Exit Strategy

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.

As the Parkinson's progressed Deena's face got drawn, and it didn't look like she smiled much. She spoke in a slower, softer monotone. She walked up on her tiptoes, falling forward because she wasn't able to stop herself if she leaned back. She wore cork-soled sandals to keep her stable.

Her flamboyant handwriting grew small. She kept driving even though it was hard to walk across the room. Deena talked about her "catlike grace" before the Parkinson's, Mike remembers. She missed it.

Her kids were gone, and John worked 16-hour days, came home late, brought work home and went to bed by ten. Deena stayed in the other room reading or watching television till 1 a.m.

John says he told her he wouldn't leave her. They didn't talk much, except about work, and she wasn't at the office anymore. Their marriage was a business deal, John remembers Deena saying. He made the money; she managed it.

In the spring of 1997 John met a woman we'll call Kim. She's a lawyer. John liked her and said he had some space for lease in his office. She took him up on the deal. They started talking at the office for hours.

"I went for years without any conversation," John says. "When you're by yourself, you can be lonely. But when you're in the same house with somebody and you're lonely, you're really lonely."

They talked and talked. Kim and her daughter took him to church for first time in 30 years. He felt good.

John won't talk about this next part of the story, but the way Deena told her brother Eric, it went like this:

John was driving along, talking to Deena on his cell phone. He went through a staticky patch and thought the phone had hung up and didn't bother to push END. But the speaker phone was still on, and the connection hadn't been broken. For about 30 minutes, Deena stayed on the phone and listened to John talk to Kim, who was sitting in his passenger seat. That's when she learned her husband wasn't hers.

It was July 1997. Deena asked him to leave, John says. He moved into the Four Seasons Hotel; she stayed in the house beside her sister's. He said he'd still take care of her, Eric says.

But Deena wanted more than a verbal assurance. "She put the hammer down," Eric says. "She told him, 'Put it in writing or we're going to go to divorce court, and all your lawyer buddies are gonna look in your underwear drawer.' "

On August 14, 1997, they drew up a marriage contract. He promised to pay her bills plus $5,000 a month.

Deena wanted to get out of the house, which didn't have good memories for her, and get away. She gave away most of her stuff and packed everything up in her car. Her brother Eric thought she was crazy. Leaving wouldn't solve anything, he said. Plus he didn't want her alone on the road if anything happened. But Deena knew she wasn't going to live much longer, Eric says, and she thought it would be good for her nieces and nephews to get used to her not being around.

She went to Colorado and visited her son Travis, who had left for boarding school when he was 14 ; they averaged ten hours a week on the phone. Then she spent four months with her eldest son, Jack, in California.

She talked to John once or twice a day.
Deena had her sister ship her the Westie she and John had bought together before Kim came into his life. She told John it ran away. Really, she had given it to a little girl down the street.

Two to three times a week she talked to her friend Mike about how she was going to "crisis manage" John's mistress. Getting John back became her job, her focus, her project. But desperation isn't attractive. The more you want someone, the more you cling to them, the less likely they are to love you.

Every day Jack came home from work and Deena started crying. He held her at least three hours a night while she sobbed. "In my frustration I would have my little sick fantasies of just defending my mother's honor and jumping on a plane and coming to Houston and kicking his ass," Jack says.  

Deena told him not to be mad at John. It wasn't John's fault she got sick, Deena said. He didn't do that to her.

But he did leave.
John flew out to California in February 1998, told Deena she was his soul and asked her to move back.

But he wanted to keep his girlfriend, Jack remembers. John doesn't deny it.

After she found out about Kim, Deena started talking more about suicide. She'd always said it was an option for when she got too sick. All of her family and all of her friends knew that someday she was probably going to kill herself.

"She talked about it like she'd talk about buying groceries," says her nephew Tirey Counts.

Deena didn't want to be trapped in a body that didn't work. In Houston, John made her appointments with Parkinson's specialists, but she didn't want to go. While she was in L.A., Jack wanted her to have the brain operation that sometimes helps Parkinson's patients, but she was afraid the surgeons might mess up and leave her worse than she was. Jack wanted her to see the guy at UCLA-Irvine who has dedicated his life to Parkinson's. He wanted her to try everything because he wanted her to live.

Her son Travis said he wished she wouldn't kill herself, but he told her he'd understand if she did. He didn't try to talk her out of it.

"We would talk about reasons to live, not the reasons to die," Mike says. "And over time she would talk less and less about that. She'd already made up her mind."

It took 45 minutes for her to get the key in her front door. She couldn't get up off the toilet one day; she had to fall to the floor first.

She could have installed hand rails and grab bars. She could have gone to physical and occupational therapy. She could have increased her medication or tried new medication and learned to cope, but she didn't want to. She didn't see a reason to. She just gave up hope, Mike says.

"She didn't want to play anymore," says her nephew Tirey. "She packed up her marbles and went home."

Deena moved into John's apartment for a few weeks. Then moved out. Then back a few more times. They kept trying. It kept not working. She joined the Hemlock Society.

She and John went to a marriage counselor, and they talked on the phone almost every day; they talked about his girlfriend. Deena didn't think she was good for him.

Deena's friend Mike remembers nights when Deena would pick John up and drive him to Kim's house. Or go to Kim's house and take him home because she didn't want him to drink and drive.

That didn't seem healthy to Mike. Neither did nights when Deena called John seven times, then went to his apartment and erased the messages before he got home from Kim's. She didn't want to seem desperate.

In August John attended an annual family-law convention in San Antonio. According to a tape Deena made before she died, John promised to take her, then said he was going alone, then took Kim.

That's when Deena knew it was over, she said in the tape. She wrote a poem to Death titled Do Not Betray Me Too.

"I tried," John says. "I tell you, I tried. God knows I tried."
He says Kim's not to blame for Deena's death. (Kim didn't return phone calls to give her side of the story.) He says their problems stretched back years before he met Kim and that Kim was all behind his taking care of Deena and repairing his marriage.

"Sometimes I could be there for an hour, sometimes I could be there for several hours, sometimes I could be there for a day, and each time it got down to the point where -- maybe it was her anger at her disease or her anger at me or whatever -- but it always got down to her telling me to leave," John says. "She'd end up just yelling at me and yelling at me and I'd leave, and a few days later I'd go back over again."

He kept going back because he loved her -- and he felt he was all she had.
Deena made one last tape to John that he hasn't heard. He was behind in his monthly payments, and Deena left instructions for Tirey and Delisa not to hand it over until he paid up. She prorated the month of her death.  

Offered a transcript of the tape, John said he didn't want it. It oscillates from look-this-is-what-you-have-to-do-if-you-want-to-make-it-work-between-us to don't-call-me-anymore-it's-over. She says that a reconciliation won't work if he still goes to the office with Kim and then avoids coming home to her. She says she wants Kim out of his heart and out of his life -- but she realizes that Kim's still around because he's keeping her there. He loved Kim, and Deena wanted him to want only her.

But if he couldn't feel that way, it was okay, she said. She wanted him to know that she wouldn't stop loving him. Ever.

"I want your life to be great, and I wish it would be great with me, but I don't want to be the one to make it not great. And that's your choice. So you're free now to do with your life whatever you want to do. And know that -- whatever happens -- that you were loved by me. You were genuinely, unconditionally loved by me. And I've got to say good-bye now with no hooks. So that you feel free. I love you."

The tape stops there.
Her death was just another perfectly planned project. She enlisted her nephew Tirey to run errands and set up her finale.

She wrote her own obituary and prepaid her cremation at Claire Brothers Funeral Home. She forged John's signature on the release to cremate her body and forged his mistress's name as the notary. She also forged John's and Kim's names (as witnesses) on the releases for the autopsy. She may have been setting John and Kim free, but her message was clear: Metaphorically, they'd signed off on her suicide.

The photograph that ran with Deena's obituary was taken in Vegas. John's hand was on her shoulder. She had blacked it out with a marker.

She listened to Etta James's "You Didn't Treat Me Right" and wrote four last letters to John.

"When I dream, I don't have Parkinson's disease, and I'm still just as sad, just as hurt, just as abandoned, just as betrayed, just as degraded by your treatment of me and just as suicidal," she wrote. "When I dream I am still in love with you, still want you, still long for you in my eyes, ears, mouth, arms, legs and body -- but that's only in dreams where Kim is gone and you are in love with me again. I cry waking from both kinds of dreams as I wake up to what happened to our lives."

Another says, "Remember that I'm gone because I loved you enough to let you go... Have a great life and remember me well."The last note says that before he left he said he wanted her ashes buried with him. "I would be honored if you still want me with you," she wrote.

"I love you enough to let you go.... I would run away from the Parkinson's, too, if I could. Now I did."

She copied the letters and poems she wrote John and left them in the Fed Ex package for her nephew.

She wrote notes to the police asking them not to resuscitate her, telling them that she absolutely refused liquids and that she did this all herself.

She talked to her nephew Tirey about what a great book and movie her story would be. She told Tirey she wanted Marilu Henner from Taxi to play her, Warren Beatty to play John, and Matthew Broderick to play Tirey.

She told Tirey that the day after she died she wanted a dozen buzzard-shaped cookies delivered to Kim like a bouquet, with a little note saying, "You win." She gave Tirey the money in advance.

Deena made Tirey promise that if he found her and she wasn't dead yet he was to leave and wait for her to die before calling the police. (Otherwise she was going to sit in a cold bath and slash her wrists. Tirey didn't want her to spend her last hours like that. Plus it would have been really messy for him to find.)

Was she dead when you got there?
"That's a good question," Tirey says. "I have no comment."
The coroner's report doesn't estimate how long the body had been dead; it only reports what time the body was found.

Were you there?
"No comment," he says.
"She designed her own death in a way that would not implicate me," Tirey says. "She did it in a way that I wasn't around."  

So you weren't there?
"No comment," Tirey says. "She felt that it was a shame she died alone."

This, Tirey says, is what happened. He and Deena had dinner on Friday night, September 17. Then Saturday night he went to the Miss Camp America pageant.

Tirey says he clicked on his cell phone at 11:08 a.m. Sunday. He turns it off every night after 10 p.m. Deena always did that, too. "If someone's dead, they'll still be dead in the morning -- that's what Deena used to say," Tirey remembers.

Come check on me, Deena's message said.
She also said to put on some nice clothes. She wanted him wearing something respectable when the police arrived.

She gave him the security code to her apartment at La Tour Fontaine. He already had a spare key.

Wearing a starched blue button-down and khakis, he walked in around 11:30 and saw Deena lying on her right side facing the wall. Her arm was stiff and yellow. He checked for a pulse. There wasn't one.

But there was a long list of instructions on the kitchen counter. The note said to read all the instructions, then read them again before doing anything.

Tirey did what Deena wanted. He called her sister, Delisa, before calling the cops. Deena felt it would be better to have two family members present, Tirey says. But Delisa was at church, so he didn't catch her until 1 p.m. While he waited, he ate one of the brownies Deena had left him on the counter and flipped on the weather channel. The weather calms him.

Delisa and Tirey called the nonemergency police number around 1:40 p.m. Deena didn't want them to dial 911 because she didn't want anyone to rush, didn't want sirens and a big fuss.

The cops arrived seven minutes after the call.
"Hey, hey, hey, no rush here, she's dead," Tirey remembers telling the HPD officers in the lobby. "But they rushed anyway."

He told them that whatever they were going to do to try to revive the body, he didn't want to watch. So he closed the bedroom door and went back to the weather channel. When they carried the body out on a stretcher, he stepped out on the balcony.

John's secretary called him at 7 a.m. the Monday after Deena died.
How are you? she asked.
Fine, he said. He was heading to the courthouse; he had a jury trial for a messy divorce. He hadn't talked to Deena since Wednesday, but she knew he was busy and had told him to call her after the trial.

You haven't seen the paper? the secretary asked.
No, he said. What's in there?
Deena's obituary, as Deena herself had written it -- in a way that would announce her plight to the world and would explain everything to anyone who knew her.

"Deena Nichols died by her own hand to escape the degradation of abandonment and the ravages of Parkinson's disease. At Deena's request there will be no funeral or memorial services held, to free those who would grieve from the obligation of the social rituals."

She didn't list John as a survivor.
"It was Deena," John says, throwing up his hands. It's seven months later, and he's sitting in the park across the street from the Four Seasons, where he lives. He says he wants to remember only the positive parts of their relationship. His prescription sunglasses are rose-colored.

Her obituary didn't sound very positive.
"It was awfully bitter, angry," John says. "Deena was angry that she got that terrible disease."

And angry at John, too.
"Obviously she was," John says. "But that was Deena. She went out the way she wanted to."

He says cried nonstop for 12 days, leaving the apartment only to pick up her ashes. Then he came home and set them on the coffee table.

His lips mash together and his face turns red: "I'd come in and just talk to her like there was a person sitting there." One tear runs down his right cheek.

"I'd say, 'Deena, if you're wrong, which I believe you are, and there's a hereafter, which I believe there is, for Christ's sake just say something to me. Say something. Let me hear your voice.' "

It's a moment Deena would have savored. This time, it wasn't Deena begging John to come back. It was John begging Deena.

But the moment didn't last. John says he's trying to deal with her death and put behind him the guilt he feels. He says her ashes are on a shelf now, but he won't say in what room or show the urn. He says he doesn't talk to them as much now.  

His friends tell him not to blame himself, that Deena talked about dying years before Kim came into his life. Deena would have killed herself anyway, they say. They tell him to grieve and move on. Which is what he's doing. "I'm at peace with myself," he says. "I gave it my best shot.

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