Last Writes

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.)

Cases like Robert S.'s are extremely rare; most suicides are unwitnessed. For that matter, despite the ubiquity of the "suicide note" cliche, fewer than 30 percent of those who take their own lives write down their last words. When they do, however, the last letter is frequently the only indication of a person's thoughts during his final moments.

"The note reflects the psychological and emotional state of someone who is about to pull the trigger," says Ronald Maris, director of the Center for the Study of Suicide, located at the University of South Carolina. "If you can imagine that kind of chilling scenario -- you tend to get very focused in your thoughts and actions. The notes will often reflect a lot of ambivalence about life. Love and hate will get all mixed together."

Such statements, often rambling and angry, can take many forms. In February, upon learning that his wife wanted a divorce, a man killed himself after writing a note on a humorous Valentine's Day card. At the bottom he taped his picture, beneath the card's punch line: "Will moo be my Valentine?"

The lie was closing in on Steven A.
Since being laid off from his job at Jordan Marsh back in 1991, he had tried to keep his family financially secure. But with any juggling act, sooner or later something is bound to fall. In Steven's case, it was his health insurance. A short time before this morning in March, he had been bothered by stomach pains and had resolved to set up an appointment to see a doctor. When he discovered that his health-insurance policy had been terminated after he missed a payment, he couldn't bear to tell his wife. It was only the latest in a string of humiliations.

So as she showered and prepared to drive him to his imaginary doctor's appointment, Steven went to the laundry room in the basement of their North Dade home, laid out a blanket, placed his glasses neatly by his side, and shot himself once in the head.

"I'm sorry but I simply couldn't take it any longer -- pain and being broke," he wrote in a note left on the washing machine. "There are no medical tests today, never were. They canceled my insurance when I goofed up a check. I've been in a web, drowning, suffocating for ages and unfortunately not a relief for anyone but me after this morning. I'm so sorry.

"I know I'm a junk collector," he continued, "but please don't pitch everything out both here and at warehouse without first looking at it. Some valuable memorabilia there -- might get you some money. I love you all so and yet can't face you. So ashamed. All my trying to salvage a life financially for naught. Ruined. You do have some insurance. Get a lawyer and try to fight the bills. There are lots of coins thruout house, especially in closet downstairs, buried under boxes. Some in nitetable and downstairs are silver, not just to be rolled -- please -- it's some more money for you. I don't expect forgiveness for what I've done -- just know I love you all.

"I always joked saying I was worth more dead than alive."
Steven A. falls into a category that could be labeled "considerate victims," those who, in their deaths, attempt to inconvenience their loved ones as little as possible. Other considerate Dade suicides include Robert B., a 68-year-old man who hanged himself but left on his kitchen counter a $2000 check made out to a local funeral home, and George K., also 68, who before shooting himself in the head covered his bed with a plastic sheet. And when Brian G., 27, learned that his wife wanted to file for divorce, he asked her to leave him alone in the house for an hour or so. "Goodbye honey," he wrote in a three-page letter. "I wish you knew how much I loved you. Please don't ever let the babies think I didn't love them. I just hurt too much. I love you. Goodbye until I see you in heaven." As a postscript he added, "Please don't hate me, I didn't want the kids here, but I put them to sleep first." To ensure that he wouldn't be heard if he screamed, he hanged himself with a sock stuffed in his mouth.

Financial desperation like Steven A.'s is a recurring theme. But few victims bring the same spirit to the final act as Michael and Valerie C. did in March 1992. On their last night, Michael, 44, and Valerie, 34, popped open a bottle of champagne, downed a slew of pills, climbed into bed, and drifted off together toward what they hoped would be a new start.

"I am writing this to let you know that what we are doing is not insane or irrational," Michael wrote in one of several letters the Kendall couple addressed to friends and family. "I have had a mostly wonderful life, the last nine years of which I spent with a woman whose love has been a blessing. We have decided mutually not to go back and start at square one and suffer the hard times at our ages. We would rather go forward together wherever that leads us. Don't mourn or pity us, but rather, wish us luck on our journey."

On another piece of paper, Valerie wrote: "Dearest Mom, I know how difficult this is going to be for you."

"Mommy," a second note to her mother began, "again I'm sorry to hurt you this way but if life is OK broke, it's not a problem I want to go through. We owe close to 1 million dollars. Our lives, with our backgrounds and education would never accomplish enough."

It was Valerie's mother who ended up finding the couple's bodies the next morning.

For those who see suicide as an act of cowardice, the case of Michael and Valerie couldn't be more illustrative. Though it is an extreme example, it represents what suicide embodies for a majority of its victims: escape. "They get to an impasse in their life which seems irreversible and they want out," offers Ronald Maris. "And they believe that the only way to get out of this hopeless life situation is by taking their own life." More than 70 percent of all suicides fall into this category, Maris says, adding that most victims face problems that would seem far more daunting than an unwillingness to restructure their lifestyle to fit a less-pleasurable economic reality. Acute depression and chronic illness are far more prevalent concerns.

Some simply find it hard to face themselves.
Vanity was more than an obsession to Richard P., it was his livelihood. Twenty years ago, at the age of 40, he divorced his wife, sold his California Cadillac dealership, and moved to Miami. He would become a man of leisure, living off the generosity of wealthy women. "He was so good-looking," recalls Harriet C., Richard's friend for eighteen years. "Oh, what a smile he had. He lived the life of a prince." He worked out, stayed in shape, took vitamins. When his hairline began to recede, he bought the finest toupees. When a gray hair appeared in his beard, he had it dyed. He underwent cosmetic surgery A a tummy tuck and a little tightening around the eyes. "He was 60 years old on paper only," Harriet attests. "He looked 35."

Harriet is right. The autopsy photographs are remarkable.
But any tinkering Richard might do on the outside could not halt the inevitable. He particularly dreaded the approach of his 60th birthday. "When you turn 60," he used to say, "you should just check out, because things just start falling apart on you." It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Six months before his birthday, he became impotent. The doctors told him it was psychological. That was no consolation.

His current paramour, Mona F., who had helped support him financially for thirteen years, told Richard not to worry, that they would work through his problem together. "He was so afraid she was going to throw him out and leave him to die destitute," remembers Harriet. "It was ridiculous. The day he died, he had $50,000 in the bank, he owned a townhouse that his previous girlfriend gave him. But it's unbelievable what goes through people's minds."

On January 28, his birthday, Richard shot himself once in the neck. In a note that appears to have been written more to himself than to anyone else, he debated the merits of his own existence. He set down a checklist of things to do: "Getting up first thing in a.m. to call and go to doctor's office for repair. SMILE. SMILE. IT USED TO BE YOUR BEST POINT. NO BRAINS, BUT A NICE SMILE."

From one line to the next, in short, cryptic sentences, the note took on a more frantic tone, alternating self-help suggestions for the future with apologies to friends for what he was about to do. "Think this is best. Wish me well. Can't go on. I am so sorry for those who care."

Just as quickly, the mood seemed to turn: "You're as good as anybody. You deserve to live as long as possible. You're going to contribute something. If only to be Mona's support and lover. If medicine and psychotherapy can help, so be it. I'll try to hang in, redevelop a personality, re-create a memory, tell jokes, laugh with wonderful friends. They're really nothing to fear. Hell they probably fear me.


It is impossible to say how much time passed between those words and what followed on a separate page, which, judging by the handwriting and the tone, reflect a more tranquil, resolute mindset. "Forty years of swimming upstream, twenty years of retirement. Call it euthanasia for the future hopelessness of my situation before it really gets terrible."

For Harriet and Mona, Richard's letter provided little solace. "I'm so angry at him for what he did, I have yet to shed a tear for him," Harriet says. "I will never forgive him."

The taking of one's own life is a decidedly male venture. In 1992 in Dade, 80 percent of all suicides were men, a number consistent with U.S. statistics. In 1990, the most recent year for which nationwide figures are available, the National Center for Health Statistics found that out of 30,906 suicides, 24,724 were men, compared to only 6182 women.

"It's interesting because women are more likely to be depressed than men, by about two to one," says Ronald Maris. "And since depression is one of the major factors in suicides, you'd think that women would have higher suicide rates than men. But there are a number of things that protect women."

First, Maris notes, men are more violent -- and more lethal -- in the methods they choose. Men tend to use shotguns, or they jump from buildings or hang themselves, all generally effective means. Women often try cutting their wrists or overdosing on pills A methods that take time and thus provide an opportunity for rescue. Only in the past few years, says Maris, have researchers noted a rise in the use of guns by women, which will probably result in a move toward parity.

According to Maris, other circumstances make it likely that men will continue to dominate suicide statistics. "Women interact more frequently with people than men do," he says. "Men tend to be more isolated, individualized, competitive. And women tend to be more involved with organizations and involved with their families and their children. The thought has always been that it would take a lot for a woman to kill herself if she has any family, because she has traditionally been the nurturer and the support for her children. So it's as if she is not only killing herself, she's hurting them as well. I don't think men think that as much. Men think it is pretty much their own life, and if they decide their life is over, they don't worry about other people as much as women do."

Of course, suicide numbers are affected by a society's definition of the act itself. The intent to end one's own life isn't necessarily a criterion for a death to be classified as a suicide. At least two people died in the past twelve months while playing Russian roulette A a thirteen-year-old boy, who held a gun to his head and told his friends excitedly, "Watch this"; and a 36-year-old U.S. Customs agent, who was playing with a gun in front of his girlfriend.

"If somebody is engaging in bizarre, risk-taking behavior, such as placing themselves in a situation where they have a one-in-six chance of dying, to me that is a wanton disregard for their own life and therefore it is a degree of suicide," says Roger Mittleman, an associate medical examiner for Dade County. "They know there is a risk.

"Let's face it, calling something a suicide is a philosophical thing," Mittleman continues. "For example, if somebody is an alcoholic and they die of alcoholism, some people might call that a suicide because that person has shown such disregard for their life. But we say the person died of natural causes. If somebody is drinking and driving and they crash into a pole, is that a suicide? No, we call that an accident, because that's what society accepts."

One year later, Hurricane Andrew continues to exact its toll on South Florida. Despondent about the loss of home or job, about displacement and the tedium of life in a virtual war zone, at least four people have killed themselves citing the hurricane as a factor, according to the county medical examiner's records. And officials say that in the next twelve months, the situation is likely to grow worse as residents see their neighbors' lives returning to normal while their own, by contrast, seem destined for perpetual disarray.

Coincidences also crop up among suicides. Earlier this year, in otherwise unrelated events, two 38-year-old men hanged themselves in their garages on Valentine's Day. And two students A seventeen-year-old Christopher R., who attended Coral Gables High School, and Peter C., a twenty-year-old University of Miami sophomore A both of whom were depressed about bad grades, killed themselves within a few hours of each other on March 11. Christopher, who shot himself in the head, left behind a note that read in part: "I'm sorry to put you all through this but I am weak."

Peter, however, seemed to have a grander, almost romantic, vision. The night before he died, he tried to persuade his girlfriend that the two of them should leap from the roof of his dormitory in a final act of unity. She thought he was kidding. The next night he went by himself.

"I know what I've done is wrong, but I felt as though I had failed you all too many times," he wrote to his family and his girlfriend. "Please don't think you made me feel this way, you all are the greatest people a man could know. I've had this feeling of failure for some time. I know I should have done well in school. I should have been a better brother and a better role model. I failed. And I failed you, Katie. I know if I'd tried harder when we were together I wouldn't have lost the best thing I'd ever found. I love you. Please find it in your hearts to forgive me. I'm truly sorry and I hope I will be able to remember you where ever I'm going."

Young people, particularly teens, are most likely to leave suicide notes. And one of the most common themes for kids who too often felt alone or forgotten in life is the plea that someone remember them in death. When Emilio C., eighteen, hanged himself because of problems with his girlfriend, he wrote: "I still love you Babi, don't forget me too fast OK, OK!! And if you get, I mean when you get a boyfriend don't forget me Babi. I know you can't stay by yourself too long. You might say if I love you I would not do what I did. I look at myself and I did not like what I saw and I said you would not like me too. I just went mad." At the bottom of his note, he drew two childlike sketches of faces. One, representing his girlfriend, was smiling. The other, himself, was frowning and crying. Between the two faces he drew a broken heart. On another page he wrote: "To my friends, I could not wait to see my fate. Don't hate me."

Christopher A. wanted his father to remember him. He hadn't lived in Miami long; he moved to South Florida to stay with his father, who had hoped to curb some of his wilder ways. In Georgia, where he had lived with his mother, Christopher had been using drugs and breaking into cars and houses. But the eighteen-year-old continued to get into trouble here, and when his father caught him sniffing gasoline, he told the boy to pack his bags to go back to Georgia. Instead, Christopher loaded a gun and shot himself in the head.

"To my dad, I love you very much. I have always and now I'm going to my grave loving you. Please don't never forget me and the times we had but I have to do this. There's nothing for me nowhere. The stupid devil is probably laughing right now. So this is goodbye," Christopher wrote. He added a postscript, a piece of advice for his stepbrother. "Tell Felipe I said obey Rosa and don't try to act bad like I did. All that was my image. Just a front. I was just scared to let ya love me."

Certain teen suicides are striking in the starkest ways. Ruth L. was an eighteen-year-old who immigrated to the United States from Nicaragua. A child going through adult struggles with her boyfriend and parents, she hanged herself with her jump rope. She ended her note to her boyfriend: "Carry me inside your heart always, always...." It was signed: "Your doll, your Nica girl."

The youngest person to commit suicide in Dade during the past twelve months was a thirteen-year-old boy. Ashamed of his bed-wetting, he hanged himself with a wire coat hanger.

"This is to be read after my body has been discovered," began Bobbi B.'s final note, found after she ended her life in late December 1992. "I am completely sane and rational at this time, but I am extremely unhappy and depressed. I have thoroughly thought out what I am doing and it is the best choice. Since I can never again have a physically normal life, I'd rather not live. It hurts too much to watch other people have a full life while mine is so limited now. I actually am very jealous of people I see walking and exercising.

"It is too painful to do normal things like walking, dancing, playing tennis. I can't even go on a trip and go sightseeing. Going to work is very difficult. To just eat and watch TV is not my idea of living. I exist, I don't live. I can't even go to malls or singles functions. A beautiful day makes me think of all the things I can no longer do outside. I can never wear heels and feel feminine any more or professional-looking in business suits and heels. My self-image was very hurt. Even in flats, it is difficult and painful to walk.

"It is fortunate that there is no one who needs me or is reliant upon me. I am also grateful that my mother is not alive to see this entire situation take place. My life was such a waste. I always thought I'd die of old age, by normal causes, not by my own hand. This was the only method available to me. I could not obtain a firearm or sleeping pills. I hope to do this successfully and don't survive. I don't want to die, but I can't live like this, and, for me, it just wouldn't be worth it. If there were still hope of physical help for me, this would not be my choice. Since that isn't the case, it isn't worth waking up any more.

"I don't want to be buried in a shroud or in a pine coffin. Please dress me in my black dress with the large round black collar with the white trim on it. Please put on the pair of black leather heels with the round leather ornaments on the front of the shoes. I know that no one will ever really know how I feel. It is hard for someone else to walk in my shoes and feel my emotional and physical pain. I don't wish it on anyone else for it is too sad and terrible, but if people understood, they wouldn't judge me too harshly or think I'm particularly weak. I am not a weak person, generally speaking. But all I do is spend time and money on medical nonsense that doesn't achieve anything. And worst of all, I've gone through this nightmare alone. It is very difficult to endure and lose the war, but emotional support would have helped. I don't blame anyone, this is just the way it is, I just don't have a spouse or mother.

"This is really the best choice."
On its surface, Bobbi B.'s note was an expression of the pain and frustration she had endured because of a physical problem with her feet, an affliction two surgeries had failed to alleviate. But that didn't seem to be enough to drive a person to suicide, and at first some friends and family members suspected Bobbi had been murdered and the note was a fake. There was no evidence of homicide, however, and it soon became apparent that the medical difficulties had been nothing compared to Bobbi's real illness, which was emotional.

Her father, for whom she worked, was the only man in Bobbi's life, friends say, and at age 43, she resented her dependence on him. "She was a very self-destructive girl," says one long-time friend. "She always had to find something wrong with herself. That thing about not being able to play tennis A she hadn't played tennis in twelve years. All the talk about the pain she was experiencing, it was just a cover-up for another kind of pain. She was an unhappy girl. She really died of loneliness. She regretted her divorce. She had friends, but not a man to take care of her. She never thought she'd be alone this long. And then her mother died a year ago. The dress she wanted to be buried in, she wore it to her mother's funeral."

All but one of Bobbi's final wishes were honored: Instead of the black dress, she was buried wearing a skirt and a white blouse with a high, frilly collar. The dress would not have concealed the rope marks around her neck.

For six months Patricia B. lived with the news that she was terminally ill. Diagnosed with lung cancer in April 1992, she held on as the disease spread to her liver. But as summer turned to fall, she saw no reason to go on with the knowledge and the pain. On October 1, the 57-year-old Miami Beach resident took a handgun and shot herself once in the head. Instead of using her last words to say goodbye to friends or family, she took the opportunity to rail against a society that would not allow her to end her own life with dignity. "I am in pain," she wrote. "If I were a dog, I could be put to sleep. But the law is not that kind to humans. So I must do this to end my suffering."

The terminally ill and the elderly account for more suicides than any other age group in the United States, which helps explain why Florida, with its high concentration of senior citizens, had the third-highest number of suicides in 1990, ranking behind only California and Texas. More than any other reason, those who end their own lives in Dade County cite the desire to end the suffering that accompanies disease or old age. On the Fourth of July, for example, when Jose G. hanged himself, the note found in his pocket read: "Couldn't stand the sickness any more. No one to blame."

Two years ago measures that would have made it legal for doctors to assist in the suicides of terminally ill patients were narrowly defeated by voters in the states of California and Washington. The Hemlock Society, whose founder, Derek Humphry, wrote Final Exit, and which helped promote the ballot items, has promised to bring back the propositions in the coming years not only in those Western states, but eventually here in Florida, as well.

"In Florida this is particularly an important issue. I think pretty soon we are going to have suicide clinics the way we have abortion clinics," argues Ronald Maris, the South Carolina university researcher and past president of the American Association of Suicidology. "And it is going to be legal. At the other end of the life span, people are going to go to the doctor to be killed."

Dade medical examiner Roger Mittleman observes that people who have resolved to kill themselves tend to do so no matter how hard loved ones or the law tries to stop them. "When somebody is determined to kill himself, there is virtually no way to stop it," says Mittleman. "Some people have tried multiple times in the course of one day. I remember a case of a man who tried to electrocute himself, cut his throat, and eventually set himself on fire. The determination is amazing." (As in the case of Edward G.: Concerned that he might attempt suicide after he lost his job as a pilot for Air Jamaica and was served with divorce papers, Edward's friends removed all guns from his house. But on February 26, he fashioned a homemade pistol out of a curtain rod and a stapler, then shot himself in the head.)

In cases where counseling and medical treatment are not rational alternatives, many say the idea of sanctioned suicide is worth considering. "Should we allow people to kill themselves at the end of their lives? Should the government help them? Should there be drugs available? Should doctors write prescriptions for fatal drug overdoses?" Ronald Maris asks. "I think under certain controlled circumstances, suicide is reasonable, and we ought to allow it."

In the future, instead of laying out a rationale for suicide in a note to be read after death, people might have their cases heard in courtrooms, along with testimony from expert witnesses and loved ones. Maris foresees a scenario in which a jury would rule on each petitioner's situation based on criteria prescribed by law. "The jury would say, 'We heard your case, we think you have legitimate reasons to want to kill yourself, and go with our blessing. In fact here is a place where you can go, and a physician, like Kevorkian, will give you an injection and help you go,'" he suggests. "That type of thing is not so farfetched. If you decide that some situations are hopeless, why shouldn't you be able to do it rationally and efficiently and not have to feel as if you are sneaking around?


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