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Why help them end their lives? // BOB CRON

Bob and Vivienne Cron share the kind of gentle ribbing perfected over 45 years of marriage.

He's telling a story to guests. She snorts and rolls her eyes.

""What's the matter?" he asks, a smile curling the corners of his lips. He knows what's coming.

"Oh, jeez, you've got it all wrong," she says.

She gives her husband an oh-you-silly-old-thing look and laughs. He laughs back at her.

"You're gonna miss me," he says.

Even the mention of his inoperable cancer hardly causes a ripple in the comfortable double-wide mobile home decorated in shades of white and beige.

You get the feeling that husband and wife have spent hours discussing his prognosis, sitting in these very chairs. They've come to terms with the fact that Bob, 74 at the end of this month, has a terminal illness.

"We talk about it openly," says Vivienne, 68, her voice even. "Everybody who knows us, our friends in this village, knows the situation. We haven't hidden anything, and that makes it a lot easier to handle, a lot easier."

Bob Cron can't control the mesothelioma that has invaded the membrane around his left lung. But he hopes at least he'll be able to control his own death.

That's why, at a meeting of the Hemlock Society in January in Sarasota, he signed a sheet for terminally ill people interested in joining a lawsuit to challenge Florida's ban on assisted suicide.

Cron has a good doctor, one he trusts and says he can talk to comfortably, Paul Goldenfarb at Morton Plant Mease Hospital in Clearwater. But he knows he can't ask Goldenfarb to give him an overdose of drugs if and when the time comes. It will take more than a sympathetic physician to help Cron end his suffering; it will take a change in a 128-year-old law that makes it a second-degree felony to help someone commit suicide, even if that person is terminally ill, sane and requesting a quick death.

"I've believed in the right to die for a long time," says Cron, who joined the Hemlock Society years ago, when he was still an accountant for La-Z-Boy in his hometown of Monroe, Mich.

"We don't want a prolonged death," Vivienne adds. "We don't want our family dragged down with it."

Both of them saw a parent suffer protracted agony. Bob Cron's mother fought a painful battle against breast cancer that invaded her bones and lungs.

"She told me, "If I could get out of bed, I'd jump out the window,' " Cron recalls. He pauses.

"And if you help them, you're guilty."

Vivienne Cron's father passed away in a nursing home.

"His wife had died, he couldn't care for himself, his mind was going, and he knew it. He was ready."

He starved himself because that was the only means he had, she says.

"This should not be. You should be able to talk with your family, make the decision and have somebody help you. Do it with dignity."

The Crons say they have been stockpiling medication for years.

"We have our own means (of suicide), if we have to," Vivienne says. "But we'd rather not."

Bob Cron still feels good. Since his cancer diagnosis in 1994, he has lost only 10 pounds. He is on his second six-month round of chemotherapy, which he says is "no big deal. I drive myself down there and back."

He's on a maintenance level of codeine for pain relief and takes an "armload" of vitamins and herbs daily. His eyes are bright and his sense of humor intact.

Even so, life is different, there's no denying it. He had to give up two favorite activities: gardening and performing as a clown, which he used to do with a group from the couple's church.

He can still ride a bicycle around the quiet streets of their mobile home park, but the hot weather tires him quickly.

"I get breathless," he says.

Breathlessness was the first clue something was wrong two years ago. Visiting friends in New Mexico, Cron couldn't keep up with everyone else.

"I thought the altitude was affecting me. I was having an awful time breathing."

He spent their first night home in the hospital. Doctors found the rare form of lung cancer and drained 3 liters of fluid from his chest cavity. Then they told Mrs. Cron there was nothing more to be done, that it was an incurable cancer.

The cancer could have come from all the pesticides he worked with in his father's floral business, as a young man. Maybe it was the insulation in the nose of the B-17 Cron flew as a gunner in World War II. When the family moved to Clearwater in 1980, they opened a print shop; again, he was working with chemicals.

Doesn't matter, Cron says. He's not the type of man to dwell on the past. What's more important is that his wishes for his death are carried out.

The couple has living wills and Do Not Resuscitate orders for emergency medical personnel.

Their two grown children know the rules.

"They don't like it, but they understand," Vivienne Cron says. "They've been told what we want, so they will comply with it, but it's been hard for them to accept this. You just don't want to let your parents go."

Two of the Crons' four grandchildren live in Palm Harbor, so they see them often. In June they took the kids on a cruise to Alaska. It was the couple's 23rd cruise. They have plans for another one.

"And I'd like to go back to Tahoe this year," Vivienne Cron says. She looks over at her husband.

"We shall see."

Bob Cron is philosophical.

"All I can say is, enjoy every day. Take it one day at a time _ and remember, you've gotta get some naps in there."