A Matter of Life & Death

by Steven R. Van Hook
June 3, 1994
Santa Barbra News-Press

The cremated ashes spilt from our plane swirled in the misted sky, then dispersed over the white-capped sea into a puff of nothingness. Our dipped wing righted itself, and we flew homeward. 

My father spent his final weeks, months and years in agony, fighting for each tortured breath. He had lived decades smoking Camel no-filters, and toiled more than a quarter century breathing in the dust of a diatomaceous earth mine. He had every lung disease diagnosed and imaginable. Respiration -- the word shares a common root with “spirit.” I watched his spirit slowly strangle with his diminishing breath.

He wanted to die. He asked to die. He begged to die. By his own hand or another’s, he sought to have his body forcibly made to relinquish its agonizing grip. I looked hard at the questions surrounding physician/family assisted suicide.

I followed the reports on Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the aberrant advocate for death. Kevorkian began his medical career exercising his fascination with those about to die. He would peer into the eyes of the near dead to pinpoint the irreversible advance of death. In 1958 he was asked to leave a hospital appointment after he sought to persuade condemned murders to volunteer for medical experiments preceding their execution. He is the inventor of the infamous “suicide machine,” and has proposed opening a “suicide clinic.” Kevorkian seems to relish death. I felt no kinship here.

I read Final Exit, the suicide how-to book by Derek Humphrey, founder of the National Hemlock Society. The book teaches how a gentle death is as accessible as a few pills and a plastic garbage bag. I learned in excruciating detail how many ways there are to effectively slip life out of our weak yet still embracing bodies. It felt all too hollow and comfortless.

I pondered California Ballot Proposition 161 supporting physician assisted death. How, it asked, can we usurp others of the ultimate self-determination: the right to die in peace? Medical marvels can prolong life way beyond benefit, at however great a financial and emotional toll. Public debate focused on issues of God’s will, economics, choice, familial love, and too familiar familial avarice. There was, I reluctantly concluded, too close of an unprotected connection between the “choice to die” and the “obligation to die.” I voted against the measure, though I was somewhat sorry to see it fail.

Over my two years as a crisis counselor I abhorred suicide, that insidious assassin lurking within desperate telephone calls from suicidals seeking always a reason for life. Our hearts will continue to beat outside the body; individual heart cells will continue to beat separated from the heart itself. Life wants so to go on living.

I avoid using the word suicide. The very sound is an emotional contagion spreading the viral concept that suicide is a valid means to cope with pain.

We all have our pain.

I watched as the near-angelic nurses cared for him. Changing his soiled clothes and bedding, treating his failing skin, gently working around his suffering. Lesions, diapers, humiliation ... how could I not wish him death?

I’d often -- and sometimes lamely -- enumerate for him the benefits of his living: he was able to visit with his newborn grandson; he watched his granddaughter grow into a lovely teenager over the course of her regular visits; he would proudly tune in my radio talk show and followed my journalistic reports out of Russia. And he was an incorrigible flirt with the nurses (“How are you doing today, Van?” they’d sweetly inquire. “Doing without, but I’m open to offers,” he’d ribaldly respond). Moments of pleasure and connection even amidst the suffering. This is what life is, I’d tell him. I could see it register behind the pain in his eyes.

How could I turn my back on his desperate desire to die, to be rid of the pain? Yet how could I deny life?

Abiding by his wishes, we took no “heroic measures” to prolong his living. He was long tired of the needles, the poking, the medical fumbling. The morphine dulled his pain, while also and alas dulling his irrepressible spirit.

As I struggled to find a reason, a purpose for this, his doctor said it best: If there’s no meaning here, there’s no meaning for any of us.

I visited my father on what became his last earthbound day. There was a peaceful pall on his face as death grew near. I prayed for God to accept and protect his soul. And I wished him peace. Moments later his stalwart spirit was gone.