(Anne Taylor Fleming, a longtime commentator for "The NewsHour
with Jim Lehrer," is now a columnist for Los Angeles Magazine.
The opinions expressed are her own.)
By Anne Taylor Fleming
Jan 15 There has been an ugly and sad pile-on by
two people who ought to know better and a young woman fighting
against cancer. It started - as these things can - in the
blogosphere, where Lisa Bonchek Adams, mother of three and
terminal cancer patient, has been chronicling her battles in
sometimes raw detail.
Her tweets are full of pain, literal and emotional.
Apparently, her revelations have proved too much for journalists
Emma Gilbey Keller and Bill Keller. In a post on
theguardian.com, Ms. Keller suggested that Adams has gone over
"Should there be boundaries in this kind of experience?"
Keller wrote. "Is there such a thing as TMI? Are her tweets a
grim equivalent of deathbed selfies?"
For starters - before we get to the heart of the thing - do
you really want to be hip and clever by tossing around the word
"selfie" when talking about someone dying? Death, after all, can
be pretty personal.
Then her husband, Bill Keller, former executive editor of
the New York Times, weighed in on the Op-Ed page of his paper,
perhaps coming to his wife's defense. He contrasts Adams'
adamant and self-revelatory fight with his father-in-law's calm
death from cancer in a British hospital." That, said Keller, was
a "humane and honorable alternative to the frantic medical
trench warfare that often makes an expensive misery of death in
Emma Keller may sound a bit mean-spirited. Her husband's
remarks, more sober and big picture, are aiming at something
larger, however. He is examining one of today's hot topics: How
Everywhere you turn now, dying is getting big play. No doubt
because we noisy boomers are aging. We are burying our parents
and our spouses and our friends - reckoning with the processes
and the losses.
There are good books being written, like Katy Butler's
"Knocking on Heaven's Door" and even TV reality series like
Showtime's "Times of Death." I read the former but couldn't take
too much of the latter. This is tough stuff, not to be made
light of by cutesy references to selfies.
At least Bill Keller is trying to raise those legitimate
questions everyone seems to be asking now. The problem is he is
doing it over Adams' failing body. He's got the wrong person,
the wrong patient.
Keller's father-in-law was 79 when he died, almost a
lifetime older than Adams, who is in her 40s. If you are in the
middle of life, with young kids, fighting like a tiger to stay
around for a few more years - to see a graduation from middle
school or a prom dress - makes a damn lot more sense than if you
are in your later years. I would do it in a heartbeat; would
have done it.
Not to see this and make a major distinction is a failure of
imagination. Adams is not an old woman. She is flailing against
the injustice of a premature death.
There is also an underlying prissiness in the Kellers'
approach, a kind of preference for a stiff-upper-lip approach to
death. Call it more British, if you wish. Let's keep the
emotional water level down. Let's not let it all hang out.
But attending someone who is dying is not about keeping the
emotional water level down. That is hard to do when you hold
someone who is nauseated from chemo; or change a diaper on a
once-robust-now-frail mother; or bandage a husband who has taken
a fall and cracked his head open, spilling blood everywhere,
because of the Coumadin he is taking.
Because it is messy and heartbreaking, this ending business
- if you are present, truly present. It can even be messy and
heartbreaking and painful if the patient is in hospice care, the
increasingly promoted gentler way of dying. Leaving the earth
can still be fierce - for the patient and for those who love him
or her - even without the expensive, life-prolonging
We all have to be careful not to imply there is a right way
to die. I have learned, watching the three people I have
recently lost - my mother, my husband and my best friend since
high school - that people should get to choose how hard they
want to fight and when they want to go.
To question a young woman grasping at life-prolonging
interventions is simply cruel. I have a close friend, Dikla
Benzeevi, who is, like Adams, a Stage IV breast cancer survivor.
She knocks me out and makes me feel small. I met her some years
ago, when she was just finishing her first round of chemo. She
was in her 30s and had never been in love. Kids, whom she had
longed for, were now out of the question. A year later, the
cancer came roaring back and she has been fighting the beast
ever since: spine surgeries and endless rounds of chemo and
those nasty pills that suppress your hormones so you are dry and
scratchy all through your being, from skin to soul (so sex with
the boyfriend you always longed for and finally got can be
difficult; is this TMI for Emma Keller?).
Like Adams, Benzeevi has gone public, starting support
groups and turning herself into an international spokeswoman for
young women with breast cancer. Death is always close. Of the 10
women in one of her support groups, Benzeevi is the only one
left. Like Adams, she will keep raising her voice until she
Even for those who are older, the choices about how to die,
about how hard to fight, about when to give up, are intensely
personal. I don't think any of us know how we will react when
that times comes - the Kellers included. They might have a moral
and personal leaning toward going in a decorous, uncontested
fashion, but I just don't think that is assured.
Along with Benzeevi, three other people I am close to are
now engaged in major cancer battles. I am rooting for them with
everything in me. Some are more public about their battles than
others. Fine; that's a choice, too.
Obviously, if someone becomes incapacitated and the medical
wizards plow on doing their life-saving thing, there are issues
- as Butler's book makes beautifully and painfully clear.
Obviously we all need to talk more about advanced directives and
hospice and all that.
In fact, we are talking about it. People like Adams are
helping advance the conversation in its rawest, saddest form. We
owe her a thank you, not a clever, rhetorical slap on the wrist.
And the Kellers owe her an apology.
(Anne Taylor Fleming)