Invitation to a Suicide

Walt and Lowell, 1994
On September 14 at 11:00 a.m., Peggy held the hand of her friend, Walt, as he died of an overdose of drugs obtained through Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act. Of the six friends he asked to attend, two declined, but one of them told dirty jokes over the speakerphone until Walt’s partner, Laura, asked him to stop. 

I became familiar with death through my work as a phlebotomist, an ambulance driver, a funeral director, and a respiratory therapy technician; and Peggy through her work as a nurse, but being invited to a suicide was a new and surreal experience. As the hour of his death approached, I tried to imagine how I would feel if I were in Laura’s position of holding my partner in bed for the last time.

I wasn’t invited to attend Walt’s death because he ended our friendship in 2016 without telling me why. When Peggy learned of his terminal melanoma diagnosis in February, I emailed him my support, but he became furious that I was so callous as to contact him at so late an late hour. It wasn’t the first time he wrongly attributed unworthy motives to me.

Peggy and I met Walt within months of moving from rural Mississippi to Eugene, Oregon, in 1986. We were all athletic, atheistic, in our thirties, and members of a polyfidelity support group which met at his house. Despite his initial impression that I was morose and Peggy bitchy, we
soon became close friends. Peggy and I considered him warm, strong, playful, relaxed, and so filled with life that he seemed invincible. By vocation, he was a sports car mechanic, by avocation a pianist, mountain climber, and polymath who loved musicals (his favorite was My Fair Lady), had nine beehives in his backyard, and a well-used Oxford Unabridged Dictionary in his living room. I had never Walt also had ethical deficits that might hinder our friendship now that I refuse to ignore bigotry and hypocrisy as long as its not directed at me. For example, he considered Jews greedy, Southerners stupid (Peggy and me excepted), and spoke patronizingly of men who were short of stature. He was a tax-dodging anarchist—“taxes are slavery”—who in the last of his three careers drove a taxpayer owned school bus and drew a taxpayer funded pension. Because he loved the natural world primarily as a playground, he saw nothing wrong with pushing boulders off mountainsides, and he refused to recycle because he blamed environmental problems on parents, and he was childless. 

Walt and Peggy, 1994
The epitome of generosity, he denied that people are morally obligated to help others, and he considered personal happiness the goal to which all other goals are subservient, although he argued that its pursuit shouldn’t lead to victimization. However, he regarded few people as victims. For instance, he excluded people who were on the receiving end of sexism and racism or fell prey to non-violent crime. 

Three times a week for years, the three of us hiked to the top of 1,500-foot Mt. Pisgah, which early settlers named for the mountain from which Moses saw the Promised Land. We often had the mountain to ourselves, and when we reached the summit, I would sing, The hills are alive with the sound of music,” and Peggy would exult in “standing upon my Holy Mountain with the two men I love most.” Before starting down, we and various dogs would rest and hydrate on a basalt formation while watching the lengthening shadow of the mountain beneath us and the alpenglow on the High Cascades. In winter, we made the entire hike after dark, usually in drizzle.

There were no fees; no posted rules; the road into the park was gravel; cows roamed the mountainside, and the gates were open until 10:00 p.m. Now that the park closes at dusk, visitors can no longer stargaze while enjoying the lights of Eugene/Springfield. The road into the park has been widened and paved, and three parking lots accommodate the hundreds, sometimes thousands, of fee-paying visitors to Pisgah and the adjacent arboretum on pretty days. At the main trailhead, there are two large boards of posted rules and warnings, one of which advises visitors to fight back if attacked by a bear or mountain lion.

In summer, the three of us hiked and camped in the Cascades and occasionally visited his parents in Richland, Washington (a desert town infamous for its nuclear storage facility). In winter, we shared meals, watched musicals, snowshoed, cross-country skied, and made snowy hikes to volcanic hot springs. One year, we donned heavy packs and skied seven uphill miles to a fire tower where we spent two delightful nights. Walt was mellow enough to laugh after I had him backtrack a hundred off-road miles to look for a wallet that had been under the seat of his Land Rover the whole time. Then there was the time he backtracked 60-miles so I could buy a knickknack (see photo) that I hadn
’t bought earlier because I considered it unmanly.

Yet, there were years when he wouldn’t speak to me because he believed things about me that ranged from incomprehensible to absurd—such as the time he thought I was planning to kill himand of which he tried to convince others. One such estrangement ended when I called from a repair shop to ask if he would look at a clutch he had replaced a year earlier and that my new mechanic pronounced defective. Walt repaired the problem within minutes, and our friendship was renewed.

In 1988, Peggy and I married—cake and champagne included—a doctoral student named Paula. Within weeks, my mother had died in Mississippi, and the three of us had moved to Minneapolis so Paula could continue her schooling and Peggy could further her nursing training. When the marriage fell apart two years later, Paula moved into an apartment, and Peggy and I returned to Oregon. Two years after that, Walt proposed a three-way marriage. We turned him down because we were still recovering from our marriage to Paula, and because he was different from us in ways that made him a charming friend but an unlikely spouse. Some examples… After he brought his wok to our house and cooked our supper, I spent an hour cleaning grease from the floor, wall, cabinets, and ceiling… Whenever he showered at our house, he splashed so much water about that I had to clean the bathroom… When someone knocked a drink over while we were eating at his house, he wiped it up with his big orange tabby, Oscar (who had his own place at the table). Then there was his messy house, his overgrown yard, his unwashed Land Rover, and his disinterest in saving money or shopping for sales.

A fan of Winnie the Pooh, he compared me to gloomy Eeyore, Peggy to anxious Rabbit, and himself to boastful Tigger who said about every task, “That’s what Tiggers do best!” He said that if he were to awaken in a strange land with no money, no friends, and no knowledge of the language, he would feel more confident than I would in the same predicament but with a million dollars in the bank.

Peggy and Walt, 1995

When we told Walt why we couldn’t marry him, he promised to change. We didn’t believe he could change to please us anymore than we could change to please him. For example, I had thought that Walt’s house was messy and his yard overgrown because he was busy or  indifferent, so I decided to pleasantly surprise him by taking my lawnmower to his house while he was at work and mowing his foot-high grass (after removing the tin cans, brickbats, car parts, chunks of concrete, rotting boards, and plumbing fixtures). He was indeed surprised, but not in a pleasant way. I later decided to pleasantly surprise him by removing the moss from the window tracks of his Land Rover. When he again accused me of destroying something he loved, I vowed that I would never again attempt to please him by doing work that, in my value system, was screaming for attention. So it was that Peggy and I worried that his promise to change had been made out of desperation, which he later admitted. His apology made me feel closer to him, but I think he was shamed by it.

Marriage being out, Walt suggested that Peggy spend three nights a week at his house. We agreed but were surprised when he called the arrangement a marriage. I came to resent their nights together because I was excluded from her time at his house, and he stopped coming to our house. They also took up sports that furthered my sense of isolation. One was downhill skiing, which they so enjoyed that they gave up cross-country skiing, which I loved. Although they invited me to go, I hated the clunky boots, the long lift-lines, the noisy ski lodges, and the frequent car wrecks. Then they took-up mountain climbing, which I hated almost as much because climbs often start hours before dawn to mitigate the risk of being hit by rocks loosened by melting ice. Climbing also requires long hours of exhausting labor under a sun so intense that one feels like an ant beneath a child’s magnifying glass, all this in a steep, barren, comfortless terrain in which one struggles to breathe and only lichens grow. On the more popular mountains, climbers are required to carry bags to shit in, not that there
Walt and Lowell, 1996

s any private place to shit.

Despite feeling excluded, I was happy that Peggy could do things with Walt that she couldn’t do with me, although her exuberance made me wonder how someone who so thrived on excitement could also enjoy quiet camping trips to isolated places with a quiet man, two dogs, a dozen topo maps, and a library of books with which to study plants, rocks, scats, tracks, birds, mammals, reptiles, insects, history, and place names. I decided that she and Walt were primarily compatible in regard to shared interests, and she and I in regard to shared traits and values.

Walt did his best to make Peggy feel that his home was her home too, but she wearied of having two residences and feeling like the rope in a two-man tug-of-war. She also disrespected his tendency to procrastinate, which she discovered when he entered upon a masters degree program in counseling psychology. She too procrastinates, but while she gets caught-up at the last minute, Walt sometimes didn’t get caught-up at all.

After she stopped staying with him, they mostly saw one another during weekly pinochle games with another couple. Although he would sometimes come over to watch a movie, that too ended for various reasons. One was that he suddenly balked at our longstanding insistence that he remove his mountaineering boots before coming indoors. A second was that he began interrupting movies to tinker with the video settings. A third was that he objected to our use of subtitles, which we preferred to raising the volume to hear quiet conversations and then lowering it for loud music. Then came the night that he brought along a friend who spent the evening sulking. Because Walt had trashed me to others when he and I weren’t getting along, I knew he had done so with this man. The last straw came when we got Brewsky, our first cat, and Walt became so angry over our decision to keep him indoors that when Brewsky greeted him at the door, Walt would tell him in our presence how sorry he was that I imprisoned him (he blamed me alone for everything he objected to).

Lowell and Walt 2004
Our three-way friendship continued downhill when Walt went from being arrogant about his driving skills to claiming that he was incapable of having a wreck (a lover of Aston Martins, he had hired me to work with him when he was lead mechanic in a British sports car shop). Peggy and I had long been the only people he would slow down for, but he now stopped slowing for us too. On one trip, he ran into a boulder that had rolled onto the highway; on another, he totaled his car by sliding off an icy road.

Then Peggy told me of the risks he had exposed her to when they climbed together (she had since stopped going with him and started going with a climbing club). I immediately felt stupid for having trusted him to use his decades of mountaineering experience to keep her as safe as possible in a sport that is inherently dangerous. For example, glaciers tend to be riddled with crevasses, many of which have narrow openings that are hidden by snow bridges. Groups of climbers rope together so that if one person falls into a crevasse—or off the mountain—the others can throw themselves onto their stomachs and use their ice axes to arrest the fall. If they fail, the results can be catastrophic as happened when Peggy and her climbing club helped rescue a group of eight climbers who had tumbled down the mountain, their ropes knocking other climbers down with them. Yet with very little instruction, Walt tied himself to Peggy and led her across a Mt. Hood glacier. To make matters worse, he took the lead which not only made him more likely to fall, his hundred pounds of extra weight and equipment could have dragged her in too.

A years passed during which I didn’t see Walt. When I had my left knee replaced in 2017, he surprised me by spending the entire day at the hospital. I thought he wanted to renew our friendship, so when he didn’t visit me during my recovery at home, I emailed to ask why. He wouldn’t say. I again asked, this time throwing-out every possibility I could think of to encourage him to talk. He responded with a single word: “STOP!” Peggy also tried to get him to talk, but he refused, even after she said that his behavior was hurtful, disrespectful, and damaging to their relationship. The only reasons he ever gave were that I refused to take responsibility for my behavior, and that he interpreted my efforts to get him to talk as an attack.

By then, he and Peggy only communicated with texts, so we were surprised when he started phoning. When I first saw his number on the caller ID, I thought he had changed his mind about talking or that he had urgent news for Peggy, so I was surprised when he responded to my hello with a cheerful, “Hi, Lowell. Is Peggy available?” I soon came to dread hearing the phone ring, and I was also hurt when Peggy called him, “Mr. Man,” an endearment that I had thought she reserved for me. 
Lowell and Walt in 2015, our last photo

When I asked that he stop calling, they resumed texting. I missed Walt, wondered how he was, and worried that my relationship with Peggy would be harmed if she compartmentalized their relationship. When I asked about him, she allowed me to read his texts. We have login information for one another’s various accounts, so I could have read them on my own, but after inviolably respecting one another’s privacy throughout our decades-long marriage, I wasn’t going to stop

Peggy’s anger at him combined with her fear of hurting me made things difficult for her following his terminal melanoma diagnosis in February (he blamed the cancer on mountain climbing). All I asked of her was that she act in such a way that she wouldn’t feel guilty after he died. During his remaining months, they continued to text and, as his death drew near, she visited him in a rehab center and hospital. When his condition so worsened that he had a hospital bed in his living room, she twice visited him at home. He asked that she be with him when he ended his life, but her anger combined with her fear of hurting me continued to put her in a bad spot. I again asked that she do whatever it took to avoid feeling guilty when he died. 

On the morning of his death, Walt told his partner, Laura, that he had dreamed of me, but he couldn’t remember the details. Now, it is my turn to dream of him (twice last night) and to hear his cheery, “Hello, hello, hello!” as he crossed our threshold during happy times. I pass him on familiar streets; I watch him load his van for winter outings; I think of him when I pass a house where he lived; I hear his Tigger laugh when Peggy says, “Hoo, hoo, hoo hoo!” and I see him on the scores of benches that dot Peggy’s Holy Mountain. Two days before he died, I wrote:

“I wish you solace, comfort, and the same courageous passage into death that you and I were privileged to witness in July 1994, when my father died. As does his son, and as does his daughter-in-law, he loved you. My dominant feeling toward you was—and is—one of respect, loyalty, and gratitude. I have loved you very much for a very long time, and I am sad to tell you goodbye.”

Peggy stayed with Laura the night after his death, and Laura said he appreciated my letter. In my sorrow, I hold to the following words from a bench on Mt. Pisgah:

Keep a green tree in your heart, and perhaps...