I was a nerdy, somewhat intense and somewhat depressed high school freshman the year Jack Kevorkian stirred the public imagination with his "death machine." About eight months earlier, my mother's father, who was a second father to me, had died of cancer. It had been a fairly long struggle, and I distinctly remember a few moments with him where he seemed to be wishing to be dead - where the pain and humiliation of falling apart was just too much to handle. I think he hated being so weak in front of his children and grandchildren - hated that he was loosing the little bit of control any human has over his/her life.
The following years for me were, like many teenagers, challenging. I had friends, but didn't fit in anywhere really. I was shy enough that I struggled with girls. I had interests that few kids my age had, and found myself vacillating between screwing off with the neighborhood kids that were my friends, and isolating myself, usually with a book in hand.
I never had any serious thoughts of suicide, but do remember one time that I thought about punching my fist through a window in my bedroom. The very next thought was of all the blood that might come from such an act, and I just couldn't do it. Sometimes, being a coward is an excellent thing, you know.
It was about that time that I learned about my mother's brother. How he'd spent months, even years drawing drowning scenes before he, himself, drowned, just 18 years old. To this day, there is some dispute over the story. Did he commit suicide or was it an accident? I believe that most of the siblings, including my mother, believe the former. My grandmother - well, I don't think we will ever really know what she believes happened.
Whatever you think of Jack Kevorkian, or Dr. Death as he was nicknamed, one thing is for certain: the man tapped something so deep and gut level that it was almost impossible to ignore him.
And so, with his own death, another opportunity for us all to contemplate death, all all things associated with it. Including suicide.
If someone were to ask me what I think of assisted suicide, I'd say I just don't know for sure. There are so many questions and no easy answers.
"Somebody has to do something for suffering humanity," Kevorkian once said. "I put myself in my patients' place. This is something I would want."
I remember my grandfather - actually both grandfathers really - my father's father having spent nearly a decade disappearing under the cloud of Alzheimer's - and how each of them appeared before me, at moments, to be wishing for an out. Neither completely verbalized it, but it was there. The awareness of dying, but also the fear that their misery would go on and on.
Even though Kevorkian was a publicity hound, an in your face kind of guy who disregarded the law and pressed against some of the biggest tenants of his profession, I find it hard to cast the guy off as a terrible murderer, or something worse than that.
Was what he did compassionate? Or did he go over the line, succumbing to what Trungpa used to call "idiot compassion"?
My guess is it was probably a mixture of the two. It's just hard for me to imagine that, with 130 assisted suicides, and all the publicity the guy got, that his mind remained clear enough to have made the right choices in some, maybe many of those cases.
And yet, given the mostly terminal states these patients were in, it really does lead me to pause on all the ways we have come up with to prolong lives that, at any other time in history, wouldn't have lasted so long. That we have become so good at trying to delay death, to hide it from ourselves, that someone like Kevorkian, with his head on approach, would stir people in ways usually reserved for only the worst of mass murders and terrorists.
It's seems to me that, more than anything, Mr. Kevorkian has offered all of us the chance to look death, and to look suicide, straight in the eye. To drop all our attempts to moralize and pontificate, and simply to pay attention, and see what's actually happening, and how we might best work with that.
And for this, I am grateful.