Mechtild Panhuysen and Michael Kabel died hand in hand, just as they had planned

They passed away ‘hand in hand’, Mechtild Panhuysen (89) and Michael ‘Chel’ Kabel (91), exactly as they had planned. They went together, because the idea of ​​one dying and the other left alone was a nightmare. To achieve this, they each had to receive separate approval to undergo euthanasia.

Mechtild and Chel’s door was always open, say people who knew them well. She was charming, cordial and practical, he was a bit more stern, more cerebral and not a pacesetter when we first met her.

“When I met Chel half a century ago, we were sitting at the bar at my wife Hilde’s graduation party,” says friend Fred Huijgen. “He had an air of ‘I don’t want to be here’. We ended up having a very pleasant evening and then a lifelong friendship between us and them.”

Typical for Mechtild, Huijgen found the drawer full of presents. “She had a large closet in the house with a drawer and she occasionally put gifts in it,” he says. “In case she wanted to give something to someone.” According to friend Anneke Bouma, visitors received plenty of attention: “Conversations were never about nothing and they were very complimentary. You felt super valued.”

Their house – first in Nijmegen, later in Warmond – was a magnet for family and friends. When their daughter Gabriele passed away twenty years ago, they had a hard time with that, but they embraced her family, also or perhaps even more so when the son-in-law remarried.

Michael ‘Chel’ Kabel and Mechtild Panhuysen in Warmond, 2020 Photos private archive

“It was a very special couple,” says Mechtild’s youngest brother Titus Panhuysen, “that has proven itself by staying together for so long.”

Chel came from Amsterdam, Mechtild from Maastricht. She was the third child in a family of nine who lived in De Torentjes, a small castle on the Pietersberg. Brother Titus was sixteen years younger. Still, I spent a lot of time with her. She was the linchpin of our family: interested, energetic, she always called everyone.”

However different the spouses were in terms of character – and then he was also extremely tall and she was short in stature – there was “a broad, common basis”, according to son Mark van Buchem. “Attention to others, a sense of responsibility and a moral compass were important elements of that.”

In addition, there was a common interest in the arts. Chel had artistic talent and made stained glass windows, statues and paintings. When asked on his last day, he told son Mark: “If I could do it all over again, I would devote my whole life to stained glass.”

Mechtild had a sense of language; she wrote poetry from an early age, inspired by her father who was part of an active and engaged group of Catholic poets in his early years. She also had a passion for gardening, a family tradition that continues in the next generation.

Before Mechtild and Chel got married, they both had a life behind them. She married GP Gerrit van Buchem in 1958, had three children, but the marriage did not last. She moved from Hilversum to Nijmegen with the children aged 6, 5 and 3, because she saw a future for herself in speech therapy and could get work at a speech therapy course and in the rehabilitation center Dekkerswald.

Chel had already entered the Dominican Republic at a young age. In 1959 the Order thought it a good idea for him to study sociology as a promising father, so that he could perhaps become chairman of the KRO. He agreed against his will and got his doctorate. After his studies in Tilburg, he got a job at the Catholic University of Nijmegen.

The sixties did not pass by the monastery either. Chel was part of a group of young priests who left together. Titus Panhuysen: “Chel once said to me: ‘If I hadn’t been forced to study sociology, I might still be in a monastery now’.”

Mechtild and Chel were both looking for ways to shape their lives in the late 1960s. They wanted to continue together, but the children were important. Frans, Mark and Gabriele also had to say ‘yes’. They were both hard workers, both at home and on weekends.

She devoted herself to speech therapy and saw how inadequate the treatment of aphasia patients was at the time, who were soon thought to be demented. Mark van Buchem, professor of neuroradiology at Leiden University: “My mother was a pioneer in the treatment of aphasia. That was unexplored territory at the time.” His brother Frans van Buchem, professor of geology in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia: “She also saw the decay of the elderly in homes up close.”

Mechtild Panhuysen (centre) with two girlfriends in The Hague, circa 1957 Photos private archive

Chel remained affiliated with KU Nijmegen and obtained his doctorate in 1985 with the thesis: Which is natural about dying. His book was published six years later You want to die at homewhich fitted in with the discussion about euthanasia at the time, because he argued for people to have more say in their own way of dying.

They wanted to die together, their lives were ‘completed’, as they say. They were members of D66 and members of the Dutch Association for a Voluntary End of Life (NVVE). They preferred to determine their own end rather than continue “on a downward path,” as son Mark puts it. “My stepfather Chel had already spent a few months in a hospice this spring after a bacteriological infection.”

It was tight, but he was allowed to go home again. His mother had various signs of old age. “Nothing acute, but she quickly became more frail.”

It was then clear to the couple that if they wanted to die together, they had to act now. There followed a period of a lot of explaining and saying goodbye to everyone. Not everyone appreciated their choice.

Titus Panhuysen: “Mechtild was spiritually so clear. I respect their decision, but it was hard for me. I consider life to be an indescribably great gift, which you accept.”

Two “wonderful euthanasia doctors” from the Euthanasia Expertise Center assisted them. They died as they had lived: with the dearest people around them, no one exclusive and full of conviction.

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