The Last Aloha is first and foremost a love story. As a luminary in freethought and feminist circles, Cleo Fellers Kocol (1988 Humanist Heroine) could have centered her memoir on her activism in those areas, and it would have been equally welcome. Instead she has focused on her private world and her life and adventures with Hank Kocol, her husband of forty-two years. The partnership of these two exceptional people takes the foreground while social norms, political trends, and international events ebb and flow across the decades. The Kocols are sometimes firsthand observers, participants, and even instigators in those events. Thus the reader is informed of humanist organizational history while being presented with a picture of “small-h” humanism via this marriage of equals, who meet life’s challenges together and without religion or supernatural belief.
The story opens with a foreshadowing of their ultimate test of reason, self-determination, and love. The Kocols are vacationing in Hawaii. Hank is ten years younger than Cleo, but his mental decline has already been noted. In their previous extensive travels, he was always the one who did the planning, mastered the maps and languages, took care of the finances. Not so on this trip, and they know it will be their last. Hank declares his intention to kill himself before he is stripped of memory and all that makes him him. Dementia has afflicted other family members, and he has seen what’s in store if he doesn’t take action. Cleo’s world is shaken, but she doesn’t voice a protest. With conviction and courage equal to Hank’s own, she responds with one word: “How?”
With that, the seasoned author and dramatist commences a double biography of herself and her husband. Their lives are depicted through a cascade of memories interwoven with landmark events and, throughout, a chronicle of humanist-atheist awakening both personal and political. Each chapter begins with an enlightening humanist quotation.
The Fellers family was not religious. As Kocol (then Cleo Fellers) recalls, the manners of the times kept religion out of polite conversation. When family fortunes fell with the 1929 stock market crash, they downsized and got by. When World War II ended and work opportunities dried up in their native Ohio, the whole family picked up and followed her sister and brother-in-law to California to start anew.
Hank came into Cleo’s life after she had left an incompatible marriage, put herself through college, and gotten on her feet as a working single mother. At age forty-three, with a sixteen-year-old son, she was ready to live, not merely survive.
She and Hank met at a Parents Without Partners club. The attraction was immediate, but first a social convention had to be ditched—the idea that wives may not be older than their husbands. More of a hurdle for Cleo would have been any religious inclinations on Hank’s part—any—and she suspected some existed based on his Polish Catholic upbringing. He told her, “Once I started to think, I thought myself right out of the Catholic Church and religion of all kinds.”
Now the couple was united in their quest to educate themselves about humanism, join nontheist communities, and defend secularism. Kocol, like so many religious outsiders, was shocked to discover the intensity and predominance of religion, specifically Christianity, in American life. She quickly connected the dots from religious dogma to attitudes about women. She herself routinely experienced the social and economic disadvantages that resulted from this sanctioned misogyny, and she realized that women in other countries had it far worse.
Fueled and affirmed by local and national feminist, humanist, and atheist groups, the Kocols plunged into activism. With Hank’s unshakable support and confidence in her abilities, Cleo racked up an impressive feminist resume, her convictions and boundless energy spurring her to ever more creative and courageous efforts. She wrote a series of one-woman historical skits to promote passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), and she was invited to perform them around the country. But, as we are reminded in ominous asides throughout Kocol’s narrative, in the back rooms and boardrooms of power a religious fundamentalist backlash was growing. In an effort to expose efforts by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to scuttle the ERA, Kocol joined a group of women who chained themselves to the gates of the newly built Mormon temple in Seattle—they were dubbed the Bellevue 21.
Reaching the early 1980s, Kocol’s memoir might easily have digressed into an autopsy of the stymied ERA campaign. It does not. Rather, the author acknowledges defeat and moves on, her brevity on the subject mirroring the stunned retreat of our exhausted champions. Time had run out for this round in the struggle for the ERA.
Hank’s work as a health physicist led to several job relocations and much professional travel. Joining him on some of these trips, Cleo found herself the odd woman out among all-male groups of scientists or academics and attempted some consciousness-raising. She chronicled a number of the couple’s overseas adventures—mostly glorious, a few disastrous. Traveling in Russia and China, they boldly connived to “get off the tour,” however risky. The Kocols craved connections with “real people.” Wherever they went, they were politely but firmly forthright in expressing their nontheism.
Tellingly, Cleo and Hank engaged in different dynamics with family and loved ones who disapproved of their nontheism. They preferred to drop the subject rather than drop out of each other’s lives. Reasonable people, peaceful people, must accept each other despite their differences or go their separate ways.
Kocol became a novelist and an award-winning poet. In a whirlwind of adventure and accomplishment, life sometimes felt like a fairy tale even to herself. But in The Last Aloha she deftly intermingles flashbacks to humble beginnings, painful admissions, and practical crises, keeping the story grounded in reality. We see that bucking the status quo comes at a price. For Cleo and Hank, the price of their passion for each other and humanism was estrangement from their sons. While Cleo and her son eventually reconciled, Hank’s son severed contact.
In the face of each new challenge, Cleo had looked to her own abundant reserves of energy—and to her partner, Hank. But Hank was now losing his edge. Having ardently championed women’s equality in all things, Cleo must confront her dependence on her husband. She had willingly deferred to him in some areas; now he asks her to take over. She is capable, but she despairs that her companion is slipping away. There are precipitous dips and almost-like-normal-again plateaus. Cleo sees herself becoming less of a wife and more like a mother to an increasingly frustrated and vulnerable man.
Enter Final Exit, formerly the Hemlock Society.
Kocol carefully enumerates the steps Hank must go through to document his decision and prepare to implement it entirely on his own, even as his mental condition deteriorates. She does not hide her distress. Still, as always, reason is her guide, along with respect for the wisdom and wishes of her life partner.
As Kocol explains in her closing pages, the issue of death with dignity was the impetus for her to write The Last Aloha. An activist to the core, she is on a mission to let people know about a legal, ethical, and gentle way to end life before dementia steals all reason and, most devastating, the ability to love. This is a quintessentially humanist-feminist cause, for its underlying principle is that birth and death are of our world and in our hands—natural events, not the domain of gods and angels.
I come away from this book with a sense of awe. It is not an argument, a defense, or an appeal for approval for attitudes and actions that are misunderstood to strongly opposed in many quarters. It is a proud tribute to a great love, and an important addition to our humanist literature.