Leaving on His Own Terms

The sun was shining across the wide expanse of ocean at Woolgoogla Beach – sparkling, magnificence to make one smile at the wonder of this natural landscape on our doorstep.
It was a beautiful day for an ‘exit party’ as the Shorter family called it. The atmosphere was filled with the sounds of family and community greeting as they came to say goodbye to their friend, neighbour, father, grampy, brother, cousin and beloved husband, David Shorter who ended his life, on his own terms. This was a family gathering and community ‘celebration of life’ that they had co-ordinated with care and consideration.
After David’s daughter, Karina gave an acknowledgement of Gumbaynggirr country her opening introduction set the scene for what was a heartfelt and honest celebration of David’s life and his leaving.

“At the end of Dad’s life he talked a lot about death. He had an odd sense of humour and one of the things he said he always wanted, if we had a funeral for him, was copious weeping. So please feel free to express yourselves in any way you wish, whether this be in tears of joy or tears of sadness. Please be yourselves and know David will be smiling down on you. Granny was thinking we could have brought cut onions for anyone who needed a bit of encouragement.”

Friends, colleagues and grandchildren offered tributes honouring the diverse and much loved character that David was, making us laugh and cry. David and Carol’s four adult children sat up the front with Carol. The grandchildren sat in age order across the front row. Carol interjected the tributes with funny stories that were stirred in her.
This final tribute for the afternoon was offered by his son, Damon Shorter.

“My memories of Dad when I was a boy are of a man who could do anything.

Dad was an engineer. He built stuff. He made things happen.

Each day I raced home from school to see what had been made on the building site of our new house – and I completely loved it. 

Dad and John, our friend, hung joists, nailed up gyprock, poured concrete. It was awesome. 

Dad would brew beer in the garage, boiling the hops in one of mum’s old stockings. He helped us kids make ginger beer too, and we sealed it into the long necks with a big bottle cap press and put it down to ferment, the date written on the lids.

My Dad knew everything. He was not that parent who struggled to help us with our homework.

A typical walk with Dad on the beach as a kid might include a discussion about the geology of the Sydney Basin and how this was impacted by the last ice age, an explanation of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, or maybe how the personalities of Hitler and Stalin influenced the outcome of the Second World War. Dad loved that stuff. And he did not really go in for small talk.

My Dad ran Fun Runs bare-chested on the weekends. In second class, I assured my friend Rodney that my Dad could DEFINITELY beat his Dad in a fight. Incidentally, I met Rodney’s dad some years later and reckon I maybe got that last bit wrong.

Dad was most alive when ensconced in a project. He finished our house, then launched a small business from our garage, using left over building tools, which quickly turned into a much bigger business. He bought an early Dick Smith computer and taught himself to computer code, alongside Ian his computer nerd buddy, and told us kids we could only play computer games if we programmed them ourselves. And I do remember becoming reasonably proficient at Turbo Pascal, and I think Cam’s still doing it.. 

Dad acted on issues he felt were important – he spearheaded community resistance to the ocean outfall at Emerald Beach, now a marine park; he lobbied politicians for a proper high school in Woolgoolga, which was built and now stands at the other end of this beach, where it has educated generations of local kids, his own included. 

Dad’s other passion, and perhaps the one over which I bonded with him most as a kid, was music. Dad would delight in slipping recordings of Rachmaninov, Bartok, Chopin, Benjamin Britten onto our record player, and this music was the soundtrack of my childhood. I learnt through Dad the elegant baroque conventions of Bach and Hayden, the grandeur of Berlioz, how to visualise the sound pictures conjured by Debussy and Ravel, and how they all differed but shared the same beauty. Dad loved a game of guess the composer, and would frequently plunge the family into darkness after dinner and demand we sit there and listen to his latest musical find – turned up loud. Of course, none of this helped his 8 year old son make friends on the school bus, and I quickly learned that “who’s your favourite composer?” wasn’t a great ice-breaker with my peers.

Dad’s love of music did not extend to all of its forms. Most modern music was junk. In fact, I discovered that almost anything cool to a teenager was a bit suspect in Dad’s view. Religion started wars. Politics was broken. Intellectual pursuits were fine, but “academic” was also employed by Dad sometimes as a derogatory term. Dad’s opinions were firm and he was not shy about defending them. Dad’s view of the world was scientific, mechanistic.. so if I said that Mum’s attitudes to life were at the love/Reiki/world peace/optimism end of the scale, Dad’s were a fair way down the other end – in fact, to some people, including me, they came across sometimes as a little.. BLEAK. Dad’s life, he often said, was meaningless in the greater scheme of the universe – a blip in time, on a rock, circling a star, in infinite expanding space. 

Yet I could never shake the feeling that, for all Dad’s amazing grasp of the big picture, there was a smaller scale of happiness in front of his nose that he sometimes didn’t notice. The pleasure of the mundane stuff. The solace to be found in a bad pop song. The comfort of small talk.

It is hard to talk about how Dad’s life ended. It hurts. The emotions are raw. Dad always wanted to exit life the same way he had lived. On his terms. He talked a lot about euthanasia in his later year – actually, A LOT. He abhorred the prospect of becoming incapacitated, dependent, or a burden on others. His death was not an impulsive event, he had thought hard about this. He feared becoming frail or losing control. He did not want to be remembered as a grumpy old man. He chose this end.

I cannot speak for everyone in our family. Our views are all slightly different, as I’m sure are those of the rest of you here. However, as a family we have agreed that we should talk about this – Dad would have expected no less. Dad ended his life on his terms. But, if I might say, it feels a little bit shit for the rest of us. He was not an island, he left behind his children, his grandchildren, and his wife.. who is still very much alive. So, Dad, I understand your reasons, I cannot flaw your logic, I even can admire the courage of your convictions – I just disagree, and so wish that you hadn’t done this.

I am not an engineer. I am a doctor, and a person for whom life has always been fragile, fleeting, beautiful. We argued so many times about our differences in world view, over so many turgid dinners, and my secret hope was that, with time and patience, Dad would be steered towards an alternative future – of aging joints and waning senses certainly – but also a time of grace and dignity, of mentoring and reflection, surrounded by family, beauty, fine music, and the fruits of his life’s work. A life’s cup half full.  

That future is gone, and perhaps it was never my place to presume it for him. We will be OK, there will be an alternative future, without Dad. We will take care of each other, as was always his want. The choice was his. I can make peace with that.

So, Dad, you took your own life – I get the last word. And I can’t help wondering whether you were right about the afterlife: whether there’s nothing out there now for you except worms and dust? I know you believed it. Of course, you might be wrong, statistically, in which case you’ll be up there now, floating around in the sky..?! I think that’s fantastic.

And, if you are up there, I hope for our sake that the thermals are fabulous, the angels are buxom, and the soundtrack is magnificent.

Rest in Peace Old Fella. I hope it was worth it.”

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3 years ago

Well done to speak so honestly about Dad’s choice. The fact they knew Dad so well, and to accept his choice to end his own life … and then find courage to look to the future without a wise old man in there guiding them, is just perfectly, tragically, beautiful.