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Walking into Peter Hagedoorn’s room at the Listowel Memorial Hospital on Saturday, Nov. 14 you would have been greeted by a jovial man, content in his accomplishments and comfortable with the decisions he had made in his lifetime, including his choice to end his life on Nov. 18.
“My life is a thousand years,” he said with a chuckle at the beginning of a discussion about his 81 years of life and why he has chosen to die by assisted suicide rather than live through old age – or as he called it, ‘the final illness.’
Hagedoorn was born on the Indonesian island of Java in the city of Bandung. It was a Dutch colony.
“For the first three years of my life we were privileged colonials, it was the Dutch East Indies,” he said. “Then all of a sudden World War Two happened and Japan ran over China, Singapore, the whole damn thing until they reached Java and nearly to Australia. In three days, we were overrun by an army of Japanese on bicycles.”
The Dutch colonial army was, in essence, a police force to keep the population down but was ill-prepared for the Japanese invasion. His family was split up and put into prison camps; his father in one, his mother and siblings in another and his grandparents in yet another.
“The whole Dutch population was divided amongst all kinds of camps,” he said. “From three to six years old I had a very crazy existence because my mother would get sick and we would be sent to the orphanage, then she would come back and we would be put in another camp. Everyone was kept moving and it made life insecure.”
At first, it was not so bad. The Japanese conquered too much too fast and they did not know what to do with all the people, but later in the war, living in the camps got worse.
“We were all put in trains to be brought to the final camp in the centre of Java – that was when the Japanese were losing and they had plans to put us all in a huge camp and shoot the whole lot of us,” said Hagedoorn. “So the last camps we were starved to death, we ate starch every day – a spoonful of dry starch and then you had to stand in line to get the hot water – you’d get this thing you’d put on a shirt here – but we ate it with salt. That was our food.
“So, in the end, people were dying like flies.”
When the war ended, the salvation they had hoped for never happened. The Indonesians wanted to be independent so they started to agitate and cause a civil war.
“We were right in the middle of a civil war after thinking we had won – no liberation, nothing – there was an immediate war with the population,” he said. “They wanted us out – no more colonials.”
They were then put in new camps where they could be safe from the population. Eventually, his father got permission to take the family to Australia.
“Holland at the time could not have us because they had just fought a war,” said Hagedoorn. “In Holland, it was like England, there was not enough food, the whole fabric of Europe was left damaged after Hitler.”
So they ended up living in various cities in Australia for six months.
“We were in Sydney and Brisbane and I don’t know where but I was six at that time,” he said.
Finally, they were able to return to Holland.
“There we were, three children who had been in a camp for three years going from tropics into mid-winter,” said Hagedoorn. “We were the so-called ‘camp children’ because we had no basis for anything… Then we had to go to school never having seen a pencil and for the next 15 years I was an absolute miscreant in schools.”
He said his father did a marvellous job pushing them through school because two years after they were freed from the prison camps, his mother died.
“We eventually got through high school and then I decided at 20 I was not going to stay in Holland,” he said. “I didn’t like it. I was going to immigrate by myself to Canada.”
He hadn’t thought too much about Canada before he chose it as a destination and he did not realize how cold it can get here. He ended up getting a job at the United Cigar Store in Kingston but he wanted to go to attend Queen’s University. He had a stroke of luck which would change the direction of his life.
He found a notice on a bulletin board at the university looking for a childcare worker at the Institution for Emotionally Disturbed Children. He had never done anything like that and says he didn’t know anything about that type of work, but he applied anyway.
At the interview, the psychologist asked him why he needed the job.
“To be able to go to university,” he replied.
Then he was asked what qualifies him to be a childcare worker.
“I don’t know anything about children,” he said.
After that, he was asked why they would want him for the job.
“It’s because if you hire me I’ll work 24 hours a day.”
He was hired on the spot.
“That was the luck,” said Hagedoorn. “I’ll tell you I stayed there for six years and I got myself through university without paying a cent because I lived in there, worked with the children, went to university, came back, got the children to bed.”
While he was working there, the two directors of the institute died in a fire at their house.
“I was left to run the place because I knew the children, I knew the program, I knew everything after six years and the board needed to appoint somebody,” he said. “They had nobody. It happened just like that. So I took over and I became the chief childcare worker there.”
He was planning to study art, but after he had worked with the children, art didn’t interest him very much. So he returned to Queen’s University to get some social work courses, eventually getting a master’s degree in social work from Carleton University in Ottawa. He immediately got a job at the Children’s Aid Society and became the director of adoption homes. That was his career for 28 years.
“I did retire but I couldn’t sit still,” said Hagedoorn. “I wanted to get away out of Toronto and then I got a second career (in Listowel) at Community Living. I worked there for 18 years.”
Art remained a hobby; painting and embroidering wall hangings, one of which hangs in the Listowel Catholic Church, and some of his paintings hang on the walls of the Community Living building.
“Then old age happened and old age is the final illness and nobody wants to see it like that,” he said. “They all have to make beautiful stories up as to how wonderful it is to grow old.”
He said he has seen old age homes and the way people are treated. He realizes people taking care of the elderly have the best intentions but often there is not enough staff and there is not enough money to do anything for old people except make them exist. Hagedoorn watched his father suffer through old age and finally die at the age of 92.
“My father (attempted) suicide two times at my house and I would have let him but I had a son and he was about six or seven so if you don’t do anything you have been part of murder and I couldn’t go to jail and let my son be by himself,” he said.
So he called an ambulance and got him to the hospital, but each time his father was saved he thought, “He did it wrong. He didn’t think.”
The first time it was an overdose of sleeping pills and he went to the hospital and slept for a week. He tried again and ended up in the hospital for another week.
“It was a bad hospital,” said Hagedoorn. “They let him lie there for a week and when he was finished his whole back was raw. They had not turned him and he had to go to another hospital for about a year and lie with his back to the sun so that would heal.”
Next stop for Hagedoorn’s father was a nursing home in Toronto.
“The end of it was that he lay on the bed at 92 like a carcass,” he said. “He didn’t know where he was and he didn’t know me. He didn’t even know I was there. And I’m sitting there and I’m sitting. I am fucking mad that I have to sit here and watch this carcass go up and down that has nothing to do with me. And he finally died. Just of his heart winding down.
“That was the last few years of my lovely deal with my father so I say that was not necessary really. For him or me. So that is why I also had this big reaction to the system taking over and keeping you going even after you are pretty well done, gone and nothing more than a piece of meat.”
So, by the time he was about 64, near retirement, he started to think about end-of-life planning because the decline caused by old age is inevitable.
“We are all going to do it,” he said. “The way it was done at that point is that you are wished to have a long life and you slowly deteriorate into utter dependence without a say to what happens to you.”
He said he did not have the patience for that and started to think about how to stop that process. “It’s such an abysmal thing if you think about it,” said Hagedoorn. “So then I started thinking about how Holland has legislation where you can be finished off elegantly. I’m from Holland so I know. I have family of mine who did it and it is a very civilized, pleasant, kind process. You decide when you want it, or if you don’t want it, it’s up to you.”
When he first started to think about it, Canada had no law permitting assisted suicide.
“It’s very difficult for people to start looking at that if they have either religious or moral reasons why it isn’t done,” he said.
He knew it was the way he wanted his life to end but at the time he was still healthy. Regardless he wanted to explore the topic. He started talking with his doctor.
“She’s a very good woman and a very good doctor,” he said.
At the time he first raised the issue, he had to push a little bit to start the discussion.
“I wanted to talk with her,” said Hagedoorn. “You can commit suicide anytime. I could have done that anytime. I have all the poison or whatever the hell you want but the thing is… if you do it that way you are not supported by knowledge. You are just doing your own stupid thing.”
He said it is very easy for people attempting suicide to do it wrong and make their life worse so he wanted to rely on sound medical knowledge.
Eventually, he was referred to a counsellor and when the report came back to his doctor, she then was open to it. From 2016 to 2018, a series of laws were established in Canada allowing the legality of medically-assisted suicide.
“We talked in earnest about it and she was open and she was very forthcoming about what was possible and what was not possible,” he said. “You have to have a remedial illness… So you have to start thinking in terms of are you ill in such a way you cannot be fixed and how is your mind working.”
He said you have to be of sound mind to make the decision.
Hagedoorn began a process visiting several doctors who asked him similar questions.
“They want to see if you are consistent… they determine if you have a mental illness,” he said.
At this point in his life, illnesses due to old age started to settle into his life. He started to lose the strength in his arms, he couldn’t paint anymore, he had difficulty viewing things and his television hurts his eyes.
“My painting, my writing – everything that I liked was just being cut out and on top of that I had physical illnesses – constant diarrhea, running to the toilet every five seconds, all kinds of things that made your life pretty well useless, impossible and very unpleasant,” he said.
He started to talk about more about arrangements for assisted suicide.
“There was still a little bit of hesitancy here and there but the system leaned towards letting me use the law,” he said. “Then all of a sudden I had a – what do you call that – the stroke.”
As soon as he heard the doctor say you can’t cure a stroke he said, how about now? They said yes.
He feels this approach to death has oddly changed the process. People have been able to start mourning his passing while he was preparing for death.
“That was what was funny to me or remarkable,” said Hagedoorn. “So there were people who were trying to dissuade me and say don’t do that we will miss you, we like you, all the stuff that comes up when somebody dies but this is at the front end.”
He did admit there was a bit of difficulty reconciling his wish to avoid a horrible life in an institution until he was 90 with the sincere wish of people to have him around.
“They love me and they like me and you know, they argue like a true lawyer to keep me here and I say to them the difficulty is you feel a little bit guilty because you are saying no to people who love you,” he said. “That is a difficult thing to do for the guy who has decided to go but as you go on you have to do it with grandchildren, you have to do it with your children, you have to do it with people who are great friends.”
As he thought about this mourning process he is seeing people go through, he started to realize he will remain in people’s memories.
“If you think of me, I’m there,” he said. “As soon as you think Peter Hagedoorn was doing that, oh wasn’t that funny, oh wasn’t that great… As soon as you got me there, I’m there.”
The only things he said his friends and family will lose of him are the physical aspects, like being able to hug him.
As his doctors have explained it to him, his death will be a gentle process. He is not one for great manifestations of grief so he chose his wife and his two best friends to attend.
He said there will be a sequence of anaesthesia and muscle relaxants released into his body and then his heart will be stopped.
“So that’s your story in a nutshell,” he said. “The funny thing is that in my experience a lot of people who think about dying have a background of religion or culture and they have to do this according to that way. I was not brought up with anything much and I have absolutely, absolutely, absolutely no fear of dying. I’m not nervous, I’m not anything.”
“I had everything,” he said. “It was interesting. I had a good life I don’t have to regret anything. My family is great. Everything is wonderful.”
At the end of his interview with good cheer, he said, “I hope you keep safe. Keep away from the virus. Be very careful.
“You must at least live one half more than I did.”