"Live this life and do what ever is done in a spirit of thanksgiving. Abandon attempts to achieve security, they are futile. Give up the search for wealth, it is demeaning. Quit the search for salvation, it is selfish. And come to comfortable rest in the certainty that those who participate in this life with an attitude of thanksgiving will receive its full promise."
-- St. Benedict
Recently, I watched the movie "Wit" again, in a rather paradoxical week centered around "health." It's hard to believe it's been almost ten years since I saw it. The first time I saw it, I had not been relocated to Kirksville for long, and it was before I found my way back to the church, and in some ways, my life was starting over. But it was very easy for me to identify with Emma Thompson's portrayal of English professor Vivian Bearing--an early middle aged, solo woman, tough and acerbic, who paradoxically taught about "love" through the poetry of John Donne with a very analytical, dispassionate surface. In the movie we see that this journey from the world of the healthy living to the world of the terminal cancer patient is more solo than we would like, simply because it's a journey others cannot physically take. But we also see how her personality makes this even more solo--she is involved with a clinical research trial in which very few people can withstand its rigor. Her toughness, I believe, is a part of her ability to endure it.
Yet, we discover she endures it to die anyway. We feel the futility in that, although there are many layers more than simply "futility." It's also what we don't see that is important. We don't see her reaching out to a support group, we see relatively few people in this movie other than the health care team. There is no sudden need to embrace humanity in a different way. This might not seem fulfilling to some watching the movie, but as a person possibly cut a little bit out of this mold myself, I get that. I saw it more as "this is kind of who she was before her ovarian cancer, and this is who she chooses to remain to be in this journey." She stays more or less true to herself. We see a few regrets in the flashbacks she experiences, the times she realizes she was a little less than kind to others, at times she yearns for a little more kindness. Yes, she is transformed in this experience, but it's a transformation that remains true to her deepest essence of self.
This most recent time I watched it, I had just finished my annual run of "health maintenance" with its usual paradoxes. Once again, in some ways, this year, I am the picture of health. It's not typical these days to be over 50 and be on no medications whatsoever. But in other ways, my chronic demons still dog me. I habitually get "run around the barn" over my mammograms, partly because of the problem with small, dense breasts, and partly because of a family history of a mother who had a significantly sized breast cancer with positive nodes at age 48. I had to deal with additional mammos again this year; in years past, this has also included ultrasounds and breast MRI's, and visits to breast cancer specialists. I am no fool--although I've managed to escape biopsy year after year, I realize I have a high chance this will not happen forever.
I had a little fun bragging about not being on any meds at my age on Facebook, but I also was being quite mum about the mammogram run-around. Oddly, I don't have much apprehension about that anymore and am rather fatalistic about it. I have given up worrying about it. It's out of my control. I find myself more irritated about the hassle associated with it than anything.
But this time, I keyed up on something entirely different in the movie. It was the part towards the end of the movie when the decision is made by Vivian's oncologist to put her on a morphine drip rather than patient-controlled analgesia (PCA.) The first time I watched the movie, I felt anger over her doctor not giving her an option to control her pain herself. I felt a sense of betrayal to her on the part of the physicians. It felt like, "Well, she's no good to them now because the chemo failed, so they just don't care how she feels about it."
I'm no stranger to dying people and what "morphine drip" means. Once someone is put on a morphine drip, he or she is basically no longer going to be functioning in our world. It's a time that death is imminent. It's the beginning of being in a very thin place between this world and the next. When I watched it this time, I no longer felt that anger. What I came to realize is all Vivian wanted was for the pain to stop. What I saw was Vivian's nurse's projections about the PCA. Her nurse was wanting the option. I'm not sure, now, seeing this again, that Vivian herself truly cared. I heard her physician say something that I glossed over the first time I watched it--"She's earned her rest." What I came to realize this conflict was as much about the fact her nurse had begun to feel a caregiver's intimacy towards Vivian, and she was not ready to end the relationship.
What I realize has happened in the ten years since I first saw this movie, is that I have changed. Ten years ago, when I projected myself in the place of someone with terminal ovarian cancer, I would have wrestled for every shred of control I could have bargained for in this scenario. I would have wanted the illusion of control of the PCA pump for as long as I could have withstood it. You see, there's some control with PCA, but there is also an illusion. Once you reach the maximum dose per time, you push the button, you hear the "ding," but it doesn't give you any more morphine beyond the programmed limit. It's a placebo. It's an illusion of control. It may or may not control the pain.
Also, ten years ago, I think I would have been more alone in this journey than I believe I would now. I would have kept everyone at arms' length. I would still do that to some extent now, but I believe there would be more people allowed closer now. In the ten years that have elapsed since I first saw this movie, I have entered into community in a different way. I think when I project myself in this scenario now, I would opt for control of my pain only until I had the opportunity to sacramentalize moving to that thin place in the world of the morphine drip. I think I'd get the folks I care about the most to be with me, we'd celebrate the Eucharist together, and then, when we all said our goodbyes, it would be time for the morphine drip.
I used to think that "bravery in the face of terminal illness" meant fighting as long as I could. As the years go by, and I watch people I know move from this world to the next, I have come to realize the true bravery is more about making the best choices--best not just for self, but in the way that creates more lasting meaning for those left to carry on. I have become more willing to accept that the true bravery is knowing when to enter the thin places with an accepting heart.
The other striking thing about this movie is just before her death, the return of her mentor, now quite aged, for one last visit. In the end, it is not the multilayered, complex words of John Donne that give Vivian comfort--in fact, even in her opiated state she makes it clear it is NOT what she desires. Instead, it is the words of the childhood story, "The Runaway Bunny." Yet we see the multiple metaphorical layers just the same.
It is why I am grateful I have many modest-sized chunks of the Book of Common Prayer embedded in my neurons. I think even if I were in a state where my sensorium was clouded, some of those would never leave me. In that sense, I would never be alone in the thin places.
Ten years later, this is still a fascinating and deep enough movie to move me to tears--but in different places now. I feel less of the anger I used to feel about the dance of medicine, terminal illness, and self than I used to--and I am now reminded that as children of God, we should never fear the thin places.