Monday, March 21, 2005

They shoot soldiers don't they?

Not long after my father died, I found myself cuddling the dressing gown he had been so anxious to always have with him in his last days. I had come to think of it as his security blanket (now mine), the one thing he kept between hospital and home that signified safety and some small control over a world gone ludicrously subordinate to the wicked cells that were taking his life, first by slow inches, then by relentless rapid force.
I remember holding the old white terry robe in my arms and inhaling its fragrance (not altogether nice by that time, but still, altogether Dad) and ended up slipping it on; familiar with the heavy cotton and pulled threads and giant stretched and shapeless pockets from the many, many times I’d sequestered it over the years, traveling home for a week or a weekend and never bothering to pack my own. (It’s one of the many things I miss about having a parent – all the liberties taken; shirts and hankies and hairdryers and money borrowed with little thanks and virtually no thought of return or repayment. It’s not the stuff you understand: it’s that there were people on this planet who belonged to me, and I to them in a million very personal and proprietary ways.)
But this time the robe felt heavier than usual; the hem weighted in a way that made it swing and bump against my shins. I took it off and turned it upside down and examined the crude stitching that had clearly replaced the once neat factory finish. I ripped and I tore and I shook the damn thing until out rolled several handfuls of pills and a few capped syringes; a hidden stash of drugs that if not capable of killing a horse, would likely have been sufficient to polish off my father.
I didn’t have to puzzle to know what I was seeing – it was his last vestige of control. I saw in a moment what he had planned to do if it all became too much, his dressing gown the one item that would likely always lie within reach even were he in extremis.
We both knew what the alternative could be like. The way my mother had died – in pain and fear and (until she was anaesthetized to the point of coma) begging for someone to help her leave. But more than 20 years ago we didn’t know what to do or who to go to (had there been someone to go to) and we were terrified at the implication of what she seemed to be asking us to do.
This is what my father learned. And though he didn’t have to take that option in the end, I realize now how much that small bit of jurisdiction, that infinitesimal piece of power must have meant to him; how it must have soothed and calmed those fears of the ultimate agony – to be aware, conscious and out of control.
I was glad he’d had his hem-full of hemlock.
So though very different, the Terry Schiavo controversy and the right to die how and when you please has my full attention these days, hitting several of my most sensitive buttons. And I have some small insight into the business of brains, having worked on a definition of neurological death for the government agency that coordinates organ transplants for the province of Ontario.
There are some absolutes – absolutes that are if not a comfort, are at least a means of answering the complex questions of what constitutes life or death, and possibly a help to people trying to fathom how it is their loved one can still be breathing, still have a pulse and a heartbeat – but be for all of that, dead.
I’ll quote myself if you can stand it…
Neurological Determination of Death – a definition:
A diagnosis of death by neurological criteria (also referred to as “brain death”) means the brain has permanently lost all function.
This is how we expanded on the definition in the informational pamphlet designed for families searching for answers, so as to make the meaning absolutely clear:
As a result of the severe brain injury or trauma your loved one suffered, the accumulation of fluid, blood, or a swelling of the brain cells has caused pressure to build inside the skull, making it increasingly difficult for life-giving blood and oxygen to flow into the brain. Since the bones of the skull create a space only slightly larger than the brain, as the pressure increases, the brain soon has no place to expand. The pressure then builds rapidly to that point that all blood flow from the veins and arteries supporting the brain are completely blocked and all brain function ceases. Without oxygen the blood delivers, the brain begins to die immediately. Once the brain cells die there is no way to bring them back to life; the brain itself dies and no longer functions in any capacity – and never will again. When the brain dies, the person can no longer breathe, move, think, or feel. Neurological death is permanent and irreversible and there can be no hope whatsoever of recovery.
Neurological death IS death.

So, clearly by that definition, Terry Schiavo cannot be described as neurologically dead. But the brain injury that didn’t kill her brain completely may have left her with life in its simplest form, with no more thought nor will than the most primitive organism, deprived of virtually all that makes most of us want to live – the simple control of conscious thought and the ability, however small, to influence our environment.
I learned that lesson many years ago during my gap year between high school and university – a year in which I was a sort of teacher’s aid at a school for the most severely mentally and physically handicapped children in Calgary. I loved it right away, but went in to it with the kind of zeal seemingly reserved for enthusiastic yet totally uninformed teenagers and certain Presidents of the United States: people who think they can fix everything with a simple blend of want and will, mixed with evangelical passion and just a slightly overweening ego.
But what I learned within a week was that we weren’t going after the ‘Eureka’s!’ and the miracles; we were doing something much harder, that required just as much enthusiasm and want and will to achieve, but required no evangelism or ego whatsoever. The goals we had were for communication, and the communication we were most hopeful of eliciting was simply the sort that gave a child the ability to indicate what he wanted – the red one or the blue one… this one or that one… chocolate or strawberry…And sometimes – just sometimes – we were able to. And when we did it was huge – it was control; the ability to choose. I want THAT one.
Terry Schiavo, except in her mother’s loving imagination and the opinion of a very few family-picked medical consultants, chooses nothing. She lives in a hospital bed in a hospice, surrounded by the feeding apparatus and the multiple shifts of professionals it takes to keep her alive day in and day out. Her husband – once a beloved family member – is now cruelly at odds with Terry’s parents, having indicated many years ago his desire to carry out what he insists are Terry’s wishes; wishes she discussed with him before the drug reaction that changed her life forever. He says she was clear that if such a situation were to occur, she would choose to be removed from all life-sustaining equipment and be allowed to die.
It’s not so unbelievable; I don’t think I know a single person who would wish otherwise. But the question remains: how dead is she? And, what even remote hopes are there for any sort of recovery?
Most doctors describe her as being in a ‘nearly complete vegetative state’, and the video tape captured by Terry’s parents that has been repeatedly played in the media – where she appears to be conscious and possibly even making eye contact – is viewed by many experts as nothing more than instances of random motor reflexes, the kind that are sometimes even observed in patients diagnosed as neurologically dead. Even the most ardent supporters of Terry’s continuing in this twilight existence have not much more hope for her rehabilitation than that she might one day be taught to swallow. The absence of which ability at this point seems a nightmare in and of itself.
The debate is terribly disconcerting and upsetting – not the least to Terry’s parents and presumably other individuals currently going through similar tragedies with family members or loved ones. But what may be even more disconcerting to some is the ongoing and insidious interest shown by congress who spent the weekend debating the issue before voting to approve legislation that would allow a federal court to intervene in the Schiavo matter, potentially ordering Terry’s feeding tube to be re-inserted.
The irony of the President breaking off his holiday in Texas in order to fly back to Washington to sign the legislation as quick as a wink, when he could barely interrupt his backswing to comment on American troops in danger in Iraq, is not lost on a number of observers. The interference on the part of the government, the ease and comfort with which they once again enter the bedrooms and the minds of citizens is breathtaking in its presumption.
The Christian Right and the president they support once again seeks to trump the individual, the right to die, and the right to control one’s own body - to have one’s deepest and most heartfelt wishes respected.
But what do I know? I know that at the height of the dissonant discourse, and even with my own views and experience as plain as can be, I still feel great empathy and sorrow for Terry’s mother, who just as plainly feels her daughter is in some significant way alive. But what life? And, to borrow from playwright Brian Clark, whose life is it anyway?
It’s not that Terry’s life isn’t valuable – it certainly was, and the memory of it remains so to those who knew and loved her – it’s just that it isn’t viable. And whatever else it may or may not be, the tragedy of it should not be allowed to be exploited for either political or personal gain. There’s no question the Christian contingent want this issue and that of abortion front and centre on the agenda – there’s little doubt they feel it personally and passionately. But it’s not their life to direct, nor their life to control.
If it could be controlled – in even the smallest of ways – it should be Terry’s to choose. Failing that, the law as it exists suggests it lies with her legal guardian, who tells us that when she was in full living control of her life, she said she would want to be allowed to die if she found herself in her such circumstances.
She doesn’t have a drug-riddled bathrobe somewhere close by her bed to comfort or keep her, or the ability to remove the pills, or even to swallow them if she had them. But it’s worse; the horror now is that the entire government of the United States of America is seeking to compound the tragedy that befell Terry Schiavo following the heart attack that caused the severe brain damage that robbed her of anything resembling a life back in 1990 – now they want to control her.

Friday, March 11, 2005

The red, the gold and the blues

Canadians are still reeling from the blow of the loss of the four RCMP Officers who sacrificed their lives on the farm of another of those creepy, wicked, pathetic nutbars who as they choose to leave this life in a blaze of bullets, simultaneously accomplish their heart’s desire by managing to fit a world or so of pain and agony into the lives that lie in ruins behind them.
Forget his name. Forget his crimes, his rotten life and the self-absorbed paranoia that drove him from bad to worse to evil in the course of lifetime that achieved only middle age before it exploded in blood and flesh and pointlessness.
There may be pity to be felt for his family, but I’m honestly not sure how or where, or even why at this point. Why couldn’t an ex-con who sexually abused children, collected firearms, plotted and connived against his neighbours and local businesses, and threatened and shot at anyone who came near his land (and according to all reports lived an anger-soaked existence for at least the last 20, and possibly more years of his life) have long since been signed over to some provincially sanctioned, heavily padlocked institution for the criminally insane and hopelessly un-rehabilitateable ?
It boggles the mind.
But far more mind boggling was the sight of the families and friends and colleagues of the men whose sacrifice to the red serge coat and the goofy park ranger/Nelson Eddy broad-brimmed hat (not to mention the Sam Brown belt and old-fashioned, yet sexy yellow striped jodhpurs with tall brown boots) forced to say and pray their farewells and goodbyes to their loved ones much, much too soon.
Television and radio was chock-a-bloc with it yesterday; talk radio doing its thing by welcoming callers wishing to make comment on the tragedy, seemed surprised by the number of people rather vehemently objecting to the time, effort and superlatives wasted on men whose death and in whose numbers it didn’t strike these particular callers as all that note-worthy.
“They’re throwing around words like ‘hero’ and ‘sacrifice’,” said one disgruntled listener. “It’s wrong. And so is asking for a minute of silence; they have a minute of silence for the EVERYONE killed in wars on Remembrance Day – this was just 4 guys whose job it was to serve and protect. I’m sorry, but big deal!”
Yikes. Tough room.
And I don’t get it.
I am a left-wing, knee-jerk, bleeding-heart sob-sister, heavily hyphenated liberal, solidly against war and violence and brutality of every sort or stripe. Yet I am forever and for always in awe of those who choose work that provides a very genuine risk to their lives.
It is a horror to me (and a supreme weirdness) the fighting in Iraq and the boys and girls (and men and women) who far too often have come home in bits and pieces or not at all. I cannot imagine one second of the hideous fear of being under fire, or the discomfort and pain of living in the conditions of battle or siege. This war, that war – any war. The ugliness and pain and terror are so far beyond my ken that even writing about my admiration and curiousity about those who serve is hampered by a not un-exercised imagination, but by one that simply cannot grasp the depths of the awfulness.
I’ve known broken toes and tooth aches and this morning I bit my tongue really hard; I’ve feared meanness and rudeness and social cruelty – and once or twice experienced the heart-stopping, foot-itching, adrenaline-drenched terror of a car accident missed by inches or millimeters – but I don’t really have the first clue what real pain, or real terror, or genuine fear that my number is up even remotely feels like.
Canada is no Iraq – hell, we’re no Texas – but we have our own dangerous domestic crazies, our own gun-lovers, and in hundreds, even thousands of little rural communities where marauding, stock-killing wild animals are a reality, firearms and their use and need must be as prevalent per capita as in the worst crime-ridden areas of any big city you care to mention. Or avoid.
(I have seen huge raccoons conducting fist fights and love-making sessions outside my bedroom window and the odd skunk slinking around downtown residential areas, and of course squirrels a-plenty, but outside the movies and the evening news have yet to see nature vs nature, or man vs nature in any significant way.)
So what I’m saying is that while it may not have been up there with storming the beach at Normandy, or fighting the Tet offensive, or standing on the wrong side (which actually, could have been either side) of the Maginot Line, that day at the farm would have been no picnic for the handful of officers who would certainly have been aware of the danger and venality of the terminally territorial man upon whose property they were standing on guard for us.
There actually was a time when I wanted desperately to be an RCMP officer. Granted, I was 10, but I wanted it with every fibre of my skinny 10 year old kid being. I wanted to ride the horses you see, and I could think of no other career outside of cowboy that could provide the basics. (And to be honest, even at 10 I was a pretty citified little kid, so cowboy was a last choice fallback position at best.)
There’s a whole story about it; I actually wrote it and had it published on the letters page of The Toronto Star.
(Along with a picture of myself taken by a staff photographer of such supreme awfulness I am even today pissed off at the lipstick and good will wasted on that snap.)
It was in response to a story about the sensitivity of a bunch of Mounties who essentially adopted as mascot a sweet American kid with a sad story and a lifelong admiration for the men in red. I wrote that I wasn’t surprised; I wrote that when I was 10 I had composed a letter to the head of the RCMP (in the neatest joined-together printing you ever saw, superimposed on faint pencil lines that had been drawn for guidance, and erased for sophistication) asking for details so that I might prepare to join when I came of age. I told him I knew how to groom and saddle a pony and that I could walk, trot, canter and gallop, could turn on the forehand and jump 2’ 6”. I was also prepared to muck out and clean tack. I was saying essentially, that except for the cruelties of fate (having been born so late in life) I was ready to serve.
With infinite patience and a sweetness and gentleness of tone, the senior officer wrote back informing me that since – unfortunately – women were not permitted to join the mounted ranks, that as qualified and suitable and altogether exemplary were my qualifications, I wouldn’t be able to follow my dream. He did add (and included pamphlets and brochures) that there were other positions I could hold – receptionist, telephone operator, stenographer… ‘ists’, ‘ators’ and ‘aphors’ only. But if I’d like to do ‘em, they’d be proud to have me.
It is a testament to his tact that the letter somehow made me feel special and it is further proof of his sensitivity that he returned my original letter in a separate note addressed to my mother for her to keep.
So I always had a special place in my heart for the Mounties and even when I had moved on career-wise, and even when women were permitted to join the mounted ranks, I maintained that soft spot.
When the letter appeared in The Star, I was to have yet one more encounter with a sensitive officer of the law. I received a phone call (which I still have on my voicemail 6 years later) and a beautiful handwritten note thanking me for my thoughts and sharing with me his love of the job. (I won’t mention names, but he was a former participant in the Musical Ride and at the time of writing a bigwig in national Security. If he is still alive, I have no doubt he would have been with the most senior of dignitaries at the Memorial Service in Edmonton.)
For those who didn’t see or weren’t aware of the incident itself and the magnificent and terrible ceremonies that have followed, suffice it to say it was horrendous. The cries of grief and loss both beautiful and dreadful - the sound of a thousand hearts breaking in unbearable harmony.
I don’t know much – and I certainly don’t know what it’s like to be in the military or to work in law enforcement – but I do know that I have many, many moments of silence in me for those who risk their lives so I can call into radio talk shows and complain about them whenever I damn well please.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Blood, sweat and nipples

Bad news for rabid reactionary American parent groups, prudes, fuddy-duddies, old maids and not a few goody-two-shoeses: the FCC has just ruled that the American TV affiliates who broadcast the film ‘Saving Private Ryan’ on Veteran’s Day last year, did not violate indecency regulations.
The red state Bushies are at it again. Buoyed by ‘Four More Years’ for the right wing administration, the various groups that make up the Fundamentalist Christian coalition continue to pump up the volume on issues once thought to be the purview of one’s conscience or one’s confessor: what one looks at, what one says and what one thinks. The morality police are here with a vengeance, and their loss on the swings of the bathed in blood ‘Saving Private Ryan’ is sure to be made up by the roundabouts of televised sex, profanity and whatever other salacious tidbits the arbiters of all that is bad have identified.
But in the ‘Private Ryan’ case, the un-fined affiliates clearly won a squeaker, though they had done their best to pepper the broadcasts with warnings and advisories (and probably a few ‘Danger Will Robinson’s) during the course of the film in an effort to save the tender sensibilities of the sensorily overloaded Americans who seem to have lost the map and directions to their ‘OFF’ switches along with their minds and their morals.
The battle for America’s values was begun long ago, going through a variety of incarnations over the past couple of decades or so as it battled everything from The Smothers Brothers anti-war folk songs to Lenny Bruce’s profanity-laced comedic stylings, to Howard Stern’s enjoyment in spanking bikini clad women with dead fish (it’s the stupidity of that I find offensive); but it was when Janet Jackson’s right nipple (the one nearly obscured by the gigantic piece of nipple obscuring jewelry firmly affixed to the disgusting body part) made its shocking and unscheduled appearance at Superbowl 2004 that the keepers of the public faith really got down, got busy and made some noise.
Coming down hard on ‘Saving Private Ryan’ was simply one of the next logical steps.
By chance I happened to watch ‘Saving Private Ryan’ this past weekend, marveling as I had the first time I saw it how deeply meaningful are the shocking first 20 minutes of the film; what a chilling and horrifying indictment of war – and what a sobering reminder it is of the reality of what happens when young men are issued weapons and ordered by old men to do everything in their power to kill and maim other young men they’ve never actually met.
I know it’s a naive and unoriginal thought, but I challenge anyone to watch it and not imagine how much differently wars might turn out if instead of the wave after wave of achingly young, hopelessly anonymous soldiers being ripped to shreds and battered to pieces, it was political leaders and the military men who order them around hitting the mine-peppered beach and dodging the rain of bullets and bombs being flung at them indiscriminately.
Every time I see that soldier pick up the arm that had seconds before been attached to his body and turn and run hesitantly as if to his mother to place it in her lap and ask her to sew it on as she must have sewed buttons on his pants through the years, time without number, I think how important the film is.
Violence and profanity? How about horror and reality – the real definition of shock and awe.
And as for nipples – the revolting, disgusting, corrupting body part that raised the chatter to a clarion call – well, what can one possibly say about nipples? Speaking of mine, since I lived for a time in the South of France, my own personal nipples spent many a month on public view, there to see for anyone who cared to take a gander. Both of them. Without any nipple obscuring jewelry to thwart the view. And the truth is, nobody raised so much as an eyebrow, let alone another body part.
Topless beaches being somewhat ubiquitous in that part of the world, the phenomenon is strange and erotic and creepy only to newly arrived Americans who bug-eyed and drool-stained are the only ones to give any given pair anything more than the passing look you’d give any other person’s any other body part.
It’s liberating – really, it is – and the ridiculousness of the reaction to the Jackson nipple exposure (and the bizarre acceptance of bodice-ripper Justin Timberlake’s ‘wardrobe malfunction’ explanation, in effect placing all blame on the hussy who had no actual ‘hand’ in revealing her bosom) would make fools of those who complained and threatened, if the hatred of body and flesh and women implied by the fervor of the complaint weren’t so insidious and demeaning.
But maybe the decision for ‘Ryan’ and against the puerile puritans indicates a swing back to reality? A reality where people have bodies (complete with parts – private and otherwise) and war causes people to explode in blood and pain, and even shout ‘fuck’ or ‘bugger’ when provoked. A reality where a nipple really is just a nipple and children can see them post-nursing and pre-puberty, and men and boys can see them naked and exposed without falling down dead with shock or bestial awe.
Or maybe not. Maybe we’re just a few exposed cleavages or snug miniskirts away from bringing back the draping of piano legs and the shrouding of bedroom mirrors for fear of the outbreak of unauthorized erotic musings.
It’s March. It's cold. And the Ides of Texas are upon us.
Better put on a burkha.