The first one was early, scary, and quite a bit more than my six-year-old brain could process. The shooter was the father of five; he shot his wife, then himself. She survived, he didn’t. My Dad married her when she got out of the hospital, legitimizing their affair that had begun before all of that went down. The affair might have precipitated the shooting, or it may well have happened anyway. She knew her husband was unraveling and maybe that’s what drove her into the arms of my Dad. Any port in a storm. The narrative was that the husband was addicted to Bromo-Seltzer and it was making him crazy. Near the end he carried around a bottle of it in his bathrobe, for quick access. They don’t make Bromo-Seltzer anymore.
The next one I remember was from when we were living in the little mountain town where my Mom grew up, after my parents’ inevitable divorce. The guy and his wife were Polish immigrants and he worked in the mine, like most men in the town. No one knew that much about Ivan but I remember that he had a big American flag pinned to the wall in his bedroom, as wide as the bed. I was over at their house with his son who was a couple of years older than me, after it all happened. I remember that it felt weird and creepy to be in the bedroom of a guy that had shot himself. A town of 300 is more like a family than a town and everyone felt what he had done. His widow lived to old age and became one of the beautiful gray-haired ladies of the town that everyone knew and loved.
My Mom remarried when I was in middle school and we moved to another town 50 miles away. There I remember hearing about the suicide — another shooter! — of a guy I knew from our old town, Vic, when he was about 21. I thought about it a lot because Vic and I had been together once, when I was 12 and he was 15 or 16. I had gone to their house looking for his sister, who was closer to my age, but she wasn’t there — only Vic. One thing led to another and we got naked and played with each other, like boys do. I never saw him again after that but I wondered if maybe what we had done haunted him. I just remembered it as huge fun.
I moved away from my Mom and lived with my Dad for high school. Graduated, went away to college. From my high school class of 125 there were five suicides over the next few years. I didn’t think much about any of these, but I did stop going to high school reunions. The only one that really got to me was Stephanie because she was my friend. I used to give her rides to school because we lived near each other. She was so pretty and nice, a popular girl who could be friends with everybody. Her mother died in a car wreck and Stephanie went soon after that, before she got a chance to start nursing school.
In college there was a girl in our food co-op, Kathy Heifetz. Always cheerful and helpful, fun to be around, a gifted cellist. My roommates and I were really knocked down when we learned out of the blue she had killed herself. By that age you start to feel some of the weight of being an adult, and along with that you feel a sense of the gravity of erasing yourself from the world. Her poor parents started a memorial prize for musicians in her name, I think the university still awards it every year.
After college I lived in Boston, during the time that the journalist David Brill killed himself. I’d met him once; we were near the same age and our social circles loosely overlapped. For weeks I couldn’t get it out of my mind, how methodically he must have gone about it, buying cyanide and everything, and I couldn’t understand why he couldn’t have found a different way to deal with whatever was plaguing him. Now he’s reduced to a short Wikipedia article that does not mention the circumstances of his death.
I met Nathan in about 2003 when he was on a meditation retreat, and about to join the Army. I didn’t think he should join and I told him that —he was way too sensitive a guy for it, in my estimation — but he joined anyway. Served in Afghanistan, had a horrible time there, but came back and finished college on the GI Bill. We hung around some in 2011 when he lived in Baltimore and I lived an hour away from there. The last time I saw him I could feel that he was deep in a hole of his own sour thinking. He said he couldn’t leave behind the things he’d done and seen in Afghanistan.
A couple of weeks after he’d cancelled a meetup — his message just said “sorry, it looks like I’m not going to be able to make it after all” — I learned about his suicide attempt through Facebook. There he was in a hospital bed, hooked up to tubes and with his head wrapped in bandages like a cartoon character. I thought he’d been in a car accident and I called his Dad, who told me he’d shot himself: he drove to a hospital, left a note that he wished his organs to be harvested for others, and did it right there in the car. But he survived. Months of surgeries and therapy got him to the point where he could swallow again and get around in a wheelchair. He rebuilt his life, got on partial disability, worked part-time for the VA. Then last year a motorist ran into his wheelchair, banged him up pretty bad. A few months after that I saw on Facebook that memorials were pouring in for him so I reached out to his sister to find out what happened. She said she hadn’t talked him in weeks, but she was told it was an accident, and that she had “no reason to believe otherwise”.
Does all of this add up to anything? No. It’s my narrative, not anyone else’s, and certainly not the narrative of anyone I talk about here. No one accompanies the suicide on their narrative, and that’s its fatal attraction: they only go down that road by themselves and after a distance, they don’t see a way back. That’s how I understand it, anyway. Starting with the ones from my high school class, I have asked the same questions: was there something I could have done? Was there something I missed that should have clued me up?
I’m grateful for my life and its many blessings every day. I count myself a happy camper so it’s off for me to write about suicide, but the fact remains: there were these people dear to me and now they are no more. Emily Dickinson nailed it:
Each that we lose takes part of us;
A crescent still abides,
Which like the moon, some turbid night,
Is summoned by the tides.
The ones I knew well pass through my mind from time to time. I think about the good times we had and I hope that their onward journeys have led them to happier places.