Elizabeth Fischer is a Vancouver artist, musician and writer, known for her paintings and drawings, and for her work with the bands Animal Slaves and DarkBlueWorld. In June, Vancouver's UNIT/PITT Projects opened a retrospective exhibition of Fischer's art work, and published her book Orphans and Dogs, with Publication Studio Vancouver. A few weeks later, Fischer, who is 68, felt a pain in her ribs, consulted her doctor, and learned that she has terminal lung cancer. She contacted a Swiss group, Dignitas, that offers assisted suicide – still unavailable in Canada – and booked a date with death on Oct. 15, financed largely by a "fun(d)raising wake" held last month. Robert Everett-Green spoke with the cheerful-sounding artist by telephone before she left Vancouver on Monday for Zurich.
How did you react when you got the bad news?
I thought the whole thing was very funny, because it's so ironic. Here I was having the best year, with a retrospective exhibition, my first book out, and the band playing great, and then the fecal finger of fate [sic] poked me in the chest, and said, 'Fuck you, Elizabeth.'
Did you have any treatment?
I did radiation therapy for a couple of weeks, and that really helped with the pain, though it made me sick in other ways. I'm kind of short of breath, I've lost a lot of weight, but my old pants fit me again, and I'm really happy about that. [laughs]
You've been really open about choosing suicide. How have people responded?
My demise has become a community effort, and that makes me feel pretty good. People in my coop, in my musicians' community, the artists' community, have been really kind and supportive. I'm being love-bombed, and it's kind of overwhelming, because I had no idea they cared so much. [laughs heartily] They all think that I'm being so brave, though I don't think of it that way. I'm just too smart to want to die in a hospital, racked with pain, tied to IVs, utterly humiliated.
We all know we're going to die, but usually not when and how. Has that knowledge changed you?
I don't feel different. I'm the same person. I've lived freely all my life, I've done whatever I wanted, and I want to leave the same way, under my own agency, as easily as possible. I've had dogs that have gotten old and sick, and I've made sure they had a really nice exit, and I want the same for me! [laughs]
Why Dignitas? Why Switzerland?
They're the only organization in the world that helps people from all countries. Everywhere else where assisted suicide is legal, you have to be a resident. Quebec is starting it in December, but you have to be a resident.
What will happen when you arrive in Zurich?
I will be sent to see a couple of doctors, and I might have to talk to a psychologist, to make sure I'm not doing this because I'm depressed. [laughs] On the last day, I'll take a taxi to a house in the village where they're located, and two people will be waiting for me. They'll have a room set up, and they'll bring me a glass of water with something in it. And then you drink that, and in five minutes you're asleep, in 20 minutes you're in a coma, and then you're dead.
Does any of that scare you?
I'm not scared. It's actually very comforting to know that you can end your life in some nice fashion, when you're ready. What scared me was being too sick to travel, and getting stuck here. I'm probably going too early. I may have had a few more months to live, but I can't take the chance.
Are you travelling to Zurich alone?
I have two friends who are going with me. We're going to stop off for a week in Iceland, because I've never been there, and it's the weirdest place I could think of. I don't know if they'll come in the taxi from Zurich with me, I'm not sure if they can, or if they can handle it. I'm more cheerful than they are, although they're really moving up well. I forbid anyone to weep around me, but everyone's welcome to tell me jokes. [laughs]
Did you think about ending things another way, closer to home?
I got an offer from someone in Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal now, someone who has helped people before. But it would be difficult, because if I drive down there with a couple of friends, what would they do with my corpse? I'd be an illegal corpse – would they drive me back to Canada? [laughs] I don't want people to put themselves at risk for me, I want this to be legal for everybody. And for me to collect every pill I have, and put a plastic bag over my head to make sure – that's not exactly a comforting prospect.
Are you angry that you're having to go early, as you say, because this isn't legal here?
The fact that this isn't available in Canada is horrible. That's really a tragedy, because death is a part of life. How many people have the money even for a flight to Switzerland, let alone the $20,000 American dollars it costs for the procedure? But Dignitas reduced the fee for me because I'm so low-income, and for others they eliminate it entirely.
Do you believe in God or an afterlife?
Not at all. But I have always striven towards kindness as the human way to be, and for me that's totally mixed up with the fact that I don't believe in God or miracles. You have to make your own miracles.
Does this final act have any relation to your work as an artist?
This is sort of like my last performance. I think as an artist I have a responsibility to communicate what I know, and maybe some other people will gain some understanding or lose some fear, because I'm willing to talk about it openly. They don't have to choose what I'm choosing.
What are you going to do in Iceland?
I plan to tour around as much as possible and have a good time. Iceland's got the most outlandish, alien landscape, and there are hot springs everywhere, and incredible Northern Lights and Icelandic horses. If I can, I'll have some interesting conversations, because whenever I go somewhere I try to meet people and make friends.
This conversation has been condensed and edited.