Dr. Death and “an old family tradition”


When my father was dying in the last few months of his life he asked someone to buy a gun for him; he was preparing to die on his own terms.  Anyone who knew him, knew that you could not talk him out killing himself and more than you could talk him out of paying for dinner – he lived life on his own terms and insisted on living by his value system.  We had only become close enough to really talk about such things the last three years of his life; I was divorced and wanted to talk to my father about my life.  I had found the letters my mother wrote to him in the last months of their marriage in 1946.  The letters changed the way I thought about him and the divorce – I realized that I had been mad at him for 50 years, blaming him for not coming home after the war, when in fact it was not his fault.

My realization gave us a good foundation for conversation and we used it; he lived just three years after I found the letters, but I saw him almost every week during that time and we talked about the living of  life. It was one of the things I had missed growing up, the guidance of my father.  Death was one of the things we talked about, his death and the death of others.  My father did not want to be dependent on any one for anything and thus the gun so he could choose his own timing when he could no longer care for himself and live of his terms.  In the end, he did not need it, but it helped both of us to know he had a choice.  In talking about death we both came to realize that his grandfather, his father and his sister had each in their own way ended their lives when they no longer wanted to live.  All three had the same basic criteria to live only so long as they could remain independent and then to die.

His maternal grandfather was the first; he and his wife and three sons worked a small ranch in Carson City just east of the prison on the Carson River.  Apparently he had arthritis very badly and could no longer do his share of the work, so with the help of his wife he hung himself from the rafters of the barn.  At least that is what we think, by the time my father and I were discussing it, no one was left alive who knew for sure about the reason or whether his wife helped; we just surmised that he couldn’t do much because of the arthritis,  so that tying the knot, climbing up and hanging the rope and pushing whatever he was standing on out of the way would have been beyond his capabilities.

My grandfather, took a more passive way, one commonly used by old people – he stopped eating and starved to death or became so weak his heart failed.  Like my great grandfather, my grandfather was too crippled to continue to do the work of his life.  My grandfather’s life work was his garden.  During his adult life in Carson City, my grandfather had a very large garden, enough to feed he is family during the depression and some left over to sell; he also raised chickens.  When he died in November of 1969, there were only a few chickens left; the last one outlived him by ten years.  At one time there were thousands of chickens, enough to provide eggs and meat for his family and some left over to sell.  By the end of his life, his garden was smaller – but still covered a half an acre or so.  But crippled with arthritis, he was forced to hoe (weeding and watering both required the use of hoe) sitting on a bucket.  Planting of course required standing to use a shovel – so at the end of one year, after everything was harvested and the ground put “to bed” for the winter – he died.

My aunt died as her father had from malnutrition – not eating.  I don’t know what specifics made her decide it was time to die.  In the spring of 1997 when my aunt died she had already lived alone for almost 30 years; she did not grow anything in the yard – she did have a couple of house plants that someone had given her when my grandfather died and she kept them until the end –  and the chickens were all gone.  There were some animals, every year a new skunk or two lived in the yard under the house, sometimes there were cats, but she did not feed or care for any of them.  She did not even “keep house” in the normal sense, she only lived in a couple of rooms.  But my aunt was compulsive about cleaning those rooms.  However never entered or cleaned any of the other rooms.  Again – I don’t know what triggered her decision, but she did decide.  In thinking about it, my father could kind of pin-point when she started to buy less food each week – he and one other brother had done her shopping for 30 years because she never left the yard. But he could not pin-point any specific reason or even see any change in her emotional state.

Those discussions were liberating for me; I realized that I could choose to die when the time came, in fact when I did I would be following as Hank Williams Jr. said an “old family tradition.”  A tradition that says I man lives his life on his own terms and therefore is responsible for his own life.  It means when that is no longer possible, it is not only his choice, but his right to choose death on his own terms.  And though he was criticized a great deal, Doctor Jack Kevorkian tried to give that right, that dignity to every man (and when I say man, I mean the general human, man and woman).   In my family tradition, you have no right to impose your values on my life.  My grandfather built a fence around his property – and he defended that boundary.  He did not try to tell people what to do in their yards, nor would he brook someone telling him what to do in his yard.  Like Dr. Jack, my family thinks death is a choice and a right; Kevorkian did a great deal to help people realize that they might choose.  I think Jack Kevorkian performed a great public service.


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