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For the week of September 10 - 16, 2003

Opinion Columns

Three deaths,
one regret

Commentary by JoEllen Collins


The headlines intrigued me: Idi Amin, most assuredly a 20th century monster by any standards, even compared to Hitler, had died in exile while on life support. I also noted an obituary for someone of about the same age: "J. Magno, Hospice Founder and Proponent, is Dead at 83," the New York Times said. I had contrary emotions at the news about these people, and then last week came the announcement, accompanied by media frenzy, of the murder in prison of Father Geoghan, the molester of 147 men and boys.

What surprised me was my instinctive reaction to the news of the three deaths. Like bookends, Amin and Geoghan both were hideous examples of mankind gone wrong. Both men murdered, Amin physically and Geoghan spiritually. Amin's villainy was immeasurable: the terror under which the Ugandans lived is inconceivable. I don't mean to minimize it. But also monstrous was the death of innocence experienced by the naive young who trusted and then were victimized by Geoghan, a priest who bore a weighty responsibility to his parishioners and to the God he supposedly served. Initially, both deaths elicited my base, atavistic response. I am ashamed to say that my gut reaction at Amin's death was that I was glad he was gone but sorry he hadn't suffered like some of his brutalized countrymen. A relatively peaceful death at around 80 (the exact year of his birth is unrecorded) seemed unfair, somehow. I suppose that is the same feeling that festers in lynch mobs or in people who bemoan the milder way inmates are now executed. It is a primitive thought, and one I am not proud to have let pass through my consciousness.

As for Father Geoghan, I acknowledged that he probably had a rather horrible death. For one thing, unlike Amin who was unconscious at the time, he probably knew what was happening. Secondly, being strangled must be one of the worst ends. So on that score, as far as any apelike residues of primordial wrath, I didn't feel that. Rather than wishing him a worse death, I had hoped he would live to ponder his sins for a very long life caged up and lacking any freedoms (those I cherish so). It is known that child molesters are hated by even the perpetrators of the most violent crimes. Most experts agree that their lives are not worth much unless they are protected from their fellow inmates. Apparently Geoghan wasn't sufficiently shielded from the murderous urges of a violent man said to have suffered abuse as a child. There is no excuse for the lack of protection for Geoghan; that logical truth is evident. Nonetheless, I imagine there are few who wasted much time in grieving his passing.

When I reach inside me to find my better self, I strive not to waste my life being wrathful or vindictive or indulging in the primitive emotions I felt when reading about these two deaths. I know better. Not only is it futile to wallow in those ugly feelings, but it is also none of my business. I do believe in something like Karma or a higher power or God wherein the scum of the world will find their just dues. At least, I hope so. And, while I don't want the judgmental God I was raised to think of as deciding whether I should be cast in hell for evil thoughts, I have to accept the concept that it is not my role to pass that judgment.

Perhaps I should, instead, keep standing up for the positive things and people I encounter. That's really all I can do, except try to help those in pain, to be tolerant, to strive to do the best I can in my little life so people won't rejoice in my passing. In fact, I wish I had led my life a little more like the woman featured in the obituary section with Idi Amin.

Dr. Josefina B. Magno was an oncologist who established some of the first hospice programs in the United States and, according to the Times, helped bring the hospice concept into the medical mainstream. Born in the Philippines, she died in Manila. It is amazing to me to read that the first research and teaching hospice was established as recently at 1967, reinforcing my gratitude for those dedicated to doing something positive in the world. I only wish hospice care had been available for my mother, who died in 1966, and for my father, who died in 1974. So I respond to the news of Dr. Magno's death with a bittersweet emotion. I am sorry that she has passed, as I should be for any human being, even knowing death is inevitable for us all, but I am tremendously grateful that she lived to see her vision fulfilled.

My mother's constant advice to me was to make an effort to leave the world a better place for my having been there. When I had moral decisions to make, she asked me to test the pros and cons against that standard. Perhaps the reaction I should have from reading about the demise of monsters and saints is that I am here for a reason, too. My mother's words are not a bad guideline when I assess my life and consider my own epitaph.

 

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