I was in elementary school the first time I heard the word euthanasia.
Sister Mary Something (whose exact name was lost through time) was at the head of our class describing her time in India. Of course, it was more than just a casual account of her journey. She was tactfully teaching the doctrines of the church during a social studies class.
She spoke candidly about her witness to the injustices of the caste system, the wretched suffering of children, and the widespread ravages of starvation and disease. Then when all the sadness and despair seemed to blanket the room in a shadow darker than the confining walls of purgatory, she gave us a glimmer of hope.
There was a brief pause while Sister Mary gathered both her thoughts, and breath. She felt blindly for the edge of the desk behind her and sat down cautiously like it couldn't support her burden. Then as if praying strength, Sister Mary clasped her hands tightly in her lap. Her eyes no longer traveled the room to intensify the lecture. Instead, she cast her gaze on a distant time and place in memory. Gradually, the divine face of mercy shrouded her troubled features, and she became remarkably composed.
"There is a practice in India," she said "where the suffering are spared from a painful death. It's known as euthanasia." She went onto explain that euthanasia was the mercy killing of the sick and incurable. However, it was a practice not accepted by the Catholic Church. That said, she turned away from the class and proceeded to write our new vocabulary word in large neat script on the blackboard.
I meticulously copied the phonetically pleasing word, not knowing that in just a few years I would be assisting in an actual euthanization.
Being a lover of animals, I was lucky to land one of my first after school jobs working for a veterinarian. But my dream of passing the hours cuddling puppies and kittens didn't survive past my orientation.
A cat was bought in with a very large tumor clogging her airway, and rather than allow her to suffocate naturally, it was decided she should be "put to sleep". I believed it was an appropriate and noble decision that unfortunately must be hastily made through a torrent of ambivalence and tears. I whisked the cat away in a blanket to the "backroom".
Being a teenager with some morbid curiosity, I couldn't resist attending the process. I stood by as the doctor gave her the seemingly benign injection. Almost immediately she went limp. But soon after, the cat with her fixed, glazed eyes, and tiny protruding tongue, seemed to shiver and twitch endlessly on the cold metal table where she was laid out to die.
Occasionally, the gentleman kennel attendant would pass by and give the cat a firm stroke of his hand. "Hey there pretty girl," he would cheerfully say.
I had been told that the cat was essentially dead, and that her quivering limbs were just lingering muscle spasms. So, I asked the man why he bothered.
His reply was simple, "If she's not dead yet, there's no harm done."
I noticed as he walked away that he had Sister Mary's familiar expression of sedate accomplishment, though at the time I couldn't understand how such a grim moment could be cause for serenity. Finally, through time and experience it all came together.
Early in my training to become a nurse we were given plenty of time to complete assignments. Since I had only one patient and four hours, I was eager to leisurely cater to the whims of a nine-year-old little girl soon to be in my charge, until I viewed her chart…the problem? She couldn't voice a whim if she wanted. She was in what has become widely known as "a vegetative state."
The lights were off when I entered her room. Unlike other rooms on the pediatric ward where screams indicated either pain or play, this room implied a kind of mute despair caused by an unjustified solitary confinement.
The little girl lay prone on the bed, alone in the dim light of a winter morning. Her wide and unfocused gaze was set on the ceiling above, entranced by the grid of a florescent fixture.
I clicked that light on. She responded with a jerk that began a whole range of random movements. Clearly she was awake on some level, yet I found myself going about my morning routine in complete silence. I wasn't ready to speak to the little girl, at least not until I had shored her up properly in a chair and swept her hair into a high ponytail.
When I was done there was a great sense of pride in how "normal" I made her appear.
I said my first words to her. Told her how pretty she looked. There wasn't a response. So, I put myself directly within her sight and repeated myself. Nothing—except for a gleeful twitch which caused her to slump further down the chair. I surrendered to a shameful thought. You know the one.
She'd be better off…
The little girl blinked. Her long black lashes fell gently over dark, sad eyes, and when they lifted I caught my first real glimpse into an innocent life paused in limbo. It hit me, whether I liked it or not, this was all the little girl had. And she deserved to be better off—living. Perhaps it's elementary that the only bad opinion is an old one. Now my opinion was fresh.
Obviously, a loved one chose life for this little girl. It was about time I did my part to help her live. I picked the girl up, sat her on my lap at the edge of the bed, and I rocked the precious little angel securely in my arms.
She looked up at me with her fixed and sparkling brown eyes. Her dainty pink tongue protruded slightly between a gap of lost juvenile teeth.
Then with one of the easiest smiles that ever crossed my lips, I said, "Hey there pretty girl!"