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Guichelaar: The good death

By Hank Guichelaar
Aug. 13, 2017 at 3 a.m.


The decision to be the captain of one's own unconquerable soul inevitably brings about the determination to also control its conclusion. While some may think of it as self-annihilation, those who insist upon directing the full span of their being beg to differ.

This was certainly the case with a close friend who, at the initial draft of this writing was still alive and, considering his mentality, well. I shall unimaginatively refer to him as Jacob because that was his name.

Ironically, Jacob and I met due to the end of another life — my aunt's. Even though hers was not scheduled, it was unexpected and while this holds true for all of us, perception often regards these passages as taking place too soon. She was Jacob's neighbor in the retirement complex where he served on the board of the homeowner association and, as such, became my point of contact regarding estate matters. Although the ab initio affiliation was of a mandatory nature, subsequent associations were uncoerced and forged a friendship that lasted a decennium.

The substantial distance of nearly 5,000 miles between us made visits scarce but our letters obliviously bridged this gap with dogged regularity. And self-ordained grandiose missives they were, our philosophical venturing knew no bounds and soon enough Jacob enlightened me to his opted exit strategy. He had the whole matter carefully plotted, albeit without any intention of making haste.

Euthanasia is a clinical and sterile term and the feelings it calls forth are kindred to those evoked by referencing the termination of those not yet born. Derived from the Greek and literally meaning "good death," transgressions oftentimes and linearly oppose the gentle intent implied. Unbeknownst at that time, his would not occur until nearly a decade hence, when inevitable physical ailments that had begun to announce their arrival through occasional but increasing auditions had become permanent and unbearable. Any denial of these looming ills was swiftly squashed whenever Jacob regarded his contemporaries as they wheezed and doddered around him.

Jacob had the good fortune of residing in a locale where this merciful practice is wholly regarded and exercised. Contrary to emotionally charged opinion, the process is not at all the rapid routine imitating a death camp's dismal efficiency. It is a careful process ostensibly fulfilling the Hippocratic Oath.

After Jacob informed his doctor of his intended terminal transition, forms were filled out and bureaucratic wheels began to churn, leading to the formation of a studious panel comprised of three professionals, a psychiatrist included. The latter not so much because the self-killing by crazies is to be avoided at all cost but rather to achieve a total and unequivocal consideration of the patient's determination that outweighs unskilled populist notions. Personal feelings, beliefs and convictions are set aside as just the patient's wishes are considered and evaluated. Jacob's own doctor was involved from beginning to end, literally, as he ultimately executed his patient's desire by allowing him to firmly hold his own fate.

Jacob loosely referred to this practitioner as his liquidator of choice but never left doubt that his decision was made with an immense clarity and in full possession of all faculties.

The years passed but correspondence between us remained steady and sublime, or at least we thought so. And while the nagging reality of the planned ending drew near, I learned to regard it as inevitable as the sunset.

Because Jacob had no family and the death of his wife had left him unaccompanied in uncountable ways, he had filled that void with pseudo-grandchildren, as he called them. His neighbors and their endless talk of petty matters and ongoing ailments did not interest him and while he would also jeer most critically at the slang of the young, he much preferred their bright burning fires over the faintly flickering flames of his coevals. It all started with the assistant kitchen manager who distributed the evening meals throughout the complex. This young woman has a soccer playing brother and a friend who was struggling through her last years of college. It turned into a band of compatriots and a late addition, a lost girl ousted by her church, completed the group. When they all assembled, it usually involved a nice dinner, shopping, and outings to museums or train trips to interesting places. No matter what spontaneous excursion, everything always became a detailed story that crossed the Atlantic into my mailbox.

We sometimes spoke on the phone. The practice felt plebeian compared to measured correspondence, which seems to eliminate much of the blabber one cannot seem to avoid when communicating in real time. Although we agreed to say our last goodbyes that way, a matter of practicality, there is uncertainty if this left us with real closure.

Though Jacob attempted to arrange his departure time as precisely as possible, he wholly depended on the panel of doctors all the same and we therefore agreed that the unwitting posthumous launch of a missive would be a waste of time, paper and ink. My old friend summed this up perfectly by observing that when my dialing him resulted in the disconnect message, I would know immediately that which otherwise would be significantly delayed.

Because of this good sense we decided to telephone early and make that our final farewell. This incomparable exchange was a first for me and, as it turned out, neither of us was able to really make it so. Jacob casually mentioned that the procedure could be delayed and suggested I'd give him a follow-up call in a week or so.

I decided to wait three weeks and apprehensively dialed the lengthy series of numbers an international call requires. Having made peace with the distinct possibility of some recorded disconnection advice, it nearly disappointed me when it rang. Seconds away from something entirely unexpected, I considered maybe one of the pseudo grandkids would answer. Instead, it was Jacob speaking in a voice so gruff I barely recognized it. After identifying myself, he hoarsely responded that he was lying on his death bed. Worriedly I began to inquire if the timing of my call was so unfortunate that it coincided with the snuffing out of his light. Instead of finishing this imbecilic query, I muttered an unprintable expletive and to my relief, he laughed.

He was difficult to understand but said his case had run somewhat afoul and his good doctor saw reason for postponement. Jacob was angry and frustrated, even more so because of the distinct possibility the occurrence of a natural death could overtake his planned end. My encouraging comments and words of support sounded surreal as I was rooting for his expeditious expiry and with it also came the realization that once we stopped talking, it would be forever. The enormity of it all made its full impact and it was clear Jacob felt no need to continue the call. I managed to tell him how deeply honored I was to have known him and after his gruff reciprocation, we broke the connection.

It would be another two weeks before his final wish was granted. All pseudo grandchildren came to his apartment the day before and together they enjoyed a meal served by a chef-for-hire. Jacob, always the practical one, in all likelihood realized no one wanted to cook and clean at this point.

The eldest of their band would be there for him the next day at one o'clock in the afternoon sharp and sit by his side until the very end. Soon after, she sent me the official notification along with a photograph of their last gathering. In it, Jacob looks out of place, much like a passenger on a platform who missed his connection.

Ten years full of surprises with Jacob, perhaps too short but of an intensity to provide a lifetime's worth of memories. He was the master of his fate and the captain of his soul.

— Hank Guichelaar owns The Rolling Hunger food truck, serving Longview.

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