Last Rights

My son ended his life after three years of madness and unbearable depression. Who am I to say he did the wrong thing? John’s days were full of isolation and pain when what he longed for was freedom.

“JOHN KILLED HIMSELF LAST NIGHT.” the early morning telephone caller spoke his message clearly, but some deep-seated ritual made me ask him to repeat it. I already knew, though, that no amount of repetition could change the fact that my thirty-year-old son had taken his own life. John was my elder son. He graduated at the top of his high school class, earned an Ivy League degree, and for the last three years of his life endured the indescribable pain of mental illness. Those years had been uppermost on my mind, and my first thought that morning was that the constant flow of bad news and heartache had ended. The question that my voice formed was “How did he do it?”

This interest in mechanics may have seemed strange to the caller, but “how” had been an obsessive concern since the day it became clear to me that John would commit suicide. Totally exhausted by years of hallucinations, delusions, panic attacks, paranoia, sleep disorder, sexual fixations, intense depression, ineffective (though constant and costly) psychiatric treatment, and sense-deadening anti-psychotic medication, John finally realized that the career, marriage, and family he wanted were far less probable than poverty, isolation, and revolving-door hospital confinement. He calmly described his plan for suicide to his psychiatrist, who, of course, ordered immediate hospitalization. The telephone call to me came less than 48 hours after John had been released from his most recent two-month confinement, his fourth in three years. That stay taught him one clear lesson: If suicide is your aim, don’t talk about it.

You may ask what kind of father would drive along a drainage ditch and see it as a place where his son could quickly and efficiently end his life. I can tell you. He is the same father who makes a mental inventory of alternative methods that are more painful and less likely to succeed, methods that could leave a tortured invalid trapped for life in a hospital bed. He is the same father who clinically analyzes docudrama clips of Hitler’s would-be assassins strangling in agony at the end of a wire. He is the same father who wonders how many minutes one must watch life’s blood pour from open wrists while the bathtub water turns a brighter red (and who speculates whether water is necessary to ensure that the blood has no time to coagulate and stanch the flow). He is the same father who, when his son openly expresses his death wish, responds by first urging life and hope but ends by saying that he understands his son’s pain and that he will love and respect him regardless of what he decides. Was that statement a cold approval of suicide, or was it a loving attempt to spare a son the thought that his father regarded his final act as a failure? Who can know how or whether to judge a father who would do such things?

My preoccupation with mechanics made the caller’s answer—“a gun”—satisfying. Here, at least, was a swift and effective end; my son had done his research well. Although he had not fired a gun since childhood, John chose a final tool that was up to the job, a .357 Magnum, enough firepower to negate any minor error of aim when he placed it to his temple. I firmly believe that some controls should be placed on handgun sales and that guns should not be available to mentally ill people. Nevertheless, I was thankful that on the day he needed it, John had easy access to such a weapon and that he could use it well enough to spare him from more brutal methods. A friend’s son, for example, tried to jump through a fourteenth-floor hospital window, but shards of glass caught his clothing long enough for attendants to pull him back in. However lucky his rescue may have been, I shudder to contemplate the further violence this young man will inflict on himself until he finally succeeds. I know of another suicide who apparently practiced or missed on the first few shots before finally lodging the bullet in her brain. My son’s aim was far better, the single slug traveling—in the clinical words of the death certificate—“through and through” his skull.

With the “how” answered, my next question was “Where?” The matter was important. When he could no longer live alone with his demons—in the late eighties—John had returned home to live with his mother and stepfather. He felt safe in his old bedroom. In my anticipation of his death, I was concerned that it happen where he was comfortable—or as comfortable as he could be at that terrible moment—but I did not want it to happen in the house, where his mother would have to deal with his remains. My heart sank when I first thought I heard, “In the back part of the city.”

My thoughts ran to a dark and frightening part of town, where my son might have been alone in strange territory or threatened by equally deranged derelicts. I later learned that my hearing had deceived me. Instead of “in the back part of the city,” the words had been “in the back yard, by the fence.” That news brought me relief. The place was not readily visible from the house. As John said in his last note: “I had a vision of running away to die where nobody would find me. I went to behind the study with a .357 Magnum and hollow-nosed bullets. It is over.”

My next words to the caller reflected hope for myself as well as for my dead son: “At last he found peace.” Trite. So often said, inappropriately, when death takes someone who wants to live. But John wanted the peace of death, and I could applaud his success, even with a breaking heart.

From the start, my son was a perfectionist—making far more demands on himself than his mother and I did. A solemn child who always tried to do the

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