Heaven Can Wait

Omar Aleman, Aleman and Associates

Ken Harrison is a distinguished Boston area sculptor who is involved in a horrific car accident which leaves him completely paralyzed. He can no longer work with his hands, walk, feed himself or perform any activities that have any semblance of a normal existence. He is tortured by his very active mind, his dreams are stunted, his passions are a thing of the past and he will be under constant medical care until his demise. He wants to end his life but is physically unable to commit suicide in the hospital, so he requests to be released, only to receive a steadfast refusal from the institution, being they are aware of his plans, and they cannot ethically allow him to leave and face a certain death. Finally, a legal battle ensues between the patient and hospital regarding their “rights” before society.

Maggie Fitzgerald, a waitress living in Los Angeles, decides to become a professional boxer with almost no experience in the field. She asks Frankie Dunn, a tough no-nonsense trainer, to take her under his wing, but he refuses, given he claims she is too old to get involved in the sport. Finally, Frankie reluctantly becomes her manager, and she quickly enjoys a meteoric career until she gets to fight for the women’s welterweight championship, a million dollar match. During the fight, she breaks her neck and ends up a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic. Maggie then asks Frankie to end her life, and again, reluctantly, he does just that. Devastated by the experience, Frankie never returns to the gym. 

The first is the setting for “Whose Life Is It Anyway”, a 1981 film starring Richard Dreyfuss, while the second is the plot line for the movie “Million Dollar Baby” which featured Clint Eastwood and Hillary Swank. They were both excellent motion pictures which handled the euthanasia issue from different perspectives, yet the two leaned towards a pro-choice death approach. Here we see the perspective of consenting to a “mercy killing” in order to allow “death with dignity.” Anyone who has seen a loved one suffer during the latter part of their infirmity, watching them fight for every breath for days on end, and then agreeing to hospice care while praying to spare their suffering and witnessing their last agonizing minutes can understand that perspective. After all, how much torment do you watch someone go through until “we give them a hand?” The question for the Christian community then should be, how does this pragmatic worldview perform under “the spiritual litmus test?”


Grappling with suffering

heavenAt the heart of the matter is the age-old question as to why God allows suffering. As followers of Christ, we must readily admit that we live in a broken world, and suffering is the result of man’s sin against God. But in His perfect and sovereign plan, He uses our ordeals as refocusing tools for us to develop our faith. Our tribulations force us to embrace the reason for our hope, to grasp its redemption and purpose and for serious life inventories. They are available for us to share with those in the midst of a calamity in order to help them achieve peace and rest. His plan was built on love, something one must choose through free will, a “two-bladed sword” to say the least. Yet, these two extremes flow effortlessly throughout Scripture, for the Word is essentially a story about how suffering leads to glory.

 And when it comes to contrasts regarding life and death, the world adjusts best to Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest. On the other hand, our marching orders as professing Christians are to adhere to the Sixth Commandment since “life is a God-given precious gift, as we are fearfully and wonderfully made by His workmanship and only He determines our days.” Notwithstanding, our faith is put to the test when we are in the middle of life’s storms. What happens to us when we are faced with the responsibility of making a death or life decision when it comes to our loved ones?


Life and death decisions

On three separate occasions, I was the designated health care surrogate to very close family members. All, as their illnesses progressed, agreed that their treatment should be discontinued once it was no longer curative and was occurring strictly to prolong life. When they became comatose and were clinging to life by medical intervention only and treatment became “futile,” the time came for me to make “The Decision.” Am I playing God here? How do I deal with family members that may disagree with this conclusion? Is there nothing else we can do? And when I did sign the documentation allowing pain management only, it was done with much trepidation. And as I witnessed all three take their last gasp, I could not shake the burden of subordinate culpability.

And then one December day several years ago brought clarity to the issue. I was visiting a nursing home as part of one of my ministries and there I met Manuela, an elderly Brazilian lady. As we prepared Christmas cards to be sent to her numerous family members around the world, she told me that the doctors had determined that she had only weeks to live given her advanced ailment. She felt like she was ebbing away, as her pain increased and her energies decreased. Then Manuela surprised me by sharing that she was looking forward to her latter days, for she knew that the Lord “had something up his sleeve” since painful episodes in her life always ended in hope and joy. And then she took me to 1st Peter 5:10 and 2nd Corinthians 4:17 where we are told “that after suffering we will be restored and that our momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that outweighs them all.” This frail lady was not troubled with what laid ahead for she knew God would be holding her hand until He took her spirit. And to top it off, as they carted her off in a wheelchair, she said to me, “I will not see you again here, but I will look for you in Heaven.”

We can somewhat control quality of life, but quality of death is another matter. My stepfather passed twelve hours after being put in hospice care whereas my mother lingered for almost ten days. I have no idea what God has in store for me but clearly understand my life is not mine, but His, in contrast to the title of the first movie. In God’s eyes we are worth much more than a million dollars for He considers us precious. Whatever occurs between now and my last breath is His call and I trust Him to “take care of business.”  Suffering precedes glory… and soon Manuela and I will resume our conversation.


Omar Aleman

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