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.
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.