It was the defining moment that saved his life. Hearing her husband's desire to die, Dana Reeve 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 2004, he had taught all humanity of the infinite 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. His wife Terri made a casual comment to him-or so he claims-that should she ever be reduced to a severely disabled state, she would want to die. Schiavo has certainly devoted himself to fulfilling her request.
Unlike the Reeves, in this particular exchange between wife and husband there was apparently never an attempt to encourage Terri to embrace life. Michael Schiavo could easily have said, "Honey, however you are, I will always love you. So get such silly ideas out of your head." Instead, he 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 husbands left in America.
I recognize that there is a difference between physical paralysis and mental incapacity, and that in this sense the Reeve and Schiavo stories differ. But the central similarity is that both involve one spouse revealing to the other the wish to die if he or she became mentally or physically incapacitated. In the Reeve case, a wife sees it as her obligation to inspire her husband to choose life. In the Schiavo case, the husband makes not even a limited effort to dissuade his wife from her death wish, although she is speaking with him as a young person in her early twenties.
Moreover, are physical paralysis and mental incapacity really that different? To a man like Christopher Reeve, who led an extremely active life, being confined to a wheelchair was the worst thing that could happen. And yet his wife told him he had not changed, that there was something inside him that could never be broken. His quintessence had not been affected by the fall.
The same is true for the mentally handicapped. Doesn't a parent love his child even if the child is born with the most severe mental infirmity? Can't a man remain devoted to his wife if she loses her mental faculties? We see this kind of devotion in spouses of Alzheimer's patients all the time. Clearly, Michael Schiavo does not share this perspective. Whatever he once saw in his wife was lost as soon as she suffered severe brain damage.
Like many rabbis, priests, and pastors, I have sat with people who wanted to kill 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 G-d 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 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 G-d 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 regard 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 go away and let this poor woman's parents take care of her.
There have been numerous press reports that Scott Peterson, convicted of murdering his wife and unborn son, has been receiving marriage proposals in prison. I suppose that given the desperate loneliness of so many people, this is not completely surprising. Michael Schiavo already has a new relationship, and children, with another woman for whom he abandoned his wife. I wonder if that woman is pondering what her fate might be if, G-d forbid, she suffered a calamity similar to Terri's.
As for the rest of us, let's remember this is the richest country in the world. We can afford to provide food and care 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 G-d die a most brutal and barbaric death?