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Jerry Dincin awaits his “exit” at his Highland Park home in early March.
In February, as temperatures in the Chicago area unseasonably spiked into the 60s and 70s, Jerry Dincin’s neighbors took to the streets. They strolled around the North Shore town of Highland Park wearing T-shirts and shorts, with their dogs and children, soaking up the sun. Everyone, including Dincin, a retired psychologist, marveled at how nature can surprise us. But for him, the beauty was bittersweet. “I think this is my last winter,” he told me, staring through a window at the bright blue skies.
At 81, Dincin does not want to die. He loves Susanne, his wife of 11 years; her son, Ben, who starts college this fall; and his four adult children from a previous marriage. And his cats Sparky (the fat one) and Scrappy (the skittish one). And the symphonies of Beethoven. And the wooden objects he and Susanne collect at art fairs and hang on the walls of their red-roofed ranch house. He is in no hurry to leave all this behind.
But there is the cancer, diagnosed just two weeks after his honeymoon with Susanne at Niagara Falls. Dincin has undergone radiation and blood therapy in a futile effort to stop the spread from his prostate to his ribs, to his spine, to the bony girdle of his pelvis. He has tried prescription drugs, marijuana, acupuncture, and hypnosis for the pain and enfeeblement that followed. The cancer will immobilize him, the doctors say, and then it will kill him. There is no debating this.
Since early this year, Dincin has been spending his remaining time with family, reading courtroom dramas, getting medical treatment, and trying to manage his increasing pain. But in May some news from the state of Minnesota interrupted that routine. The Dakota County Attorney’s Office had indicted him for assisting in the 2007 suicide of Doreen Dunn, a 57-year-old mother from suburban Minneapolis.
For as it turns out, Dincin is far from the typical North Shore retiree. He is one of the nation’s most prominent right-to-die advocates. From 2009 to 2011, he was president of the Final Exit Network, a controversial nonprofit group that aims to help the terminally ill and those suffering from unbearable pain who want to choose when their lives end. He says that he has been present with 14 such people, including Dunn, during their self-inflicted deaths. Dincin calls the right to die “the ultimate civil right.”
“To me, living an extra week or an extra month in bad condition just isn’t worth it,” he says. “I know that a lot of people don’t feel that way. A lot of people feel that, you know, the last drop of life, you should squeeze everything out of it. But I don’t think so.”
Now that he faces his own death, however, acting on that belief has become agonizingly difficult. “I’ve been very concerned about my own courage and being able to take my own life with my own hand,” he says. “I spend a lot of time thinking about it. Too much time.” He pauses. “I’m intellectually convinced that’s exactly what I want to do. But actually [doing it] is . . . it’s a big deal when you don’t want to die.”
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Dincin opens the door before I can knock and shakes my hand. We’ve spoken by phone half a dozen times over the previous few years, but he is not quite what I imagined. Strong looking, for one thing—six feet tall, 195 pounds—with thinning gray hair pulled back into a bohemian ponytail. His blue eyes are faded but full of life. He looks pretty good, considering the war going on inside his body. It’s mid-February.
Today the pain in his back is a three, he tells me. (Dincin assesses his pain level on a scale from zero to ten, with zero undetectable and ten unbearable.) Just days before, he had finished his latest treatment: A cup of his blood was removed, flown to California, treated with an immunotherapy drug called Provenge, flown back, and returned to his body through a vein in his arm. It won’t cure him, but he hopes it will buy some quality time.
Sitting in his sunny living room, we talk about his life and death over a bowl of fresh berries. Despite having spent most of the last five decades in Illinois, Dincin speaks with a native Brooklynite’s accent. “I thought it [the decision to die] is a lot easier than it is,” he says, choosing his words carefully. “I love my wife. I want to stay with her, and she wants me to live.”
Still, Dincin doesn’t want to end up on an IV in a hospital or a nursing home, pumped full of potent drugs, strange to the strangers taking care of him, strange to his family and friends, strange even to himself, whatever part remains. Nor does he want to suffer great pain. So he resolves that he—not cancers, or gods, or doctors—will choose the day, the time, and the way he exits the world he loves. He will die when the pain becomes too much.
I ask Susanne how she feels about her husband’s decision. She sits alone on a couch, sipping tea—a bespectacled psychotherapist used to having hard conversations. “It’s his life,” she says quietly. “Jerry’s a strong man. He has a very strong personality, and he doesn’t do well being weak. If he were to get into a very incapacitated state, he would be a very grumpy guy. I understand this.”
“More than grumpy,” Dincin corrects.
“I saw with my parents,” Susanne continues, “there comes a point where the quality of life is not great.”
“I’d like to die in my sleep,” says Dincin, “but that’s not going to happen.”
A lifelong atheist, Dincin doesn’t feel bound by any religious prohibition against suicide. “I understand why people buy into an afterlife,” he says, “to know that you’re not really dead, that you’re going somewhere else where you’ll meet your parents and grandparents. It’s a terrific invention. I just think it’s bullshit.”
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Photograph: Daniel Shea
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