February is a month that will always remind me of my father. For my parents, Valentine’s Day was “their” day (no surprise, what with five children squawking in the nest) and my father, the great romantic, always had something special for my mother. February was also the month of his birthday (which, in 2004, he came to share with my nephew). And February was the month in which he passed away in 2012.
My father was 57 when he passed away, and many people have asked me if it was a sudden passing, such as an accident or heart attack – to which I must sadly reply, no. He went peacefully in his sleep after a long and arduous battle with both Parkinson’s and Ankylosing Spondylitis. It was so long, in fact, that I do not remember my father as the healthy, spry, and vivacious man that started our family in 1974. To me, Poppie was always stooped, shuffling, and shaking. However, to me he was no less a man or father than any other out there. Poppie was a man of great faith and wisdom. He had a strength of character than very few people in this day and age could hope to claim, and he was utterly selfless and entirely devoted to his family. And for somebody suffering from debilitating diseases, Poppie never uttered a word of complaint out loud. He never used his disabilities and illnesses as an excuse for anything, not even when most people would probably say that he had every right to do so. Surprisingly, he remained rather self-sufficient until quite literally the day he died, working slowly through unimaginable pain each day to bathe, clothe, and feed himself just so that he would not overburden my mother.
And while his physical strength had never been enough to carry me as a child – and, towards the end, to even embrace me for longer than a few fleeting moments – my father carried within him an inner strength that was able to shoulder the weight of my world, and that of everyone else in his life. My father had the courage and the faith to find something truly wonderful and good in the midst of his physical suffering.
At a euthanasia hearing here in Montréal in 2011, my father gave the following speech. This is his legacy to me, and it is not one of despair and self-pity, but one of hope and great dignity.
I’ve had Parkinson’s Disease since 14 years ago at age 42; shortly thereafter I was diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis, a form of arthritis that among other things, fused most of the upper vertebrae of my spinal column. Last summer I had an MI—otherwise known as a heart attack.
I know the physical pain and the mental suffering that go with those medical conditions: the feeling of not being useful anymore, the humbling reality of not being able to do the activities of daily living, the prospect of getting worse (especially with chronic and degenerative diseases) and being a continued burden on the family.
That said, I empathize with those who are in terminal stages and in severe pain. They face hard choices and at times are alone in their plight or feel they have lost or are going to lose their dignity and have become intolerable burdens for their families. But perhaps, a different outlook is needed to find meaning behind all this pain and suffering, a more positive outlook that I believe has already helped others to look at death in a new light and discover that euthanasia is not the only alternative to preserve one’s dignity.
These medical conditions are blessings rather than punishment. The pain and suffering are opportunities we get for offering them up for the intentions of our loved ones and friends.
Let me explain: It is a basic human instinct to help anyone in need, more so if the one in trouble is a loved one. The help can be either material or non-material, sometimes both. A non-material help can be just simply good wishes and keeping in mind the one in need of help. Whatever form it takes, helping someone requires giving up or offering up something of value because we have empathy, the desire to be united with the one who is in need. Even if we are disabled, and perhaps because we are disabled, we can be of much help to those in need by offering up for them the things we have that are valuable: our pain and suffering, the sense of isolation and desperation—and the greater the pain and suffering, the more valuable and effective our offering up becomes.
We can become an inspiration for our family and friends. Remember John Paul II – who also had Parkinson’s – and was universally acknowledged by the world which witnessed the last minutes of his life still doing his work for which he had great passion. Perhaps having the courage and the strength to live to the end without resorting to euthanasia would be the best legacy we can bequeath to our family. This is genuine dignity.
To all my fellow disabled, we should not feel useless and unwanted, for we are the treasures of humanity: treasures that are valuable and irreplaceable. We should not allow ourselves to be discarded like objects that have no practical value at all, that have outlived their usefulness and have become instead an unacceptable burden for others. We are the treasures of humanity which remind the world that despite the fragility of human nature and its inevitable mortality, the dignity of every human being is based on his or her right to be of service to others precisely through their pains and suffering offered up for the needs and welfare of their family and friends.