Freedom to Die

The story of a Hollywood couple's love and death is heart-rending. It should also spur change.

Soon, he was telling me the story of Moe growing up on a chicken farm in upstate New York. "He was a country boy," recalled Schwartz, who lives in Boca Raton. "And he worked with chickens so much that the feather dust gave him a type of emphysema, which he had all his life."

But the lung problems were relatively minor and didn't keep him from enjoying life. After Moe and his parents sold the farm in the 1950s for a tidy profit, he traveled to Miami Beach, where he worked maintenance at several hotels. Then he returned to New York, where he bought a "bungalow community" of summer rentals in a town called Monroe. On the 30-acre property, Moe built houses for himself and his parents. In 1959, he went on a blind date with Estelle, an IRS auditor who lived two hours away in Brooklyn. They quickly fell in love and married. Estelle quit her job to help Moe, who also worked as a real estate broker, with his vacation properties.

In the mid-1980s, they sold the bungalow community and began spending their winters in Apartment 17G at the Allington Towers on Ocean Boulevard in Hollywood. Last year, they moved there permanently. Their greatest passion, Schwartz said, was traveling on cruise ships around the world, from Australia to Africa. "You might say it was a real love story," he said. "They traveled extensively and enjoyed a very rich and full life. Always together. Very loving and giving couple. They were together all the time. It was a Romeo and Juliet story."

Moe and Estelle, before the fall
Moe and Estelle, before the fall

Schwartz and his wife, Freyda, had dinner with the spiffily dressed Spivacks every month. About three months ago, he said, Moe came down with a lung infection that quickly devastated him, but the Schwartzes were largely in the dark; Estelle made excuses to keep them away.

As it happened, Schwartz, who is 66 years old, was stricken with heart pains at the same time Moe was fighting the lung infection. Schwartz underwent surgery to have stents placed in his arteries. "Estelle called my wife and told her -- and this was very poignant -- that she had lived long enough and that if she could give me her heart, she would give it to me," Schwartz recalled.

Finally, on December 27, the Friday before the new year, the Schwartzes visited Moe and Estelle in the condo. "When we saw them, my wife and I stopped in our tracks," Schwartz remembered. "He was half the person he was from three months ago. He was on a walker and was attached by a 30- or 40-foot tube to an oxygen tank in the bedroom. They were both housebound. She looked terrible because she had been running to and from the hospital. They were like two different people."

Moe had lost his hearty appetite, his eyesight was going, and his body was withering away. Estelle, who had survived breast cancer and a mastectomy, was depressed and also hurting. Her failing hips forced her to use a walker, and she had a small brain tumor. That night, they both hinted of their New Year's Eve plans. "He told me he didn't want to live anymore in one room, and Estelle told my wife the same thing in the kitchen," Schwartz recounted. "They said they had no quality of life and that they had no future. She said that if Moe died, she wouldn't want to live."

On December 31, the Spivacks called the condo maintenance man and, under the pretense that Moe needed more fresh air, had him open their bedroom window and remove the screen. About 9 p.m., Moe climbed out of the window. Seconds later, Estelle joined him.

"We feel it took a tremendous amount of courage," Schwartz said. "The fact that they did it together indicates they didn't want to go on without each other. It was the end of a romance that lasted for 40 years. We can understand why they did it, because they had no quality of life. They had no joy and no hope."

But Schwartz doesn't feel much joy himself these days -- he said he and other loved ones were robbed of closure. Because of the stigma of suicide and the resulting secrecy, they never had the chance to say goodbye. Had physician-assisted suicide been legal in Florida, the family might have had that chance. "I think people should have the freedom of choice, no question about it," Schwartz told me. "We're one of the only countries in the world that keeps life going, and people should have the choice whether they want to live or die. Nobody should have to live without hope and with pain. There is nothing more personal than that."

Schwartz feels certain that Moe and Estelle made their decision together and without disagreement. One of the most extraordinary things about Moe and Estelle was that they never, ever argued. In the four decades they were together, Schwartz had never heard even a cross word between them.

It was true love until the end.

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