There was Brittany Maynard, Me Before You, and now, Marieke Vervoort, a Belgian paralympian who gained prominent news coverage during the Olympics this past August in Rio. Her heroism and courage were lauded by many, not for being an Olympian, not for her bravery amidst a degenerative muscle disease, but because she signed euthanasia papers 6 years ago and keeps them for a moment that is the “right time” to die.
There is a strange notion taking place in the world where comfort is esteemed, suffering is pitied, and those made “imperfectly” are assumed not to have a lot to live for. We have lost the mysterious lessons to be learned in pain, the joy that can happen amidst suffering, and the absolute preciousness of a life. Even a life with obstacles.
The pain Mariake Vervoort experiences must be unimaginable. And her strength in being an Olympian despite her disease is a feat most of us could only dream of. Vervoort’s decision to get euthanasia papers comes from a need for comfort. She explains, “When it becomes too much for me to handle, then I have my life in my own hands. If I didn’t have papers I think I would have already committed suicide.” What a tragic situation for somebody to live in such pain that this alternative is a source of comfort. We must be moved by a sense of compassion for her, we must not condemn her, but neither must we condone that action. And we condone it ultimately out of love for Vervoort herself. A love of her life. Because we know the ultimate tragedy would not be a life of pain but a life without hope.
There is majesty that comes in a person’s last moments. There is unthinkable survival that comes against unthinkable odds. And there is absolute solace and inspiration that comes from a person finding redemption in a life of painful disease.
The stories of Maynard and Vervoort may go viral, and more like theirs will keep coming. But there are other stories that will never stop being told, and it’s because they are lined with a deep truth that is as undeniable as a beating heart. We respond to them because, as Steinbeck says, “There’s more beauty in truth, even if it is dreadful beauty.” The beauty of minutes in a NICU, a bit of hope after a bout of chemotherapy, or a last whispered song to one’s dying wife, these are the true, remarkable moments of beauty, the beauty of life.
Here are some of our favorite viral moments that show that beauty.
Maureen Azize welcomed her first child 17 weeks early. At 1 pound, 9 ounces he had a 15% chance of survival. Over 118 days in the NICU his parents never stopped hoping, and praying, and believing that despite the circumstances their baby’s life had infinite worth, and they were going to fight for it. Watch the heartwarming video about how the director of Finding Nemo sent this family the courage to believe in baby Francis and how, with his parents undying love and round-the-clock care of a selfless hospital staff, Francis has been growing up perfectly healthy.
Mr. Ellis, a high school teacher from Tennessee who is beloved by his students recently started undergoing chemotherapy to fight an aggressive form of cancer. In the midst of unthinkable pain, complete exhaustion, and the temptation of hopelessness a surprise showed up outside his window: 400 students singing uplifting worship songs. In that moment, he explains, “I felt like I was not alone.”
Laura and Howard have been married 73 years. Laura is spending her last days in a hospice bedroom with her family. With Howard serenading her with their love song, the song that comforted her when he went away to fight in World War II. In these last precious moments lies an intimacy untouchable and unknown except to a couple who have shared a lifetime together.