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He Let Go and Soared

Fall 2000

How many of us have looked for the presence of a loved one after they have died? Something, anything to help us cope with the emptiness. For Frank and Barbara Roberts, two respected and revered Oregon leaders, the connection comes frequently in the swoop of a red-tailed hawk.

In 1987 Frank Roberts was a highly regarded Oregon State Senator and Barbara, his spouse, was Secretary of State. Senator Roberts was a man ahead of his time. He believed with his heart that terminally ill people deserve choice in end-of-life care. The senator was also a man with advanced prostate cancer. Standing alone on the issue, he introduced a bill on physician assisted dying first in 1987 and again in 1989. Both times the bill stalled in committee, without so much as a public hearing.

In 1991, Barbara Roberts became Governor of Oregon and Frank Roberts, now in a wheelchair, again introduced his bill. This time, perhaps because of his poor health and out of respect for the elder statesman and the governor, the bill received a courtesy hearing. But it still lay abandoned in committee.

Senator Roberts, once an avid birdwatcher, entered the last stages of his illness in 1993. His bird watching was limited to whatever he could see from inside the governor's residence in Salem. One of his favorite possessions, a wooden carving of a red-tailed hawk, had a place of honor of his desk. The hawk was his favorite. He found it clever and majestic.

As the elder statesman lay dying, he told his wife that if there were a hereafter, he would give her a sign that he was nearby. The thought of staying connected gave them both great comfort.

In November 1994 Oregon passed the physician assisted dying law and defeated its repeal overwhelmingly in 1997. Senator Roberts never saw his bill enacted. He died in 1993.

What follows is a narrative by his wife, former Governor Roberts. Here we learn how she and her beloved spouse have remained connected through the presence of the red-tailed hawk.

Our Hawk

The hawk in flight, soaring above the field and hill, dipping and turning, beauty and freedom silhouetted against the sky. For me, the red-tailed hawk brings memories of love and joy -- and loss -- and will always have a home in my heart.

Frank loved the red-tailed hawk. He never failed to notice the hawk in flight. And a hawk perched like royalty atop a country split-rail fence post never escaped his watchful gaze. The hawk was pure pleasure for him.

For our 15th wedding anniversary, I commissioned an artist to carve a life-like red-tailed hawk for Frank. The small hawk sat on a fence post, rusted barbed wire curled around the post. Frank's special hawk nested on his office desk for five years, until his death.

In 1993, as Frank lay dying of cancer, surrounded by his family, I needed to help him let go. For months we had cared for him at home with the help of Hospice and so many loving friends. During the last weeks, he had been clear with me that he was ready to die. Now it was my turn to be brave and give him the permission he seemed to need.

Kneeling on his bed that night, I summoned all my courage and love.

"It is time to let go, Frank. You can fly like the hawk, float on the air. The whole sky is yours. Be a hawk, Frank. You are free to fly now, my love."

And he did. He let go and soared.

As I drive around Oregon, the hawk is often my traveling companion. Flying near my car. Landing on a tree where I've stopped. Sitting like a guardian on a rustic old fence post. Frank told me he would send me a sign. And he has. The hawk is his sign. The hawk is my comfort.

-- Barbara Roberts, Oregon Governor, 1991-95

Through the generosity of Compassion supporters Geri and John Herbert, Compassion In Dying Federation is able to offer our supporters a limited edition, numbered copy of the Harvey Gaunt red-tailed hawk print. This stunning color rendition of the hawk measures 20 x 31 inches. With a donation of $300, donors will receive an unframed print. With a donation of $700, donors will receive a matted and framed-with-glass print, the Governor's narrative, personally signed by her, and a brief description of the artist and his work. Please call 503-221-9556 to order your print today.

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This article was provided by Compassion in Dying. It is a part of the publication Compassion in Dying.