Looking back I wince at the memory of reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead to my dying grandfather. The arrogance of imposing those terrifying descriptions of the final deterioration on the faltering impulses of an old Jewish man born in Odessa and dying in Brooklyn! My brother, having arrived from California expectedly, found me transmitting the eerie incantations through a plastic straw that went directly into his ear. Michael had grabbed the book, looked at the title, and thrown it across the room, screaming, “Are you crazy?”
What I knew even then was that it violated the universe itself—call it God or grace or not—to disturb the dying with discord. Now, twenty years later I am nursing my mother and I want to get it right this time, this wondrous responsibility of bidding the dying farewell.
Yet my brother has arrived again, and is so filled with enthusiasm for euthanasia that he argues in her hospital room as if the bed is empty.
In the corridor I say, “It is not her suffering you want relieved but your own.” And I hear my righteous refusal to muster any sympathy for him. Insistently, he explains, once more, that the comatose victim of stroke cannot hear.
Locked into rivalry as old as the hills, I attribute his motives to nothing but self-interest—and passionately urge postponement, but with far less conviction than I let on. Does my mother now really have the same possibilities for awakening that I have? Or that Michael has? It is the only question. Do not speak to me of finance and other inconveniences. Just to know with certainty that her chances for clarity no longer hinge on a heartbeat. Only this capacity for realization is what separates us from dogs and for no other reason do the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas celebrate each precious human birth. Yet if euthanasia—like all other phenomena—is essentially empty of content, then what intention do I bring to it? And what of the prayers I intend to do day after day? Don’t they count for anything?
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