FROM OUR COMMUNITY: Religion and Disability

FROM OUR COMMUNITY: Religion and Disability
Editor's note describing two columns by John Schatzlein, who died earlier this summer.

Religion and Disability: The best is yet to come

By John Schatzlein (2000)

As we prepare to celebrate the many strides that have been made in the last 10 years with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an article from the publication Inroads came to mind. Inroads is a monthly publication that highlights strides that parishes are making in becoming more inclusive.

This article is a reflection on resurrection. Whether you are a believer in resurrection or not, this article is also a positive look to the future. People say, “The best is yet to come.” So it is also with the ADA. There was a woman who had been diagnosed with a terminal illness and had been given three months to live. So as she was getting her things in order, she contacted her priest and had him come to the house to discuss her final wishes. She told him which songs she wanted sung at her funeral, which scripture readings she would like read, and what outfit she wanted to be buried in. The woman also requested to be buried with her favorite Bible.

Everything was in order and the priest was preparing to leave when the woman suddenly remembered something important to her. “There’s one more thing,” she said. “What’s that?” was the priest’s reply.

“This is very important,” the woman said. “I want to be buried with a fork in my right hand.” The priest stood looking at the woman, not knowing quite what to say.

“Does this surprise you?” she said.

The bewildered priest said, “Well, to be honest, I’m puzzled by this request.”

The woman went on to explain. “In all my years of attending socials and potlucks dinners, I always remember that when the dishes from the main course were being cleared, someone would inevitably lean over and say, ‘Keep your fork.’ It was my favorite part because I knew that something better was coming … like velvety cake or deep dish apple pie, something wonderful or with substance. So I just want people to see me there in that casket with a fork in my hand and I want them to wonder, why the fork? Then I want you to tell them ‘Keep your fork. The best is yet to come.’”

The priest’s eyes welled up with tears of joy as he hugged her goodbye. He knew this would be one of the last times he would see her before her death. But he also knew that this woman had a better idea of heaven than he did. She knew something better was coming.

At the funeral, people were walking by the woman’s casket and they saw the pretty dress she was wearing, and they saw her favorite Bible and they saw the fork placed in her right hand. Over and over, the priest heard them ask, “What’s with the fork?”

During his homily the priest told the congregation of the conversation he had had with the woman shortly before her death. He also told them about the fork and what it symbolizes to her. He went on to tell people how he could not stop thinking about the fork. As he ended the sermon, he said, “Always remember, the best is yet to come.”

So, when you pick up your fork, remember that, because of the ADA, the best is yet to come!

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Million Dollar Baby & The Sea Inside – How Do I Feel?

By John Schatzlein (2005)

I had not heard the plot of the movie Million Dollar Baby until the buzz when Eastwood, Hillary Swank, Morgan Freeman and the movie were nominated for Academy Awards. I went to see it knowing that in the end Maggie (Swank) became a C1-3 quadriplegic, on a ventilator and was assisted in dying by Frankie (Eastwood) her trainer.

While watching the movie, I was asking myself, “Can I be honest in writing about my feelings at the end of the movie.” I have spent 34 years in rehabilitation and have seen many newly injured spinal cord individuals (SCI) and many with high cervical fractures that prevented their breathing without mechanical assistance. All these years, many working with and serving SCI folks certainly made me biased. I believe that with proper emergency medical care, the proper surgical intervention and quality rehabilitation education and management, a newly injured person and their families need time to begin to look at the functional changes to their body, not as a death or completely unsatisfying/ poor quality life sentence, but rather as an event that, while catastrophic, does not have to remain that way.

Certainly, I can identify with Maggie, who felt there was no purpose for continued life. Like her, they attempted to end their lives themselves or asked others to assist. Some were successful. What I know of the common denominator of these later individuals, unfortunately experienced many of the rationales presented justifying Maggie’s choice. Maggie came from a very difficult home environment, one that seemed to become worse after her father was no longer in her life.

Maggie showed determination, a sense of ownership for her path and a willingness to accomplish her goal with financial success to make her life better. After the unusual cause of her neck fracture, post round ending bell, a blindsided punch by the champion who had been previously knocked down, the stage was dramatically set to change her life.

What bothered me was that the hospitalization sequences weren’t very real; although I am certain newly injured individuals do not always get to trauma centers and don’t always get the highest quality of services that are available. Many individuals, with support, can choose to move forward in spite of their physical limitations and experience all they can out of life.

I cannot agree with the assisting of her death here. As a general rule I am fearful that as a society we are becoming too willing to accept uninformed individuals making their choice to end their lives. The fear of being a burden to our spouses, kids or others are commonly expressed by persons with disabilities or older American. Add to these fears, society’s constant emphasis on the health care costs and suggestions that severely disabled persons lives are costing too much money. Devaluation of individual worth is on the rise once again. It would appear that at least.

The Sea Inside is based on a true story that focuses on the life of Ramón Sampedro; a Spanish man paralyzed from the neck down who pursues legal action that will allow him to end his own life. Cared for lovingly by friends and family, Ramón has nevertheless reached a decision, after 26 years confined to his bed, that he does not want his life to continue.

While not able to view it due to its limited showing here in the Twin Cities, my questions would be, why he was confined to his bed, where in Spain did he live and was he provided with opportunities for stimulating, self-directed and controlled activities. This film won best foreign film.

Million Dollar Baby won best actress, best supporting male actor, best director and best picture. The Ragged Edge, Edition February 3, 2005 reports that Eastwood states: “I never thought about the political side of this when making the film.” There’s the rub. Eastwood and his film’s liberal supporters have somehow failed to see – and perhaps worse yet, failed to examine – why disabled people would be hurt and offended. Is the notion of preferring to die rather than choosing to live with a disability so commonplace it merits no reflection by able-bodied movie directors, film critics and audiences?

Moreover, are the feelings of real, live disabled people so irrelevant in our culture they aren’t even considered when movies such as Million Dollar Baby and The Sea Inside are made?”

In all honesty, I could see how Maggie came to her decision at that point in time. I could also feel the turmoil and difficulty of the choice Frankie dealt with as he weighed her request and ultimately gave in to her request. Still euthanasia is, it appears, being promoted for elderly, severely disabled or incapacitated including infants or children. More and more states are taking up the issue. We must stay vigilant, caring, informed and on the defense. Out of control decisions seem to be a sign of the times.