In a letter dated two days before they sat in their favorite place in their Brooksville, Maine, home and gazed a final time at Horseshoe Cove, Susan and Carl Chase began with a single word: “Why?”
She was 75 and an artist, he was 77 and a musician, and both were much more — teachers and valued friends and good neighbors with lives long woven into their community. Even though, as their children later wrote, the Chases’ final act was “a joint decision, organized thoroughly and talked about often,” not everyone knew, and no one knew when their last day would arrive.
“They surprised us all when they took their lives Oct. 27, 2019,” their two children wrote, adding that their mother and father were found “holding hands, fingers entwined peacefully.”
In their last letter, answering the “why” question their deaths would raise, Susan and Carl Chase gave thanks for lives well-lived, yet spoke unflinchingly about deteriorating health and the unappealing likelihood of failing further. They also offered their blunt assessment of the world’s poor prospects, environmentally and politically.
“We have had full and happy lives, blessed with extraordinary good luck,” they wrote. “It is unreasonable at our age to assume it will continue that way and we want to leave while things are good, before our luck runs out, not after!”
Because the Chases were well-known, their deaths led to news coverage and discussions about their final act among mental health professionals, some of whom were interviewed by the Portland Press Herald.
The decision by many older adults to end their lives by suicide “is a major public health issue in many countries,” according to a 2018 article in the journal Clinical Interventions in Aging.
Websites such as suicide.org list numbers for hot lines and help lines in Massachusetts, in other states, and nationally. Other organizations, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, also offer a 24-hour hot line with free, confidential support.
In their letter — which carried the salutation “for anyone who wants to know” and was signed “Carl & Susan” — the Chases began by saying they believe people have a “fundamental right to choose whether or not to go on living when they approach the ‘end-game’ of life,” and said they had arrived at their decision “both independently and together.”
Their children — Jennifer Bontie Chase, an artist, and Nigel Philip Chase, a musician — wrote an obit that they published in The Ellsworth American, a newspaper serving that part of Maine.
“Theirs was a life lived together — fully,” Jennifer and Nigel wrote.
The oldest of five children, Susan Becker was born in New York City in 1944, a daughter of Dr. Edward Jennings Becker and Frances Chester Jones.
Susan grew up in St. Louis, studied art history and sculpture at Newcomb College in New Orleans, finished a bachelor’s degree through the University Without Walls, took classes at Harvard University, and graduated with a master of fine arts in sculpture from Southeastern Massachusetts University in Dartmouth.
The first photo on her website, susanchasesculpturewoods.com, shows one of her sculptures — a solitary figure keeping watch in a woodland clearing. She had been a teacher at Cape Cod Academy, had conducted workshops and taught in the region of Maine where the Chases lived, and had exhibited at venues including the Turtle Gallery in nearby Deer Isle.
Dementia on the maternal side of her family “looms as a crouching demon,” she wrote in the couple’s letter, and added: “I do not want to lose my mind. I do not want to live in assisted living or a nursing home. And I do not want to use up the money doing so. I would rather it be shared and put to good use for the next generations.”
She had met Carl Alfred Chase when both were counselors at Alamoosook Island Camp in Orland, Maine, and they married in 1966. After working as teachers and counselors, they purchased a schooner and set off on “a 13-month circumnavigation of the Atlantic Ocean” when their daughter was 3 months old, Mr. Chase would later write.
The oldest of seven siblings, he was born in New Haven, Conn., in 1941, a son of Epes Dixwell Chase and Mary Anderson.
He took a year off from Phillips Exeter Academy to be a deck hand on a Norwegian freighter and graduated in 1964 from Harvard College with a bachelor’s degree in music.
In a life that nearly always included teaching, he had run a boat shop with his brother in South Brooksville and had been a nautical science teacher and ship captain for the Sea Education Association in Falmouth.
His interest in Caribbean steel drums, or pan music, which dated to a record album he had revered since his Exeter days, was reawakened during a sailing expedition.
“I first encountered a steel band in a waterfront bar in St. Thomas,” he wrote in the 40th anniversary report of his Harvard class. “That was a life-changing moment.”
Trips to Trinidad to study with renowned pan tuner Roland Harrigan provided expertise that allowed Mr. Chase to focus on performing, teaching, making instruments, and turning Brooksville into an unlikely northern outpost for energetic steel drum concerts.
He helped found and performed with the Atlantic Clarion Steel Band and started a community band called Flash! In the Pans.
In the couple’s last letter, Mr. Chase wrote that his failing “hearing — even with the best hearing aids — doesn’t let me follow conversations, movies, music, etc. — well enough to enjoy them.”
And there were “other ongoing medical issues which I’ve chosen to ignore rather than fight because an old age spent fighting losing battles is not a life I want,” he added.
Jennifer and Nigel Chase do not plan to publicly discuss their parents’ deaths until at least next month, Nigel said in a brief interview.
Their parents had told them of plans, and while they knew the day would arrive, “we didn’t know when,” Nigel added.
The Chases had settled in Maine in 1968, living first in Camden and then in Brooksville, where she had opened a studio.
They lived in Woods Hole from 1981 to 1991 and then returned to Brooksville.
Jennifer and Nigel, who also live in Brooksville, wrote that their parents had taken a “last long voyage, cruising down the intracoastal waterway” in 2006 and 2007, in a rebuilt sardine carrier.
In 2009, writing for his 45th class report, Mr. Chase marveled at the couple’s good fortune and “daily appreciation for the beautiful place where we live, surrounded by woods, the sea, family, and good friends. We knock on wood a lot!”
The Chases — who according to their children had taken sleeping pills before they were found Oct. 27 — said in their final letter that “while it is always possible that things will turn around for the better,” they believed overpopulation was “bringing about the destruction of civilization, and will eventually cause the extinction of our species.”
Meanwhile, “truth, decency, and rule of law are disappearing daily right before our eyes, leaving no system or social structure capable of managing the mess,” they wrote, adding: “We have no desire to be further witness to it.”
A celebration of life will be announced for the Chases, who in addition to their two children leave four grandchildren.
Carl Chase also leaves two brothers, Eric of Brooksville and Andy of Castine, Maine; and three sisters, Arria Biladeau of Providence, Lisa of Putney, Vt., and Josie of Brooksville. Susan Chase also leaves a sister, Alison Chase of Brooksville, and a brother, Jim Becker of Eolia, Mo.
In an interview some years ago, which is posted on the umission.org website, Mr. Chase spoke about the euphoria he had witnessed in Trinidad during a wintertime carnival celebration, and how he wanted to bring that spirit to places such as Maine, through teaching and playing steel drums.
When the interviewer asked how he survived his worst day leading the Flash! In the Pans steel drum band, Mr. Chase spoke of music’s restorative powers.
“The thing that I consistently find is that no matter how bad I am feeling, when a gig comes along and I am actually playing, everything is fine,” Mr. Chase said. “The actual happening, making the music, and seeing this response and seeing the players getting so much pleasure and satisfaction out of it — that makes it all right. That’s turned things around and I’ve said to myself, ‘OK. I can keep doing this for a while!’ ”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.