“Bruno. What do you feel about people who commit suicide?” Surprised that the instructor has selected me, I tense up.
“Sir,” I reply, “I’ve never addressed it. Even wondered about it, frankly.”
He steps down from his platform, and walks towards me along the row. My classmates,
whom he’s passed, crane their necks to stay with him. He stops right in front of me and
sits atop my neighbor’s desk, maybe five feet away. During his walk, my throat tightens up
and my mouth goes dry. Is this a confrontation? Am I going to get humiliated?
He crosses his arms across his chest; the Sergeant’s badge appears to be perched on the
crook of his arm. “Never thought about it? Hmm. How many men in this room have
thought of their feelings about suicide?” Not a hand is raised. I’m on my own. After seeing
the lack of response. “That’s odd. Grown men who are going to protect the citizens of
Los Angeles … ” He focuses back to me. “Tell me Bruno, have you ever thought about
theft? Robbery? Rape? Murder?”
I nod emphatically. “Of course I have, sir.”
“And you have opinions about them?” He almost whispers. Stares me down waiting for
my lips to answer. Like he’s going to absorb every word, or pounce.
“Yes sir, I do,” I say a little too loudly. I quickly glance around and all eyes are on me.
The Class of February 1960, second day in the Police Academy and I’m walking a plank.
“I know you’re an intelligent guy or you wouldn’t be sitting here. You agree?”
I nod a not too confident affirmation.
“Have you ever known a person who committed suicide?”
I shake my head no.
“What 1 want, is for you to consider the question: what do I feel about suicide?” He turns to the class. “I want you all to think about it. Take a few minutes.” He goes back to his podium. “Let’s take a break, ten minutes.”
The room empties as the cadets scatter out. I go off by myself and sit alone. The pressure
on me is severe. I’m just about the first guy in the class under the gun. I could tell my
classmates were relieved they weren’t chosen. The instructor, Sgt. Grant, is an
imposing and intimidating man. He’s a fifteen-year veteran and fits into his uniform as
good as the day he graduated. He’s also the Phys-Ed instructor and runs us every day until
five cadets drop and retch on the ground. The guy’s relentless with our conditioning.
There are three phases to make it through successfully: I-Classroom, Law and Tactics, 2-
Physical Acuity, 3-Firearms and Marksmanship. All three are equally evaluated.
What’s not mentioned though, is toughness. Cadres extend us, physically and mentally, as
far as they can. The rationale being, if we can’t take it here, we won’t be able to take it on
Contemplating my assignment, I fall back on my paradigms, and morality. That is, suicide
is not acceptable, and it also is a grave sin. I decide that honesty is where it’s at. I can’t,
nor do not want to, project what I think that he may want to hear. There’s no absolute.
But my stomach is doing somersaults. I don’t want to be dumb about it and get a ‘Bozo’
reputation. Back in the classroom, everyone is settled in and quiet.
“Okay Bruno. Is suicide a crime?”
Geez, I think, good question. I have no fucking idea. “I don’t know, sir. We haven’t
covered it yet in the Penal Code.”
“Anyone know the answer?” A hand goes up. ”Sir, suicide is not a crime in the state of California.”
“Correct. What is a crime, pertaining to suicide?”
Same cadet. “Aiding and abetting. It’s a misdemeanor, sir.”
“Thanks Clark. Almost right. Anybody else want to complete the answer?” Nothing.
“There’s one more element to suicide. It is ‘encouraging.’ It also fits with the other two. If someone stands on the ledge of a tall building threatening to jump, and a spectator yells up to him, ‘Jump, you chicken. I dare you.’ Or some other similar thing, he’s committed a misdemeanor and can be arrested on the spot. Got it?” Pause. “That’s it. No other statutes on the subject. It is no crime to commit or attempt suicide, as long as no other person is injured during a failed act.” Staying on his lectern, he turns to me. “So Bruno, what have you got for us? What are your feelings about suicide?”
“Well sir. I’ve done a lot of soul searching about it, and my feelings are not locked in
concrete, if you know what I mean.” My brain slaps itself for being such a wuss. Why did I say that? It shows weakness. I can’t be weak here, in front of my fellow cadets. Stupid idiot, I think. “Haven’t experienced suicide in a personal way. Although one time when I lived in New York, somebody jumped in front of a subway train. It was so grizzly, I didn’t think about it intellectually. I believe that suicide is wrong. I believe it’s the act of a coward who can’t face trying to get his life right.”
He wait’s a moment, then looks at me with that piercing intensity. “What if he’s tried
everything to get through life but just can’t make the effort anymore? Enough is enough.”
“Sir, in my experience, I feel that no one has the right to end his own life.”
“I see. Even the Legislature has not prohibited the act.” He raises his voice for the first time, “It is NOT even a crime. But you condemn it.”
“Well sir. Not trying to be a wise ass or anything. Making suicide a crime is like … is like, trying to un-ring a bell. What would the penalty be? Sir.”
Fast-forward six months. I’m in a radio car with my partner, working in Wilshire Division. The radio chirps, “7A9, 7A9. Ambulance 00, 950-Hoover. Code 2.” In layman speak it means: An ambulance is enroute to the location. The nature of the call is an overdose. Hurry up, but no siren. My partner, Bunda, is a burned out 25-year veteran one month away from retirement. He’s my current Training Officer. We exit the car behind the ambulance that has already arrived.
Inside the apartment, the two attendants are filling out a form accompanied by a sobbing young woman of maybe 25 or so. One of the attendants takes us away from the kitchen into the bedroom where there is a man, obviously dead, lying peacefully on his back, under the bedcovers. The attendant whispers, “It’s pretty straightforward. Guy’s a Viet Nam vet. Been back in the US nine months. Quadriplegic, according-to the Mrs. there,” making a perfunctory nod toward the crying woman. “Severed spine from shrapnel. He left a typed note, there on the side table by the bed. An IV is still attached to his arm. But an oxygen tube is inches from his face. Mrs. says it helps his breathing. Cause of death? We have no idea.
“All his extremities are paralyzed. If he did himself in, we don’t know how? How the hell he can do it with no arms? For that matter, how can he leave a note?” He looks at us waiting for an answer. He gets two shrugs. “Anyways, that’s not our job. Pronounced him 10 minutes ago. The wife says she found him about 32 minutes ago.” He points to the form. “All the times are documented here.” He tears off the top copy and hands it to me. “Come to think of it,” he continues. “You may have a who-done-it here. So long.” The
I call the detectives, which is customary on all deaths. Fill them in on the scene and the
questions that were raised. The guy on the phone, Detective Hudson says, “Stay put ‘till
we get there. Of course, don’t touch anything.” The mantra of Homicide detectives.
My partner tells me to make out a Death Report, which I had done on 2 or 3 previous
suicides. But this may be a homicide. I get the name off the receipt from the Para-
medics: Mr. Timothy Evans. I read the suicide note. The basic motive specified is that he
couldn’t bear be a totally useless burden to his wife, whom he loved dearly, but couldn’t
have her be his caretaker for life. He had no dignity. While my partner, Bunda, remains with the corpse, I return to the living room and sit by the widow.
“Mrs. Evans, I need to ask you some questions for the report. Can you help me out now?”
She nods, trying to control her tears, “Ask away.”
“Could you tell me in your own words, how you found Timothy and when?”
“I already told the ambulance guys.” She looks pathetic and weak, maybe in shock. She
begins wailing, back and forth in the chair. Between sobs repeating, “Oh my God, oh my
God, oh my God. Poor Timmy, poor Timmy.”
Framed wedding photo is on her lap, a beautiful couple. What I got was that they married when they both graduated High School together, being sweethearts through school. He was seriously wounded in Viet Nam. A severed spinal cord, rendered him totally paralyzed. He required constant care, even assists with his basic bathroom functions. They’d been married 7 years total. Four years prior to his induction into the US Army. Thirteen months in Nam, and he was wounded. Discharged a year later. He returned home a helpless shell of his prior self. She did all that was required of her. A dutiful and devoted wife who took care of his every need, and also held down a job. He had a pervasive seething anger due to his injury. Felt helpless, ashamed, and worthless. A burden to his young wife.
“How do you figure he wrote the note?” I inevitably ask.
“I have no idea. We don’t even own a typewriter. Someone must have helped him.”
“Any idea who?”
“It could be one of a hundred people. Everybody felt sorry for him. Hours and hours have
been spent going over options. He had therapists, physical and mental. Friends. Family.
He’s been asking everybody for the year he’s been home to help him die. “A wave of crying begins again. Moments later, calming down, she looks at me with pleading eyes, “He’s begged even me to help him die,” wails and shuddering sobs flow again. ”Can you believe it? Me.” Shaking her head, in disbelief, or perhaps, not wanting to recognize that her husband, Timothy, Evans is dead.
Two homicide detectives arrive, one of them being Hudson who took my call earlier. His
partner stays with the Mrs. while we go into the bedroom and meet my partner, Bunda. As
Hudson starts checking the scene, he tells me to brief him. I tell him what I know while he
reads the notes, checks under the bedcovers, looks at the various Rx bottles, and med
equipment. By the time I’m finished reporting what I know, he appears to be done.
“Look, he says,” standing at the side of the bed. It looks like an assisted suicide. I don’t
see a full out homicide here, do you?”
Bunda says, “What you’re saying is … so far it’s not a homicide?”
“Un-huh, sort of.” He nods. “It’s a suicide with some help, making it a potential homicide. I’d say, on the face of it, with no intensive investigation yet. You know, after interrogating all the possible principals, that’s what it’s going to be. We’ll see.” He takes the Death Report from me, Reads it. ”Nice report. Thanks guys. We’ll take it from here.”
I’ve got a lump in my throat the size of Pomona. As I pass the living room I stop and
look at the widow. She looks beaten and drained of all her blood. I lean over and take her
hand. ”Mrs. Evans, I’m so very sorry. But you know what, Timothy got what he wanted.
To be free of this life. Nothing can demean or hurt him anymore. If you think that you’d
like to talk to me again, please call.” I slip my business card in her hand. She raises her
eyes to me with a tired thank you attached.
Outside, Bunda says to me, “Bruno what was that all about? We don’t do things like that. It’s not really in the manual.”
“Maybe we should start, partner.”
My “feelings” about suicide changed that night. If I were Timothy Evans, I would do the same thing. It’s simply merciful. Paradigms change. I have discovered, upon reflecting on my life, that every single paradigm I’ve ever had, has been altered. As dogmatic as I’d been about principles, morals, love, and child rearing, they have been altered in some way to adapt to some unique circumstance. They get fine-tuned, waxed, and polished, as life evolves.
The mystery of Timothy’s cause of death was solved. The coroner found the cause of
death to be asphyxiation (lack of oxygen). What was determined is that he spit out the
oxygen assist tube, and over a short period of died because of it. As to the suicide note, his father typed it for him and placed it by his bed to be found. On a visit earlier in the morning, he said goodbye to his son, and merely left him alone. The case was presented to the Grand Jury, who certified the cause of death to be ”Suicide”.
by Peter Bruno
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