As I age, I become aware of my mortality. My wife and I have talked about what to do if one of us becomes brain dead. I want her to pull the plug; she wants to keep on living just in case there is a cure. Most people avoid talk of end of life arrangements, but I think we need to accept it as a fact of life. Two people I’ve known have felt the same way.
After a walking trip in Burgundy, I decided to visit the factory that makes my turntables in the Czech Republic.
My route took me through Switzerland then Austria where I planned to visit my friend Heinz and his wife Jozefina.
As I was passing near Zurich, I stopped off the meet some good friends whom I hadn’t seen in a few years. We had a great time reminiscing, eating (I’ll never forget the barbequed duck breast), and, of course, drinking. I had brought some spectacular bottles of Burgundy from a great store in Dijon. As the evening progressed, it took on a somber note as one of my friends told me that her father had recently died.
Her mother had died a year and a half ago and her father, in his mid-eighties, had been diagnosed with cancer. He felt that with his wife gone and the recent diagnosis, his life wasn’t worth living. He wanted to end it. Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, but there is a procedure to do so. He applied to an organization that deals with this matter and after a period of evaluation he was deemed a suitable candidate. His daughters agreed that it was his right to choose and gave their approval. On the night he died, his daughters were with him. He said his goodbyes and swallowed a small vial of liquid. His last words were, “I feel burning in my throat.” And then he was gone.
“Although I agreed with his decision, he was still my father and I miss him,” my friend told me, with tears in her eyes.
I was once very friendly with a neighbor of mine called Ernst Pawel. Ernst was a writer and a curmudgeon. He only liked his wife, his children and for some strange reason, me. He had little time for other people. An avowed atheist, he answered, ‘Against!’ when asked his religion in an official form. As a young man his family had fled Germany for Yugoslavia. They settled in Belgrade and there he learnt to speak Serbian and understand Yugoslavian politics.
After the war, his family immigrated to the U.S. and he eventually ended up living in Great Neck. Years later I moved there and serendipity found me living two doors away. On the day the E.U. and U.S. recognized Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early 90s, he came to me and told me that war would break out any moment. The Bosnian Muslims, Serbs, and Croats hated each other. He was, of course, correct, and a terrible war ensued.
He was an avid cycler and I would often see him cycling up the hill that leads to my house. Sometimes, while having breakfast outdoors in summer, he would stop for a coffee and a chat. An extremely well-educated man, he told me he was doing research on Franz Kafka and writing a book about his life. It was called “The Nightmare of Reason” and was well-received in the press. This gave him some notoriety and he was often asked to lecture on Kafka by educational establishments around the world.
At one point I started to notice that his ascent of the hill was becoming slower and slower. I mentioned this to him and he told me that his breathing was labored and that he was soon going for tests. The results came back positive for lung cancer. This was ironic, as he hadn’t smoked a cigarette in over 35 years.
I asked him what he was going to do. Always frank, he answered,
“Lung cancer is a terrible disease. When the time comes, I am going to kill myself.”
At one point he had a lobectomy, which put him in remission but a year or so, but later on he started coughing and I knew that the cancer had returned. I never again discussed his plans for suicide, as it was such a personal subject. His condition worsened and before going on a business trip, I visited him to say goodbye. He was sitting in a chair and his son-in-law was tending to him as he constantly coughed up sputum. Oxygen was fed to him via a tube. He looked really miserable. I told him that I was flying that night to London. He looked up with his rheumy eyes and said, “Lucky you.”
He died the next day.
A few months later his memoir was published and he mentioned his desire to kill himself.
“I really wanted to and planned to do it, but life wouldn’t let me,” he wrote.