Sudden death

I am always happy to arrive in New Zealand. We landed at 6 AM as Auckland was waking up. The flight was long and our old bones stiffened in the cramped airplane seats. We had, as usual, an hour to relax in the Airport before my cousin Jocelyn and her husband Albert collected us, so I arranged a sim card for my telephone and got a New Zealand phone number; then we had coffee. Jerry remembered how to order it in New Zealand; he had a “long black” and I had a “flat white” (translation: regular size cup of strong black coffee and a cafe au lait.) Sparrows darted through open doors, scavenging crumbs dropped by munching travelers.

The rest of that day was recovery time. We unpacked a few things, took a short rest and walked a familiar route part way up Pukekohe Hill. It’s a steep hill with huge views all around, but we weren’t ready to go all the way up the first day. The next day, Saturday, a family party was planned for my 80th birthday, though it was 4 days early. This was the day my cousin’s 2 children, their spouses and 3 of her grandchildren could assemble at a local Chinese restaurant with us. They gave me a pair of pretty earrings and we had a good time. Jocelyn’s grandson, Bryce, brought his trumpet along and in the parking lot he skillfully blared out a resounding Happy Birthday.

Bryce trumpeting my birthday

Sunday we would rest, then Monday drive 3 hours north to Whangerei to visit our 93 year old aunt and have another family party.

Jerry and I had some things to worry about at home, but I tried not to dwell on them. Jerry’s brother, Bert, was unwell. He had recently had open heart surgery and he was addicted to codeine pain pills. His only caretakers were some people whose motives we had long suspected. We thought they were more interested in his money than his health. We were relieved when another friend whom we like and trust, agreed to go to Arizona to take care of him. We expected this friend to stay with Bert while we were in New Zealand. We planned to go to Arizona to check on him as soon as we got home. A few days before we left our friend called to say he couldn’t stay with Bert any longer. Bert was addicted to prescribed opiates and had been put on methadone to treat his addiction. He was allowed one methadone pill per day, but he demanded more and when this was refused he threatened to shoot himself.  Our friend said he couldn’t stay under those circumstances. So Bert was again left in the care of people we did not trust.

We had left Jocelyn’s phone number so we could be reached in case Bert got worse. Sunday morning as we were having breakfast the call came. I had been jumpy every time the phone rang anyhow, and when Jocelyn answered and  said, “Oh yes, Jerry, he’s right here,” I knew it would be bad news. My quiet, calm husband took the phone, listened a minute and gasped, “Oh no!” and again, “Oh, no!”. Then, “When did it happen?” He listened a little longer, walked into the living room with the phone and stood at the window with his back to the room. I put my arms around him from behind. I could feel him tremble. He listened some more, then said, “Of course, I’ll take care of all the expenses.” and finally hung up. As he turned to walk into the bedroom I could see that his eyes were wet.

What the man who had been taking care of Bert had told Jerry was this: the day before (the day of my birthday party) Bert had shot himself in the head. He had gone to a convenience store with the caretaker. While the caretaker was in the store Bert stayed in the truck and used the caretaker’s loaded gun, conveniently placed between the seats, to kill himself. The man complained to Jerry about the mess in his truck. He did not say sorry for your loss or express any regret.

The rest of our vacation, though we tried to salvage some of it with walks and quiet talks, was pretty much taken up with emails, faxes, telephone consultations with lawyers, lawyers in Washington, Arizona, and we even had to have a lawyer in New Zealand notarize papers for the funeral home.

Bert was a year and a half younger than Jerry. Though they had lived completely different lives, in many ways they understood each other profoundly, intertwined by family, proximity, and the occasional need to act together as they did when their mother was dying. They started out in Eureka, CA. Jerry left there shortly after he got out of the army and went to the University of Alaska for his undergraduate and graduate degrees. Bert didn’t finish high school and did not succeed in the Army. He was out after 3 months. Their mother told Jerry that Bert had had a “breakdown.” Bert was married once for a month or two. Other than that he lived alone all his life.  He followed Jerry to Alaska, but unlike Jerry, he didn’t take to cold. Eventually both of them and their mother ended up on San Juan Island. Jerry and his late wife raised their son there. Bert built things and flew airplanes. That’s what Jerry did, but Bert came to flying late and logged many fewer hours in the air than Jerry. His buildings were never standard so he tended to be constantly in disputes with building inspectors. Nevertheless, with his frugal lifestyle he ended up with a comfortable income and little bits of property all over the place.

I believe that Bert actually had a few good years of life left in him, but he couldn’t give up the idea that he knew better than anyone else how to manage his health. He knew better than the doctors, than the physical therapists, than his real friends and than his brother. The two people who ended up taking care of him lasted by being careful never to cross him, to yield to his all demands even when they were dangerous to his well being, and to flatter his ego. They manipulated him by letting him believe that he was fully in control. And when they thought they had things arranged to benefit themselves they left a loaded gun where he could reach it in a public parking lot full of people. They had lots of witnesses that he shot himself.

Bert’s death is my closest encounter with suicide. I have stayed awake at night these last 2 weeks, wondering what was going through Bert’s mind when he put the gun to his head. I know he was depressed — he was on anti-depressants when he was with us. I think he felt he was losing control of his life. He was angry. He had quarreled with everyone who had tried to help him. He was beginning to be angry even with the caretakers he thought were his friends. Was he afraid of death? Was killing himself an act of consummate bravery? Or was this his last triumphant act to prove his control over his destiny.

It was a tragic end to a long life of jousting modern windmills. Just before he died he lost his legal battle with the Lincoln county weed board. He had sued them for coming on his property to spray noxious weeds. He lost his last appeal three weeks before he died.

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28 Responses to Sudden death

  1. Marja-Leena says:

    Dear Anne and Jerry, I’m so sorry for your loss. It was such a terrible way to leave, sounds like Bert was a troubled soul fro a long time. How hard for you to deal with this while away in NZ. Hugs to you both.

  2. Annie says:

    So sorry for your loss, although your headline “Sudden death” after a long silence here gave me a bit of a turn. I was almost relieved to hear about Bert! But it is sad and disconcerting that things have ended the way they did for him. My sympathies with Jerry for the loss of his brother.

    I was out walking my dog today and ran into a fellow asking directions. He said he’d been dumped “like yesterday’s garbage” at a local nursing home and was out looking around. Some of us do not have a lot of good choices at the end of life, whether by circumstance or previous life choices.

  3. Tessa says:

    Anne, I am so sad for Jerry and you.

    You both tried hard to help Bert, but some people just will not be helped. Other than sorrow for the manner of his passing, you have no reason to feel bad about the way Bert chose to live, and eventually end, his life.

    If that sounds unduly harsh, I have seen so many friends become eaten up by regret for events over which they had no control.

  4. Jan says:

    Oh, Anne – if the person who contacted you about this tragedy wouldn’t say it, I will: I am so sorry for your and Jerry’s loss.

    My husband’s uncle, to whom he was very close, committed suicide 15 years ago; there are members of the family who still, to this day, have difficulty dealing with it. I hope you and Jerry both realize that this was not your fault, and there is little, if anything, you could have done to prevent it.

  5. Tabor says:

    What a tragic and difficult experience with you being so far away and trying to have a good time. I think people who have been impacted by suicide often question motives and actions and whether it could have been prevented, but rarely come to conclusions that are solid. We are a complicated species and it once we have been pushed to the edge or driven ourselves there with our actions, there are no answers to why we jump. May you find peace in this over time.

  6. Jean says:

    I’m so s0rry and so shocked for you both. Jerry must be very glad to have you with him through this. Take good care of yourselves.

  7. I’m so sorry Anne. For you, for Jerry – for everyone involved.

  8. Rain says:

    I am sorry for your loss and understand the hope one always has that things will turn around in a dysfunctional relationship. I’ve been close to suicide several times. My husband was the one to clean up our neighbor’s barn after his father shot himself and his cat in it. People who do it are not in their right mind almost ever; so the consolation is feeling they were no longer really able to turn it around. If we could hospitalize people without their consent, even then it might be that they’d just wait til they got out to do it. Don’t feel guilty or that there was anything you could do. There probably was not. He had set himself on a path. It seems tragic but try to think of the rest of his life rather than the ending.

  9. dale says:

    Oh, I am so sorry. My sister committed suicide, when she was twenty, and I’ve lived in the shadow of that all my life. Drugs and the health care system involved there, too. And the questions: should I have known? Should I have done more? will always be with me.

    It seems to me that you both went far beyond what was reasonable to try to help. Bert chose to drive you both off, possibly partly out of a wish to bloody the pickup of someone he didn’t really care about, instead of Jerry’s. In some ways, looking back, I think that my sister spent much of her short life looking for a way out of it. I am sorry. It’s hard to be around that even for a short while.

    Hugs, Anne. So sorry.

  10. Hattie says:

    So sad, and I really feel for you, since you tried so hard not to have this happen. My condolences.

  11. I am so so sorry.
    Suicide hurts so many of us, in so many ways.

  12. Deborah says:

    Anne, I’m so sorry that you and Gerry have been dealt this blow. While I believe that we all have the right to say ‘no more’ when life becomes intolerable, for whatever reason, that does not mean that such a decision isn’t terribly difficult for those who are left behind.
    I hope that time will give you some measure of peace and acceptance.

  13. Deborah says:

    (Apologies for the ‘G’ in Jerry)

  14. Lucy says:

    So sorry. This life business doesn’t get any easier does it?

    But congratulations on 80 years of it, and may you still have many joyful, peaceful, loving times to come.

  15. Betty says:

    My heart hurts for you and Jerry Anne. We can’t question Fate and it seems to me this was preordained long ago. I can’t help but imagine Bert is no longer suffering and is relieved to no longer be a burden to all who cared for him. He must have known you cared for him. You and Jerry take good care of each other.
    Did you say you are 80 years old? It can’t be! You look fantastic!

  16. wisewebwoman says:

    Oh Anne, my heartfelt condolences to you and Jerry on this huge loss. Jerry was a downward slide all the time and his withdrawal periods from his drugs was always severe: angry and desperate, like all addicts.
    The only way out of his pain was death.
    And he stayed in control of that.
    While you and Jerry were safely at the other side of the world and not able to bear witness.
    I think of it as a gift.
    Special hugs and much love

  17. wisewebwoman says:

    PS “Bert” not Jerry in sentence 2.

  18. Darlene says:

    I am so sorry for your loss and please express my sympathy to Jerry on the loss of his brother. It is never easy to lose a sibling; especially in such tragic circumstances.

    It has been obvious that Bert was a very troubled man for a long time and I hope that Jerry can find comfort in the fact that Bert was not happy and is no longer suffering. I think it is obvious from what you have written that Bert has been on a self-destructive path for a long time.

    I think the caretaker should be investigated for leaving a loaded gun in easy reach of a troubled man. If he profits from Bert’s death I think it is suspicious.

  19. Natalie says:

    Anne, my deepest sympathy to Jerry and to you. No matter how difficult a person Bert might have been, the loss of a close and loved relative is never easy to bear, all the more so if that person takes their own life. I send you both much love.

  20. Capella Cole-Mann says:

    I checked your blog Anne this morning for the first time in many months. First the WOW of you

    Dear Anne and Jerry, I checked your blog this morning for the first time in many months as we are wintering in Sedona. First was Wow they’re in New Zealand and then the enormous upset you are surely experiencing. It seems that the really important questions in life have no absolute answers. Actually Death and life and God are confusing as hell. I look forward to returning to Lummi more now as you are so real to me with the sharing of your lives. Love is a function of communication and Anne you are extraordinary. Capella Thank you.

  21. Patty says:

    I too am so sorry for your loss. But there was really nothing you could do differently – all of this was really out of your control. And so I hope you and your husband are able to come to terms with it and make peace with it. Easier said than done, I am sure. Also, belated happy birthday to you – and may I say you don’t look a day over 60!!

  22. My feelings are with you and your family. I’m ever so sorry to hear about your loss. Your husband must be devastated.

    Take care.

  23. Ernestine says:

    I am so sorry
    Healing thoughts
    going forth for your
    and for you…

  24. Anne, The past year has challenging for you–and now this heart-breaking loss. Do give yourself, along with Jerry, much time for healing, storing up new energy. -naomi

  25. Lori says:

    I found your blog in Ruth Pennebaker’s blog list on her site, and am immediately moved to comment with understanding. My father shot himself in the head when I was 23, he was 46…..after leaving a note blaming me. The shock of that phone call, the disbelief, the mess of the life, the mess of cleaning up the life, the grief, the disbelief, the questions, the shock, it’s so difficult. I hope you and Jerry have comfort and the space to just wait for it all the settle. Someone told me, when my dad killed himself, that the suicide takes all the answers and just leaves us with the questions. And the questions are remarkably identical; I too wonder what was going through his mind when he put the gun in his mouth. Questions, no answers. This month it’s 30 years since it happened, and I’m finally free of the misery. I’m not sure why; I guess 30 years was what it took….which is 7 years longer than I even knew him.

    Comfort and care to both of you, from New York City.

  26. What a terrible shock for you and Jerry! I am so sorry for your loss.

  27. Z says:

    Caretaker, riding around with a loaded gun and that kind of ammo in the car, deserves what he gets; if I had the energy, I’d sue although I don’t think I would have such energy / will. I would give said caretaker a piece of my mind, however, and I’d write something for the paper about this sort of reason not to ride around with handguns.

  28. annie says:

    Oh Anne, I am so sorry to hear this, I have been so absent lately. I apologize for my late condolences. As I am learning we cannot control other peoples lives, no matter how much we want to, or think we should. We want to help, but people have to help themselves. I hope you are both ok. (((hug))

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