I’m here to say a few words about my Dad. Before I do, I want to say a little bit about the way he died.
In the weeks before my Dad ended his life, I had been trying to sit down and write him a letter to say goodbye. I knew he was getting ready to die, and I wanted to let him know that I appreciated the ways he had reached out over the previous couple of years to connect – not always in the ways I would have liked – but in his way. I wanted to credit him for attempting to make his peace, in his way.
As my father sensed his time was limited, I think he made an attempt to follow a semblance of inner knowing that he needed to make some things right. I know, for example, that he so regretted the way he soured his relationship with you, Peter, his only brother. He blew it and he knew it, and so did we.
He was ready to die – he told me as much – and was at last betting – hoping – that giving up would do the trick. He was hospitalized several times in July and August. Hannah, Noralee and I had begun to discuss end of life care, which I saw as imminent. In fact, on my to do list for the day he died – that Thursday morning a month ago – was to finish writing my goodbye letter, to drop in the mail the following Monday morning. I was set to travel and I sensed he could be gone by the time I returned.
I think that when it dawned on him that he wasn’t just going to die by giving up and getting sick – staring into the maw of western medicine, he became scared. After 12 years without the ability to swallow solid or liquid food – not to mention any capacity to even produce saliva – now, he had essentially lost his voice and his ability to move around. He sensed he would soon lose all agency of his fate entirely – and when his body proved stubbornly resistant to permanent hospitalization or mortality from any of his ailments – COPD, leg edema, chronic constipation, among others – he felt he had no other choice.
Do I believe my father, in his soul, in his heart, wanted to end his life secretly, spontaneously, alone, in a garage, with no family present for 100s of miles? Not to mention while fighting off whatever panic, shame, grief, anger and utter loneliness he may have been wrestling with in the moments before his death? Did he want that for himself? Does anyone? Should anyone? Of course the answer is no.
Men 65 and older represent the largest portion of deaths by suicide in this country, 31% in 2016. Men 65 and older represent 31% of all suicides in America. It saddens me, and it’s disgraceful, that so many men – our fathers and grandfathers – are put out to pasture to deal with their mortality alone, depressed and confused. Of course the great tragedy of this is that so many men would rather be alone, and fight vehemently for that right. And yet, the fact is: We absolutely must support legislation that expands end-of-life options for terminally ill Americans. Part of the reason men kill themselves is the alternatives presented to them seem worse. We dishonor them by removing their right to choose through arcane, inhumane laws.
I don’t blame the government for how my father ended his life. I don’t believe a peaceful outcome surrounded by family was even on his map; in his imaginings of what was possible. In spite of all that, I must state plainly: It should not be illegal to chose to end your life when you are of sound mind but failing body. Period. And – in more and more states – Connecticut tragically not among them – it is not.
Now, a few things about my old man.
When I was a little boy, I went off to summer camp for the first time. When I arrived there, on a hill by a lake in remote New Hampshire, I was alone for the first real time in my life. I was scared. As I sat in the screened-in bunk cottage waiting for the other campers to arrive, at one point I opened my trunk with all my clothes. Inside, tucked into the first fold of the top t-shirt, was a letter. I didn’t get it together to quote the letter exactly here, but I still remember what the envelope on the outside said. It said: Pieter, this is a gift of love. They are only words but I hope you will read them many times and learn them. One day when you are a big boy they will mean a lot to you. The gist of his letter was that he loved me as his little boy, and that I would always be his little boy. That I was to always do my best, and always be honest, especially with him, because if he didn’t know what I was struggling with, then he couldn’t help. God knows he always wanted to help!
My dad taught me how to play poker, how to catch a baseball. He taught me how to pilot a canoe, and how to split wood. He taught me how to cook a steak and how to shake hands. So much of what I consider part of my standard issue “man” tool belt came to me through him. The love that he showed me as a boy in many ways became the bedrock of the self-esteem I built on back then, and still draw upon today. He was a guy’s guy, a real man in so many ways. His maxim “Never complain, never explain,” I still utter today. Faced with a set of circumstances he couldn’t master, I struggle to reconcile the man he became in the last years of his life, with the man – the idol – I knew as a boy. When I was a kid I wanted nothing more than to be him, to tell him I loved him, to make him proud of me. He was daddy. He was always so frustrated that his attempts to teach me read as attempts to control me, attempts I resisted tooth and nail starting at about age 13, putting the two of us on opposite ends of a divide that did not entirely mend. What did happen is that in the last year or two, as I could feel his energy fading, he didn’t so much as try to control or teach me as refrain from commenting. And I learned to take better responsibility for my own feelings and frustrations, instead of blaming him for being a bad Dad. In our last conversation, via Facetime a few months back (I couldn’t understand him over the phone for the last year of his life, so we had to wait for opportunities to video chat), after he said he was ready to die “Stick a fork in me” he said, he kissed his hand and put it to his heart, then offered it to me. I did the same, and he nodded. We were good. We had always been good. We will always be good.
I will never dishonor or reject my father, no matter what anyone says or what anyone thought about him. He had a good soul, and he had a hard time living up to it. It’s as simple as that. I love him and I will always honor him. He couldn’t have a prouder or stronger defender than me and my two siblings in this room today. He lives on in our hearts through the best of his character, through his hilarious sense of humor and his brilliant perspective on life. For me, it takes his death for me to admit that his failings really weren’t as important as the love I have of who he was at his core. Which I know was true of him for me. I only wish he could have come to really know that in his life.
In closing. About 5 or 6 years ago, while living in Boulder, Colorado, I began wrestling with the legacy of my father and how I wanted to be in the world, different from him, but embracing all that he was for me, and all that he gave me, good, bad and ugly. I decided to write a cycle of songs that was kind of a reverse blessing, from the son to the father. I gifted them to him, along with the lyrics, and he proudly and emotionally received them. The last lines of one of the songs – coincidentally, the one he said he had the most trouble understanding – expressed my wrestling with trying to help him feel Grace, even though he didn’t seem to know, or know how to accept, that beautiful secret of life. I wanted it for him. My father was a self-proclaimed atheist, at least for some portion of his existence. In this very church where I was confirmed, he told me God was an ethic. To send you on your way, our sweet bald-headed Dad. We don’t care which God you believe in. We love you just the same.
The song finishes:
now you’re winding up grateful and guiltless
you’re finding out which friends were true
and will carry you down to the river
deliver you perfect and new
just like the spring, let your heart thaw
the waters will sing you a lullaby song
and all that you see is the love that you are
whatever you believe in, i believe in you
whatever you believe in, i believe in you
whatever you believe in, i believe in you