The Compassionate Emasculation of Robert von Grönegger

It was billed as a celebration of his life; the passing away of Robert von Grönegger. A communal mourning. On an August afternoon of the year 2000. Perhaps fifty people were gathered in that wood paneled, beam ceilinged house sitting on a high rise overlooking the Bay.

The house was casually elegant. Built into the walls were stained wood bookshelves filled with well bound books; a library of literature and of art. Little of science, though, except antique first editions. Picasso, Matisse and lesser knowns tastefully decorated appropriate spaces on the walls. Comfortable leather sofas and window seats all had views of the Bay and of the afternoon setting sun.

Bob had come from a family of wealth. A swiss family. They controlled the distribution of dental supply materials in Europe. Bob expanded the business into the U.S. market. He spoke five languages. Fluently. Each with classic Old World charm. His English was flawless as were his German and French. To control and command a situation was as natural to him as breathing. The accoutrements of status surrounded him.

He had died only days before at the age of 88. Jennifer, his wife of the past 18 years, sat composed. Tall, svelte, steel grey hair, a weathered sculptured face, patrician american. She had a regal bearing. Valour in the face of adversity.

I met von Grönegger only a few times and I knew his wife, Jennifer, but not well. The connection was minimal. It was through Robin that my wife and I were here. Robin was my wife’s good friend. And she was the fiance of Jennifer’s son, James.

Robin sat with me on a couch. She quietly but fervently reported on Jennifer’s heroism during Bob’s last days.

“The front door was open so I let myself in,” said Robin. “I had come to check on Bob’s condition. I came at an awkward moment. Jennifer was just cleaning up Bob’s feces. He wasn’t able to take care of himself on the toilet; or even to get to the bathroom. But Jennifer attended him. And when she finished with cleaning away his feces she turned to him and said …”

Here Robin’s voice cracked. She couldn’t speak for the consuming pathos of what she had heard Jennifer say. At last Robin found the strength to continue. “Jennifer said to Bob, ‘See, that wasn’t so hard was it?’” And tears welled in her eyes as Robin contemplated what she had seen; Jennifer’s selfless devotion. Cleaning feces with a compassionate heart.

“Bob had no pain,” continued Robin. “At the end he lay in his bed. It was placed strategically in an alcove allowing him an unending glorious panoramic view of the Bay. He even did a crossword puzzle the day before he passed away. He died in his sleep.” I embraced Robin to give her support in her anguish.

We sipped our wine. The clouds of well wishers floated through the rooms and changed form. Robin left to talk with others.

Later, on that same couch, I found myself speaking to Ellen. Robin was the fiance of Jennifer’s son, James. Ellen was James’ ex-wife. She had born his children – Jennifer’s grandchildren.

Ellen’s story of Bob’s last days was this.

“Bob was a very private man. The indignity of his condition weighed heavily on him. He suffered greatly. For him, life was not worth living anymore. Bob asked constantly to die. He had a gun but it was taken away from him. He wanted desperately to be taken out of his misery but no one would heed his wishes. I would have but it was not up to me. At the very end, when he was slipping fast, they finally gave him the extra morphine he was begging for.”

Used to commanding the fate of others, Robert von Grönegger was forbidden by his well wishers to command his own fate.