On the fifteenth birthday of our oldest son, Joke, my Indian mother-in-law, mischievous unbuttoned her blouse and showed the T-shirt she was wearing underneath. It was black, with text in large, white block letters. ‘The end is near‘, we read.
She told me that while that was probably still a long way off, she was thinking about death. She had attended meetings and film festivals and had become a member of the Dutch Association for a Voluntary End of Life. Under the T-shirt, she wore a necklace with a token that made it clear that she did not want to be resuscitated in an emergency. Amid the birthday commotion, we absorbed her outpourings as family. We were not surprised.
Almost nine years later, after a long process of preparation, Joke took two tablets on March 4 of this year, preceded by anti-vomiting drugs and a hefty dose of paracetamol. Within twenty minutes she lost consciousness, surrounded and assisted by both her sons. She died after more than an hour. It was an intense, intimate, loving and unimaginably brave end of life.
In the months before, we had often visited Joke with our children. She looked back with us on more than eighty eventful years, from the misery in the Japanese camps and the Bersiap era to the happiest moments of her childhood, when she climbed mountains in Switzerland in summer.
We got Indonesian food at the nearby toko and while we tasted the delicacies, Joke told us about then, now and later. Her biotope – a museum house full of books, photos, paintings and Indian items – gave color and scent to her presence and her stories. But with each visit, the farewell also came closer. Because for us, the grieving process had already started when she announced during the Christmas season that it was about time.
Hell and damnation
I myself have always thought that this open approach to death was typically Indonesian. That the intimate entanglement of life and death in the culture of my in-laws was much more obvious than in my own Protestant family, where death was traditionally used as a messenger of fear, and where sin, hell and damnation lurked .
But it could also be that my in-laws had developed a certain resignation towards death because they had been confronted with it so often in their youth. My father-in-law was able to tell us about the crocodiles that swam around in the river next to the parental home on Buru, the island in the Moluccas where he grew up. Or that as a boy he once fell from a tree out of fright, because he looked straight into the eyes of a snake. In our house hangs a photo of Hans hanging diagonally in the bend, during a motor race on the Zandvoort circuit, in the early sixties. You just took risks. Death, that’s what you related to, it was allowed to be challenged. That was part of life.
And yet Hans, who died of lung cancer after a three-week illness in 2005, suffered a degrading, days-long and brutal death struggle. He lay writhing in his bed, delirious from the morphine, leaving us as a family in disarray. With that intense experience, Joke, his widow, started thinking about a dignified end of life.
Why am I writing this down? I’ve been thinking about it a lot over the past few months. Joke’s choice reminded me that a dignified ending can also be an ode to life itself. We learned from her that a completed end of life can give a deep, substantial experience to people who love each other; an experience that connects loved ones and generations, provided it is shared and discussed openly.
For Joke, the right to self-determination was essential, as a form and expression of humanity. Because there was no taboo on it, we were able to respect that wish as a family and guide her to the end. At the same time, we realized that it was a very personal wish, which each of us dealt with emotionally and rationally differently. For example, I can’t imagine that looking forward to a self-imposed death could one day become more important than my zest for life or the connection with people around me.
All this has made me realize that dealing with death is also a cultural fact, which, with all the diversity and shades in our society, requires an open, nuanced exchange of experiences, information and points of view. Instead, it is taboo. Joke’s story is not unique, but it belongs to a category that almost always remains indoors.
‘Breakpoint’ of the formation
The personal experience described here stands in stark contrast to the hard social discord about the voluntary, completed end of life, which was recently even declared a ‘breaking point’ of the cabinet formation. It is sad to see how a social taboo is used with great fanfare and without any form of substantive reflection as an instrument of a political power struggle, in a society that is already polarized through and through.
Thus, the cabinet formation is presented to us as a matter of life or death. I would like to wish the social debate about voluntary end of life and the right to self-determination a more respectful and nuanced approach. Wouldn’t it be better if such sensitive subjects were first exposed and discussed openly?
Also read this column by Rosanne Hertzberger: D66 calls it completed life, I commit suicide
As a family, we did not opt for the scenario that Joke had in store for himself. We did try to process and accept it, and so we found a way to deal with it, for her sake. The ending was sad, soft and loving.
But because GPs have to report an unnatural death, we were immediately attacked as a family by a local police team, who would interview each of us individually, immediately searched and autopsied Joke’s phone and computer, while the officer of the judiciary took the lead by telephone in the background. In those days I wished that we did not live in the Netherlands but in Oregon, the American state in which a Death with Dignitylaw exists that guarantees that people can choose a voluntary end of life in a dignified way, as is now also possible in Washington, Montana, Vermont and California.
Shortly after Joke’s death, the neighbor sent us a letter. He had seen Joke scatter seed over her wildflower garden a few days before. He described how on summer evenings the bamboo sounds of the Angklung orchestra, which for years rehearsed every Tuesday evening in her shed, reverberated into his own garden. It was a simple and comforting message. It was logical for us that Joke still sowed flowers in the week before her death, because in doing so she also passed on life. It marks her end of life. Frankly, no cabinet formation can compete with that.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad of 25 September 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of September 25, 2021