The day he picked to die, Robert Fuller had the party of a lifetime.
In the morning, he married his partner in their senior housing apartment. He then took the elevator down to the building’s common room.
Supported by a walking stick, he greeted dozens of friends. The crowd spilled into a sunny courtyard on a beautiful spring day.
A gospel choir sang. A violinist and soprano performed “Ave Maria.” A Seattle poet imagined Fuller as a tree, with birds perched on his thoughts.
When the time came, “Uncle Bob” banged his walking stick on the ceiling to command attention.
“I’m so ready to go,” he announced. “I’m tired.”
Later that afternoon, Fuller plunged two syringes filled with a light brown liquid — a fatal drug cocktail mixed with Kahlua — into his feeding tube. He was one of about 1,200 people who have used Washington’s Death with Dignity Act to end their lives in the decade since it became law.
As such laws grow more popular — Hawaii, New Jersey and Maine this year make it nine states where “aid in dying” is allowed — more people who are terminally ill have the option of hastening their death. Fuller, 75, said he wanted to demonstrate how such laws work.
For him, the decision was, if not easy, never in doubt.
When he was growing up in New Hampshire, he said, his severely depressed grandmother drowned herself in the Merrimack River. He saw her body in the water, a trauma that began his long, matter-of-fact relationship with death.
Fuller’s friends described him as playful, wise, witty and vibrant, a wonderful singer. He sponsored people in recovery after quitting drinking in 1983. In retirement he ran a voucher program that provided music and theater tickets to those who couldn’t afford them.
He tried to kill himself in 1975, he said, when he was drinking too much and despondent that his marriage ended after he told his wife he was gay.
In the mid-1980s, he helped care for friends dying of AIDS. But his own sexual behavior was so risky it verged on suicidal. He contracted AIDS, then lived long enough to benefit from the AIDS cocktail.
“I think I wanted to get AIDS,” he said. “All my friends were dying.”
For critics, that sort of fatalism is a key problem with aid-in-dying laws. To allow people to hasten their deaths signals to the terminally ill that their lives are not worth living, they say.
“We should be very concerned that we are normalizing suicide in our society, especially at the very time during which, practically out of the other side of our mouth, we are saying suicide is an epidemic,” said Wesley J. Smith, a prominent critic of the laws.
Fuller had long thought he would want to control his death if he became terminally ill. Last summer he went to the doctor with a sore throat. It turned out to be an aggressive cancer at the base of his tongue. He gave up on chemo, saying it was killing his soul. Instead, he picked a date — May 10 — and began planning.
“Why should I suffer?” he said. “I’m totally at peace with this.”
He went up the Space Needle and took a road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway with his partner. The cancer made it difficult to eat, but he had the flan from the neighborhood Mexican restaurant one last time.
He also began returning to St. Therese Catholic church. Parishioners supported Fuller’s choice.
“It was hard to even cry because he was so forthcoming and so sober about it,” said Kent Stevenson, director of church’s gospel choir there. “He was just so outrageously unique and such a character, this was completely in keeping with who Bob was.”
At his party, Fuller betrayed no sign of reconsideration. He kept his sense of humor, greeting a reporter by saying: “I’m dying to read your story.”
He invited those who wished to be with him to come upstairs. Friends packed into his bedroom.
“It’s hard to be here, but I wouldn’t miss it,” said Yvonne Kilcup, of Tacoma, whom Fuller began sponsoring in recovery 24 years ago.
In the kitchen, two volunteers mixed the drugs and Kahlua. They said they considered themselves to be like midwives, ushering people out of the world instead of into it.
“You know if you do this, if you put this in your system, you’ll go to sleep and you won’t wake up?” one told him.
“I do,” Fuller answered.
He plunged the syringes.
His eyes closed for longer and longer periods.
“I’m still here,” he said.
And then, he wasn’t.