Brittany, as you move forward with your plan to end your life early, I wish to speak to you as one who was left behind.
On this day eighteen years ago (October 29, 1996), surrounded by family and loved ones, my late-husband, Mark Allan Van Horn, age 26, slipped peacefully through the veil that separates this mortal world from immortality. Like you, he suffered from a terminal and inoperable brain cancer. But we didn’t consciously know he was dying of an inoperable brain tumor because we were told it was not malignant or inoperable. It was an unusual plot twist written in his life’s script by God.
As you know, there is no good way to issue a diagnosis of brain cancer. Our Neurosurgeon did so with great finesse and tender bedside manner as he, too, had experienced brain cancer in his youth and knew what my husband was experiencing. He was one of the country’s top Neurosurgeons, and was optimistic and hopeful. He played his part well, and I held on to every optimistic line he said. Some of the lines from the script read: Mark’s tumor is in the center of his brain, and on scans looks to be benign...Mark has a 3% chance of complications, and the odds are in his favor. So, surgery was scheduled and I believed this unexpected plot twist in our story would play out and we would move forward in to the future and grow old together because to the Neurosurgeon this was just your every day, run-of-the-mill brain tumor, nothing to write a death legal script (also known as a will) over.
Despite the surgeon’s optimism, we were numb and in shock. Mark was often dizzy and could not drive very well anymore. I stared through the windshield as I drove us home. My usually jovial husband was quiet. Hardly an hour passed when he didn’t crack a joke or tease someone. He was a whirlwind of brilliant, happy sound. When he entered a room I felt his presence. It was like unto a mini earthquake. You can understand why his silence made me uneasy and afraid. I was too afraid I would not be strong enough to help him handle his fear and pain. Selfish, I know, but I was in deep and profound shock. In an effort to encourage my suffering husband I repeated the Neurosurgeon’s optimistic outlook. My words felt empty. Hollow. I didn’t know why that was so, and it scared me. Mark listened quietly. When I finished he said in a quiet and knowing way, “Alisa, I may be part of that 3%.” I was stunned by his words. He said it in a manner that was more like he was informing me rather than wondering. He wasn’t reading the script that I had planned and rehearsed in my mind. It wasn't the script we wrote when we laid in bed and planned our future together. He went off-script, was intuitively improvising, and I did not like how things were beginning to play out.
I slowly turned my head to look at him and instead of anguish, I saw something I had never seen before in the face of great suffering and illness. The only word I can use to describe it is like unto a still and spiritual knowing. I saw in his eyes that he knew that his time was short. He knew. I quietly panicked. I chose denial to soothe my heartache. I held on to the surgeon’s optimistic lines that said Mark’s death was not in the script. I memorized those lines to play them in my head as I held my husband while he dealt with the torturous pain in his head. I rehearsed those lines while he held his head and rocked back and forth in the fetal position on our bed. I played those lines in my head when my husband struggled to swallow a forkful of dinner and looked at me in fear as he tried not to choke. I played those lines in my head when I woke up one morning to see that his eyelid had drooped severely and his face had swelled up. I played those lines in my head when he vomited from the harsh steroids and pain killers that did nothing to control the pain and swelling. I played those lines in my head when my father showed up at our apartment doorstep with $2,000 to pay our bills and a folder with Living Will documents that he had the impression to bring to us. I played those lines in my head when my husband was too weak, tired, or nauseous to hold our baby boy.
Those lines were a counterfeit comfort.
Brittany, I saw your interview and words online and I heard you rehearsing lines of counterfeit comfort, and my heart aches for you.
The lines I rehearsed provided no comfort because they were devoid of the kind of truth that is endowed by God only. So I pulled myself together and stopped playing those lines. Instead, I followed my husband’s lead. He knew his time was short. I refused to acknowledge it. Still, he moved forward and made all things in his life right with God. Our marriage was stronger than it had ever been. This spiritual giant of a man found joy in spiritual things beyond that which he already had. I watched my young husband prepare to meet God.
The most significant part of the preparation was the glorious and oft misunderstood power of pure humility which he exercised to submit the suffering in his mind, body, and spirit to God. Every moment he chose life against great pain he gave my son and me the exquisite gift of association with him. My husband chose to submit himself to the refinement of suffering that gave birth to a new level of spiritual strength. He developed a deeper spiritual courage. Today’s culture uses scripts written by well-intentioned but misguided people who have disconnected from God enough to have forgotten the joy of the warmth of His light and comfort during bitter times of suffering. Suffering thus appears a form of God or self-inflicted inhumanity, thus making it seemingly logical and even moral to spin suicide as “humane”. It is a deceptive man-made doctrine with God excluded from the script. Mark’s perspective on death was that the breath of life was given to him and his loved ones by God, and therefore was not his to take away from himself or anyone else. He also believed that by taking one's own breath of life and discarding it, one was taking a gift from one's family, friends and the world.
Suffering can be a great teacher, and Mark suffered and learned a lot. He shared his journey with me. Despite his physical agony, my comfort was his primary concern. We had long and deep conversations about new things he realized about life, love, and God. It was as though his spiritual awareness was heightened. I was a pupil at the feet of a great teacher and I learned a lot through and from him. He helped me grow in ways that money cannot buy. I was forever changed as a person as I watched him spiritually triumph over physical suffering. Through the power of his example I learned the spiritual art of courage, joy, peace, selflessness, and keeping a sense of humor against all odds. I became more sensitive toward other people (still working on it), more sensitive to spiritual intuitions, more appreciative of simple things, and more willing to live a life of meaning and service. He was a conduit for the lessons he received from God to whom he prayed constantly. It was his comfort because none other could be found. Despite severe, debilitating pain and physical breakdown, through this real comfort I saw this 26-year-old man achieve heights of mental, emotional, and spiritual greatness I have seen nowhere else. And it comforted me. It was a great and terrible thing to see. Great because he achieved a spiritual prime that I still believe has no equal, and terrible because it was his deep suffering that caused him to dig deeper in to principles and virtues of eternal truths that created this transformation. I feel that you do not want to embrace this. And yet millions of us have and will through time. Have you wondered why that may be? Have you no desire to access this supernal gift of divine comfort to the natural end of your days God so willingly has given you?
His choice to turn suffering into spiritual substance is one of his greatest legacies one could leave. I have rejoiced in the opportunities I have had to share this with our son. Mark's teaching continues. This has given my son something great to which he may aspire: courage and faith in the face of suffering and fear. You see, most of us (millions upon millions) will suffer in the flesh. Most of us will not opt to assume our breath is ours to give up. Most of us will suffer through great illnesses unto eventual death. It is the way of humans since the beginning of Earth’s time. Certainly there will be times we will wish we could end it. But most of us won’t because deep inside us in spaces and places of the mind and heart we know just as Mark did, that death is a journey, and that there are great gifts and spiritual discoveries to be had. There are things we need to be taught. Like Mark, many people know that just as the breath of life is a gift from God, the gift of refinement in the journey of suffering is also from God, and is not ours to give away. Everything is a gift from God, even suffering, and those who refuse to see that refuse to see the refining value in their trials.
Mark suffered cruelly, but he saw the value in his experience, and he rose to the challenge with as many smiles as possible.
On the morning of October 28, 1996 he signed a Living Will, kissed and hugged our baby, me, his parents and mine. I cherish the last moments I ever saw him alive. He looked at my father and said,”Please take care of her and make sure she eats and rests.” He looked at me, said,”I love you.” The group stepped back as the surgical nurses wheeled him into surgery. He was facing our direction and waved and smiled. Then, in his typical style he said to the nurse with a coy smile,”I’m here to get my appendix out, right?” The rush of minor chaos this caused was hilarious and the last memory I have of my husband as a living person was his smile and his laughter at having successfully teased someone taking themselves far too seriously (one of his favorite pastimes). He smiled at us and then disappeared through the surgery doors. Just after surgery he suffered a massive stroke that cut off the supply of blood to the brain and never awoke.
At 10:00 pm on October 29, 1996, at just 21 years of age with a 10 month-old-baby boy, I was the one who had to decide to turn off life support and I began years of suffering the likes of which you will never know. A few days later the biopsy results showed that his brain tumor was a rare, malignant brain cancer that to that time no one had survived. It all felt so strangely familiar. I checked the script in my heart and mind. Mark’s death was there all along. Even I knew it, but I refused to acknowledge it. My choosing a counterfeit comfort caused me to see what I wanted to see, and not what actually was there all along, and it rendered me less effective as a support to my husband when he needed me most.
As one who was left behind, I had no choice but to move forward in time. For 18 years I have sorted out the contents of Mark’s life and have continued to learn from it. He still teaches me on mortal, spiritual, mental, and emotional levels, I believe your choice to end your life in a manner that assumes ownership of the breath of life is shortsighted and off-script. As the beneficiary of my late-husband’s spiritual submission to the Master Teacher of us all, I say that you are depriving your family of growth essential to their progression. You are depriving your husband and family of the opportunity to serve you as your needs increase. You are depriving the world of the light of your life. There is infinite value in the life of one who suffers. It is a humbling reminder to all that our lives are not about us. Our lives are about holding up the hand that hangs down.
I didn't take your plans seriously. I thought to myself that surely you would see that it was causing loved ones pain, and that you would have the eyes to see their pain and the joy they would have in just one more day, even one more hour with you. But the day of your planned departure is nearing and you have not changed your plans. Though you are sick and suffering, so are those around you. Mark taught me that those who through suffering gain access to sacred lessons of spiritual strength are under solemn obligation to share this strength. Your physical suffering will eventually end, and your loved ones anguish at your early loss will remain for the rest of their lives. The greater burden of suffering lies with them. With this in mind, surely you see my young friend, that like our Savior Jesus Christ, your life (including your suffering) is not all about you. Your life and death are not a one-man-show. Like the rest of us you are only writing certain parts of your script. There is a cast of characters and each character influences the story. Each character needs some level of development. When you take the writing of your script in to your own hands in the manner you have chosen, you cut the character development short for you and the other characters. You limit your ability to support these characters in their personal development and greatest time of need as they watch you suffer and eventually die. You rob the story of a more full and beautiful conclusion that features a final act of surrender to the spiritual requirements of triumph over suffering.
Today Mark's son is 18 years of age. He was raised to know of his father’s courage, peace, and noble legacy. Mark’s life script still influences his only son’s character and will continue to do so throughout his life. Being left behind by a loved one is an unusual experience. Even more unusual is purposefully leaving people behind prematurely to avoid that which is yet unknown to you that you have decided is of no value without having all the facts. My heart goes out to you in your time of excruciating sadness and pain. My heart goes out even more to those you will leave behind for their suffering will far exceed yours.
Would that you would put your beauty, pluck, and courage into spending a few more days with us on Earth rather than ending your story prematurely.
Though I am sad you are leaving early, I wish you the best as you journey onward. I pray you will meet my Mark in that glorious place that is merely on the other side of all we see, and learn at his feet. Don't mind his teasing. He means well.
Alisa Rafferty Fisher