When I heard the news last week about the mothballing of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, it got me to thinking about more than the dramatic changes to California’s power system it would bring. On the heels of Father’s Day – and a workshop in Salinas on end-of-life care – it prompted thoughts about life and death.
On June 16, the Hospice Giving Foundation hosted a workshop at CSU Monterey Bay’s Salinas campus (in the Steinbeck Center) featuring Dr. Ira Byock as the keynote speaker. I got to know Dr. Byock 20 years ago when he was an ER doc in Montana and I was the publisher of a weekly newspaper there. Byock was just becoming a leading figure in the emerging discipline of palliative care. I got a courtside seat to the publishing of his first book, Dying Well, in 1997. My takeaway from his work was to be reminded no one here gets out alive. Then, as now, that information guides how I think about my parents’ future.
Instead of treating death as a failure of the health-care system, Byock and the Hospice Giving Foundation urge people facing terminal illness to plan for that eventuality – to celebrate life and put together health-care directives and medical power-of-attorney documents. (The foundation offers a free toolkit, “Notes to my Family,” to guide people through all of that at www.hospicegiving.org.)
According to Byock’s research, the overwhelming majority of Americans express the desire to die in a familiar setting, without pain, in the presence of family and friends. His research also shows for 75 percent of Americans, this is not how their lives end. Instead, many die in the ICU after long, expensive and emotionally draining treatments.
Speaking of end of life: The news that Pacific Gas & Electric will close Diablo Canyon by 2025 makes a excellent case study. Over the next nine years, the two reactors near San Luis Obispo will be decommissioned and PG&E has pledged to replace the electricity with renewable energy.
This inflection point in California’s energy history is a story of dying well – the closure comes with a strong commitment to renewables, and buy-in from electrical workers’ unions and environmental groups – and it too reminds me of my dad.
My dad went to MIT, then spent his career building and inspecting nuclear power plants. He and my mom were married in Hawaii in November 1952, five days after he was at the Eniwetok hydrogen bomb detonation, the world’s first, in the Marshall Islands.
He never worked on military applications again, but he was a big advocate of nuclear power. Diablo Canyon was a topic of many heated dinner table conversations. He was angry the science supporting nuclear power’s environmental credentials – it generates no greenhouse gases – was being subsumed by what he considered political arguments.
When he retired after working at the Argonne Laboratory in Idaho, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Washington, D.C. and the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, my parents moved to a mountain valley in Montana and my dad built a solar array there in 1990.
He was so enthusiastic and proud – he told me he’d always worked for power companies and now he owned one – that he had his own business cards printed as owner of Cushman Kraftwerks (German for power plant). I’m proud the most practical man I’ve known made that historic turn from atomic to solar power.
My parents eventually had lines from the power grid run to their place in 2009, but my mom still fills the woodshed with six cords of wood she cuts herself, and they monitor their solar inverters every day.
When I talked to my dad on Father’s Day, he was lucid and wished me a happy Father’s Day in return. But he couldn’t remember if my brothers had called him that day. His memory is mostly gone, but he remains a hero to me. (My mom is pretty cool, too: The New York Times did a video report on them a few years ago as part of a series on aging in America, viewable at http://bit.ly/cushmanfamily.)
I’m going to see my parents for a family reunion next month. I’m the youngest of eight, and all of us and all of our kids are gathering in Montana. It will be fun to get together as a family. And I’m bringing copies of Byock’s newest book for all my siblings.