It has been a good week in Iceland, sunny and fall-crisp, and my friend Elizabeth Fischer has seen the Geysir, been bathed in the spray of the Gullfoss falls, admired the uncanny azure of the Blue Lagoon, and scritched the neck of an adorable Icelandic pony. Now she’s packing her bags and getting ready for Zurich, where on October 15 she plans to exit this world the same way she traversed it for the past 68 years: on her own terms, and on her own two feet.
She’s dying of terminal lung cancer, and her last act will be to cheat the reaper. And then from beyond the grave she wants you to change Canada’s barbaric prohibition of assisted suicide, preferably by way of the ballot box.
“What you can do is actually agitate,” she says, interviewed at her kitchen table in the comfortable Mount Pleasant co-op apartment she’s enjoyed for the past quarter century. “Number one: vote the bastards out. Vote the fucking bastards out. Enough of this religious agenda. People, get it into your heads: there are no miracles. There are no gods. Live every day like it was your last, and just enjoy it.”
The irony here, of course, is that our country’s “pro-life” prime minister is forcing Fischer—and others who share her predicament—to choose death months or even years before they might otherwise have to.
“I can stick around for another few months, but that means I’m taking the risk of the kind of tumour that I have attacking my ribs—at which point, according to my doctor, it would be a question of agony,” she explains. “I would be in the hospital, stuck into morphine IVs, and I’d be in absolute agony. Is that what they want from me? I’m, like, ‘Fuck you! I want to exit under my own agency, while I’m having a good time.’”
Paradoxically, Fischer does indeed appear to be having a good time. She’s gaunt, but this, she says, allows her to wear her favourite blue corduroy pants, which were uncomfortably snug when she bought them. She’s been delighted, almost to the point of being overwhelmed, by the support her friends have shown for her decision. And although she’s occasionally wracked by spasms of coughing, they usually follow spasms of laughter.
Fischer’s laugh, a recognizable alto chortle, is almost as notorious locally as her dark Hungarian scowl. The only child of Holocaust survivors, she first ventured into the Vancouver arts scene by running light shows for rock bands during the psychedelic era, and then progressed into leading her own bands via punk. The Animal Slaves were an anomaly during the days of D.O.A. and the Subhumans, featuring as they did actual musicians playing morbidly intricate tunes behind Fischer’s complex and poetic lyrics; more recently, Dark Blue World fused rock energy with improv jazz, again by way of a rotating cast of A-list players, including Tony Wilson, Cole Schmidt, Skye Brooks, and Pete Schmitt. Fischer also painted marvellous if not always flattering portraits of her friends, often in acidic greens and yellows; made several memorable LPs and CDs; fought against persecution of the Roma in her native Hungary; and, more secretly, was a quietly spectacular knitter, whose crocheted “baldguy caps” are fetish objects for those lucky enough to own them.
In another dark irony, she was just beginning to be fully recognized for her polymorphous excellence when she received her fatal diagnosis.
“I was having, I would say, the best time ever,” she says, laughing again. “I was having a really great show at the UNIT/PITT gallery; those guys worked so hard, and it was absolutely beautiful—a 30-year retrospective, and I even sold stuff! It was just an amazing show. And then my very first book [Orphans and Dogs] was published by Publication Studios; I designed it, and I worked really hard on it, and it was my best writing. I was proud of it, and it came out at the same time. And the band! Dark Blue World was sounding great. I mean, it had finally absolutely jelled, it was all the right people, and we’d been having these ecstatic experiences playing. So about two weeks into the show I had a backache. And I said ‘Okay, well, I jumped around too much when we played. I’m too old, or something. I should calm down a little.’ So I went to my doctor. and she sent me for a X-ray, and it came back as Stage 4 lung cancer, absolutely terminal.
“So there I was, at the pinnacle of my so-called career….and the fecal finger of fate went ‘Fuck you!’”
Fischer’s final act will be to return the finger, albeit in a calm and collected way. She’s decided to enlist the Swiss assisted-suicide organization Dignitas to smooth her passing, and she’s glad for the help.
“I’m just so happy that Dignitas exists,” she says. “If there hadn’t been Dignitas, what were my choices? My choices were, like, collect every pill and take them and stick a plastic bag on my head and let my friends find my corpse? To me, that’s not very tasteful.
“I’m lucky,” she continues, “in that that I’m still well enough that I can do it the way that I want to do it. People say ‘Oh, Elizabeth, you’re so brave!’ Well, fuck that! It’s nothing to do with bravery; it’s common sense.”
Here’s one last irony. A year before Fischer discovered that she had cancer, her giant, shaggy Bouvier came down with the same disease. Fischer doesn’t drive, so I was enlisted to convey them to the vet’s, where her beloved pup received his own gentle quietus.
“When my dogs got sick, I made sure they didn’t suffer,” she says. “So why can’t the same thing happen for me?”