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Year after husband's death, Utah ethicist reflects on her journey through grief

Published August 4, 2014 10:22 am

Peggy Battin remembers her husband, professor Brooke Hopkins, and the life and love they shared.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Peggy Battin knows all about dying.

As a nationally recognized ethicist at the University of Utah, she has spent decades analyzing every element of knotty end-of-life issues.

But a year ago, Battin confronted a new kind of knowing — the personal kind — and quickly discovered the two forms of knowledge are not the same.

On July 31, 2013, Battin's husband, 71-year-old Brooke Hopkins, died from injuries he suffered in a November 2008 bicycle accident, which had severed his spinal cord. For 4½ years, Hopkins, once a handsome, lanky outdoor enthusiast and popular English professor at the U., struggled to survive and build a new life.

It took more than two years for him to breathe on his own enough to return to his Salt Lake City home. There, he required round-the-clock care — endless medicines, physical therapy, tubes and machines — all the while enduring pain, infections and setbacks.

Though still paralyzed, Hopkins resumed teaching eager students — mostly retired educators — from an automated wheelchair in his living room. No longer could he pace in front of a blackboard, but his insights into Homer's "Odyssey," Dante's "Divine Comedy," Melville's "Moby-Dick" and Thoreau's "Walden" were more astute than ever.

Eventually, though, the physical toll became too great.

After requesting that his life-supporting machines be turned off, Hopkins died painlessly and peacefully, with Battin curled up beside him on a bed in the Avenues home they shared, and the gospel music of Marion Williams' "My Soul Looks Back" wafting through the space around them.

Then came Battin's new knowing.

A life of one • "It has not been the easiest year," Battin acknowledges, but, true to form, the inescapably intellectual ethicist not only experienced grief — she also examined it, named it and made it her own.

The famed physician Elisabeth Kübler-Ross first described five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — in her 1969 book "On Death and Dying."

To Battin, though, it seemed more like she moved through four stages.

First came the sorrow, she says, "acute, acute howling sorrow where you just can't believe it."

Then there was self-imposed seclusion. "It was," she says, "a kind of retreat." For some months, she didn't turn on the TV or radio or music. Didn't go to the movies or a restaurant or the symphony. It wasn't born of some religious tradition or custom — it just felt natural, right.

Then came solitude, which, she says, is different from seclusion. "You are a little more accepting of the situation," Battin says. "You are alone and it's all right."

Finally, the professor says, comes serenity. Anguish gives way to celebration of what was and what might be — more books to write, speeches to give, classes to teach.

For nearly a year, Battin wore her gold wedding band; she could not imagine removing it. Recently, though, she added a greenish-blue stone to it. The band reminds her of the past, she says, but the new stone simply makes the ring pretty.

Battin and Hopkins arrived at the U. the same year, 1975. He was fresh from Harvard with a background in 18th- and 19th-century British literature. She had a master's degree in writing and a doctorate in philosophy from the University of California at Irvine. Sparks flew from the start, and within a year, they moved in together. Ten years later, they wed. Theirs was an action-packed academic life, traveling to exotic locales, dancing all night in undiscovered backwoods blues joints and tasting a rich variety of spicy dishes with fine wine.

Hopkins became a beloved professor as he explored the works of Romantic poets and the genre of autobiography. Battin emerged as a pioneer in the field of bioethics, specializing in suicide, euthanasia, do-not-resuscitate orders, when and how to die. She cranked out essays, compiled collections and edited volumes on death and medicine.

By the time Hopkins' died, the professorial pair had no "bucket list." Theirs was a rich union, full of fulfillment and gratitude. "We loved each other," she says, her voice breaking, "and it went on for a lot of years."

They also found themselves in a circle of like-minded friends — which grew ever larger as the days went on.

Surrounded by many • Twenty friends gathered Wednesday night at Battin's house, bringing food, poems and eloquent sentiments to commemorate the first anniversary of their friend's passing.

These were among the couple's closest intimates, who offered constant assistance and comfort during Hopkins' post-accident years.

Some had brought food to the South Davis Rehabilitation Center every week during his stay there. Others had provided hard-to-find Books on Tape. One man read aloud "Lives of the Popes" and Virgil's "Aeneid." Some were caregivers who bathed and fed their learned patient.

They all laughed, debated literature or simply enjoyed a meal with a man who seemed to care more for them than he did for himself.

A year later, on a summer evening that smelled of new rain, the friends walked quietly together a few blocks to the Salt Lake City Cemetery. They traced steps that Hopkins had traveled in his automated wheelchair on his last day, when he and Battin visited Salt Lake Monument Co., adjacent to the graveyard, where the two had picked out headstones.

Now the headstones are cemented in place.

Hopkins' epitaph reads: Roger Brooke Hopkins — "A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence ends."

The friends ruminated about his life, hugged one another and placed red roses on the grave, already strewn with lilies, snapdragons and asters.

Battin read the poem "Innocence" by her friend and U. colleague Bonnie Baty, whose husband, Craig Forster, fell to his death while the couple were hiking in southern Utah. It was a week after Hopkins' accident.

"Was this pivotal event

Preordained, known (to whom)?

Everything rushing to this

Transformation of becoming into being."

The two widows have discussed their husbands' deaths, wondering which is worse or better — instant death or a slow, inexorable decline toward the end?

No telling, Battin says, loss is loss.

Hopkins' influence, though, lives on. Many of those who attended his classes in the couple's living room — still yearning for instruction from the paralyzed prof — keep coming back to his home to hear other teachers who have adopted his style.

And caregiver Alex Zvirzdin, who once belted out Marion Williams' music while giving Hopkins a shower, insisted on playing the gospel tunes all day long Wednesday — in memory of the man and days now gone.

pstack@sltrib.com Twitter:@religiongal