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The Death of John Shick (March, 2012)

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These remarks combine contributions from both Susan and Larry.

 

In this post we will try to recall the chaotic experiences by which we learned of the death of our beloved son, John Shick, and their aftermath. We will not try to give any insight into the events at Western Psychiatric Institute, about which we know only what we have found on the Internet, nor about John’s illness, about which we have no medical or psychiatric knowledge beyond our experience as his parents. To assist those not familiar with John’s illness, his doctors since 2005 have told us that he suffered  from schizophrenia. These matters have been covered in the press, coverage to which we chose not to contribute. Those who are unfamiliar with the background can consult their favorite search engines for details.

 

George Town, Bahamas

 

We arrived in George Town, Great Exuma Island, on February 21, 2012, and found a spot to anchor in the large harbor crowded with hundreds of cruising boats. The harbor at George Town is a body of water roughly one mile wide and four miles long between the “mainland” of Great Exuma Island and several offlying barrier islands, with its long axis running northwest-southeast. Because of the distribution of depths and the prevailing wind direction, most boats anchor along its northern edge. The harbor’s orientation means that strong winds from the east or southeast blow down the length of the harbor and have the potential to create very uncomfortable conditions for boats anchored in the main harbor.

 

As it developed, a few days after we arrived, a forecast of strong winds from the east did appear. In order to find better protection, and to escape the hubbub of George Town during “Regatta season,” we opted to raise the anchor and head to Redshanks anchorage, a little nook behind some small islands beyond the southeast end of George Town harbor. There are several reefs that lie within the harbor on either side of the path we wished to take, and being cautious, we wanted to have the sun over our shoulder for good coral-navigation visibility during our first pass through the area. Since we would be eastbound within the harbor at that point, that meant that we needed to make that trip in the afternoon. Further on, there are some reefs and spots with relatively shallow water on the immediate entry to Redshanks, which we wanted to take with good light and at mid-tide with a rising tide. As the tides were disposed at that time, to get the conditions we wanted, that portion of the trip had to be done in the morning. The combination of the two requirements meant that we passed the main reefs on the afternoon of February 24th, anchored that night at Elizabeth Island, and moved to Redshanks on the morning of February 25th, where we found a snug spot with plenty of elbow room to wait out the coming blow. We liked the spot so much that, after the blow, we continued to hang out there.

 

Rude Awakening

 

We have mentioned in other posts the role of the SSB radio in the cruiser’s life. One can stay up to date with the weather, follow one’s friends and their progress, become aware of hazards and opportunities, and so on. An occasional feature of most nets, though relatively infrequent, is the “boat watch,” by which cruisers are requested to keep an eye out for boats that are reported overdue or for whom urgent messages from “back home” are waiting. When we are on the move, we generally check in to a regional net every morning. When we put the hook down, we become more lax, and check in maybe only once or twice a week.

 

On March 10th, we had finished our first morning cuppa’s (coffee for Larry, tea for Susan) and decided to call in to the Cruiseheimer’s Net. To our astonishment, we found out that we were the objects of a “boat watch.” The boat Jupiter’s Smile, whose crew we had previously met in person and liked, had been listening to another net (the Waterway Net) and heard there that the US Coast Guard had posted a “boat watch” for us through their unofficial relationship with the Waterway Net. When we signed in to Cruiseheimer’s Net, Jupiter’s Smile heard us, recognized our name, and passed the information along. After some dignified incredulity, we took the contact phone number and signed off.

 

We dragged out our Iridium satellite phone and called the number. The USCG watch officer recognized our boat name and gave us another phone number and contact name in Pittsburgh, where John had been living. It didn’t take much clairvoyance to guess that the person we were about to call would not be holding good news. To the extent that we thought about it, perhaps we speculated that John had gotten into some minor legal trouble.

 

Larry was sitting on the starboard settee, and Susan was sitting on the port settee, our usual spots while relaxing in the cabin. Larry had the phone, with Susan listening to his side of the conversation from across the cabin. When Larry called the new number, he reached an investigator at the Medical Examiner’s Office in Pittsburgh. We didn’t wake up to what a “Medical Examiner” does before the investigator informed us that John had been killed two days earlier, shot to death by police in the midst of an armed rampage. In his shock, all Larry did to signal to Susan was to draw a finger across his throat. The investigator was very apologetic at having to deliver the information in such a bald manner, but it wasn’t as though they were able to fly someone down to the Bahamas to deliver the news. And Larry didn’t deliver the news to Susan in the most sensitive manner, either. The shock was all the greater because John had never shown to us any inclination to violence against himself or others.

 

As best we can piece things together, in the aftermath of the shootings, one of the doctors at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (of which Western Psychiatric is a part) who had treated John for various illnesses, recognized John, knew that his parents (we) were sailors, and suggested to the police that the USCG might be able to locate us, which is as it happened.

 

Over the next several days and weeks we had multiple telephone conversations with the police and the Medical Examiner’s office. Our location insulated us from most of the predations of the press—phone messages piled up in our Stateside cell phones, and we deleted the messages wholesale whenever we got access. We take this opportunity to apologize to those who offered condolences during this period by telephone and email and through our website—we weren’t ready to work with the outside world at that point. We also send our regrets to our relatives, and relatives of relatives, who got caught up in the media frenzy. After we told the police what we knew of John’s medical and psychiatric history, they lost interest in us. The Medical Examiner was prepared to keep John’s body in refrigeration for a reasonable length of time (weeks) while we worked out our options. John’s apartment in Pittsburgh had been secured by the police as they searched for evidence. The effect of all of this was that there was no reason to hurry back to the States to take care of matters—certainly John wasn’t going anywhere, and until the police released his apartment, we couldn’t close down matters there. So we decided to continue with our planned trip and work our way back to the States as we could.

 

As it turned out, the police in Pittsburgh kept John’s apartment for about a month. We were able to make arrangements by telephone to have John’s body cremated and the ashes held for safekeeping, so that we could pick them up when we returned. In the time before the police released John’s apartment, we worked our way back north and returned to the US, entering at Port Canaveral in mid-April. Once we got the news that John’s apartment had been released, Susan flew up to Pittsburgh while Larry stayed behind to work on neverending boat maintenance. Susan found the Salvation Army to be of great assistance with their willingness to come and cart off John’s furnishings, clothing, and such, minus a couple of mementos. After cleaning up the apartment, she turned it back to the landlord. She met with an attorney for the victims, to help him and them as best she could, and then flew back to Orlando/Port Canaveral. We had John’s ashes shipped to us in Port Canaveral.

 

Memorial Service

 

On May 5th, with Moira anchored off of beautiful Cumberland Island, Georgia, we had a brief memorial service for John.

 

Susan read two Psalms. (Text from the Revised Standard Version via Project Gutenberg)

 

Psalm 23

[0] A Psalm of David.
[1] The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want;
[2] he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters;
[3] he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
[4] Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.

[5] Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies; thou anointest my head with oil, my cup overflows.
[6] Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

 

And

 

Psalm 96

[1] O sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth!
[2] Sing to the LORD, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day.
[3] Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples!
[4] For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods.
[5] For all the gods of the peoples are idols; but the LORD made the heavens.
[6] Honor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
[7] Ascribe to the LORD, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength!
[8] Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts!
[9] Worship the LORD in holy array; tremble before him, all the earth!
[10] Say among the nations, "The LORD reigns! Yea, the world is established, it shall never be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity."
[11] Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
[12] let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy
[13] before the LORD, for he comes, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.

 

Larry began by remembering John Crossett, a favorite professor of ours from our days at Grinnell College, for whom our son was named. Dr. Crossett said during a discussion of one of the Greek tragedies, that tragedies are written and suffering happens when we forget that platitudes are true. Platitudes of course are sayings that everyone agrees are true, but considers trite and unimportant.

 

In this case, the platitude seems to be "Life is uncertain." The only certainty in the relationship between parent and child is that they will be separated by death.

 

We expect that a hoped-for future will be ours if we have done the right things, because we like to think of ourselves as skillful and effective, but we forget that life is uncertain. We become attached to the fantasy of our hope, mistaking it for something real, rather than just a thought. When we suddenly realize that the present and future as we had envisioned them are fantasies and will not be ours, there is extra and unnecessary suffering from the painful shock of awakening from the fantasy, from thinking that we have lost something that in fact we never had.

 

We hoped and expected that John would grow up happy, healthy, smart, and successful. We had become attached to that expectation, forgot that life is uncertain, and when things did not work out as we hoped and expected, our mental habits piled extra suffering on top of the natural pain of seeing a man not live up to his potential.

 

We hoped and expected that John would outlive and bury his aged parents. We had become attached to that expectation, forgot that life is uncertain, and when things did not work out as we hoped and expected, our mental habits piled extra suffering on top of the natural pain of separation by death.

 

John died in a horrible way. In our view he chose an elaborate way of committing suicide. We think that he suffered from exhaustion, struggling for a small bit of a normal life but not being able to capture it. It does not take away from the horror of his means of death, nor the horror he inflicted on others, to observe that he got to choose the way he died, and that he died quickly, which are gifts given to few.

 

Our relationship with John over the last years was difficult at best, as he became increasingly surly, withdrawn, and verbally abusive, though never physically threatening. Larry asked Susan to sit with her eyes closed and to think back to a specific situation in the past when she was sure that John loved her, and to imagine him standing in front of her as she inhaled that love from him and exhaled it into her body…. And now he is gone…. But the love from him she has breathed in remains, and Larry told her to turn toward her older sister in her mind and imagine inhaling the love from within herself and exhaling it toward her sister, with the wish that her sister be happy, healthy, secure, and at peace, and that as inevitable challenges arise within her sister’s life, that her sister meet the challenges with wisdom and compassion…. And then again toward her younger sister…. And then again toward Larry…. And then again toward others whom she thought could benefit from the goodwill…. And then again toward herself, that she imagine inhaling the love from within herself and exhaling it toward herself, with the wish that she be happy, healthy, secure, and at peace, and that as inevitable challenges arise within her life, that she meet the challenges with wisdom and compassion.

 

We scattered John’s ashes in Cumberland Sound. May he find in death the peace he did not find in life.

 

Update:  June 8, 2012

 

Based upon the feedback we’ve been getting, it is clear that we should have addressed several facts that we chose, for brevity, to exclude from the original post.

 

With John, we had a family partnership and were actively involved in each others’ lives. We saw and visited with each other every few months, either where he was living, or where we were on our boat (which is our home). We usually spent five to six weeks with John every summer. We corresponded by phone or email several times a week.

 

Whenever John moved to a new city, we visited him, helped him move in, and worked to get him integrated into whatever psychiatric/mental health infrastructure existed there. New York City, Portland, Oregon, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania all had services, though the quality varied. In Pittsburgh, we arranged an appointment for John with Western Psychiatric, and persuaded him to go. As we worked with the doctors at Western Psychiatric, we developed the hope that this time, a lasting improvement would be achieved. But John was deeply distrustful of the psychiatric process. John kept his first appointment with Western Psychiatric, but not the subsequent appointments, and there was no way, legal or otherwise, to compel him to go.

 

Some have said that we should have had him committed. Over the trajectory of his illness, John was committed several times. During those events we worked with John and his doctors, trying to achieve a lasting and effective treatment. None of the doctors we worked with felt that long-term commitment was necessary or desirable, and felt that, with appropriate treatment, he could achieve a near-normal life. During the course of his illness, which started in roughly 2004, there was no evidence that we ever saw that he was a threat to himself or others. Having someone involuntarily committed generally requires a court hearing. Different states have different standards (New York had the lowest, i.e., easiest, standard), but in general, those seeking the action must show evidence that the individual is “a threat to himself or others,” which is a difficult standard to meet. We were not able to provide any evidence to meet the standard that Pennsylvania demands, nor, it appears, were the doctors at UPMC who treated John able to supply it.

 

Some with schizophrenia are able to move forward, but John was not one of them. He was reasonably functional when taking the prescribed medications, but he seldom stayed with any psychiatrist for long. He would stop taking his medications after a few months, and there was no way to compel him to go to his appointments or to take the medications.

 

Schizophrenia kills its victims daily, little by little. We watched John deteriorate, though there were enough good days to give us hope. He did try so hard. He wanted a job so that he could have some independence, but jobs came and went quickly. This disease affects the personality, the ability to concentrate and focus, to take supervision and directions. It also causes great alienation. We were able to give him the support to live independently, which is what he wanted. But even when we were with him, we could do little to assuage his alienation, or the distress that his life would not be what he had worked so hard to have. At the end he was simply exhausted by the struggle to achieve, yet ultimately knowing that he would not be successful. So to some extent we worried that there would not be a good ending. The horror of the actual ending went beyond anything we ever imagined.

 

We find that we grieve and heal best in silence and solitude, and that time and reflection are the only effective medicines. But different people grieve and heal in different ways. Some look for embrace and connection. Our hearts go out to the victims and their families. We acknowledge that nothing can make them whole, and wish that they find whatever healing may be possible.

 

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