Freedom to Die

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

Newspapers around the country played the New Year's Eve suicides of Morris and Estelle Spivack as a dramatic spectacle. Almost every headline about the Hollywood couple, for example, contained the word "leap." The Chicago Tribune printed this atop its brief January 3 story: "Ailing couple leaps 17 floors to death."

The Spivacks, who were indeed ailing and both limited to walkers, couldn't leap. They couldn't even jump. And if they could have, they couldn't have leapt 17 stories unless they were comic book heroes. No, the Spivacks climbed up onto a chair to reach their condo's bedroom window and basically dropped themselves from the ledge.

But a "death leap," as the Miami Herald called it, is more compelling, so that's the way it was recorded for history. The media's verbicide in this case is only a symptom of its irresponsible coverage of suicide in general. They don't report on self-inflicted deaths at all, in fact, unless they occur in public (as in the case of the Spivacks) or a well-known figure is involved. Editors argue that bringing attention to suicide is hurtful to survivors and could encourage more people to try it.

So the media, rather than investigate the social problem of suicide, generally ignore it. And very quietly, about 6,500 seniors -- including about 50 in Broward County -- kill themselves in violent, painful ways each year in the United States. Quietly to the general public, at least. Unfortunate bystanders like the security guard who was nearby when the Spivacks hit the ground hear it all too well.

The prevailing tone of the Spivack coverage was shock and disbelief. As a neighbor put it in the Herald story: "He was a dignified man, they were just a lovely couple. You would expect this from someone a little wacko, but him? No. But I guess you never know."

We are supposed to sigh after reading that and say something like, "How sad." And in some ways it is, indeed, profoundly sad. That life must end and that death often comes with great pain and misery are not pleasant truths. But ending misery on one's own terms shouldn't be an occasion only for sadness or shock to those left behind. It should be a time to remember and celebrate life. But such sentiments are nearly impossible when the end comes in gruesome, public fashion, as in the Spivacks' case.

Because euthanasia is illegal in every state except Oregon (and even that law is under siege by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft), the carnage keeps coming. Three years ago, I researched a year's worth of senior citizen suicides in Broward County (see "No Exit," January 20, 2000). In file after file at the Medical Examiner's Office, the carnage was depicted in photographs and official reports. Heads blown half off. Bodies hanging eerily from trees. Mangled jumpers. A burned corpse. An old man with a weight tied around his neck at the bottom of a community pool.

And I learned the stories of the survivors, like the wife who not only heard her sick husband shoot himself with a shotgun but also had to clean up after the body was taken to the morgue.

The statistics are just as disturbing: Men over age 80 are six times more likely to kill themselves than everyone else, and senior citizens commit suicide at a rate 50 percent greater than that of the general public.

This year, at least 53 people age 60 and over killed themselves in Broward County, according to a perusal of the medical examiner's logbook. An all-too-typical case was that of Joseph Mills, 72, who shot his 92-year-old wife, Lila, and then killed himself in their Oakland Park home. He left a note on the kitchen table addressed not to survivors but to his wife.

My dearest Lila, Four strokes, several cancer operations, 27 radiation treatments. We have suffered enough. Joe.

The note said it all. Life had become a hellish cycle of health problems, and it was time to go. Virtually everyone who has lived more than 60 years on this planet has weathered life crises and prevailed, at some point, over pain and depression. Who's really to judge whether that person finally had enough? Suicide experts talk of how treatment for depression would prevent elderly suicides. Perhaps counseling would help in some cases, but suicide under dire medical circumstances can be a logical solution, no matter what a well-meaning psychologist might say. Unspeakable pain, loss of independence, and the prospect of becoming a financial burden on one's family is horrific stuff. If I get to that point, I'd like a chance to die peacefully, rather than have to buy a damn gun.

And more people than ever are going to experience that nightmare in the coming decades. Right now, seniors make up 13 percent of the population but 20 percent of the suicides in the United States. In the year 2030, the number of senior citizens is projected to nearly double, to 70 million.

The final suicides of the year were those of Morris ("Moe") and Estelle Spivack. I called their nephew, Carl Schwartz, last week and told him that I was interested in the impact of suicide on survivors. I asked if he would mind talking about his experience. "You are the first reporter to call me and ask me that question," he said. "All these reporters are calling me and have asked really stupid questions. One of them asked me if they held hands when they jumped. I didn't talk with any of them, but I'll answer your questions."

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."

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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