Covering Death with Dignity
Two Weeks of Life: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Politics
By Eleanor Clift
340 pages; $26
Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp
Carl Sessions Stepp (firstname.lastname@example.org), AJR's senior editor, teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
The day her husband died, journalist Eleanor Clift stood in her front yard, shaky and self-conscious as his body was loaded into an undertaker's van. "I hate the idea of everybody watching," she remembers thinking. "This is a private moment, a private death. But then I say immediately after, Why should I care? Death is natural... What am I hiding?"
Reporters like Clift, it turns out, aren't good at hiding. They live and work naturally in the open air, and that is what Clift does in this intimate, moving and journalistically insightful book.
In part, "Two Weeks of Life" is "a love story as much as it is a journey to life's end." It tracks the last days of Tom Brazaitis, a popular Washington correspondent for Cleveland's Plain Dealer struck down by kidney cancer and dying at home under hospice care and his wife's solace.
But it also follows the parallel story, happening simultaneously, of Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged Florida woman also in her final days. Her case had touched off a right-to-die brouhaha, a "high-decibel, often hysterical debate" ensnaring Congress, the president, and state and federal judges.
Clift, a Newsweek contributing editor and a panelist on "The McLaughlin Group," finds herself living one of these stories, and reporting and commenting on the other.
Falling back on her journalistic training, she manages what seems a superhuman balance: fitting her own painful story into a larger context and finding a tone both thoroughly professional and deeply personal. She is never mushy or melodramatic, but the book fully conveys her passion for her family and her calling.
It also conveys her scorn for the media circus swirling around Schiavo. And it suggests a model for today's journalists, striving toward a voice that transcends outdated protocols of detachment and distance without sinking into chatroom self-indulgence.
For Clift, everything starts with reporting. She researches her husband's story, to the point of interviewing his therapist for "understanding of Tom's thinking during this period." To better grasp the Schiavo case, she talks with doctors, ethicists, even former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
Her journey with Brazaitis began when they met and became friends around 1976. They grew closer when their marriages broke up and were married in 1989. Ten years later, he was diagnosed with kidney cancer. Despite surgery, cutting-edge immunotherapy and radiation, the cancer spread to his lungs and brain. Late in 2004, doctors recommended home hospice care.
Clift recounts the story in a sober, straightforward way. Toward the end, "He had a routine dental cleaning scheduled..I agonized before canceling it. Somehow giving up on his teeth meant giving up on him."
In March 2005, as his death neared, Clift was also drawn into the Schiavo case, in which a sad personal tragedy had ballooned into a carnival on cable TV.
Schiavo had collapsed in her home in 1990 and slipped a few weeks later into what doctors called a "permanent vegetative state." After 15 years, her husband decided to remove her feeding tube, but her parents challenged him in court.
Suddenly politicians pounced. Even though numerous judges had upheld the husband's right to end treatment, demonstrators surrounded the hospice, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush suggested Schiavo might have been misdiagnosed, federal legislation was introduced to block action by her husband and President Bush said he stood ready to sign it.
Ultimately the husband prevailed, the feeding tube was removed, and the U.S. Supreme Court turned down appeals. Thirteen days later Schiavo died – one day after Tom Brazaitis.
Amid her own travails, Clift took time to research the Schiavo story and discussed it on television. In her book she presents a balanced view but expresses her conclusions firmly. She reproaches "America's political leaders" for "making a mockery of her last days" in a "massive exercise in pandering to the conservative base."
While Clift recognizes that her husband's quiet natural death at home differs from the turbulent Schiavo saga, she seems particularly sensitive to the dignity and privacy all such human dramas deserve.
Clift doesn't dwell on journalism itself or the media's role in sensationalizing Schiavo's case. But her overall message speaks eloquently. Who if anyone benefited from the oversimplified hype of the Schiavo coverage? By comparison, Clift's unsparing, well-reported and calmly passionate personal story proves far more informative and affecting. "Two Weeks of Life" is indeed about life and death, but it offers a sizable lesson about journalism as well.