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Musing on the unpredictability of birth and death

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Aug 24, 2012

The birth of a delightful new grandson, and then the death of an esteemed old friend, have prompted me to think about how unpredictable these events usually are.

Many of life’s other important moments—Baptisms and First Communions, weddings and ordinations, graduations and retirements, awards and elections—occur on a set schedule. But under ordinary circumstances, our first entry and final exit cannot be so carefully planned.

The time comes, certainly, when doctors can say “any day now” to a woman in the last week of pregnancy, or to the family of someone in the late stages of terminal illness. But rarely doctors predict the exact day, let alone the hour, when Mother Nature will finally make her move.

This can be inconvenient: for the impatient woman waiting to see her child; for the nervous husband wondering whether he should go to work or stay home; for the grieving family trying to make plans; even for the elderly patient coping with pain. The time can come when everyone is ready. The pregnant woman has dusted off the nursery for the umpteenth time. The dying man has made his confession and spoken to all his loved ones. Then everyone just waits.

Waiting is something that we humans don’t do very well, and I suspect we 21st-century humans are even worse than are ancestors. We almost hear the clock ticking. We feel that we should be doing something. But there’s nothing, really, that we can do. Or rather, there is nothing that we should do.

Sometimes, the inconvenience of waiting can shade off into a medical necessity. Doctors sometimes decide that the health of a pregnant woman or her unborn child would be endangered by continuing the pregnancy, so they schedule a Caesarean delivery. If it is done for legitimate medical reasons this is entirely proper. But if it’s done simply for convenience—of the doctor, the woman, or the medical facility—it is an abuse.

At the other end of life the temptations are much greater. The patient may be suffering, unconscious, incapable of making decisions. The doctors may be frustrated by their inability to do anything to stem the progress of the disease. The hospital may need the bed for another patient—someone who might even benefit from treatment. Family members may have made a long trip to see their dying relative; now they wonder whether they should return home or stay for the funeral. Nurses might question whether the patient could be moved to hospice care, or whether there’s enough time left to justify that commotion. For everyone involved, it would be so much more convenient to know when death is likely to occur.

Ah, there’s the rub. With a bit of medical intervention we can arrange for a more “timely” death. Sedatives and painkillers can accelerate the process. It’s easy to justify ramping up the doses, since of course we don’t want the patient to suffer.

Just a few generations ago, most sick and elderly people died at home, watched by family members in their final hours. The tug of inconvenience was not so great; the temptations to intervene were not so strong. In our restless technological era, when we like to schedule things so carefully, it’s worth reminding ourselves that ultimately our lives are in God’s hands, not our own. We make our debut and take our leave on His schedule, not our own.

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  • Posted by: John J Plick - Aug. 28, 2012 5:04 PM ET USA

    God ALWAYS knows what He is doing..., we just prefer not to live that way... We don't give Him the credit, we don't give thanks for reasonable discipline... So we are caught flat-footed in these areas when it is most obvious to everyone else that we are not in control... God is NOT the tyrant..; it is "us..."

  • Posted by: caroleuhlarik4443 - Aug. 24, 2012 9:47 PM ET USA

    Very good words, worth reminding ourselves indeed. Didn't Padre Pio say almost the same thing, that we're just like babies being carried in our loving mother's arms? So really, what's there to worry about? "Pray, hope, and don't worry."

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