My living will does not specify who receives my valuables after my death; besides political philosophy books, feminist T-shirts and sailing/backpacking gear, there’s really not much stuff anyway. I have a living will so that in the event of brain death, my body will not be sustained artificially like Terri Schiavo’s. Is this morbid? More than slightly neurotic? Sure. But I made the minor effort of finding a form, getting a few signatures and distributing two copies to friends so as to prevent what for me is the worst case scenario.
I came to recognize brain death with a living body as the worst case scenario when I saw it happen to my uncle. My uncle Chris has had severe Multiple Sclerosis for the last 20 years and has spent the last 10 in a nursing home because his wife is unable to care for him full-time. I have no memory of him functioning at “full capacity,” but I do have a sense of his decline. Chris is no longer able to fully recognize his brother, my father, or to follow the thread of a simple conversation. Despite this, his wife visits him twice a day and signs Christmas cards, “Love, Chris and Elinor.”
I have no idea whether my uncle would have wanted this. Maybe he would have been opposed to someone ending his life — by failing to provide treatment for infections or other ailments that have afflicted him. Perhaps he would have preferred this situation, because of the comfort his wife seems to find in care-taking for him. But I suspect not; moreover, all of his family would be more comfortable with the situation if Chris had considered the possibilities and made an explicit choice before his brain “went out of commission.”
I decided to write a living will after my last visit to Haverford, during which I stayed at Elinor’s house for lunch, but refused to humor her by paying a visit to Chris in the nursing home. This may have been rude, but my parents and I are always traumatized by seeing Chris in his vegetative state. I realized then that I would never want my parents, or anyone else who loved me, to suffer that way over my brain death. The other reason that prompted me was the sense of waste. In this case, Chris’s former employer, Haverford College, is picking up most of the tab for the nursing home. I didn’t want my body to demand that kind of indulgence, from society or my family.
Again, it really wasn’t that hard to do. I googled for a while, printed out the form for New Jersey residents, consulted with my parents, got it signed by three people and gave copies to my suitemates for safe-keeping. Compared to the peace of mind this gives me now, that effort was nothing. I may have special reasons for doing it — seeing my uncle’s state, having genes for M.S., and knowing that my father probably would be too distraught to follow my wishes otherwise — but I think that writing a living will is an extremely easy way to avert total disaster.
Sarah Goff is a junior in Trumbull College.