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July 26th, 2013

Suicide: A Love Story

“Did I ever tell you about the night that Emil died?” my brother Richard asked me. It was 1992, and AIDS had taken Richard’s lover a full three years earlier. The death ended a love affair that had lasted more than a decade.

I cocked my head. “Well, I was there, Richard, so I mean – ”

DickEmilKilaRESIZED“You were there after,” he said, and downed his drink. “Don’t you wonder what it was like just before?” He asked the question nervously, a perfect match for the cigarette he held in one hand — a long broken habit, suddenly resumed — and the cocktail in the other, which had been requested shortly upon his arrival to my apartment.

“It’s not like I was trying to keep it from you, Mark,” he said, and he offered the glass for replacement. It was an odd thing for him to say.

I walked to the kitchen and unscrewed the vodka bottle, beginning to feel nervous myself. Richard talked as I cracked an ice tray.

“Emil had one of those lines that went way in inside him…” He was beginning a story I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear.

“A hickman,” I said.

“Yeah,” he answered, and he reached for the drink while the ice was still twirling. “But something was wrong with it the night before. It was swelling. So we took it out.”

I returned to the couch. Richard paced.

“The next morning the nurse came and Emil was being stubborn. He didn’t want the new Hickman.” He gulped his drink and took a breath. “I got an inkling what he was up to when the nurse said ‘Emil, starving yourself is not a pretty way to go.’ But Emil kept saying, ‘no, no, I won’t do this!’ and I remember he looked so weary, Mark. Just exhausted.”

This isn’t the visit I planned, I thought to myself. I meant for my brother to see the new ceiling fan I had installed. But my handiwork couldn’t compete with the story that was now rumbling out of him.

“I walked the nurse out and went back to Emil. He reached up for my hand, and he said, ‘you knew that today would be the day, didn’t you?'”

Richard looked at me but didn’t acknowledge what must have been a growing expression of shock on my face.

“I knew Emil wanted me to say yes, so I did. But inside I was screaming ‘NO! NO!’ ”

Richard stopped, and I found the silence torturous. “Well,” I said, “it sounds like he was, uh, in charge of himself.”

“Oh, he was in control all right,” he responded. “He told me to go get the book. The one about how to kill yourself.”

Richard’s next few remarks would be lost on me. I couldn’t get past The Book.

“So I’m reading him the chapter we had picked out,” Richard was saying, “and it suggests washing down the pills with alcohol. We had some Seconal and I found some Scotch.”

I knew about assisted suicide but had never heard of the mechanics of it firsthand, or considered the logistics a caring lover would undertake — or had witnessed the haunted result like the one that now sat chain smoking across my living room.

“I made some toast for him just like the book said,” he continued, “and while we waited for him to digest the toast I opened the capsules and put the stuff into a glass.”

I imagined my brother sprinkling powder into a glass while Emil looked on. I wondered what kind of small talk that activity encouraged.

“I poured the scotch, a couple of good-sized shots, and he wanted it right away.” His voice trailed to a whisper. “I wanted him to wait, to wait, to wait… I wanted to hug him. I wanted to do it right, you know? But he kept reaching for the glass, and I would say, ‘no, Emil, wait, please wait, I want to say I love you again…’”

Tears were filling Richard’s eyes. His hand shook, knocking his glass loudly on the coffee table as he set it down and brought his hands to his face.

And even so, he went on.

“Emil downed the glass in one gulp and made a face, and then he just laid back on the pillow. It took about twenty minutes.” Richard looked up at me and managed a sad grimace. “Emil always said that when you go, you go alone. I hated that for him. I wanted him to feel me there, you know? So I held his hand real tight…”

I stared at my brother. Tears now streamed from his face. His eyes conducted a dazed search around the room as they tried to focus on something, anything that would bring some comfort or clarity.

I couldn’t tell what I was feeling about this. Was it pity? Was it shock? How many kinds of pain can we distinguish within our soul?

“The book said to wait twenty minutes after his heart stopped, you know, before calling the doctor. I kept leaning over him and trying… trying to hear his heart. But I couldn’t because my own blood was pounding in my ears! And those next twenty minutes…”

“What were you doing…” I asked, startled by the sound of my own voice, “during those twenty minutes?”

“Screaming,” he said simply.

Silence engulfed my apartment, surrounding the word.

I put my arm around him and he continued to weep. Please be all right, I thought. Please be happy again, Richard. My brother. My brother.

He received my embrace but his heart had taken distant refuge. It had long been numbed by the effects of the spent cocktail glass, sitting impassively on the coffee table, occasionally clinking with the sound of shifting, melting ice.

Mark

NOTE:
This post is adapted from A Place Like This, my chronicle of life in Los Angeles during the dawn of the AIDS epidemic. (Photo above: Richard, left, and Emil in 1986.)

Suicide was a common feature of life for gay men in the 1980’s. But rather than it being a result of bullying or despair, with which it is often associated today, it was very often a gesture of empowerment for embattled AIDS patients wanting to die on their own terms, sometimes with the assistance of those who loved them most.

Our elderly have always shared these mortal intimacies. Assisted suicide has even been institutionalized with the common use of a morphine drip in hospitals and hospices, which calms the patient and, when increased to certain levels, hastens death by shutting down the body.

As for Richard, he has recovered from his loss 25 years ago and lives happily today in our home town. “I often think of that night, and consider my feelings about it,” he told me recently. “I can honestly say I don’t feel even a twinge of guilt. I have plenty of regrets, but not about that.”

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6 Responses to “Suicide: A Love Story”

  1. rich Says:

    July 26th, 2013 at 11:08 am

    I am a survivor too. I was diagnosed in 1985, my partner Mike died in 1996. I had several friends that took control of their lives and deaths, it was and still is a valid option. This disease is not pretty, it’s slow, gruesome and painful.

    I remember one friend, Dave, that was fairly healthy but his white blood cell count was depleted and they couldn’t get it back up. He knew what was coming. He called me one day and said, almost nonchalantly, that he was finished, done fighting. I thought maybe he was going to stop treatment or something. I didn’t hear a sense of urgency. The next day I received a call that he had passed in his sleep. He was 28 years old. I still miss him.

  2. Betsy Says:

    July 27th, 2013 at 12:15 pm

    Please stop spreading the myth that morphine hastens death. Morphne is a wonderful drug that can bring a great deal of comfort but people think it will bring death if they take. You do a disservice by perpetuating the lie.

    (I’m not sure what your objection to this fact is, Betsy. Is morphine always used to hasten death? Of course not. Is it commonly used to help the body shut down? Absolutely. I have witnessed it many times. Google it. Ask any intensive care nurse. It’s a fact, and a welcome one for many. — Mark)

  3. Mike Morris Says:

    July 27th, 2013 at 2:36 pm

    As well as a right to life, a person should be able to die with dignity as well. I believe that a lot of thought should go into it but only you know when you can’t/don’t to live any longer. I don’t want people having to come and take care of a helpless and hapless me, especially family. Or to lay in a nursing home unable to care for myself. That would be my check out time and friends and family understand that, even if they disagree. Cremation so that there is no grave to visit as I won’t be there. All I have asked is that you get together with someone else who knew me, have a drink (whatever) and tell the funniest joke I ever told in your presence, and then go on with your life.

  4. John Gordon Says:

    July 28th, 2013 at 1:28 pm

    Thank you for publishing the story.

  5. Joseph Carsello Says:

    July 30th, 2013 at 10:14 pm

    Thanks Mark for sharing the story of your brother and Emil.
    It’s a familiar story that many of us long-term survivors faced
    at some point in the 1980’s. I was diagnosed with AIDS in
    1989 and had Kaposi’s Sarcoma with lesions not just on my
    skin but also in my gastro-intestinal tract which was very painful.
    My oncologist said I may have only two years to live and then
    prescribed interferon-Intron A which is the chemotherapy
    used for KS. From 1989 to 1991 I gave myself injections. The
    treatment was worse than the disease and as every day went
    by I thought I would never feel well again. The oncology
    nurse that I dealt with during that period of time eventually
    received her masters in counseling and I went to see her
    for counseling. I credit her for helping me get through that difficult
    period of my life. We talked about suicide on a number of occasions because I was having suicidal thoughts and starting to
    form a plan to accomplish it. One day that I had a session with
    her I was very depressed and feeling hopeless and she told me not to worry because she would make sure that “I would die pretty” and be relieved of my pain and suffering if that was what I wanted. She would be there to support me in my decision. I will never forget that session as long as I live. She was not only
    my counselor but she had become a loving friend who loved me
    so much that she was willing to assist me in taking my own life.
    The good part of this story is that I survived chemotherapy and
    by 1991 the lesions were disappearing and we continued to be
    friends-a loving friend who I knew would be there for me if I needed her to assist me in doing something that takes a lot of courage and love.
    So here I am 66 years of age a long-term survivor of AIDS who is now struggling with rheumatoid arthritis. Not a day goes by that I am not in pain using pain medication and alternative medicine to deal with it. Quite honestly I don’t know what the future will bring but it’s always comforting to know that I have someone in my life that understands what I am going through
    and how it wears not only on your body but also on your
    psyche. I can only hope for the best in my future and continue
    to remain spiritually strong for as long as I can,

  6. Paul Says:

    November 9th, 2014 at 10:22 am

    As a gay man infected in 1985 who had the fear of diagnosis until 1990, this scenario is all too familiar. Many friends in the 1980’s and 90’s went through the downhill spiral that AIDS was, and many killed themselves without the hope of recovery. One of the things that many people don’t understand is the devastation this disease still has on many long term survivors, who lost everything to it including friends, finances and family. The words are often spoken, “You look healthy”, and as with many other diseases the long term consequences can have devastating effects. I now work as much as possible with other long term survivors, and there is guilt that comes with survival, especially if you helped many of your friends pass through this life with an early death. Thank you for this story, the tears still flow, and life moves on.

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