Rick Ouston's Personal Take On Choice Of DeathFriday, August 22, 2014
August 22, 2014 11:15
Writing to deadline
Yes, it’s good to see Ouston’s byline.
Nobody is an expert on dying except perhaps those who administer to the dying or soldiers in battle whose companions die. The rest of us by definition must be amateurs.
In Spanish we have the expression “donde el rey va solo” or that place where the king goes and is alone. This is a polite 19th century Spanish euphemism for saying that someone is in the bathroom.
Not too long ago while driving on a back alley near Quebec and First Avenue I watched a seagull thrash on the ground in what must have been its last moments. For a long time we talked about that place the elephants go to die and sometimes we asked ourselves where it was sea gulls died, at sea or on land? I felt melancholic watching the bird and well knowing that dying is something that is supremely lonely and shared with nobody in spite of Hollywood bed-bound death scenes.
Five years ago I went to visit a dying friend, architect Abraham Rogatnick. We had discussed death many times but this time I had brought with me my copy of the stories of Ambrose Bierce. I told Rogatnick I was going to read him Parker Adderson Philosopher. The story relates how a captured Union spy is not afraid of death knowing he will die in the morning. When the Confederate officer changes the execution to that moment and not in the morning the spy suddenly is afraid.
I asked Rogatnick if he were to have a gun pointed to his temple would he be afraid of dying. We both agreed that there was not way of knowing until it happened.
A few days later Rogatnick died in his sleep. He had decided, a year before, not to proceed with the extended therapy to treat his prostate cancer. He sold or gave away his stuff and donated money to his favourite art organizations. To me he gave me a Leica IIIF and a Mexican papier-mâché skeleton. His words to me were, “I am going to die in a year so you can have my skeleton.”
Paradoxically today I was hit by a wave of melancholia and delight upon seeing the byline of Rick Ouston in the Vancouver Sun.
Years ago, in the mid 80s Malcolm Parry as editor of Vancouver Magazine, had an open-door policy in his office. Actors, politicians, thugs, prostitutes, writers, doctors, architects, poets, crazy Estonians, illustrators, etc were quickly ushered in and Parry always had an ear for good stories. He had a pulse for our city. The magazine, Vancouver Magazine was relevant. In many ways so were our two city newspapers. Every once in a while Parry would hire someone close to the Vancouver Sun or working there to write a report on the status of our city’s journalism.
One frequent writer of those essays was Rick Ouston. I never spoke much to him. But I remember that he had a look through his eyeglasses that seemed to penetrate into my soul. He was quiet-spoken. His essays were good. Had they not Parry would not have hired him again.
Years after when I visited the Vancouver Sun newsroom I would run into Ouston. I remember one time when I was there to see Editor-in-Chief John Cruickshank. I met up with Ouston at the door (they had to buzz it to get in). Ouston looked haggard and serious. In those days I used to say to some of my friends that if you put Ouston into a room with my friend journalist Mark Budgen and illustrator/designer Ian Bateson that in short order, these three men would do themselves in. I thought it was interesting to figure out who would have been first.
With all the changes in the Vancouver Sun, I stopped seeing Ouston’s byline. I called him one day and he told me he was in charge of something called or similar to ombudsman of on line media. Perhaps that was not exactly the term but it was vague. It seemed that Ouston was in some sort of limbo and I was saddened to hear this.
Years back when a couple of writers had been nominated for writing awards by the Western Magazine Award foundation there was a scandal that few new about. These two writers had written stories in which they had interviewed people who had not been interviewed and quoted quotes that had never been uttered. The publications in question (to be fair they had published the letters of protest) had then been (amazing!) submitted as entries to the Western Magazine Awards. Rick Ouston and Adrian du Plessis worked in the background in a subtle kind of blackmail, “You give these two guys a prize and we will come forward.” The writers did not win anything and the possible journalistic scandal was avoided. I was in awe of the two men who had sound ethical standards which I know now are not really part of the mix in the era of citizen journalism.
Today’s Ouston essay Choice of Death is a Personal Thing is in the heels of the Gillian Bennett suicide of a few days past. Ouston defends that suicide instigated by Bennett’s awareness of the encroachment of Alzheimer’s disease. In fact Ouston defends our personal choice of death when circumstances push against staying alive.
I have long maintained that if ever diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or another dementia, I will take my own life. My reasoning is personal and purely selfish: What’s the point in staying alive if I can’t think? I am beholden to no one, no children of my own, no needy parents, no debts.
Later in the essay he describes his bungled suicide attempt a year ago.
I wish Ouston well and I congratulate him for his courage in writing this timely essay. I also congratulate his Editor-in-Chief for allowing the essay to run.
It was pleasant to see Ouston’s byline in spite of the circumstances.