Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Living death to the fullest

When cancer became unbearable, Dan orchestrated his end with grace, wit and poignant commentary

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It was one of the best obituaries I ever read.

Even the name of the deceased was intriguing -- Dandelion B. Treecraft, also known as Dan. The 62 year-old Spokane, Wash., arborist was better known in that Pacific Northwest community as a social and political activist and avid writer of letters to the editor.

Known locally for railing against establishment politics and corporations and for his outspoken opposition to war, Treecraft lived his life the way he wanted.

He ended it that way, too.

Treecraft -- born Daniel Bryan Whipple in California -- wrote his obituary before he died of cancer on August 4, 2011.

After moving to Spokane in 1980, he worked at a couple of jobs before working for six years at a transformer manufacturing plant -- a job that "failed to lead to tenure, as the company moved its facility to North Carolina to take advantage of a lower-wage environment."

He worked briefly as a nurse's aide after that. Unfortunately, he noted, "this proved not to be a good fit, as Treecraft felt compelled to take half of his charges home to provide more adequate personal nurturance, while the remainder, he felt, should be taken out overnight and shot."

In 1991, Treecraft found his "true calling" as an arborist, changing his legal name to reflect his new line of employment. As an arborist, he "attempted to make an honest living providing ethical tree care."

But, he added, "anyone who's attempted to make a living -- ethically -- can attest that it is no small feat." His scorecard on that matter looked fairly good, he thought, "if graded on a curve."

In 1999, he married Jan, and "the next nine years passed in what appeared to be sublime, flawless bliss," he wrote.

"Both Treecrafts were generally satisfied to let that appearance prevail. It was a period of considerable inner growth, especially for Jan. For Dan, it was a time of great inner testing. The result was, after all, a passably agreeable relationship for a near-decade. No small feat in this day."

He noted that some fuss has been made of his social and political activism. This aspect of his life has been significantly exaggerated, although he was "exceedingly proud of being ousted from several dozen Spokane City Council meetings."

In 2010, after experiencing a mild, chronic sore throat and some difficulty swallowing for some time, a medical examination and biopsy revealed a tumour of "some advanced development."

Treecraft decided on a course of no treatment. Jan stood by him throughout the winding-down process, walking all the way with him.

All the way for Treecraft meant taking his own life -- something that is possible in Washington state through its Physician Assisted Suicide law. Modelled after neighbouring Oregon's Death With Dignity Act, it allows a resident who has been diagnosed by a physician with a terminal illness to request a lethal dose of medication for the purpose of ending his or her life. Treecraft chose breathing from a cylinder of nitrogen gas.

Treecraft made that decision after his cancer symptoms had become worse, making breathing and eating difficult and painful. A few days before he died, he wrote a last post on his blog, Dead Man Talking, about the decision to die.

"Today is Monday, August 1, 2011... I feel some familiar dismay -- at the thought that summer is on its way out, fall is readying to move in and winter will be here all-too-soon for a thin-skinned boy like me. And... I feel a mixture of both relief and uneasiness, to think that I can't expect to have that season-turning experience again."

He went on to say it was going to be "a short week, for me. I've decided that I want to have my funeral-burial next Saturday. That means I have to be ready for burial; I have to get dead... I have two days to get myself ready for Wednesday's big transition."

He admitted to some mixed feelings about dying -- the burdens left for his wife, wishing he could spend many more years getting to know the new minister from his Unitarian church and not wanting to say a final goodbye to old friends and family who were coming for a last visit.

"I feel not-so-resolute about shutting myself off two days from now," he wrote of those upcoming visits.

"My resolve to carry on as planned is rattled a bit by this little change in the environment around me."

Near the end of the post, he suggested he might write one more time -- see if he couldn't share at least one last profound thought. It didn't happen.

On Aug. 4, 2011, one year ago today, he ended his own life.

Treecraft's obituary concluded by noting that he had no children of his own but, if he did, "not one of them ever called or wrote."

Friends were invited to the burial, but were warned to expect to provide "funereal talent, shovels, sweat, cheer, graveside manners. Eulogizers of quick-witted brevity are welcome to speak. Long-winded droners may be stoned and used as backfill."

Following his death, Jan told the Spokane Spokesman-Review that "Dan was a blessing... as I look ahead, I think, 'Gee, life may not be as interesting.'"

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 4, 2012 J12

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