Death Be Not Proud

OK, I'll admit it: I cried the other night when Jimmy Smits's character, Det. Bobby Simone, finally gave up the ghost on NYPD Blue.

My girlfriend called me right after the episode--aptly titled Hearts and Souls--aired two Tuesdays ago, and she was shocked at how shook up I sounded. She couldn't believe that underneath this crusty exterior beat the bleeding heart of a big softy.

"Hey," I told her, "that's the way you're supposed to be when you watch somebody die."

It doesn't matter that it's "only" TV (or "only" a movie, book, or magazine article, for that matter). If the story is well-told, you feel something--no matter how vicariously.

I mean, that's what art is about, for chrissake!
To this day I can't sit through a performance of Samuel Barber's elegiac Adagio for Strings, the achingly poignant piece of music that Oli-ver Stone used for the soundtrack of his horrific Vietnam film, Platoon, without breaking down. Hell, my tear ducts are triggered every time I see those two troubled chicks do a "Toonces" and take that Caddy convertible for a cliff-dive at the end of Thelma and Louise.

Dying is a sad deal, OK?
"As wrenching an episode as this landmark drama has ever produced," opined Entertainment Weekly critic Bruce Fretts of the 90-minute special that marked Smits's send-off from the best-written series on television. And Kim Delaney, who plays the newly widowed Mrs. Simone, reports that while it was being filmed, "nobody could look at each other without breaking down."

Maybe it was the fact that the guy had languished in Intensive Care for the previous three weeks or so, hooked up to all those tubes that reminded me of my own father's slow demise a year ago. Or maybe it was the moment when the kindly doctor whom Bobby's wife had insisted on consulting advised against any further heroic measures, telling his more aggressive colleague that "There are worse things than dying."

There are, indeed.
Which is probably why my eyes didn't so much as mist over two nights earlier, when Dr. Jack Kevorkian "assisted" in some poor schmo's suicide--for all the world to witness--on 60 Minutes.

After all, Thomas Youk wanted to die. For this 52-year-old Michigan man, who had been suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease and was begging to be put out of his misery, death was clearly the lesser of two evils.

And unlike the Blue episode, there were no flashbacks to a life well-lived, no surrealistic depictions of "moving toward the light," no music swelling in the background to heighten the drama of the moment.

Kevorkian simply gave the guy an injection of lethal drugs, and he appeared to fall asleep. From the vantage point of my comfortable living-room chair, it all seemed pretty painless--a relatively dignified way to go.

So why has this groundbreaking CBS broadcast, which at least five of the network's affiliate stations refused to carry, provoked such widespread outrage?

Part of it, I suppose, has to do with the off-putting personality of Kevorkian, a bona fide "character" whom many media types have taken to calling "Dr. Death." Just as so much of America is willing to discount Kenneth Starr's case against our scumbag president because the former judge comes off as such a priss (an objection that, curiously, is never raised against Sen. Orrin Hatch), we tend to be repulsed by this gratingly outspoken zealot who seems to carry out his ghoulish work with such glee.

If it were somebody like NBC's handsome and soft-spoken Dr. Bob Arnot, say, or one of the photogenic physicians on ER who was manning that needle, the grisly business of "mercy killing" might go down a bit more easily.

But it's not.
The fact is that Kevorkian, who's gotten his wish and been charged with first-degree murder for his role in the televised "deliverance," represents this death-denying society's best hope of confronting the complex euthanasia issue and having it resolved once and for all--hopefully, in favor of recognizing what the abortion advocates call "the freedom to choose."

For, as journalist Stewart Alsop so eloquently put it shortly before his own passing in 1974: "There comes a time when a dying man needs death the way a tired man needs sleep."

Not that the winners of the 1998 Darwin Awards needed any help, you understand.

This dubious honor, determined by various groups that maintain sites on the web, is given--in honor of naturalist Charles Darwin's "survival of the fittest" hypothesis--to those individuals who "douse the (universal human) gene pool with chlorine by finding innovatively moronic ways of killing themselves, thereby helping to eliminate undesirable weaknesses from the genome." Natural selection at work, in other words.

Among this year's contenders, on one of the sites, were two Canucks who died in a head-on collision, "thus earning a tie in the game of 'chicken' they were playing with their snowmobiles"; a 20-year-old Georgian stabbed to death by his fellow ROTC cadet, who was trying to prove that flak vests are impervious to knife penetration; and a Delaware man who won a bet with friends by putting a revolver loaded with four bullets into his mouth and pulling the trigger.

Closer to home, an Elyria resident picked up an honorable mention after setting fire to his house last October while trying to clean out cobwebs in his basement--with a propane torch!

And from Paderborn, Germany (drumroll, please!), the winner:
"Overzealous zookeeper Friedrich Riesfeldt fed his constipated elephant, Stefan, 22 doses of animal laxative and more than a bushel of berries, figs, and prunes before the plugged-up pachyderm finally let fly--and suffocated the keeper under 200 pounds of poop!

"Investigators say the ill-fated Friedrich, 46, was attempting to give the ailing elephant an olive-oil enema when the relieved beast unloaded on him like a dump truck full of mud.

"'The sheer force of the elephant's unexpected defecation knocked Mr. Riesfeldt to the ground, where he struck his head on a rock and lay unconscious as the elephant continued to evacuate his bowels on top of him,' said flabbergasted Paderborn police detective Erik Dern. 'With no one there to help him, he lay under all that dung for at least an hour before a watchman came along, and during that time he suffocated.'"

Too bad the 60 Minutes crew wasn't there to capture that on videotape.

David Sowd's e-mail address: [email protected]

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