By Hugo Kugiya
IN THEIR daughter Karen's memory grows a tree, a sycamore, rare in Southern Ontario with its punishing winters but more common in New York, where the Allerellies scattered Karen's ashes Aug. 22, 1997, the day that would have been her 35th birthday.
They regret it now, the fleeting sentimentality that moved them to scatter the ashes on the waves pushing up Long Beach where she lived before committing suicide with the assistance of Jack Kevorkian that same month. So they planted the tree on a college campus, mounting a plaque on it. Near the tree, Karen's mother says, she can sometimes hear Karen's voice.
"We should have taken the ashes home, so we'd have a grave plot to go to," said her father, Gunnar Allerellie, of Guelph, Ontario, who celebrated news of Kevorkian's sentence for murder yesterday.
Karen Shoffstall, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1992, was one of three Long Islanders who died by inhaling carbon monoxide or by a lethal injection administered with Kevorkian's assistance. Pat Digangi, 66, of East Northport, died Aug. 22, 1996, after living several years with a degenerative muscle disease. And Ruth Neuman, 69, a New Jersey resident who lived most of her life in Massapequa Park, died June 10, 1996. The woman was overweight and diabetic.
Shoffstall's mother, Ebba Allerellie, and her sister Tina Allerellie attended Kevorkian's trial in Michigan and sat in the row behind the infamous doctor during the sentencing.
"She was crying,'' Gunnar Allerellie said. ''We're overjoyed with the sentence."
The years since Karen Shoffstall's death have been a mix of guilt, confusion and anger for the Allerellies, most of the anger directed at Kevorkian, whom they feel preyed on Shoffstall's fragile mental state.
"Some days are good, some days are bad, it's part of the disease, but it doesn't mean that you're going to die. I talked to the coroner and he said she could have lived 10, 30, 50 years longer," her father said, referring to Karen's non-terminal state of health. Autopsy records have shown that fewer than a third of Kevorkian cases involved people who had terminal illnesses.
Gunnar Allerellie also said Shoffstall, six weeks before her death, attended a friend's wedding on Long Island. "She was laughing, dancing, enjoying herself," he said. ''She was living life.''
In the years leading up to her death, during which she worked for a medical testing firm in Islip, she had become estranged from her family.
"We feel guilty quite a bit,'' Gunnar Allerellie said, ''because we thought we could have helped her. But with Karen, you couldn't believe everything she told you. Whenever Karen got depressed, she'd say, 'I'm going to see Kevorkian.' It got to the point that we didn't believe her anymore."