life around and provide her own daughter with the love and nourishment she needed to not only survive but flourish. Because of those choices, Samantha’s granddaughter was now in the hands of professionals who might be able to save her life.
Tamara no longer believed in a God who would always protect people or make them successful if they simply believed in Jesus and gave generously to God’s church or other charitable causes. Instead she believed in a God who was always present, in both good times and bad times, ready to provide anyone who has ears that listen and eyes that see, with choices that will make their lives and the lives of others better. Tamara knew she was far from understanding how God worked in the world, but she felt comfortable with where she was at in her faith story.
And so, on Good Friday, 2018, Tamara and Samantha sat side by side, on that same park bench that Tamara had sat on, arms wrapped around each other, going over the details of Samantha’s upcoming death in two days, on Easter Sunday. Samantha had chosen this day because of its theme of hope and new life, even though she didn’t have anything to do with a church. They expressed their love for each other without words but simply by their presence together. Tamara promised her younger sister, once again, that she would look out for Samantha’s daughter, Sahara, and granddaughter, Faith. They sat there for a long time before Tamara put her arms under Samantha’s and helped her stand and make their way back to Tamara’s car.
On Easter Sunday, 2018, Tamara, Sahara, and Faith wept as a doctor provided Samantha with the substance that would end her life. Samantha slipped away peacefully, dying with dignity in the way she wanted. Tamara offered up a silent prayer, hoping that her sister was safe and loved in the presence of God.