I grew up watching Star Trek with my parents, and it played a particular role in bonding with my father. A 10th-grade dropout, a mechanic, a contractor and engineer with little regard for standards, measurements, or straight lines–nonetheless, my father was fascinated by the ideas in the show. Long after we’d watch a rerun of the original series, he’d want to talk about the Big Ideas coded into the adventure of the week. Working under a car, he’d muse how unlikely it was that we were alone in the universe, or urge that humanity needed to get out there, if only so we spread out and increased our chance of survival. The show made a philosopher out of a high school dropout who never read a book in his adult life.
This is Captain Christopher Pike, confined to a wheelchair after being horribly burned by radiation. He’s only able to communicate by beeping: once for ‘yes’, twice for ‘no’. (I know–oddly retarded technology for 300 years in the future, but whatever).
My father and I watched Pike, in the first-season episode The Menagerie, reduced to cryptic yes/no signals. Beep. Beeeep Beeeeeeep.
I clearly remember my father turning to me and saying, “If I ever get like that, if I can’t live without being plugged into a bunch of machines, pull the plug. Don’t hesitate. Pull the plug.”
Thirty years later, a doctor called to tell me they’d tried everything they could think of, but my father wasn’t coming out of the coma they’d induced. Ever. It should have been routine, like waking from sleep, I was told. Which is why I’d left his side. Which is why I was three thousand miles away when things went inexplicably and permanently bad.
The doctor wanted instructions. In the background, I heard the life support machines. Beep. Beeeep Beeeeeeep. I didn’t hesitate. The doctor was kind enough to put the phone to my father’s ear, and I spoke to him while the tones of the machinery lengthened, became steady, then were shut off.
Sometimes Star Trek gets things wrong. There *are* no-win scenarios. But because of the show and its ability to fire imagination, I knew exactly what to do, and was equipped with the resolve needed in that moment. I couldn’t turn death into a fighting chance to live, but I could honor a final request and do it without flinching.