The Broken Promise
Christmas Day, 2000: I’m not sure but, I think my husband committed suicide. On December 25th, just fifteen months later, I sat alone, cross-legged on our bed in the very spot I felt his last pulse. The day was going to become quite different than how I had customarily spent Christmas mornings. It was a day that now bears the distinction of my attempt to be the next in line.
With the tip of my left finger pressed on the cap, I used my right hand to spin the jug of morphine like a top. I stared at the black print of Pete’s name on the prescription label and the date it was filled—the day we were discharged from the hospital—a date that was as surreal as my current decision to take my own life before nightfall. This was not what the hospital pharmacy had in mind when they provided me with more than enough doses to keep Pete comfortable.
“A, b, c, d, e, f, g, h,” I had begun. I felt Pete squeeze my hand when I got to the letter “h.”
“H?” I asked.
“Yes,” he signaled with a single, confirming squeeze.
“A, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o,” and another squeeze on “o.”
“O?” I continued.
“Yes,” he indicated again.
Muted by total paralysis, decoding the remainder of Pete’s words became the defining moment of our stay in the hospital.
“C-a-l-l H-o-s-p-i-c-e,” Pete spelled through eyes of pain.
I climbed onto the edge of the hospital bed and nuzzled up alongside of him. Pete managed to turn his head my way, smiling his signature smile. I slid one hand beneath the collar of his hospital gown and the other through his hair, leaned over and kissed his forehead. Seeking a momentary escape, I paused to inhale his scent, hoping it would carry me on an excursion back to the shelter of healthier times. Yet, even the weight of my memory could not anchor me.
“Are you sure?” I quietly gasped, struggling to catch my breath.
The affirmation of Pete’s single squeeze lasted longer than the usual “one for yes, two for no” signal. Blood drained from my face.
We both knew what his refusal of nourishment would entail. Hospice would supply the morphine. It would be administered by me to quell hunger pains while we waited through an indeterminate period of days or weeks for starvation to take his life. “Call hospice” signified his decision to go home and die. Early the next morning, we drove out of the hospital parking lot to begin his descent.
“You are not the one killing him; Lou Gehrig’s disease is killing him,” the doctor volunteered days later, as I pumped another dose into Pete’s unconscious body. I refrained from voicing the retort about to spring from my tongue, “Call it what you want, but it looks and feels to me like I’m helping him end his life.” Instead, I kept silent and listened to the doctor’s attempts to reassure me.
With authorization to increase the dosage, I hung up from the 3 A.M. telephone consult and returned to my bedside post. It was my job to prevent his pain, it was my job to respect his wishes, and it was my job to see him through the end of the four-year neurological battle we had been fighting. However, I did not realize at the time what was in store for me: Pete would soon leave me alone on the “post mortem battlefield” to continue waging the war without him. Fifteen months after I watched him take his last breath under the dim lighting of our bedroom, I sat shadowed in the same light, defeated by the taunting reprieve of surrender.
I closed the book I had studied on assisted suicide and poured what remained of the morphine into a glass, wondering if I could speedily gulp down the thick syrup as instructed. The blue colored liquid had not lost its menacing appearance since I last laid eyes upon it just after the funeral more than one year earlier. We hadn’t needed much to get through the five days it took for Pete’s suffering to come to an end. Caught up in the frenzy following the mortician’s departure, no one thought to dispose of the leftover narcotics that filled my drawer—except me. His medication instantly transformed into my poison as I stored it away for later use.
I began another count: 60 doses of morphine, 200 Percosets and a large glass of gin. A plastic bag lay next to my pillow. As though sifting through sand, I lifted the pills into the cups of my hands and let them trickle through my fingers back into the pile on the bed. What was the correct amount? What was too much? Too little? Should I use the plastic bag?
My attention turned to the discovery I had made several weeks earlier at a deli. I am certain that everyone else in line was scanning the bakery items behind the counter in order to select what they wanted for breakfast. I, on the other hand, stood there, preoccupied with the dilemma of whether to live or die, noticing the optimal size of the plastic bags used by the store. I had even engaged in the ghastly practice of placing one of those bags over my head, not only to test its size and durability, but also to test whether I had the nerve to endure it. The “Don’t panic, just relax” suggestions in the book were terrifyingly impossible.
Aside from mustering up my distorted notion of courage, I recognized that the plastic bag method was complicated. In the event of a drug miscalculation, sealing it over my head before I went unconscious would ensure suffocation. It was a 100 percent surety that I would never again open my eyes. But, how could I mercilessly allow my family to discover me in a scene more fitting for a horror movie? The hideous sight of my lifeless face, shrink-wrapped inside a plastic bag, would be a permanent image replayed in their minds forever. I’m not sure which weighed on me the most—protecting them from the added trauma, or sparing myself from those few minutes desperately sucking against the plastic for oxygen. Ultimately, by not factoring in the bag, I decided to take the ten-percent chance that an overdose would fail.
This was not the first time I had gone through the procession of laying out the necessary accoutrements. However, this was the first time I had meticulously covered every last detail. I put my mail on hold, cleaned out the refrigerator and tidied up my closets. I prepaid all of my bills and made sure the “Do not resuscitate” directives of my health care proxy could be easily located. I wore the consoling fabric of Pete’s jeans and his favorite t-shirt that I had saved. There was a tranquil silence, the shades were drawn, and the overhead light was emitting a slight glow. My surroundings were virtually identical to the day of Pete’s death. In a peculiar way, I found the eeriness of the atmosphere more soothing than disconcerting.
I had become reclusive enough since the funeral to cover my absence with obscure references that I was going out of town for a few days. My need to get away from the difficult atmosphere of the holiday season was understandable. Everyone would be too distracted by their own holiday engagements to give a second thought to my whereabouts. All of the people in my life trusted me implicitly. My unforgivable betrayal was about to make fools of every single one of them.
Hours passed. Other than hypnotically twirling the plastic bag around my fingers and occasionally lifting up handfuls of pills to compulsively perform another recount, I did not make a move. It’s strange to look back on what was going through my mind. One would think it was the sadness of saying good-bye or the anxiety of second-guessing my decision. It was neither. My thoughts, which were ordinarily too active for me to bear, vacillated between hosting an unfamiliar blankness and racing with unrelenting concerns. It was an adrenaline rush of clarity and catatonia in one—an inexplicable combination of emotionless fear.
I was preoccupied with the minutiae. My focus was largely on logistics and minimizing the aftermath. First, there were the purely selfish concerns. What recipe was the most lethal? Should I drink the entire jug of morphine and skip the Percosets? Should I crush the pills or just leave them in tablet form? Should I just go ahead and take everything, despite the risk of vomiting the fatal dose? The god damned plastic bag. How much was too much? How much was too little?
If I was doomed to wake up, what kind of brain damage would I sustain? Would I linger for years in a coma? Would I destroy other organs? Rivaling as one of my most acute fears was the terror of waking up in restraints, confined to a psychiatric ward. Would I lose my freedom and independence?
Although the nobility of selflessness was not a virtue I could include in my resumé, I struggled with the obsessive cycle of concerns about the impact on others. Would my therapist, Dr. Glaser, hold herself responsible for my actions? Would my family sue her? Should I write a note, imploring them not to hold her at fault? Would she despise me? I had promised her I would remain safe, that I would call her before I ever acted upon my desire to die, and she trusted me. There was no other way to interpret the statement I would be making. It was the ultimate “Fuck you.”
Pathetically, one of my predominant concerns was to lessen the trauma to the people who would discover me. Unable to transport myself to the morgue, I could not figure out how this was avoidable. Who would notice I was not heard from in days? What conditions would I create if it took over one week for them to find my body? Who would enter the house first? What would they be feeling as they walked down the hallway and into the vestibule outside my bedroom? What would I have done to them once they caught the indelible, first glimpse of my motionless feet? Shamefully, I admit that in the end, my inclination to prioritize the feelings of others meant shit to me. All that really mattered was to finish the job and overcome my fear that I would wake up and live to be held accountable for my actions.
During the years I spent tortured in my solitary debate, I had skimmed through many books about suicide. The most poignant statement I ever read suggested that the very fact that I was standing there, reading a book about suicide, meant that I had not made a final decision to die. However, after living in the hell of over two decades of exhaustive contemplation, for the first time in my life, I stood on the threshold of death’s door with the numbness of a firm resolve.
On Christmas day, 2000, I didn’t just peer over the edge of a rooftop. I jumped off, feet airborne with the cement blocks of depression shackled to my ankles. The final thing I recall was swallowing the last fistful of Percosets. I did not make an attempt to commit suicide. I killed myself.
Terry Wise, J.D. became widowed at 35 following her spouse’s death from Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS), and after surviving a near-fatal suicide attempt, she spent the next several years in treatment. A former Boston trial attorney, Wise has since devoted her life to international public speaking and full-time writing. She has traveled to all 50 states and hundreds of cities to appear as a keynote speaker, continuing education instructor and workshop presenter—speaking to both the general public and professionals on topics related to depression, grief, long-term caregiving, suicide prevention, and the process of recovery. To learn more, please visit www.TerryWise.com.