Thus, corpses and newborns--powerless and nonverbal--become, helplessly, wordlessly, our most powerful tutors. Dealing with them in the flesh encodes the species with existential guides: We learn to love and grieve, to breed and disappear, to parent and let go, to marry and to mourn. It is at once so simple, so complex: John Bowlby wrote three door-stopper volumes on Attachment, Separation, and Loss. Love, wrote Boudleaux Bryant for Roy Orbison to sing, hurts.
God knows it does--whoever God is, wherever God is, whatever the Will of God turns out to be.
And none know it better than those who love Terri Schiavo--each damned if they do and if they don't, each cast as caricatures of good and evil, players in the red and blue state cartoon that has become our body politic, whilst their wife, their daughter, our fellow citizen and fellow human inhabits a space and time that is relentlessly gray. The fog of love and life and death rolls in and there are casualties.
Maybe we should all assume, in the sad theater of Ms. Schiavo's case, something like a default position. We could start by admitting first our failures, our faulty visions. We could make ourselves, so soon after the passionate, and holy, first week of spring, absent from the body politic, the legal and legislative wrangling, and present--by prayer or its secular equivalent--to the difficult mysteries of suffering and death and life enacting themselves in that quiet hospice room where Terri Schiavo occupies, God help her, God help us all, that perilous middle ground between ever-shifting borders of being and ceasing to be.
And maybe, disabused of every notion of control or rancor, righteousness and triumph, cause du jour, certainty, or truth, we could return to the original condition where we are all helpless fellow-pilgrims in search of the way home, praying that the cup passes, or the angel of death passes our people over today, or the paschal mysteries leave our tombs all empty in the end.
Ms. Schiavo is neither fully alive nor fully dead. Her loving parents, driven by faith and hope, argue that any life is better than none and yet their efforts to save her from death deny their daughter the full new life her faith lays claim to. Her loving husband, driven by faith and hope, seeks to save her from the extreme measures our science and technologies can bring to bear on the human being in extremis. And yet his motives are questioned because of his own embrace of life.
On either side there is more than enough suffering humanity to go around. The addition of lawyers and pollsters, jurists and politicos, placard bearers and op-eders (mea culpa, mea maxima culpa) will not be, if history is a guide, remedial. The din will make those intimate conversations between those most intimately involved impossible. More's the pity.
If there is a God, I am not it: This seems an agreeable article of faith. Whether we know or doubt, wish or wonder; whether we are certain and saved or simply waiting to see, we can agree to keep the difficult vigils of humanity, to be present to the suffering and dying, the dead and heartbroken, to bear witness to life and bear the dying and dead to the edge of a life we will learn to live without them. And there at that edge, we can let go, let God‑-whomever the God of our beginnings and ends turns out to be--take care of the living and the dead.
I've looked into the eyes of corpses and newborns, parents and children, lovers and spouses, the dead and the living to whom they matter. I've seen in each a straining to see the light, the shape of things, a vision or a sign that love is forever, hope is eternal, faith will see us somehow born again.
There's a depth to them, not unlike empty tombs. We've seen that look in Ms. Schiavo's eyes, and in her parents' and in her husband's and in our own. We have it in common: we are not God; we are mortals; we must close our eyes and leap into a darkness lit by faith to get our first real glimpse of What Is or What Isn't.