The Choice: Seasons of Loss and Renewal After a Father's Decision to Die

The Choice: Seasons of Loss and Renewal After a Father's Decision to Die

by Judy Brown

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Through the dramatic story of her father's decision to die with the help of Dr. Jack Kevorkian and her struggle to cope with his suicide, the author explores the controversies surrounding euthanasia and the right to die. Simultaneous. Tour. IP.


Through the dramatic story of her father's decision to die with the help of Dr. Jack Kevorkian and her struggle to cope with his suicide, the author explores the controversies surrounding euthanasia and the right to die. Simultaneous. Tour. IP.

Editorial Reviews

William Beatty
Brown, an organizational consultant dealing primarily with change, tells the story of her father, Stanley Ball, a farmer and agricultural agent who, diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, obtained the aid of Dr. Jack Kevorkian in an assisted suicide that took place on February 4, 1993. She points out that Michigan law prevented her and her brother from talking with friends before her father's passing, and she wonders why discussion of assisted suicide is so often mean-spirited and harsh. She avers that assisted suicide always appears different to those personally involved in it and that every situation is unique and all of those involved must work through its various aspects. Moreover, she does not intend her father's death to be taken as a model. Rather, she counsels caring, listening, and being open, nonjudgmental, and willing to accept change in oneself and others as elementary in dealing with the assisted-suicide decision.

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The Choice

Seasons of Loss and Renewal After a Father's Decision to Die

By Judy Brown

Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC

Copyright © 1995 Judy Brown
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60925-519-0


Seasons of Loss and Renewal

The writing of this book began the day my dad died, as he wished, with the help of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the Michigan pathologist whose practice of helping terminally ill people end their lives has sparked a tremendous controversy across the United States. Of my father's death, the news accounts would say that Stanley Ball was number ten of Dr. Kevorkian's assisted suicides. I would say that he was my father, that I miss him terribly, and that he chose to die as he chose to live.

I began this writing in order to make sense of the incomprehensible, the loss of my father, the searing clarity of his choice of death, and the path of my own life in the aftermath of his choice. Over a period of two years—two years of mourning, remembering, and reflecting, two years of continuing to work as an organizational renewal consultant with corporate leaders—I came to talk more openly about Dad's decision to die by his own hand, in his own home, in his own way.

In those two years, other losses have washed over our family: memories of the recent death of my husband's brother from a brain tumor; a massive fire that completely destroyed a treasured home and barn in Maine; the death of my ninety-two-year-old father-in-law, and then, eleven months later, the death of my mother-in-law. And the night before our memorial service for my mother-in-law, the phone rang with news that our dairy barn in Western Maryland was burning to the ground. No one hurt. No cattle lost. The death of a place, though, and the death of a dream.

That most recent loss, that fire, prompted a call from my friend Dawna Markova. When she lost her own home to fire, Dawna recalled the wisdom of her Russian grandmother, who told her when she was just a child, "Dawna, in your lifetime you will lose everything you love, because that is what it means to be human. But what you must remember is that there is an island in the center of your heart, and when you love something completely enough, when you come to know it with every fiber of your being, then that which you love lives always in the island in the middle of your heart. You can never lose it and it can never be taken from you."

This book is about that island in the center of the heart, where we hold those treasures, those heirlooms of the spirit, that we have loved enough and experienced richly enough never to lose. I hold my father there, along with the deep and sustaining conversations I had with him and others about how we choose to live our lives, and how we choose to die.

And it is from that island in the heart that I believe we can begin a quiet healing dialogue, within ourselves and among ourselves, about how we might care for each other, not only in the fullness of our lives, but at life's end as well. About how we can and should care for each other, not only in families, but also in our workplaces, our communities, and the broader society.

The painting on the cover of this book is also of an island, one of the Manitou Islands, which lie just offshore from my home town of Leland, Michigan, the community where Dad lived the last fifty years of his life.

The island is named after the great spirit of Native American tradition, the Manitou. The story of the island is this: Thousands of years ago there was a great fire in Wisconsin, whose flames drove the animals from the Wisconsin woods and into the waters of Lake Michigan. Among the animals were a great bear and her two cubs. To save their lives, the mother bear set out with her cubs across the vast lake, swimming. They swam and swam, and finally she pulled herself, exhausted, onto the shore in Michigan. Looking back, however, she saw that her two cubs had drowned just short of the shoreline. As a symbol of her love for them, she never moved from that spot on the shore, and to honor their courage and love, the great Manitou turned the two cubs into the Manitou Islands, and he turned the mother bear, still looking west toward them, into the great Sleeping Bear sand dune, which watches over them to this day.

So this island, too, represents the memories, the transcendence, and timelessness of the island in the center of the heart. And it speaks for a spiritual tradition which acknowledges that death does not erase the deepest bonds, that caring for someone does not end when we cannot save that person's life.

On February 4, 1993, exactly one month to the day after he was diagnosed as having inoperable pancreatic cancer, my father, Stanley Ball, died at noon in his home, near the small fishing village of Leland, Michigan. He was eighty-two. Dad had been losing his sight for several years and now was completely blind. My brother David, David's girlfriend Mary Glynn, and Dr. Kevorkian were with him when he died. Dad's death was listed as a suicide by carbon monoxide inhalation. I had said my last goodbyes and returned to the Washington, D. C. area ten days before Dad died, knowing that I would not see him again.

For some time after Dad died, I could not talk about his death, except with those close to me. It was too raw, too intense, too personal to be public. With the passing of time, however, I have come to realize that the questions about assisted suicide and about Father's choice of death are questions in a conversation that people seem to want to have, and need to have. That I, too, need to have.

In the press accounts and the news magazines, the issues are framed as a social debate, as a matter for legislation and public policy. But rather than a debate, I experience the questions that continue to come to me, to be asked of me, as part of a conversation. It is a conversation among those of us who have had to face these issues about the choices at the end of life, those who today struggle quietly with them, and those who know they will struggle with them in the years ahead. It is a private matter within countless families, a matter of the most difficult and deeply personal dialogue. It is a conversation we choose to have.

It is not about the headlines and the court cases and the sensationalism that surrounds Dr. Kevorkian. It is the other side of that debate, the inner side, the dialogue that emerges gently in many places, here and elsewhere. It is a quiet conversation, not just about assisted suicide and physician-assisted suicide, but about life-and-death decisions, and about the quality of our time together and the strength of our relationships, particularly at the end of life. In a metaphorical sense, it is about loss of all kinds and how we live through it and grow from it.

As a writer and educator in private practice, much of my work involves questions of renewal and change in the workplace, of helping companies find the courage, as writer Parker Palmer, says to "let things die and let things live." Much of my work is with dialogue, a method of working with groups of people in conversations that allow us to make meaning together, to listen and think deeply together. In the course of the past two years since my father's death, I have been even more drawn to the quiet process of dialogue, perhaps because it allows silence, because it confers the right to speak and be listened to, deeply, respectfully. Without the discipline of dialogue, as the other person speaks, I know I will find myself giving in to the human tendency to rehearse rebuttals, finish sentences, interrupt. When the discipline of dialogue is in place and the other person who is speaking holds our attention as a group, I experience a deeper listening and clearer speaking. And it is this deeper listening and clearer speaking that seems particularly attuned to the conversations about the end of life—of which the conversation on assisted suicide is just one dimension—a conversation in which many voices and many perspectives must be heard.

Such dialogue is a way of talking and listening together in order to move toward a collective understanding. In dialogue we speak our truth, sometimes full of emotion, sometimes not. We notice what we have said and felt, and we suspend those thoughts, knowing they are always available to us, and then we move on because we have truly listened to ourselves and we have been heard by others. Such dialogue is part of the process of renewal.

My interest in the nature of renewal began more than thirty years ago, prompted by the patterns of renewal and persistence in the face of adversity that I saw in my own family, and in the families of those around us in the small community in which I grew up. I began to wonder how individuals came to handle difficulties in unique ways, each person seeming to have a kind of fingerprint, a personalized pattern for dealing with life's adversity.

As I listened to stories about my family, I was particularly struck by stories about my father. I was curious about his habit of stock-taking, planning, and quiet independent action, and about the recurring patterns of renewal that seemed to shine out of the stories. It was those repeated patterns that seemed to keep Father vital, patterns that emerged again and again whenever life took some unexpected turn, or produced some new challenge.

As I write now about Father's journey to death, and my journey to understand his life and his death, and the relationship of both to my own life, and to recent tough transitions within it, I am reminded how these questions about renewal have woven their way through my life and work.

Years back, I first explored the themes of renewal in my college studies, in Shakespeare's vision of the healing processes of good societies, in the study of creation myths, in the stories of renewal in many cultures. My doctoral dissertation on patterns of social change in Shakespeare's comedies explored themes of renewal by tracing the role of a natural setting, women's wisdom, clowns, poetry, and music in bringing about healing in societies whose leadership was in disarray. I laugh now with recognition of how much my work with executives in retreat sessions follows the tonic Shakespeare prescribed four hundred years ago: Get out of the usual setting, reflect, talk, play, and then return to the task of leadership refreshed, with new perspective. I also explored these themes of renewal in my early work as an academic advisor and dean, in hundreds of conversations with individuals in mid-life, many of them struggling with the process of making sense of their lives and engaged in setting a direction for their futures.

And for many years now I have explored these themes with leaders who are struggling with the processes of transformation in their organizations. I spend countless demanding and very satisfying hours in dialogue with teams of people from organizations wrestling with the intricacies of organizational change and renewal, and struggling to come to terms with the personal side of those transformations as well. It has gradually become my life's work, in whatever role I am playing, to listen to stories of renewal and to pass the wisdom of those stories to others who can use them in their own lives. Sometimes I feel like an ancient troubadour, singing songs and telling stories, carrying words from one village to the next, passing along the gifts given to me.

And so in the experiences associated with Dad's decision to end his life, to hasten an inevitable death, I have become part of an unexpected story of life and death, a story that I have become, finally, ready to tell.

My early exploration of renewal and change in organizations was quite objective. Framed in organizational terms, it took its point of view from the social sciences, from my colleagues in the business schools, and from everything I could read in the contemporary business press. In those years, I seldom thought of my earlier work in theater, world literature, creation myths, and culture as related to change in organizations. And I only thought glancingly of how the organizational renewal issues related to personal ones, the ones that had continued to be of interest to me in my own family and in families around me. Then one day I found myself in front of a group for which the usual organizational theories about managing change seemed wholly inadequate.

I had been asked to teach a seminar on change to individuals whose work processes were being automated. I had hurriedly agreed to do the seminar, and in the rush of events, I had failed to get essential information that would have made me realize the impossibility of the task at hand: I was to make the workers understand that they should want this new technology. That and other missing information became painfully clear when I arrived at the training site. Twenty-five older individuals, many of who had been doggedly hand-processing insurance claims forms for decades, were to be "automated" on Monday. This was Friday. Yesterday, they had been told to "go to a training program on change. Tomorrow." There they were, sitting stonily around a square table in a meager room. They had not been consulted on the change, nor on the technology. They had no experience with it. They had good reason to suspect that it was eventually to replace some of them. And they did not want to be at this "training." This was a nightmare.

I scrapped my plan for the seminar and abandoned my-self to the role of educator as improviser, because I could think of no alternative. Taking a deep breath, I asked them how they would characterize their situation with the new technology. After a halting start, they talked quite frankly and openly about the situation in which they found themselves, and about the deep reservations and anger they felt about this upcoming change that they had played no role in planning. I listened to what they said about the situation, initially without any idea of where the dialogue would take us. I then asked whether or not they had had other experiences in their lives in which an unwanted change was forced upon them. Many nodded. Had they eventually incorporated the change in their lives in a positive way? Again nods. How had they "succeeded" with the unwelcome change? That seemed an interesting question.

So, taking that line of thinking a step further, I asked everyone in the group to think of such an unwanted change, one that they did not want but had eventually handled very well. I asked them to jot down their thoughts about how they managed it, how they had gotten to a success with something they didn't want. People began to write. They wrote for a long time. I waited. Then I asked them to talk, one at a time, about what they wrote. The rest of us were to listen. Out of a concern for privacy, I asked that they not give details, but just tell us what process had resulted in their being successful.

An elderly gentleman volunteered right off. Despite my instruction to give no details, he started with the details. Five years before, soon after the death of his wife, his only child, a daughter, had died in childbirth and left him a newborn granddaughter to raise. He hadn't known much about babies. Suddenly he had found himself in his early sixties, a widower and solo parent of an infant. He was lost. He explained how he began to pull himself together. He described the way that he reached out to family, to his church, to his community. He made friends with other first-time parents. He arranged for child care during his work hours. He began reading books on child rearing. Now, he said, this granddaughter was the light of his life, and he was proud of the job he was doing as a parent. I asked him to summarize his strategy for handling change: reaching out, making new friends of people who were experienced at this new role, reading, drawing on his faith and religious community. All these went up on a sheet of paper with his name. The paper was taped up on the wall.

The next person recounted a parallel trauma, this one involving a serious illness that had culminated in her significant disability. Her strategy had been to withdraw, seemingly into herself. She sought counseling support. She kept a journal, joined a support group. She talked very little to her co-workers about what she was going through. While they experienced her as withdrawn, she felt supported by their evident concern, even though she didn't respond to it at the time. She had eventually recovered from the illness, and while it left her with long-term limitations, she had come to grips with them, and compensated for them. She summarized her strategy. It went up on the wall with her name.

One by one, the individuals told their story about unwelcome but successful transition, and summarized their strategies. And one by one their strategies went up on the wall. The last story was finished at three o'clock in the afternoon. "Well," I said looking at the wall, "what do you think?" There was a long pause. People looked at the newsprint. I had no idea what to expect. Then one of the older women said, "Well, if we have handled things this tough, and done it well, I doubt the new computers will be a problem. Guess we'd best get on with it." They talked a bit more about how to support each other on their personal strategies for change, and then we concluded.

Excerpted from The Choice by Judy Brown. Copyright © 1995 Judy Brown. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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