Exit Strategy

Deena Nichols organized everything in her life. And when life spun out of control, she organized her death.

Deena Counts Nichols turned the air down to 60 degrees, slipped into a floor-length black-and-white striped dress and went into the kitchen. She plopped a scoop of coffee-flavored Haagen-Dazs into a red plastic party cup, mixed in 60 mashed-up phenobarbitol tablets, and blended Kahlua and vodka into her shake.

Her clothes were packed, her jewelry labeled, and there were boxes by the fridge for the leftover food.

On the counter she left Fed Ex packages for her children, her sister, her husband and her nephew.

Sometime after 10 p.m. she left her nephew a message telling him to come check on her.

On the right-hand bedside table she put a copy of Final Exit, her driver's license and notes to the police telling them that she wanted to die, she didn't want to be resuscitated, and outlining how she had killed herself. On the opposite table she left the pill bottle, the empty alcohol bottles and the liquor store receipt with her signature.

She drank her bulldog and went to bed.

Deena was a woman who always spoke her mind, commanded a room and had a way of making men squirm. She wore three-inch heels, smoked Virginia Slims and shopped at Saks.

Her brother Eric says she was a retail manager's worst nightmare. The velour seats on his new Trans Am got dirty during delivery, and by the time Deena got through with the sales manager he had taken the leather seats out of his own car and installed them in Eric's.

Deena grew up near Hobby Airport in a four-bedroom sandstone ranch house built by her daddy, a garage-door dealer. She had an older brother, Ronnie; a younger brother, Eric; and a baby sister, Delisa Kay, who was born on Deena Kay's 16th birthday. Deena spent a semester at the University of Houston, then married her high school sweetheart, Jack Cox.

They weren't married long before they got divorced. He joined the Air Force and she moved to California for a year, but then they got married again, because Deena loved him and she wasn't the type to give up someone she loved. They were divorced again in 1968, when their son, Jack Jr., was six months old.

The day before Thanksgiving, 1969, Deena met a young lawyer, John Nichols, who was working at Fulbright & Jaworski. The next August they got married in a $25 ceremony at the Gulf Coast Wedding Chapel. (Deena's mother wouldn't let John take her away for the weekend without marrying her first.) They didn't have rings because they'd both been married before with rings, and those marriages hadn't worked. Besides, the only jewelry Deena liked was dangly earrings.

Deena worked as John's office manager and designed and decorated every house and every office he had. Deena used to tell her sister, Delisa, that her marriage worked because she wasn't very needy; she didn't need to be with John every hour of every day.

"She was the head of the household," her friend Mike Fitzgerald remembers. (He'd known Deena since junior high.) "John was the breadwinner, but she was the strength. That was their contract."

The house always had cars in front and people bringing their problems to Deena. They called her Dr. Deena because she dispensed medical advice, too.

But then Deena hit problems she couldn't fix. Her own problems.

One night about ten years ago, Deena put her hand on John's shoulder. He felt a slight shake.

She was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, a progressive degeneration of the brain cells that control movement. It's not fatal, and it can be somewhat controlled with drugs. (The Pope, Muhammad Ali, Janet Reno and Michael J. Fox all have Parkinson's.) You might shake, your speech might slur, you might fall down or eventually be paralyzed. But you're still able to think -- a mixed blessing.

Deena began controlling the things she could control. She built a house for her mother next door to her sister. That way Delisa could care for her mother, and if Deena eventually became paralyzed, the plan was for Deena to live in the house and have Delisa care for her.

For five years Deena took the miracle drug levodopa that helps Parkinson's patients by boosting their dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps the brain control movement. She also took Paxil to combat the depression that goes along with the disease. Unfortunately, L-dopa often becomes less effective after five years. Deena told her friend Mike that the medicine had worked fine, and if she had it to do over again she would have started later; she had used up her five years too early.

Around the time the medicine wore down, her brother and her mom died. Deena stopped working at John's office, and she stopped taking her medicine. John says it's like she just gave up. She quit taking the L-dopa and the antidepressants. She said she wanted to see how sick she really was. She thought she was overmedicated and wanted to come out of the fog she felt she was in.

John didn't argue with her. You didn't argue with Deena, he says.
She spent most days sitting in the sunroom, not speaking. She would bake double batches of cream-cheese brownies and then eat the whole pan. She put on 60 pounds.

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