By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Then, following the Final Exit playbook, I fit two oven bags on his head. I tightened them around his neck with rubber bands. If the book was correct, he would gently suffocate in about 20 minutes. I held his hand and watched. Just as the book described, his breath slowly became deeper and longer. He was snoring loudly and began gurgling. After 10 minutes, he pulled his body upward, in a gesture of helplessness. I knew that he was unconscious, that this was only an automatic response, the final grasp of life before the spirit left the body. Even so, I cried out helplessly: What is it? What do you want?
The books description and timeline proved accurate. After 20 minutes, I felt his pulse and put my head on his chest. I couldnt feel or hear anything. I glanced at the clock. It was 12:23 a.m.
He was dead.
I curled up against him and put my arms around him. After several minutes, I decided I had to get some sleep. At 7:20 the next morning, I awoke next to his lifeless body, and the whole evening came flooding back to me. I called his doctor. Toms dead, I said. He killed himself. One look at his emaciated body, destroyed by a host of infections, and no one would have doubted that he had died in his sleep, not by his own hand. So why did I blurt out that he had committed suicide? Its a question Ive asked myself many times. One of the first phone calls I made helped me cope with my indiscretion. A friend, a longtime AIDS activist, told me, Good for you! Let his final act be a political one. Let the record show that people are killing themselves over this disease. I knew then that I could face any questions the police would throw at me.
I called his family, then I called the police. They asked whether he had been taking any medications. I showed them the medicine cabinet, the linen closet, the refrigerator, the bathroom shelves, the bedside stand, all stuffed full of pills, lotions, tinctures, vials, salves, sprays, vitamins, Ensure. I showed them the suicide note he had written, just in case: I have decided to terminate my life because the continued suffering from AIDS and opportunistic infections is unsufferable to me. I have had a wonderful life but no longer wish it to continue.
The police summoned a detective and a medical examiner. It was obvious to everyone who saw the corpse that this was a man whoregardless of how he might have diedwas already in the terminal stages of his illness. Only when two attendants from the City Morgue wrapped his corpse in a body bag did I finally break down. That was the last time I ever saw him.
The next day, I took several bags of medicine to an office in Tribeca, where an organization called AID for AIDS collects unused medical supplies. Though illegal to reuse them here, theyre good enough for people in poor countries. I just wanted them gone. They had become hated symbols of failed cures, of promises broken. Since Toms death, I have thought and read much about the way people choose to die. The right-to-die movement, I have come to realize, is not a bunch of crazed Kevorkians or euthanasia Nazis, trying to impose suicide on otherwise-healthy people, but an enlightened response to a hopeless situation. Still, the debate rages on.
Mark Mostert, a director at the Institute for the Study of Disability & Bioethics at Regent University, believes that its a slippery slope from aid in dying to disposing of people because in some way theyre not worthwhile. There is a progression where it moves to Well, it may be taboo, but its justified, he told me. When someone is at the end of life, you can keep them comfortable, away from pain and suffering.
Kathryn Tucker, the legal director of Compassion & Choices, cites statistics from Oregon, where the Death With Dignity Act has provided the option of physician-assisted death since 1994. It has improved end-of-life care for all patients, she told me. Its well known that theres an underground practice across the nation, but its covert and its random. The patient doesnt know how to find a willing doctorand studies who the risk of complications and anxiety is much greater.
Howard Grossman, a well-known Manhattan doctor with a large gay practice, has seen too many cases of patients who have no legal option to ease their pain. Ive hastened peoples deaths, he told me. Why should you, as a partner, not have anyone to help you? You were left on your own to make a very difficult thing happen. I dont care if its a hospital board or whatever safeguards people feel need to be put into place to protect patients. But dont leave people hanging here because no one wants to deal with the moral complexities of someone like you.