I am a 62-year-old Conservative Jew, recently retired from teaching and planning to relocate to Florida. My three children are all married and living in different parts of the world: a daughter in Jerusalem, one son in Toronto, another son in California. Those living in Jerusalem and Toronto have become very Orthodox, while the son living in California is totally uninterested in religion. As a matter of fact, he is married to a non-Jewish woman. As you can see, there is no happy medium in my family, but I cannot interfere in the lifestyle choices of my children.
Five years ago my husband, who had been a physically active and healthy man, fell sick. By the time we discovered the source of his illness it was too late – the cancer had spread throughout his body. The pain, suffering and degradation he experienced before he finally passed away are beyond words. I don’t think I will ever get over the trauma of his illness and death.
Now, to add to my sorrow, my older sister, who had always been in the pink of health, was felled by a major stroke. Though she is home now, her prognosis is not promising. She has lost her speech and mobility and spends her time either in bed or a wheelchair. Her children feel they can no longer give her the care she requires and plan to put her in a nursing home. It’s heartbreaking, but they say they have no choice and I can’t interfere.
Having witnessed the pain and degradation of two loved ones who lost command of their bodily functions and were at the mercy of aides, companions and other health care functionaries, I’ve decided I do not wish my life to be prolonged if I am seriously incapacitated or reduced to a vegetative state. I would rather die.
It is because of this that I have prepared a living will and I need the support of someone with a religious outlook to encourage my children to respect my wishes.
I have discussed this matter with my children, and the two Orthodox ones are vehemently opposed. My son in California would be happy to carry out my wishes, but I would like the children to act in concert. I would not want to widen the rift that already separates them due to their extremely different outlooks on life.
My religious children claim a human being has no right to shorten his or her life, and therefore the Jewish faith prohibits them from carrying out my wishes. I cannot understand how this would be considered shortening life; existing as a vegetable cannot be considered living.
I sometimes have occasion to visit nursing homes, and when I see the people just sitting there, many of them strapped to their wheelchairs or restricted to their beds, pathetically waiting for someone to look at them, clean them, or turn them over, I shudder. I can’t bear the thought of ending up like that.
To me, it’s much more compassionate and humane to pull the plug when illness becomes severe and it is obvious that recovery is out of the realm of possibility. I think modern medicine has played a cruel trick on us by prolonging our lives. When the body or the mind deteriorates, it’s time to say goodbye.
I have been tolerant of my children’s Orthodox ways. Why can’t they extend the same courtesy to me? My attorneys have prepared the papers and everything is ready to go, but they refuse to give their consent.
As a reader of your column I can’t help but be impressed with your emphasis on honoring parents. Therefore, I hope you will advise my children to fulfill the commandments and respect my wishes.
My Dear Friend:
At the outset, let me assure you there are ways of dealing with your problem within the framework of halacha, Jewish law. While this column is not a forum for halachic discussion, I can tell you that Agudath Israel of America has literature available on this subject, and I suggest you contact the organization. You might just discover that there can be a meeting of the minds between you and your children, and that where you thought you had a problem, none exists.
I can assure you that while it may not seem obvious to you, your religious children do respect your wishes. What they are trying to communicate to you is reflective not of personal bias but of Torah law. I realize this concept may be difficult for you to accept, for our secular culture does not recognize religious, moral, or ethical absolutes. In secular society, everything is contingent on personal predilections and absolutes simply do not come into play.
The Jewish way of life, on the other hand, is based on the commandments that were proclaimed at Sinai, commandments that are non-negotiable and encompass every facet of life and death. Contrary to popular belief, our lives are not our own, to do with as we wish. We did not will ourselves to be born, nor did we choose the families assigned to us.
Even as we cannot choose the day of our birth, we cannot choose the date of our death. Such decisions belong to the One Who gave us life, and only He (and I emphasize He) can determine these things. We are merely custodians, and we’ll have to answer to G-d for the safekeeping of our bodies and souls.
Life itself is sacred, and that sanctity is not diminished even in the case of terminal illness or incurable disease. Nor is it for us to determine whether a life is worth preserving or whether it should be snuffed out when it becomes too burdensome. Instead of “quality of life” we Jews refer to the “sanctity of life.” Instead of the “right to die” we speak of our “responsibility to live.”
I realize you would not wish to become an emotional or financial drain on your children. You should, however, find comfort in the knowledge that, precisely because your children are anchored to Torah values, they would never regard you as burdensome. Nor would they behave rashly or arbitrarily when decisions regarding your health had to be made. Rather, they would consult qualified rabbinic authorities before acting. In a genuine Jewish home, having parents and grandparents is a zechus – a privilege – which neither children nor grandchildren ever lose sight of.
If you are truly interested in making a living will, I suggest that you make one that will live long after you are gone. Prepare a letter for your children to read after your passing. Ask your family to always remain together, united as one. Ask them to gather on your yahrzeit in prayer and study. Ask them to build Jewish homes in which Torah is kept alive, and ask them to make certain all your descendants study in yeshivas and remain Jews.
I realize you are not yet observant. Please note I wrote not yet. Deep in the heart of every Jew is the desire to be observant. It is just that in our crazed society it is easy to lose sight of whom we really are. May I suggest that instead of fighting and opposing your children’s Torah way of life, you try it, savor it, embrace it – and you might just discover the serenity, beauty and majesty that is the essence of a true Jewish home.
I would further suggest that instead of moving to Florida and seeing your children and grandchildren only on special occasions, you spend time with them. The years fly by very quickly; don’t deprive yourself of the joy of being a hands-on Bubbie. Don’t be a Bubbie in name only.
A true “living will” will impart values and love to children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren – so that in years to come, after G-d calls you to Him, your memory will remain alive to them, etched upon their minds and hearts.