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In May 1995, Christopher Reeve was taking part in a cross-country equestrian event when a fall caused his skull to literally become separated from his spinal cord. He was totally paralyzed. Of that moment he later said, “It dawned on me I was going to be a huge burden to everybody, that I had ruined my life and everybody else’s. Not fair to anybody. The best thing to do would be to slip away.” When his wife, Dana, came into his room he looked at her and mouthed the words, “Maybe we should let me go.”
His wife started crying and said, “I will support whatever you want to do, because this is your life and your decision. But I want you to know that I’ll be with you for the long haul, no matter what. You are still you. And I love you.” Reeve said that Dana’s response to him “made living seem possible, because I felt the depth of her love and commitment. … My job would be to learn how to cope with this and not be a burden. I would have to find new ways to be productive again.”
Reeve went on to inspire the world with the depth of his commitment to his own life and that of others. Before his untimely passing in October of last year, he had taught all humanity of the value of life and the indomitable power of the human spirit.
Good thing for all of us that Christopher Reeve was not married to someone like Michael Schiavo.
When his own wife, Terri, made a throwaway comment to him – or so he claims – that should she ever be reduced to a severely disabled state that she would wish to die, Schiavo ran to fulfill her request. Unlike the Reeves who were put in a similar situation, in this particular exchange between wife and husband there was never an attempt to encourage Terri to embrace life.
Michael Schiavo could easily have said to his wife: “Honey, however you are, I will always love you. So get such silly ideas out of your head.” No, Michael Schiavo, knight in shining armor that he is, merely promised his wife that, should she become mentally incapacitated, he would move heaven and earth to have her die. And they say that there are no good husband left in America.
America has never quite witnessed a husband like Michael Schiavo, a man who is prepared to take on the entire might of the United States government to ensure that his wife ends up six feet under. And who could fault him? After all, to great men like Michael Schiavo, a promise is a promise, unless of course, it’s a promise of sexual fidelity in marriage.
Many people in America wish they were dead, none more so, it seems, than teenagers. According to the National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center, almost 1 in 5 teens have seriously considered attempting suicide. More than 1 in 6 have made plans to attempt suicide. And more than 1 in 12 have made a suicide attempt in the past year.
Like many rabbis, priests and pastors, I have personally sat with a number of people who wanted to kill themselves. I sat with a 19-year-old girl who tried to slit her wrists because she thought she had already ruined her life. I have sat with women whose husbands, like Michael Schiavo, have abandoned them for another woman. They, too, have told me that the pain of rejection and the feeling like they are dried-up, used goods, has made them wish they were dead. And I have sat with men whom financial failure had left in such despair that they thought of serious violence against themselves.
In each of these circumstances, like any decent human being, I tried my utmost to inspire these individuals to choose life. I told them that this feeling of hopelessness would pass, that after feeling that they had hit rock bottom there was nowhere to go but up, that people loved them, that their lives were meaningful, that they dared not succumb to despair.
I remember how my own grandmother told me, on the steps of her apartment in Jerusalem, that now that one of her sons had died – my uncle David – she no longer wished to live. She told me that she was praying to God for death. Her words shocked me.
“Savta,” I said, “do you know how much your family loves you. You’re the leader of this family. We’re all nothing without you. How could you say such a ridiculous thing. What about all of your children and grandchildren that are left?”
I also remember how I once sat with a man who had suffered severe financial reversals. His wife had divorced him after they had taken away his house. He told me that he had planned on killing himself and the only thing that stopped him was a rabbi who came to see him and told him: “Today, you look at the world through dark sunglasses, and everything appears dark. But take off the sunglasses and you’ll see the light. There are still so many blessings in your life. And things will get better. I promise.” Thank God this man did not first speak to someone like Michael Schiavo.
Whenever we have a choice between life and death, the Bible commands us to stalwartly “choose life,” the only exception being the right to take the life of a murderer who has forfeited his own life by taking that of another.
With regards to an utterly innocent woman like Terri Schiavo, the choice is clear. The time has come for Michael Schiavo, who has proved himself an inadequate husband in every respect, to just go away and let this poor woman’s parents take care of her. Let him find some other cause worth fighting for. Putting your wife to death just doesn’t seem worthy enough.
There have been numerous press reports that Scott Peterson has been receiving marriage proposals in prison, and I suppose that given the desperate loneliness of so many people in America this is not completely surprising. But I would find it hard to believe that even the loneliest woman would ever want to be married to someone like Michael Schiavo, who will make it a personal crusade to see his wife dead.
As for the rest of us, let’s remember this is the richest country in the world. We can afford to provide food for a woman who can’t feed herself. For who among us will really be able to say “I’m proud to be an American” if we let this child of God die a most brutal and barbaric death?