Date: 3 April 2005. Time: 11.03am. Mood: confused.
I blame it on Daylight Saving Time. Coming right on the heels of April Fools Day, DST returned to most parts of the US1 at 2.00am this morning and my brain feels like it was redesigned by Pablo Picasso. Maybe that's the reason that this past week's events continue to seem unreal.
The end of life is normally a private affair, but this past week, the deaths of two persons played out more or less in public. The big story, of course, was the death of Pope John Paul II. In the past, the lives and deaths of Popes – and the inner workings of the Vatican – were more or less hidden, but John Paul II was media-savvy and politically aware and much of his life was very public indeed. Anyone who listened to or read the news last week was aware of what was happening, as the Vatican issued bulletins as the Pope's condition changed. However, once the Pope's funeral has taken place on 8 April, the veil of secrecy will once again shield events from the public eye as the high muck-a-mucks of the Roman Catholic Church meet to elect John Paul II's successor. As a recognition of the instantaneous nature of today's communications, various electronic devices such as cameras, cell phones, recording devices, and PDAs are banned from the proceedings, and the room in which the proceedings will be held has been swept for bugs.
Some of the glimpses into Vatican protocol were interesting. My local newspaper contained the following tidbit of information:
The camerlengo4, now Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo of Spain, must then verify the death - a process which in the past was done by striking the forehead of the pope with a silver hammer. The camerlengo then calls out to the pope three times by his baptismal name - Karol, Karol, Karol. When the pope does not respond, the camerlengo then announces 'the pope is dead.'
To my addled 'Picasso brain', the silver hammer called up unfortunate memories of the Beatles' 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer'. But odd as the image is, a silver hammer is probably a more accurate diagnostic tool than that employed by US Senate Majority Leader William Frist who concluded, based on a video, that Terri Schiavo was not in a persistent vegetative state but instead 'minimally conscious', a diagnosis that contradicted the opinions of the many doctors who had examined her.
There probably isn't anyone in the US who doesn't know who Terri Schiavo was but, for the benefit of the rest of the world, Mrs Schiavo was the subject of a protracted and rancorous legal battle between her husband and her parents. In 1990 Mrs Schiavo fell into what was diagnosed as a persistent vegetative state following a heart attack; she was only 26 years old at the time. Afterwards she was capable of breathing on her own but required a feeding tube to provide water and food. Her husband insisted that she would not have wanted to be kept alive under such conditions, a contention with which her parents strenuously disagreed. The legal battles between them played out over the next 15 years and, in March, her feeding tube was disconnected; she died on 31 March.
From what I understand, the story didn't receive nearly as much coverage outside of the US and what there was was mostly of the 'there go those wacky Americans again' sort. Inside the US, the story dominated the news in March. The moral and legal battles provoked much discussion on:
The importance of leaving written instructions about your wishes, should you become incapable of making decisions about your medical care
Who should have the right to make such decisions in the absence of such instructions and how do you resolve conflicts among family members?
Do third parties have the right to interfere if they think that an injustice is being done?
All of the arguments boiled down to one: what does it mean to be human? When the brain structures that produce conscious thought no longer function, does the person remain? Even some of those who felt that Mrs Schiavo should be allowed to die in peace were squeamish about disconnecting her feeding tube, condemning her to die of thirst and starvation. Many felt that medical science doesn't know everything and that a society should err on the side of prolonging life. Despite the vehemence of their opinions, those on opposite sides of the controversy could at least agree that there would be no winners in this case, regardless of the outcome.
The Schiavo case has now taken a back seat to the death of Pope John Paul II in the American media. Oddly enough, in March the Pope had denounced the removal of Mrs Schiavo's feeding tube, only to find himself on one in the days before his death. Life is an ironic affair at times.
And life goes on. Sometimes that's the only conclusion one can draw. This wacky American is going outside for a walk in the spring sunshine; it may not sort out the world's mysteries, but it's a good cure for 'Picasso head'.