“Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death” by Katy Butler
$25.00 / $28.99 Canada
by TERRI SCHLICHENMEYER
Your mind’s made up.
There’s no going back once you’ve made a choice between Door Number One or Door Number Two. You’re not a waffler, you weighed pros and cons, and you’re confident you picked correctly. Or not.
Indeed, the worst part about making a decision can be the regret that’s possible at the end of the choice. And in the new book “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” by Katy Butler, a seemingly no-brainer decision tears a family apart.
Jeff Butler cheated death many times.
As a child, he narrowly missed dying in a car accident. In World War II, he lost an arm, but not his life. And in November 2001, at age 79, he suffered a stroke that nearly killed him. A year later, he received a pacemaker.
And that, says his daughter Katy, kept him alive but didn’t “prevent his slide into dementia, incontinence, near-muteness, misery, and helplessness.”
Jeff and his wife Val were forward thinkers. He was a college professor. She was a perfectionist with fierce drive. They had been “in control of their lives, and they did not expect to lose control of their deaths.”
But that’s exactly what happened: as Jeff’s health continued to decline, his abilities dwindled and his cognizance weakened – all of which he was aware. He indicated dismay at his diminished life and said that he’d “unfortunately” lived too long.
On the other side of the country, Katy Butler worried. She’d always been closer to her father than to her mother, but arguments and old hurts continued to sting. Still, she flew home to Connecticut to help because she was, after all, their daughter – statistically, the one who bore the brunt of parenting a parent.
But as Jeff’s dementia worsened, so did Val’s tolerance and her health. She was “stoic,” but impatient, snappish and exhausted, and only accepted outside help when she became overwhelmed. Butler says she knew her mother “clouted” her father, and shouted at him in frustrated anger.
By this time, Butler was convinced that the pacemaker her father had wasn’t the medical miracle it was meant to be. And she learned that pacemakers could be turned off…
So much went through my mind as I read this beautiful, emotionally brutal book.
With sorrow, grace, and growing exasperation, author Katy Butler writes of her father’s long, messy death; her mother’s quiet, dignified passing; and the parallel story of how modern medicine, drug companies, and government rules promoted the former.
That’s a lot of hard reading, made gentler with Butler’s Buddhist values and serenity. And yet, it’s not easy to avoid outrage as she points out the unfairness of aging, the cruelty of physical decline, and the knowledge that those – and the surety of caretaking – are somewhat inevitable for many Baby Boomers today.
This is a stunning book, truthful and its dignified, and it could be a conversation-starter. If there’s a need for that in your family – or if you only want to know what could await you – then read “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” You won’t regret it.
Terri Schlichenmeyer is based in Wisconsin.