Maggie faces a choice between life and death.
|Maggie walked along the Seine as the sun was setting, numbly conscious of the crowds washing by her. Families pouring over tourist books, the children clamoring for ice cream and pastries. Young couples with their arms around each other. Elderly couples strolling hand in hand. Gangs of laughing students. Thoughtful artists clutching sketchpads and notebooks. She stopped and gripped the low, mossy wall; tears of self-pity pricked her eyes. Staring out over the Seine, the people strolling or skating on the lower walkway, the occasional boat drifting along, the rose-gold sunlight catching on the tiny ripples, Maggie thought about all that had happened. Three months ago she'd been just a part-time employee at a local soup kitchen; a lawyer's wife; a consistent, if not prominent, figure in upper-middle-class society in her small Oregon town, located a couple of hours outside Portland. Then had come the breast cancer diagnosis, the lumpectomy, the news that the cancer had metastasized, was in her lungs, possibly in her brain. The news that chemo-therapy could delay the inevitable. Maybe. A little bit. And then they had made the decision. The decision that she would die with dignity, with all her faculties intact, after a romantic fortnight in Paris, instead of three dreary months in a hospital ward. The decision that in just over five days, in 138 hours, Maggie would be dead.
At first, Maggie had had such peace about it. It made so much sense. It settled everything. There would be no nasty surprises. She would leave her family with happy memories and save them the physical and emotional strain of supporting her through an agonizing illness. It had seemed rational, sophisticated, sane, noble, even. But now Maggie felt like she was cracking beneath the weight of such inexorable rationality.
The oncologist had suggested it. He'd described what chemo-therapy would be like, what it would be like just to let the disease run its course, manage it with pain-killers as much as possible. And then, almost apologetically, he had mentioned the third option. "Now, this is a big decision, and there's no rush. Just contact my office with whatever you decide." And he had left the room. Maggie and Aaron had both sat there, stunned. If she lived to be a hundred (which seemed unlikely), Maggie knew she would never forget that little cubicle with its green exam table and rolling chair.
Finally, Aaron had stood up. "Let's go home, Mags." He sounded tired. He sounded like he almost believed that if they could just get away from this little room they could escape the whole nightmare. But they couldn't.
Maggie hadn't slept well that night. But the next morning, after she made a pot of coffee (how many more of those would she make? Five? Six?), she sat down on a stool by the breakfast bar, hugging her fuzzy bathrobe tighter around her, and watching the coffee maker steam and chug. As she heard the first birds begin to sing above the noise of the crickets and watched as the blue-gray sky turned pink, Maggie had made her choice. She'd felt suffused and warmed by the radiance of her own nobility. When Aaron stumbled out of the bedroom a few minutes later, rubbing his eyes, Maggie had announced her decision. Aaron had looked so relieved. Maggie had tried to ignore how much that hurt.
He'd pulled out the stool across from her and sat down. "Are you sure, Maggie? I mean . . . "
"You know I'll support you, whatever decision you make."
Leaning across the table, he'd grasped her hands. "Let's go to Paris, Maggie. We've always meant to go to Paris. Do you remember, when we lived in that little house in Lincoln?"
Maggie laughed. "You mean the one where the water came out all brown and we could hear the mice crawling through the walls at night?"
Aaron laughed too, his eyes bright with unshed tears. "You remember how'd we'd dream about that fancy hotel and cute cafe we'd find in Paris, when I finally finished law school, when we finally had money to throw around?"
"Let's go, Mags. Let's find it. Let's make that . . . make it our . . ." He'd pressed his lips together. A single tear had stolen down one cheek.
Now, standing by the Seine, feeling the gentle autumn breeze cool her burning cheeks, Maggie inhaled slowly, trying to stifle the sobs pushing against her tonsils. She felt so furious with Aaron. Furious that he was so pleased with her decision. Maggie knew it wasn't healthy, but when, as a young (or not so young) bride, she and Aaron had had some kind of fight, she'd always imagined how he would weep if she killed herself. How sorry he'd be then. And now . . . now she was going to die. And the best he had to offer was Paris. How could he be so much more okay with this than she was.
"Stop it, Maggie!" Half-unconsciously, she spoke aloud, and blushed when a passing couple turned to stare at her. She was being ridiculous. Aaron didn't want her to die; but since she was dying, he wanted her to die with dignity, without pain. But she wanted him . . . she wanted him to be irrational. She wanted him to rage, rage against the dying of the light. She wanted . . . with a sense of shock, Maggie realized that she wanted to live.
Maggie had never really been a great lover of life. Ever since high school, she'd kept a jar of pills in the bathroom closet, just in case things ever got worse than she could handle. Not that she really had plans to use them; it was more like an insurance policy--it gave her a sense of peace, kept her from being too overwhelmed by the uncertainties of the future. Only by a great imaginative effort was Maggie able to understand that instinctual horror of death--death not as a painful process, not as a step into the unknown, death simply as the cessation of life--that some people took for granted.
Watching a few leaves scuttle along the sidewalk, Maggie reflected on the arguments she'd heard against euthanasia: inconvenient people would be pressured into by uncaring family members. A horrible thought, but fortunately one that had little bearing on her decision. It was was cowardly. So? What was the point of a heroic last stand that was sure to end in death anyway? Why be miserable for the sake of lofty post-mortem gossip? Maggie felt certain that she'd rather be happy than noble. God said so, and if you didn't listen you'd go to hell. Well, there was a creepy argument. But Maggie couldn't help feeling that if there was a God, and if he really sent people to hell for things like that, heaven surely couldn't be all that great. And anyway, that was too many ifs. Life was just too wonderful to give up. What were they smoking?
No, there weren't any good arguments against Euthanasia, at least not in her case, not unless you believed the pessimists who said it was a slippery slope leading to holocaust-style eugenics. And even if they were right, Maggie wouldn't be around to see it. She was going to die. What did it matter if it were in five days or five months? She shook herself and turned away from the river, glowing in the setting sun, and watched the people amble by. The golden light made them beautiful. It looked like a painting, the tears in Maggie's eyes creating a celestial halo around these radiant beings, these people, all with their own stories, their griefs, their fears, their pleasures, their love. Maggie's heart ached, ached because there was so much pain all within twenty feet of her. Ached because there was so much love. Ached because it was all there and she couldn't--wouldn't--touch it.
A ragged old woman, probably homeless, caught Maggie's heightened attention. She was sitting on a bench across the street, smoking and lazily observing the flow of people and the glow of the sunset. She was dressed in torn blue jeans, too large for her, and an oversized sweatshirt (maybe originally blue?) with a tear that ran almost the entire length of her left arm. She was painfully thin, with stringy gray hair and unnaturally prominent cheekbones. She blew a funnel of thick smoke, and a man in an overcoat coughed angrily, waving his hand in front of his face and glaring at her. The woman ignored him. There was a dirty Styrofoam cup beside her, and a cardboard sign lying face down.
Maggie rested her hands on the stone wall behind her, leaning her hips against it and feeling the cold slowly creep through her jeans. The woman looked peaceful, savoring her cigarette and watching as the wind slowly dispersed the smoke. Why did that woman bother to stay alive? Nobody wanted her. She had probably begged all day just to be able to buy that pack of cigarettes. Winter was coming. No love, little pleasure, no dignity, no nobility, no hope. Why? Why not jump into the Seine, do herself and the world a favor? Maggie thought of other people, people in Africa who couldn't know whether starvation, AIDS, war, or ebola would kill them first; drug addicts; prisoners. So many people with nothing to live for. So many people who didn't have to live. She thought about businessman, with ulcers from their jobs, and wives suing for divorce; about blue collar workers; about all the people who lived for the weekend. Why? Why be miserable for five days just to enjoy two days of pleasure? None of it made any sense.
Maggie shook herself, realizing with horror that her rationality had depopulated the planet. She had to be missing something. People did fight to live, to stay alive. And it never made any sense. What was it? What was it that made life worth living, worth it even when it was lonely, exhausting, painful, dull--when the hope that it would ever be anything more was ephemeral and often illusory? She closed her eyes, feeling the gentle breeze, listening to the hum of the city, intermittently punctuated by a car horn or a child's laughter. The air was cooler than it had been when Maggie began her walk, and she thought about how quickly the world was spinning, whirling through space. The planet spinning, the water cycling, the seeds germinating, the hydrogen fusion in the core of the sun, the energy pouring from the sky--all these forces fighting against death, fighting for life, a life that hurt, that ground people down, stripped them of love, hope, dignity. Why? What did they hope to gain . . . and what was it Maggie would give up by stepping out of the fight?
Maggie opened her eyes and gazed once more at the old woman on a park bench. She could've been a queen surveying her kingdom, Maggie thought with a little laugh, watching her carelessly blow smoke in a sophisticated young passerby's face. She wished she could talk to her. She was so dignified, so at peace. She must know something Maggie didn't.
Then, suddenly, almost like a revelation, it dawned on Maggie that she wasn't alone. All this ocean of beautiful, miserable people, all these people with their hours of toil, their fears, their stresses, their certainty of death--all of them, determined to laugh in the face of their misery, determined to live, even though it didn't make any sense. She felt the blood coursing through her veins, her heart contracting and expanding, and it felt, felt like she was part of something bigger than herself, part of a defiant joy that refused to believe that pain, sorrow, and boredom were really the final summit of life. Part of a persistent hope that there was something good if one could only reach out and touch it. It felt like just by living, she was fighting--winning--a desperate battle against evil.
The park bench woman stood up, dropped her cigarette onto the sidewalk and extinguished it with the heel of her dirty sneaker. Maggie knew she could never talk to the woman. Probably she didn't speak English; probably even if she did, she would find Maggie hopelessly bourgeois and uninteresting. But still, they had both chosen to live.
Maggie realized, a shock running through her system, that she had chosen to live, that she wasn't going to die in 137 hours. It would mean needles, nurses, hospital beds, strangers wiping her butt, but Maggie was going to live--live until she died. Oh dear. What would Aaron say?