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Though my brother Marty was dying for a long time, in painful and
unpleasant circumstances, he never enlisted the services of Jack
Kevorkian, and I was proud of him for that.

I always thought Kevorkian was far too creepy to be an angel of
compassion. “Doctor Death” gave me the willies, made me shudder.
Unlicensed yet obsessed, this dour executioner had the colossal hubris
to take God’s job into his own hands. The specter of Dr. Kevorkian and
his Doomsday Machine was something out of “Clockwork Orange.” With the
merest leap of the imagination, I envisioned Kevorkian as Josef
Mengele’s assistant, using his Death Camp Science Kit against the lame,
the halt, the blind. Because wasn’t Euthanasia the Politically Correct
cousin of Eugenics which itself was just a baby-step away from Genocide?

Don’t encourage him, he’s arrogant enough. “Well, let’s take what
people think is a dignified death,”
Jack Kevorkian
told the National Press Club.
“Christ — was that a dignified death? Do you think it’s dignified to
hang from wood with nails through your hands and feet bleeding, hang for
three or four days slowly dying, with people jabbing spears into your
side, and people jeering you? Do you think that’s dignified? Not by a
long shot. Had Christ died in my van with people around Him who loved
Him, the way it was, it would be far more dignified. In my rusty van.”

I know something of suicide, and I ain’t bragging. It’s not just from
books. Though when I was 18, in freshman sociology, we did study Emile
Durkheim’s classic, seminal text, “Suicide,” which divided the act into
three categories, altruistic, egoistic, or anomic — take your pick. A
Alvarez’s “A Savage God” would come later, when, in love with poetry, I
devoured the spellbinding narratives of Famous Writer Suicides: Hart
Crane jumping overboard a steamship, Sylvia Plath sticking her head in
the gas stove, Hemingway blowing his brains out, Virginia Woolf drowning
herself, Vachel Lindsay imbibing a bottle of Lysol, Yukio Mishima’s
ritual kara-kiri, histrionic Anne Sexton, John Berryman, Jack London,
Richard Brautigan, maybe even Jack Kerouac drinking himself to death,
and then all the others. I got over that. There’s nothing even remotely
interesting about someone wanting to do themselves in.

Assisted suicide was a far more complex situation, because of the
complicity involved. But it’s a flawed complicity. So the overly
theatrical, self-serving Jack Kevorkian’s current conviction on
second-degree murder charges — for giving a fatal injection to a man
with a terminal illness, his 130th victim, in a tape shown on TV — was
a huge relief to me. Mercy killing is one of those ridiculous oxymorons,
like military intelligence. Once, I had interviewed Derek Humphry,
founder of the Hemlock Society
which supposedly grew out of his
first wife’s suffering, and what I sensed but could never prove was
marital ennui, that there was more to the chemical nuptials of his
“hemlock cocktails” and “selfless” smothering her to death with a pillow
than her simple need to die. I didn’t trust Humphry’s motives.
Similarly, I am uncomfortable with the notion of Jack Kevorkian as an
advocate for the incurably ill. I don’t trust Kevorkian’s motives,
either.

Which makes me pleased and relieved to learn there is actually a
national advocacy organization of and for disabled people called Not
Dead Yet, and that it opposes assisted suicide. The group’s founder and
president, 45-year-old lawyer Diane Coleman,
wheelchair bound since age 11, makes
terrific sense. The euthanasia movement is “very threatening to a
disabled person,” she told the New York Times. “I hope this (legal
decision) will send a message that this steamroller has got to stop.”

Diane Coleman points out that Dr. Kevorkian is, according to
psychologists, actually a self-dramatizing sociopath with no feelings
for others, no relationships with others, and she questions the
disturbing phenomenon of society making Kevorkian a hero. “We are the
potential victims. It is our lives at stake,” she told the National
Post, adding, “Assisted suicide and euthanasia is really just deadly
discrimination. With the cuts in health care, people with disabilities
are seen as a burden, a problem to be solved.”

I could never hear Kevorkian’s name without thinking of my late
father. Daddy took his own life at age 84. It was perplexing. He wasn’t
physically ill. This was a sturdy man who had, a decade before, walked
home from the hospital after open-heart surgery to show how macho he
was. If ever there was a will to live, he had had it. Hospitals were his
country clubs, where he flirted with the nurses, was waited on hand and
foot, and could check out new, improved potential candidates for his
next son-in-law.

Though my father had left no suicide note, on his dining room table
was a business card for a local funeral home, and the current issue of
TIME Magazine with a depressing cover headline, “AIDS: The Losing
Battle” — this was back in the dicey AZT days, before the invention of
protease inhibitors.
Conceivably, he
might have been depressed. The previous year, my mother had died in a
home accident under strange circumstances. Daddy’s sometimes comical
efforts at trying to date and seek a new wife after 45 years of marriage
were fruitless. And my brother — who had never even declared to our
family that he was gay — announced he had AIDS. What parent can conceal
the pathos of contemplating a child’s certain demise before their own?

I don’t know how to document this, but I believe the will to live –
the drive to survive — is hard-wired in not only the human organism,
but built into most life forms, even paramecia. (Well, OK, maybe not
moths and flames.) I’m not talking morality here, but biology. A New
York healer let’s call “Sforza Destino” claims that most older male
suicides stem from a brain deficiency of biotin.
And if the person’s
system becomes disturbed by crisis or illness or lousy living, they can
go into drastic imbalance, and this survival mode is no longer
operational. Macrobiotic master George Ohsawa explored this notion in

“You Are All Sanpaku.”

Sanpaku is a
Japanese term indicating a person in such dangerous imbalance they face
imminent disaster or violent death, predicted by the whites of their
eyes being exposed and red on three sides, like JFK, Natalie Wood,
Princess Diana, gangster Anthony Soprano in HBO’s “The Sopranos,” and
most recently, Leo Di Caprio attending the Oscar ceremony. Which is why
I am suspicious of the Kevorkians and Humphreys of the world, and their
interventions.

My brother wasn’t thinking about ending his life, but starting anew,
moving back to Philadelphia from Poughkeepsie. Only he died the night
before he would have left. “Promise me,” Marty had said two months
earlier, anticipating the unthinkable, “that if anything happens, you’ll
find a good home for my two cats.” I gave him my word. I wished I could
take them but I couldn’t; I already had my own pair of kitten siblings,
Francisco and Febe, named for dead Salvadoran martyrs; my terrier mutt
Freda, named for a Mexican surrealist painter once married to Diego
Rivera; and a life-sized plaster replica of a black Scotty I referred to
as Rosa Luxembourg for political reasons.

Just as I was planning to visit my brother for a week in Poughkeepsie
before he optimistically planned to move back to Philadelphia, he took a
sudden turn for the worse. Strange. I had talked to him just the
previous day; a Monday, he said he would be going in for a routine blood
transfusion, and would see me shortly. Tuesday, Frank calls and says
Marty is in so much pain he can’t even bring him in. Call an ambulance
quickly, I urged, trying to spur Frank into action, I’ll come up
tomorrow. Who knew this would be THE crisis? Three a.m., praying Marty
would last till I got there, two dozen lit candles turning my bedroom
into a chapel, I get a phone call from a hospital physician; Marty had
died. Around me, all the candles were still lit except for one, its red
wax spattering the wall in a bloody column, like Hiroshima. That, I said
to myself, must be his soul. The next morning, his now-deceased ex-lover
Frank’s then-lover, Bill, drives me up to Marty’s apartment, where Frank
is already looking for the will.

I was not prepared for such beauty: a duplex with a view of the river
from nearly every window; the water reminded him of the sea we had both
loved as children. He had moved there suddenly the previous year to get
over a romance gone bad with a fickle bartender. Papers were strewn
everywhere. Frank was on the floor, surrounded by overflowing ashtrays
and cigarettes stubbed out in whiskey-glasses. My brother’s two cats
hurled themselves from floor to floor in an aerial ballet; they had gone
feral in the last few months. As Marty’s illness progressed, he had
become emotionally distant from pets, detached from people; he knew he
was leaving us, and he was pulling away.

What DO you do with pets whose owners become ill or die? This seems
to be an increasing concern as Baby Boomers begin to confront their
mortality. One trend is more owners providing perpetual care for
“companion animals” in their wills, even in some cases leaving luxury
homes to their pets so animals may have round the clock care and roam
freely on the grounds. But not my brother. If he had a will, it was
never found. And so it was up to me to provide the way to carry out his
wishes.

Who would take Marty’s cats? Good question. There were a few near
misses. But none of his friends wanted them. The cats were like those
freakish lab animals made autistic in psych experiments, raised by cloth
monkey-mothers as surrogate parents. When I went to pick one cat up, the
one he had named Eeeee, it leapt at a floor mop, and, in a freak
accident, the handle split my lip open. In the week I was there
dismantling Marty’s apartment, I made phone call after phone call to
place the cats. Finally, I found a no-kill animal shelter
in nearby Beacon. They said they were
full. I implored. I entreated. I begged. It’s the last request of a
dying man, I said. Finally, I bribed a board member. How much would it
take for you to find space? Twenty-four hours later, she called me back
around midnight. Something like four hundred and fifty dollars would set
up my late brother’s cats for life. Done!

I will skip over the part where Frank, Bill, and I tried to capture
the cats as they caromed around Marty’s bi-level apartment. Bill had a
bad back so he didn’t help. Frank, since he had ARC –
AIDS-related-complex — couldn’t risk the possibly lethal misadventure
of a cat-scratch. In a nightmarish scene beyond my ability to recreate
and describe here, I succeeded in rounding up the two cats and we were
off in Marty’s maroon Honda to Beacon. Imagine a rustic WPA-era
Adirondack cottage in the woods, its living room, den, playroom, nursery
with couches, chairs, and furniture densely covered with a multitudinous
array of cats in all colors and shapes and sizes and conditions. It was
like nothing I had ever before seen in my life. They lounged. They
played. They napped. They purred. They gossiped. They arched their backs
and puffed out their tails. It was truly wonderful to contemplate, Cat
Heaven, a scene out of Alice-in-Wonderland. And I swear, the
reverberations from their purring could have lifted that cottage off the
ground.

“All good things approach their goal crookedly,” Nietzsche writes in
“Thus Spake Zarathustra.” “Like cats,” he continues, “they arch their
backs, they purr inwardly over their approaching happiness: all good
things laugh.”

Take that, Dr. Kevorkian.

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