"Preaching to bishops," an anonymous pal among the reverend clergy once told me, "is like farting at skunks. Sooner or later you're going to lose." The longer I live, the more certain I become of the ominous truth of this peculiar bromide.

Lately I've been rereading testimony from public hearings held in 1996 by a congressional subcommittee on assisted suicide. It's a subject I associate with this season of the constricting calendar and shortened days. One rt. reverend bishop, who may as well remain nameless, advised the Honorable Members that "the prolongation of a person's days in a meaningless breathing body is not a witness to the sacredness of life." Furthermore, His Eminence affirmed, "when the options are clear and a patient knows that he or she faces days, weeks, perhaps even a few months of expensive, pain-filled, not always conscious life with no hope of long-range cure, then at least I, as one citizen, want to be given the right, morally and legally, to make a decision for myself. I want the ability to weigh the value of those additional days, weeks, or even months of my existence against the costs that my family would have to pay, both in terms of their financial resources and their emotional reserves."

What His Grace was asking for, of course, was a choice. How very postmodern. Such a comfort to think that even our mortality has its options. The spectacle of a moral leader asking politicos for existential rights has left me a devoutly wary religionist. If the Cross is a symbol of suffering and death, what is the proper icon for Choice? A Question Mark? Say, cast in bronze or cut in stone?

Where choice is enshrined, we must suffer our choices. Where life is sacred, we must suffer our lives.

My grandmother's name was Marvel Grace, and it seemed to suit her; she abounded in both. The year before she would have been 90, on the Sunday after Christmas she had a stroke. It should have killed her--the good death for a good and faithful servant of God.

But it didn't. It paralyzed her. It left her bedfast and dependent, a sweet soul and brilliant mind trapped in a meaningless breathing body. She had survived and thrived through two world wars, the Great Depression, Korea, long years of widowhood, the rearing of children, Vietnam, and Vatican II. She said her rosaries, went to daily mass, made novenas, and had a prayer for every contingency. Lose your keys? Say, "Baby Jesus lost and found," and they would turn up. Selling your house? Bury a statue of St. Joseph in the backyard upside down. "The answer to most prayers," she often told me, "is wait and see." In the devout and idolatrous style of the Irish, she kept her faith.

At about this same time, I was losing mine. When this proud and proper woman found herself dependent on nurses and doctors and her daughters, between diapers and catheters, spoon-feedings and ever-more-hopeless prognoses, I shook my fist in the face of God, asking what exactly was the message here.

When the convalescence turned into a kind of vigil, when the days and weeks and months rolled by, eating up her teacher's pension, her little savings, indignity after indignity being heaped upon her, I could see how everyone was suffering. There was pain, real pain--psychic, spiritual, bodily pain--and we were helpless. My mother and my mother's sister divided the days at the nursing home, determined that their mother would not be left alone. All we could do was watch and listen for the hand or voice of God in all this.

Hearing nothing, seeing nothing, once while visiting, I asked my grandmother: What do you think God had in mind by leaving a devout and faithful woman to linger through month after month of miseries?

She said she thought it was a mystery. Maybe, she told me, what God had in mind was that some fellow pilgrim--a nurse or a doctor or a perfect stranger--might see in her acceptance of God's plan for her life, however flawed it was, the power of faith to transcend whatever the worst things were that happened. Maybe, she told me, it was her mission, by her slow dying, to quicken someone else's faith. Maybe her suffering had a meaning after all.

She died that August. That was years ago. And though I am blessed with doubts and wonders, nothing in my life or times since then, not even the bishops and politicos, has ever disabused me of her abiding faith--the marvel and the grace of it, her witness and her gift.

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