No Exit

In South Florida the new killing fields are filled with sick, depressed senior citizens who make self-inflicted death their final ally

Hyman Kantofsky knew he was going to die.

At 84 years old, the Deerfield Beach retiree was already in the advanced stages of pancreatic cancer and getting sicker every day. Kantofsky knew about the tolls of a prolonged death -- he'd cared for his own dying mother and father -- and he didn't want his sister, with whom he lived, to have to watch him wither away. "He told me, 'I don't want to take you with me,'" says Evelyn Messing, who is now 84. "He was afraid that if I had to take care of him while he was dying, I would get sick, too. He wanted me to be able to enjoy life while I had it."

Such kindness was typical of Kantofsky, Messing says, as when he gave his car away to her grandson when his sickness forced him to stop driving. He had routinely cared for ill friends.

Rose Johnson

Kantofsky's sickness sapped his strength. He lost weight; his clothes got baggy. The illness robbed him of his greatest pleasure in life: the taste of food. "A good sensible meal made him happy as a lark," Messing says. The cancer also ended his run as a local shuffleboard luminary. He'd earned trophies playing the game, as well as the nickname "the Analyzer," bestowed because of his thoughtful, calculated style of play. Now Kantofsky had little to do but analyze his situation, and it was grim.

He desperately wanted to get into a hospice program, where he could die with plenty of pain medicine, but was refused. (Medicare rules stipulate that a patient must have six months or less to live in order to be admitted.) The day came when he told his sister he was going to end his own life. "He said, 'I'm not going to wait until I'm skin and bones. I don't want to become a nothing person. I don't know how I'm going to do it, but I'll find a way,'" Messing recalls. She says he was at complete peace with his decision and that, until the end, he still made everyone around him, including his doctor, laugh with his good humor. When he told his doctor of his decision to end his own life, the doctor tried to persuade him to seek counseling. Kantofsky wouldn't think of it. "He told the doctor, 'That is ridiculous. Listen to me, do I sound crazy? I'm speaking intelligently and I know exactly what I'm doing,'" his sister says. The doctor laid off.

Despite his continuing cheerfulness, there was one thing Kantofsky rued: the fact that he had to kill himself without help.

"He thought Dr. Kevorkian was doing a wonderful thing," Messing says. "He said, 'How wonderful it is that these people die with dignity and how much better it is for the people who loved them.' But that option wasn't available for him. I wish it had been. I would have liked to have been with him when he died."

Instead, on the evening of April 6, 1999, while Messing napped on a couch in the living room, Kantofsky walked up to the fourth floor of their building at the Century Village retirement community. There, he used a step ladder to climb over the white concrete railing and jump to his death, landing in a large bush in a flower garden.

A friend of the family, George Horn, spotted Kantofsky's hand jutting from a bush. Horn began to cry and shake uncontrollably. He says he still has terrible flashbacks when he passes the spot where he found his friend.

Anyone who works at a daily newspaper can tell you why Kantofsky's story wasn't reported to the public: Newspapers and television stations simply don't cover suicide.

The only time a suicide makes the paper is if it involves a public figure or includes other crimes, such as homicide. The standard line is that suicide is an isolated, personal act that isn't newsworthy. Editors are also reluctant to cause survivors any additional pain by publicizing an act still widely considered shameful. This rationale is bolstered by a raft of suicide experts who claim that publicizing suicides may lead to a "contagion" effect -- copycat self-killers. "People must understand that the coverage of suicide may lead to the causation of suicide," says Karen Dunne-Maxim, president of the American Association of Suicidology and one of the most influential suicide experts in the country.

Dunne-Maxim, who speaks at conferences around the country on the subject of suicide and the media, maintains that the ideas and wishes voiced by Kantofsky can't be trusted. People really don't know why they commit suicide, and suicide notes lie, she notes. If Kantofsky's story is told, "it will come off like this man is generous," says Dunne-Maxim, who survived her brother's suicide. "It comes out like, 'Here's a way to solve the problem.'"

There is little doubt that Dunne-Maxim and her colleagues in the suicide-prevention field harbor the noblest of intentions. But they tend to overlook one crucial possibility, namely that Kantofsky's motives can be trusted. That his decision was not only rational but also compassionate. And that, in a culture less reflexively intolerant of suicide, Kantofsky might have found a more dignified way to end his life.

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