How to End a Life

May 25, 2017
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The first thing April Poelstra noticed was the hitch in her father’s shoulder. Jack’s left arm was drooping, hanging limply at his side, as if he didn’t have the muscle to cinch it into alignment. It was the fall of 2015, and Jack was living in Frankville, Ontario, waking up at 4:30 a.m. to plow roads and work odd jobs for a construction company. Jack, then 62, was known to most people in that corner of southern Ontario as J. P. Campbell, the on-air handle he’d used for decades spinning country records at the local radio station. He was handsome, with a rocker’s shag and wry smile, and growing up, April had enjoyed the perks of being the daughter of a small-town celebrity. Her mother had left the family when April was three, leaving Jack to raise her and her two younger sisters, Amber and Alison. In the summer, he would attach their sleds to the riding mower, dragging the squealing kids across the yard. When he was on the air, the girls would crowd around the radio and yell into the speakers, convinced that if they were loud enough he could hear them through the wiring. “Everybody says they have the best dad,” says April, “but I really did.”

Jack tried to downplay his shoulder problems. He visited his doctor for a battery of tests, but always changed the subject when April pressed for details. Over the next few months, she saw her father struggling. During their weekly lunches, he had trouble swallowing. He had a persistent cough. April began searching the Internet for his symptoms, and the more she looked, the more worried she became. In early 2016, her fears were validated: Jack was diagnosed with ALS. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, attacks the neurons that control the muscles. A person becomes paralyzed in slow motion, losing the ability to walk, to eat, to talk and eventually to breathe, usually within four years. Jack made it clear that he didn’t want to wait that long.

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Image: By Stethoscopes – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4540865

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