Dying naturally is NOT undignified: What we can learn from Brittany Maynard

This is one of those blog posts where I’ve written the first sentence about thirteen different times and I’ve deleted it just as many times. Here goes sentence number fourteen.

I think it’s because deep down inside I dread talking about something that bothers me, even when the rest of the country stands as advocates. I sometimes worry about hurting families or saying something that will be misconstrued as, “Well, that blogger is insensitive.”

Because, in all honesty, this is a sensitive subject. In all honesty, it broke my heart just as much as those who agreed with her decision. Brittany Maynard has been the topic of debate for some time, and just last weekend she decided to go through with her decision to take her own life after she was given the grim diagnosis of a rare form of brain cancer. Death would be slow and painful, doctors said, so she packed up and moved to Oregon and decided to use the “Death with Dignity” law.

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Her story is a painful one. And it brings me back to just last year. Around this time last year my Dad had just begun hospice. His diagnosis was just as grim as Brittany’s. I will never EVER forget the sound of his voice. The way it had changed. The coolness of his veiny hands and the sunken dips of his eyes. I won’t forget the doctors telling us it would be slow and painful. And I won’t forget dad nodding as they said it, telling us with confidence that’d it all be ok.

Towards the end, just like Brittany feared with her own death, my Dad lost touch of the world. The things we saw and the way we’d muffle our tears as we assured him we were close was anything BUT the character of my Dad. But even then–my Dad was never undignified.

And that’s what brings me to the point of why I’m writing. “Death with Dignity” implies that dying by the hand of cancer or another fatal disease lacks honor. It implies that people like my dad–who get to the point where clothes bother them and memories of fishing when they were twelve become “reality” and their children do what they can to clean up the mess in the bed sheets–suddenly rid themselves of the dignity they once had. And that infuriates me. Death is not undignified. And neither is suffering.

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I sometimes lay awake at night thinking of the fear that my Dad must have had during those moments when we were asleep around his bed but he just watched the hands of a dying clock. I can’t imagine the finality he must’ve felt. The terror of what it might feel like when his heart decides to stop. And with Brittany, I can’t imagine it either. It’s a subject that I’ll never grasp unless it’s my turn.

But even still. There are thousands–millions–of people who live out each second every day. Millions of people who suffer and still thank God for every day that they wake up and see the faces of their children. There are countless souls who get handed a fate that would make anyone’s heart weak, but they face it with dignity and grace. Not one of them is undignified. Not for a second.

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I feel uncomfortable saying that Brittany chose wrong. Even though my religious background and my discomfort with “suicide worship” makes me want to say that, I sift through the pictures of this beautiful girl and can’t help but swallow my blunt opinion because I realize that it wasn’t an easy decision. And I realize that her family is hurting. Her husband is a widower. Her travel plans are no more. And that is enough to keep me quiet about her particular case and whether she chose right or wrong, regardless of everything.

But within a country that cries out for everything to be on our own terms, I can’t help but stand apart. It’s my body we hear during abortion debates …it’s my own life to take we hear with Death with Dignity…it’s my life to live and my choice who I love we hear with civil rights cases. And despite my opinions on any of these things, I can’t help but notice a common thread. We want to take the reins. We’re tired of life–or God for that matter–dictating what happens to us or what turns in the road will be up ahead. We want to set the terms. We want our dignity.

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And I feel like we’re forgetting where true dignity comes from. Dignity isn’t maintaining a beautiful face and living a life free of pain and free of shame. Dignity is trudging through the muck of life, dirt smeared on your face and sins heaped like piles at your feet, and still carrying on and looking up. Dignity is facing it all head on and deciding it’s still a beautiful life. It’s still worth living. Dignity is having the respect for yourself, and for others, that it takes to carry on despite the fear or the embarrassment or the lack of control.

And looking back, seeing my Dad’s blue eyes shoot up to the corner of the ceiling as he took his final breath, I can say without a doubt that I’ve never seen a man with more dignity.

Life is hard. Cancer sucks. Mourning is—well, there might not be a word to describe it. But we face it every day because that’s what we’re here to do. The Savior never said it’d be easy. In fact, he felt it all for us long before we were here and he bled and cried and begged for relief. We are not exempt.

I pray for Brittany’s family and I have cried over her story. Such a beautiful girl with a trial that would overwhelm anyone. I pray for comfort and love and peace in that home.

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But I also pray for our country–and for our world even–to reevaluate.

In the moments beyond our control we learn about endurance. Love. Bravery in the face of fear. And faith. We learn that death is a moment beyond our choosing, but the eternity afterwards has everything to do with what we choose while we’re here.

That choice is a life well lived.

That choice is dignified.

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Fighting infertility: Blessings in the struggle

There’s not a lot I’ve been able to do this past week. I’ve been dozing in and out most days, at the whim of painkillers, heat packs, and Netflix. All three of those *equally* a Godsend. But between naps and monitored walks around my apartment I’ve had lots of time to think about everything that brought me here. And I mean everything. I wanted to write a blog about perseverance or faith. Something inspiring that would reach out to all those women–and even men–who have faced infertility and who needs someone to write them a love letter of encouragement. I’ve been wanting to write something beautiful that would detail my journey thus far and how I made it here at least. But the words wouldn’t come. They won’t come because that isn’t altogether the true story.

I wrote this blog post here one year ago. You’ll notice it reads “Part 1” and weeks and months went by and there was never a part two. It stopped right there at the exam table and I left all of you there with me in that too-white exam room, holding your breath as I froze in time and never got my shoes on to face the reality.

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I left everyone at the diagnosis of endometriosis and failed to tell the story that unfolded even when I was too rigid–too uptight–to write it down. You see, I’ve read a lot about infertility. But I’ve yet to read the bold truth of it all–the ugly, gray, horrible day to day of dealing with it. Feeling it. Dreading it. Even when no one else does.

It took this last surgery to wake me up and remind me that people need to know that side of it all so all of us–all of us who face the trials of temporary or permanent infertility–can somehow latch hands and understand what’s within the circle that only we see. I’m reminded that people won’t survive simply reading about enduring to the end, sucking in the tears with faith, or looking ahead with hope. You survive when someone bleeds with you and shows you you’re not alone. You survive when you face the ugliness and you share the night, regardless of how vulnerable or naked you become. Your eyes must adjust to the darkness before you can take a step forward and find the light.

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My diagnosis, like I said, was a year ago. But I had secretly known something was wrong for longer than that. My last blog about it explains it better. But the diagnosis was the point where “trying for a baby” became a nightmare. It’s the kind of thing we don’t talk about when we say to others with a smile, “We’ve been trying to start a family. We’re excited for when that day comes”. My husband and I rehearsed our lines. We prepared for gatherings. We knew what to say in almost every situation and how to not cry when someone with good intentions would pry. We had the script for being out in the world.

But at home–when no one is around to see–there is no script.

When you’re a woman struggling with infertility, you can never brace yourself enough for the blood that comes each month. The blood that reminds you–again–that there is something wrong. That once again, there’s no baby.

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There’s no rehearsed lines when the pain is so bad that you find yourself in the hospital for a fourth time tied up to IV’s and answering “No, it’s just my endometriosis” when a nurse asks you if you might be pregnant.
And no one ever tells you about the fights–the terrible, deadly fights that break out between you and your spouse when the heartache becomes too much and the weight of it all decays passion or even friendship.

You rarely read about those things. That’s because it makes us humans uncomfortable, even if we’re honest with ourselves and realize that yes, we understand because we’ve been there too.

But lying here today–I’m surprised I haven’t drifted off quite yet–I want you to know the most important part of it all. And that is that it’s a gift.

Strange, I know. And probably not something you’d expect after I threw the curtain off of the journey and exposed the ugliness. But it’s something that this past year of struggling has taught me. I’ve been prodded with needles more times than I can count and I’ve spent paychecks on tests and consultations, hospital stays, and at last–this surgery. And all along I was hiding the misery of it all thinking it was misfortune. That for some random reason OUR lives were the ones chosen to deal with something bigger than our understanding. I was selfish in my thinking, I realize, but that’s how it feels at the time.

But my life–your life–is just as great a gift as the life of one who struggles differently. The gift of struggle has allowed me to never take a single breath for granted. It’s allowed me to feel the unparalleled joy and renewed optimism of hearing my masked surgeon FINALLY say four days ago, “We’ve got it all, Kayla. There’s nothing stopping you from having children now that I can see.”

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The gift of struggle has chiseled my arms, my body, my mind, my heart–into a mother that I will be in due time. Just as the gift of struggle has formed athletes, writers, farmers, doctors, and people who refuse to quit along the way. The journey is never glamorous. It’s not Hollywood. It’s not anything easy to tell. But it’s a gift all the same.

It doesn’t become anything until we tell it like it is to help others who walk the same path and who wonder if anyone else out there gets it. Infertility, I’m here to say, hurts so much deeper than the wounds it took to heal me of it. It corrodes marriages and jobs and the fragile minds of those who feel broken. It blinds us of our faith and tells us that we’ll never be normal. It makes us cold and sometimes it stops us in our tracks. And for those who will never be healed from it, it can altogether steal life from you if you don’t adjust your eyes to the dark and keep walking anyway.

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I’m only 24. I’m only going on three years of hearing the word no and seeing the negative tests on the counter. But I stand with those who have had to adjust to the dark. The journey is not just about feeling the hope and the faith and the inspiring messages of courage. It’s about feeling the anger, the frustrations, the inadequacy and marching forward anyway without any source of light. That is the true gift. That’s what makes us human.

That is what will make us mothers. Mothers of our own children–or mothers of those who find themselves in the dark beside us.

And I’m here to remind you that both are needed.

 

Forgiving Cain: And everything else we owe to the undeserving

In the past, challenges have usually turned my mind toward Christ. But something that just happened recently turned my mind toward Cain as well.

 

Yes, that Cain.

 

The Cain who killed his brother thousands of years ago and has his story shared over and over countless times in countless Sunday school classes and in between the yellowed pages of countless Bibles tucked on shelves all over the world. The Cain we talk about in direct comparison to his obedient brother—the surest sign really of a fallen world. The symbol of slipping beyond the forgiveness of an ultimately forgiving Heavenly Father.

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That Cain, in particular, has been on my mind since a couple days ago.

 

I got a letter from someone who hurt me pretty bad three years ago. I thought the damage was beyond repair. Actually, I was fairly certain that if I ever saw him again he’d have hell to pay. Out of all the people who had ever made mistakes in my life, offended me, or treated me wrong, they all fell short of the bitterness I tended to have pent up toward this man. Without rehashing the story, it was simply unforgivable.

 

But that was three years ago. Seasons changed. I grew and learned. And between then and now I learned the hardest lesson I’ve ever had to learn: That forgiveness is owed to everyone, even the ones who never ask for it.

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What a painful lesson that is to learn. It’s painful because you crave for justice to be served. For “I’m sorry” to finally be said. It hurts simply because you feel like you’re the only one bearing the cross. And for three years I’ve wondered ever so often why I had to give this man that forgiveness. Was it just so that I could move on?

 

Contrary to what the world says, the answer to that is no.

 

We’re commanded to forgive all men—not just the repentant ones. The commandment isn’t in place just so we feel better either. The forgiveness we give is mercy that we owe simply because Christ forgave us first–before we even asked for it.

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I didn’t know the repercussions of that kind of forgiveness—the hardest kind—until I opened that letter. I never thought I’d hear from him again. In fact, for the last three years I’ve imagined him going through life without a second thought about me or the damage he caused. In a way I didn’t even care to hear from him again. But then the letter came. And it all made sense.

 

He asked for forgiveness. He asked, sincerely and deliberately, for me to understand that the hurt he caused had ultimately led to such suffering that his whole world began to fall apart. His faith was shaken—his family crumbled—he had fear that the blessings would never come.

 

And then—three years later—it was my duty, out of all people, to tell him that they would. That I already forgave him, long before he ever asked for it. That he was free simply because I was told to set him free.

 

But why? you might ask. Why should you forgive the woman who walked out on you or the man who beat you for years? Why should you forgive the father who drank too much or the stranger who ran the red light and killed your sister? Why should you forgive the church that kicked you out or the friend who betrayed you?

 

Why? Because you’ve been given grace too, even in your most undeserving of moments.

 

President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, a leader in my church, once said: For our own good, we need the moral courage to forgive and to ask for forgiveness. Never is the soul nobler and more courageous than when we forgive. This includes forgiving ourselves.”

 

We talk about Cain’s fall, his rebellion, his turning away from God’s voice and his unforgivable sins. But how often we forget that Eve—a mother stricken with grief for both of her lost sons—had to forgive too. Not even she was exempt.

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So neither are we.

 

Cain, in the pages of my Bible, reminds me of my obligation. So does the letter in front of me from a man that sat in the pages of my past. Because these aren’t just stories. These are reminders.

 

Father, forgive them.

 

Words always given to the undeserving. Words first given to us.

 

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Everything you’re not: And why it keeps getting in the way

I believe in the power of words.

Very, very much so.

All my life it’s been one of my strongest beliefs along with one of my greatest loves.

Maybe it started back when I finished my first Steinbeck novel and felt like somewhere deep inside of me, the fictional characters had changed me. Or when I first watched Martin Luther King Jr. give a speech with eyes of fire and a voice that quivered with raw emotion. Maybe it was the first time I was made fun of for my weight back in middle school and those words made me wrap a sweatshirt around my waist for a week afterward. Or perhaps it was the time when I was struggling with math homework and my Dad simply said, “You are SO smart, Kayla!” And I aced the assignment like no one’s business.

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Honestly, who knows? It could have been a multitude of things. But I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t completely aware of the strength of words and how the spoken–or written–word can literally change things and create things. But with that said, being aware of something doesn’t mean I’m always on top of my game with it. In fact, it’s a struggle for me.

And it might be for you.

From what I’ve seen, it’s one of humanity’s greatest struggles and greatest downfalls.

By nature I can be slightly *depending on the day*– cynical. And it can be a little too easy for me to slip into negativity. You wouldn’t know it by knowing me that I deliberately say “It’s going to be a good day” every morning that I step into the bathroom to get ready to combat pesky worries, stresses, and the never-ending to-do list. I often write lists that count my blessings and say things I don’t quite believe at the time but WANT to believe, so I’ll say it anyway and build faith in it. I consciously have to work at staying positive when the day looks like anything but.

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I’m not saying my life is horrible because it certainly isn’t in the least bit. But perspective is everything. And it’s something that I–and I feel so many others– are lacking at times when the winds start to blow and the negative thoughts attack us about our bodies, our finances, our families, our work, our faith.

There’s power in words–so why do we use choose to use them so loosely?

One of my district managers sat down beside me at a company dinner the other night and said something that really made me self-reflect. “We live in a world where we constantly say what things aren’t,” he said.  “We talk about everything we’re not even when we don’t mean to. The way we word things, even random sentences, are often so negatively worded, and believe it or not it has a negative effect on our attitudes, our relationships–our entire life.”

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It couldn’t be more true. Since talking to him I’ve really noticed how prevalent it is.

How many times do we hear “Not bad” when someone could say “I’m great!” instead. How many times do we say, “I don’t want to fail” instead of “I want to succeed”, or “I don’t think it’ll work” instead of “Who knows? This might work”. Our sentences in today’s culture and world are straying from the affirmative and becoming a wash of reminders of everything that hasn’t happened, everything that we don’t have, everything that we aren’t. We constantly measure ourselves against expectations in our minds, magazine spreads, fears, insecurities stirred by the negativity of others, and those around us who happen to measure us right back. But why do we do it?

Because we forget who we are.

We forget the power we hold in our minds and in our words. We forget we’re powerful beings who can create our lives–or ultimately destroy them.

The words you speak, I once heard someone say, become the house you live in.

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And too often, I think, our houses crumble.

“Write,” my grandma used to say when I would scribble stories in my notebook, my short legs not hitting the floor quite yet. “Write beautiful words so you can create beautiful new worlds to go to.”

Now looking back on that I realize the truth of those words can go a step further even.

Write. Or sing. Or speak aloud beautiful words so you can then create your beautiful world.

It really is that easy.

 

I can do without: Lessons from a one-legged crow

Mother nature can be a funny thing.

I don’t think it means to be smart or inspiring, even though it often is.

I mean, think about it.

The sun doesn’t set out each day to look absolutely breathtaking and I don’t think the mountains realize they’re being painted and hung in living rooms. Rivers don’t mean to be calming and the clouds don’t mean to form shapes. They simply obey the commands of time and of motion and of the hand of God, not pausing for a second or considering what it means.

And it’s inspiring somehow.

Today it wasn’t anything very beautiful that got me thinking–actually, it could be considered anything but. It was a one-legged crow.

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I was sitting at a traffic light on my way to work this morning with my window rolled down, thankful that the mornings are beginning to grow warmer. My thoughts were wandering when I spotted a crow, smaller than the rest of the pack on the other side of the street, who hopped across two lanes of traffic toward where my car sat. From a distance I noticed he was slower, and one of his wings worked unusually hard to somehow give him the balance he needed to make the short little jaunt. It wasn’t until he was an arm’s length away from my arm that was draped out my window that I realized he only had one leg.

So, something to know about me: I’m an animal lover. Sometimes to a fault. I make my husband brake for packs of pigeons that are a little slow to fly out of the way and if I had the space to house them all, I’d probably become a puppy hoarder or keep adorable rodents in my cupboards, each with personalized little beds. But alas, I am realistic–even when it comes to simply watching a one-legged crow struggle to eat his half-eaten carton of fries in the median and restraining myself from scooping him up and making him a crutch. I watched him, saddened a little, until I saw another crow *with both legs, might I add* swoop down beside him to share the treat. But the one-legged crow wouldn’t have it. He snatched up the box and hobbled away, finally breaking into flight after a few failed and clumsy attempts.

I can do without, I almost heard him whisper to me.

Touche, little crow, I almost said back.

We can all do without.

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How many times do we sit back and feel sorry for ourselves when our car breaks down and public transit is the only option for a few weeks? How many times do we complain when our friends always seem to have the bigger house, the better job, the more picture-perfect life? How often do we struggle with being the “less-attractive” one, the one with the speech impediment, the one without the college education, the one without the leg? And to each of us, there’s a whispered lesson from the spirit simply saying: You can do without.

I’m often inspired by stories of triumph by those who have lost a limb in a war and then go on to compete in the Olympics or by those who are entirely burned and stripped of their physical beauty, only to find love again and go on to be a motivational speaker and inspiration. But then, when it comes to the little, unfair disadvantages we sometimes freeze in place.

You have a learning disability. You’re diabetic. You grew up with just one parent. You’re twice divorced. You’re living paycheck to paycheck. There’s that one something that threatens to make you hobble and complain and slow down.

We’re all a one-legged crow.

Moses–one of the greatest prophets of all time–complained to God about a speech problem he had.

“O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue” Moses said in Exodus 4:10. But Heavenly Father assured Moses, and he’s assuring us every day, that despite a speech problem–despite any problem or hindrance or setback– “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

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I’m grateful for little reminders in nature and in life that testify to God’s law. I’m grateful for one-legged crows whose wings grow stronger and whose one remaining leg takes compensates for the lack of the other, lifting off in flight, proving that it simply takes determination.

And it only takes His strength.

I’m grateful that his grace is sufficient–and because of that, I can do without a lot.