Last Writes

Some suicide notes are short, some tell a more detailed story. They all have unhappy endings.

On May 25, two weeks shy of his 80th birthday, Robert S. decided it was his day to die. He had read Final Exit, the treatise on suicide and how-to guide for the terminally ill, and he had determined that killing himself was the best solution to his faltering health and incessant pain. But he didn't want to go through it alone. Three weeks earlier, he had broached the subject with his son.

Richard knew the pain his father was in. Emphysema had robbed him of his strength. He suffered from heart trouble and poor circulation. Ever since a car accident years before, his legs had ached. "He's in so much pain that he can't take it anymore," Richard recalls. "He's ready to give up. It's time."

There was never any debate. His father's life, his father's choice. Besides, Robert, a widower, wasn't asking for Richard's permission; he was telling him what he already had decided.

After that, the men spent as much time together as they could. "We had our laughs, our good times," Richard remembers. They talked about family. Richard introduced his girlfriend to his father. Mentally, each went through a checklist of things they didn't want to leave undone. Finally, his father asked Richard if there was anything left to cover. Neither man could think of a thing.

On the evening of his last day, sitting with his son in the kitchen of his Aventura apartment, Robert counted out 55 Seconals, the number suggested in Final Exit. "And one for good luck," the father said, dumping the medicine into a mortar and grinding it with a pestle. Earlier in the day, he had purchased a pint of Johnnie Walker Red. Pouring the Scotch into a hefty wine glass, he added the powder.

Robert wondered aloud whether people would understand his decision. "Tell them I'm desperate," he told Richard. Then he asked one last favor: Should his attempt fall short, would his son finish him off? "What he really wants me for is the final one-percent solution," Richard explains. "No problems. No hospitals. No tubes. He wants me to stay with him. He wants me to take care of him. I said I would."

At 11:30 p.m. his father headed to the bedroom. "He put towels down on the bed. He doesn't want to leave a mess for anyone and he's heard that people can lose their bowels when they do this," Richard says. "He changes into his pajamas, to look good. And he gets into bed."

With a steady hand, Robert took the glass from the nightstand. "He drank three-quarters of it without flinching," Richard says, noting it was one of the few times he saw his father drink alcohol. Sitting on the edge of the bed, Richard took his father's hand. Robert's eyes roamed to the family pictures in his room. Each snapshot elicited a memory the two men shared.

"After twenty minutes he goes into a gentle snore," says Richard.
An hour later, with Robert still quietly snoring, Richard began to reconsider his promise. His father had assured him he would be dead within an hour. Richard waited another hour. His father was still snoring. Richard knew he was supposed to take the pillow and hold it over his father's face until Robert stopped breathing. But he couldn't bring himself to do it. "I'm not going for the one-percent solution," Richard says. "I go for cigarettes."

After leaving the apartment for a short time, he returned to find his father still alive. "So I protected him all night," Richard recalls. "He was in my custody. And it worked out just fine."

At about 9:30 on the morning of May 26, Robert stopped breathing. When Richard was sure he was dead, he called his sister, who was unaware of the suicide plans. Then he reported the death to the police. An investigation confirmed suicide, but the case is being referred to the Dade State Attorney's Office for review. Assisting in a suicide is a felony in Florida, but officials familiar with the case say charges are highly unlikely because simply being present during a suicide is not the same as "assisting."

The legal wrangling is of little concern to Richard, whose thoughts are with his father. "He was a lucky man," Richard says. "He got to choose his time and place."

Every seventeen minutes someone in the United States kills himself. The eighth leading cause of death, ahead of cirrhosis of the liver (9) and AIDS (10), suicide claims more than 30,000 Americans each year. Yet suicides pass largely unnoticed by the general public, except in rare instances when the event is deemed newsworthy, either because of the victim's high public profile (the July suicide of a friend and confidant of President Clinton), or because of the remarkable circumstances of the case (the June death of a six-year-old Broward girl who stepped in front of an oncoming train after telling friends she wished to be reunited with her recently deceased mother).

Of the 278 people who killed themselves in Dade County in 1992, or the 171 who have killed themselves through July of this year, only a handful have merited media mention. There was the 80-year-old Hialeah man who drove into a canal to drown himself in May after being hoodwinked out of $7000 in a phony lottery ticket scam. And the twenty-year-old building-jumper at the University of Miami, who friends initially thought might have been the victim of foul play. (He was depressed about grades.) Murder-suicides, too, tend to attract attention A angry boyfriends or husbands who stab, shoot, or set their mates on fire and then kill themselves. Fourteen such cases have been reported here in the past twelve months. (In none of those instances was the murderer a woman.)

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