By Dennis Anderson
This past week, one of our top news stories hit home. Both the Montrose Daily Press and Delta County Independent reported that a 78-year-old man had shot himself in front of the Delta County Sheriff’s Office. That man was my uncle, John Anderson.
John was not an elderly, lonely man who was suffering from anxiety from the Coronavirus quarantine or whatever speculation has surfaced about his death. He was a man who was in physical pain and by all appearances decided that he wasn’t going to endure anymore suffering and ended his life.
John moved to Delta in 1976, shortly after my grandfather Elmer Anderson died of emphysema. He purchased the family farm located in the Gunnison Valley north of Highway 92. He structured that purchase so that my grandmother would be able live out her days without financial worry. Later he sold it and purchased property closer to the highway in the same area. He farmed that until he sold it to United Companies. The gravel pit you see as you head toward Austin was where his property was.
He retired from NCR Corporation (then National Cash Register) at the age of 36 before moving to Delta. He never married and bore no children. He had four brothers and a sister, but he was closest to my dad, Jerry. Dad was the oldest then came John. They were not only brothers, but life-long best friends. My uncles tell me he was never the same after my dad died in 2013. Probably so but he functioned as he always had. He was smart, honest and gave straightforward advice.
Through his progression in life, he amassed a small fortune but by appearances you would never know it. For us kids there were two things we knew to be true. If you asked Uncle Johnny for advice, you better be ready to handle the truth. He would point your finger right back at yourself if you were looking to lay blame or judge someone else. The other was he wasn’t a bank and never expect to borrow money from him.
Eight years ago he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Was told he had six months to live and to get his affairs in order. He always had his affairs in order. He was that organized, but he spent the next month or so researching his disease and discovered a solution. He found that University of Colorado Hospital was able to implant a mechanical heart until a heart for a transplant could be found. Telling his doctor the news he was told at 70 he was too old. Still not taking no for an answer, he contacted the hospital himself. Was told that age was not a determining factor but the overall health of the patient was. He went over, and after passing all the tests, he received his mechanical heart. He was told the new device would give him another three to four years. A few years later a heart transplant was offered, but he declined. Weighing the risks he decided he would live with the mechanical heart until it failed.
With his new heart he had to wear a harness that carried two batteries. We’ve discovered in the last few days that his shoulders were in constant pain because of the weight.
The day before he took his own life he went to St. Mary’s because of bleeding in his stomach. A constant issue for him over the years. He expressed to my aunt that he was having a hard time getting around and was afraid he would be forced to live in a nursing home. She reassured him that wouldn’t happen.
John didn’t do anything without a plan or calculating the outcome. He handled any confrontation or adversity the same way. He’d free himself of the emotions, make a plan and go into action.
Once a local barber purchased hay from him. They loaded up the man’s trailer and as he drove away, he told John to send him a bill. John did. No payment was sent back. So he sent him another bill and a couple more; still the bill wasn’t paid. He went to the man’s establishment, received a haircut and started to leave. The man called out, “Hey John that’ll be $12.” John replied, “Send me a bill.” The next week John received payment in full for his hay. He, in turn, mailed the man his $12.
There is a slew of stories in which John handled his business without malice or over-the-top confrontation. Everything was planned, and the outcome predicted.
When he arrived at the sheriff’s office on Wednesday and went inside to talk about weed abatement, I believe that was part of his plan. He wanted them to know he was there. He knew they would pay attention to him as he left so when he did kill himself their action would be swift, and it was. He lived alone out in the country, and if he would have killed himself there, it could have been days before he was discovered. Plus it more than likely would have been a family member who discovered him. I believe that this wasn’t an impulsive act by a desperate man, but he made his mind up it was time to go. Formed a plan and carried it out.
What he couldn’t have realized was that by ending his life in such a violent and public way it would have a traumatic aftershock to his family and of course those who responded immediately. Our family can’t show enough empathy to Sheriff Mark Taylor who was the first to respond and the rest of emergency responders. I can’t imagine they will get the gruesome images out of their minds anytime soon.
Grieving a loved one who dies from natural causes or a disease like cancer is hard enough. Grieving for someone who died so violently and publicly is a whole different level. I run through my mind what I could have done differently, when I know the answer is nothing. The sequence of events plays over and over in my head during my quiet times even though I wasn’t there. I know in time it will subside but for now it’s a bit torturous.
I debate with myself — was this a suicide from a man who grew depressed over time or a right to die discussion because he believed it was his time? Are there others out there who feel they are in the same situation and is it time to give them a better option? I don’t know where to start that conversation.
When my dad passed, I went to my uncle John upset because my two brothers didn’t come to Colorado from California for his service. “Weren’t they both just here a month or so ago?” he asked. “Yes, but they should have come back to pay their respects,” I countered. He looked at me as if to disarm me of my judgemental ways and said, “All I can tell you is death is hardest on the living.”
The bulk of his estate will be left to the hospital where he received his artificial heart. Hopefully it will have an impact on other lives. In that I can find solace.
People experiencing suicidal thoughts or other mental health crises can call the Center for Mental Health 24-hour crisis line at 970-252-6220. The state crisis line is 1-844-492-TALK (8255).
Dennis Anderson is the publisher of the Delta County Independent. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org