Issues of declining health and lack of wealth, rising rates of Alzheimer's, and the usual suspects of Heart disease, Strokes and Cancer, may push some of us aging Boomers to choose to check out. As my song Freedom 85 states " I can't afford a hole in the ground, Hey Buddy, got a match to light me on fire? I told my wife," Take me to the vet, and put me down like your favourite pet."
This last week, local artist and musician Elizabeth Fischer made the choice to end her life with assisted suicide in Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal. She had been told recently that she had stage 4 terminal lung cancer. She also recently put her beloved pet down, and remarked on the way our society views this action, as something that is acceptable for humans to do for pets, but somehow not acceptable for humans to do for other humans, or even for humans to make that decision themselves in regards to their own life.
Elizabeth was an extremely talented visual artist, songwriter, bandleader, lyricist and singer. Her work with the D.P.s, Animal Slaves and Dark Blue World was intense and compelling. She was a dark, but humourous person; she was a difficult person who did not suffer fools gladly. She could be judgmental, and I think I fell into the "fool" category for her upon many occasions. She was someone who challenged me, and my concepts of friendship for many years. We were not "friends" when she made the decision to take her life. While I regret not taking the opportunity to remedy that situation prior to her exit, it was something I could not bring myself to do.
But for all our personal animosity, I never lost my respect for Elizabeth's art or her music. She was an important artist, with very unique voice and vision, and she was always true to that vision.
She had relationships with some of my friends, including close friends Ross Hales and Greg Reely, but I could never say I was particulary close to her. We were colleagues and competitors in a small scene. We worked together many times, my bands playing with her bands, we were co-founders of MO-DA-MU, a musical collective that included 54/40, Rhythm Mission, Animal Slaves, Junco Run, the Work Party and Tin Twist.
Tin Twist was fronted by Elizabeth's cousin, Judy Kemeny, who was tragically taken from us when she was quite young with cancer. Elizabeth and Judy both came from Hungary, and their parents were concentration camp survivors. Obviously, that experience deeply affects the children, and children's children for many generations. This dark history informed Elizabeth's art and music, it fired her anger and fuelled her art.
She was a strong person, she was a person with a dark sense of humor, she was a performer. As performers, we love a stage, we seek drama, we look for the statement or opportunity to make a statement. Elizabeth had just had a book release and art show Orphans and Dogs, which was a culmination of her life's work; yet how would anyone know that would be her last work? With someone so creative, I am sure there would have been much more work if only there had been more time. With the pronouncement of stage 4 cancer, she knew her time was running out, and she decided to end her life on her own terms, the same way she had lived it.
I suppose it is ironic for me that all of this took place in the month of October, normally one of the darkest times of the year for me. My good friend Lenore Herb died a few years back of stage 4 terminal pancreatic cancer. Lenore was also a very talented person who was very challenging, outspoken, and not universally loved. I sat with her on the day before she breathed her last breath, and can only say that cancer is one of the most cruel ways to die. At that moment, I totally understand why Elizabeth would choose to end her life the way she did.
Another friend of mine took her own life last year around this time of year. Her suicide was not assisted, she organized it herself. She was in a very dark place, and we will never know why she did it, or what events in her life led her to that decision on that very darkest of days. We are left with shock, and sadness, and anger and confusion.
Death of any kind leaves a hole in the lives of those left behind, the people who were friends or family of the departed. It is a very sad moment no matter what the circumstances. But our reactions to death are very different depending on age and circumstance. When a person is much older, we say "they lived a long life, and it was time." Or if they were in much pain, we say, "it was a blessing, now that pain is over." If a person is very young, we say "how tragic that a life is cut so short, when there was so much promise and future."
In the case of assisted suicide, many of us agree that a person has a right to make the choice. We may say how brave they are to make that choice.
But in the case of suicide, those of us who are left behind can only ask ourselves, why? What more could we have done? While there is a general acceptance of assisted suicide, especially when the person has a physical illness, there is a general non-acceptance of suicide when the person who commits this act has a mental illness.
I have no answers to this. Personally, I hope that when the time comes for me, it happens fast. I do not fear death as much anymore. Every year brings more death, and within my circle, there is not so much birth, but there is always opportunity for new friends and changed relationships with old friends.
What is known for sure is that we have no shelf life. We are born to die as my friend Frank Ramirez said. There is much work that has been done, and much more left to do. I would end this with a shout out to Elizabeth. I am glad that I had the opportunity to know you, to view your art , to hear your music and listen to your voice. I have no clue what happens when we leave this life, but I honor the life and time that you had; you made a huge impression and you leave behind a body of work that will live on. Next time around, perhaps we will be better friends.
Shadow from Days to Comeby Alejandra Pizarnik
For Ivonne A. Bordelois*
they’ll dress me in ash for the sunrise,
they’ll fill my mouth with flowers.
I’ll learn to sleep
inside the memory of a wall,
on the breath
of a dreaming animal.