Sunday, March 30, 2008

Putting out the light

Asked to fill in, I repeat myself — a new version of a very old column.It's not what you think, TMFW has just gone to Heber.
— PM

When he pulls you aside at a party you know it is something serious. He huddles with you and a couple of others to give you the news; someone you didn't know — someone that he knew— walked into the woods with a shotgun and did not come out.
Suicide is, among other things, an inconsiderate act. It engenders a certain social awkwardness, it causes good people to question their recent and remote interactions with the freshly dead. When someone you know kills himself, you recall every indifferent moment spent in his company, mining lost conversations for blunders and missed signals. Suicide is a blunt recrimination; every innocent heart indicts itself.
When someone you know knows someone who has killed himself, the best thing is to listen. Details don't matter, theories don't matter, and the dead one doesn't matter anymore. What matters is that your friend has been wounded, that a violent act has shaken him. However calm and Buddha-like your friend may appear, he has been roughed up.
"I'm at the point where I'm angry at him now," he says, and you can take this to be a good sign. Your friend knew the killer for more than 20 years, he worked with him, he knows his girlfriend, he never suspected and yet it all makes sense.
"It's like he had written it down in his Daytimer — it's Friday, today I kill myself," he says, and something in the way he says it hints at resigned fatigue, the kind of letting go we settle for when the world goes wrong.
Let him talk. He describes a mild narcissist, a careful young man who watched his body and his money. He doesn't sound much different than a lot of us, and, of course, this act of self-annihilation seems preposterous — at least to a few folks sipping wine in a Hillcrest kitchen.
"But some folks will not let themselves be held up to public ridicule," your friend says. "It's not that they can't, they just won't. They just say `They will not do this to me.'"

That is what your friend thinks happened —that the prospect of semi-public embarrassment drove his friend to suicide. He had messed up at work, and he might have lost his job. There might have been other consequences, maybe, probably not. It wasn't that bad.
Your friend thinks that's what happened, and that's good enough. He also thinks that what happened with Vince Foster, that he simply decided he would not be an object of ridicule. It is an elegant answer, and maybe it is as good as any other. Maybe it is something we all would like to think. Not all suicides are capitulations, that some are acts of perverse courage and terrible will.

I doubt there is a sane person anywhere who has not contemplated suicide. We are complicated creatures who work ourselves into such twisted states; we all fumble and hurt.
It's not so far a step from imagining to doing as we like sometimes to believe. A twitch of the finger, a quick jerk of a steering wheel and we'd be off, tumbling into the blistering light of the unknowable. What's extinction like, exactly, the state of non-being?
And any afterlife, could it be as blighted and difficult as this? Could it be as empty and pain-ridden? As delighting and limned with joy? As REAL?
All my trials, Lord, soon will be over. Crossing the bar. Zapping into some hyperspace special effects George Lucas Industrial Lights & Magic blur, a blizzard of pure energy, merged into that great collective consciousness, knowing all and why ....
Wandering cold, a pathetic lonely ghost. Disconnected, caught between worlds, the great unnoticed always looking in.
It's not for nothing these are great mysteries.


"Lucky" is the word for it.
Billy wasn't serious, though to be fair he probably didn't realize he wasn't serious. It was over some girl who had thrown him over for someone else, and after he took the sleeping pills and drunk the cheap vodka he took a few minutes to call a few friends to say goodbye.
Of course, his friends got there in time, and the ambulance pulled up in front of the dorm to take him to the hospital where they pumped his stomach and the stern old priest came to visit him and told him he had narrowly averted spending eternity in the bad place.
A couple of days later, they sent the fighting-young-long-haired-priest-who-coul d-talk-to-the-young-people to visit him. Father Gary told him, in confidence, that the girl over whom he had almost done himself in was, truth be told, "kind of a slut" and certainly not worth the bother. And in a few days, he felt a little better and was properly embarrassed by the whole deal, the whole contrived, created, worthless, stupid thing.
His friends mercifully let him forget it after a few years, except for one of them who wrote about it in a newspaper column once.
He went on to be a healthy guy, a scientist and father, married to a wonderful red-haired woman whom he hadn't even known existed back in those angsty undergraduate days. He got to see Paris and a World Series game.
Only a few friends and his mother remember him in that hospital bed, how pale and kitten-weak he was, and how the plastic identification band slid up and down on his wrist. Hospital light is never good light, that antiseptic scent stings your eyes and makes it look like you are crying.

There are lots of cliches about this business, a lot of stuff that people say that's probably true. It is a hard thing to live in the world, there are all sorts of appliances that people use to try to stay in it. We need these things, these things like love and friends and wine, they are necessary.
It is vain to pretend that we can know the mind of anyone else. We might know their hearts, but never their mind. When someone kills himself, perhaps the best thing to do is to mourn, and to understand we are mourning for ourselves.