So Little to Remember
June 4, 1996—New York
All of life is reduced to triviality in the tick of a clock, the pull of a trigger, the ring of a phone, six words in your father’s wavering voice: Your brother took his life yesterday. In an instant the world as you knew it vanishes. Your brother took his life yesterday.
June 8—Tracy, MN
At the funeral, a family friend says to me: “They rule out foul play? You know, monkey business? Doesn’t seem like him, know what I mean?”
Later, my uncle tells of overhearing someone in our family say that if he’d been forced to choose which of the brothers would off himself, the odds would’ve favored me.
Each of us searches for a story. To Dad, it was “impulsive.” It just wasn’t Dan. He was happy; he always had that sparkle in his eye. He got drunk and had the impulse and, unlike most people, he acted on it. To Mom, he was crushed by the loss of Wendy. He fell hard for the women in his life, who were few, and when he lost them it was like the end of the world, and when he lost this one he decided to end his time in this world. To Aunt Ruth, Wendy’s account of Dan’s insomnia means he was suffering from depression; this is a classic symptom. He was a perfectionist. Work was dragging him down. He was behind on a job and blamed himself when he shouldn’t have. This fueled the depression, along with his breakup with Wendy.
Somewhere between and beyond these explanations lies the truth. But the truth can’t be known, so we make up the version that suits us.
This morning we drove to the storage unit on the outskirts of Albuquerque and put Dan’s possessions neatly into the U-Haul. There was no emotional response from anyone. We approached it as a task to be accomplished, a chore to be done, and we did it, simple as that. A life, or the remnants thereof, packed neatly into a 5×8 trailer. We’ll unpack and sort through all of it when we get back to Minnesota, I guess, and maybe have some tears then.
The rest of the crew went hot air ballooning this morning, and as we gathered in the driveway just before dawn, the sky in the east beginning to illuminate the pink cottonball clouds, I quietly told them I wouldn’t be going along. “Come on, we could use an extra hand,” Aunt Ellen said. No, I said, but thank you. Uncle Robert was incredulous. “You’re not going?” I explained that my lasting memory of my brother is a vision of him outlined against the blue sky, standing tall in the basket of that balloon as we drifted over the desert. I’d like to keep that image untarnished for now. “But it’s the best way to celebrate his life,” Robert said. Sorry, man. I’m not feeling celebratory.
Mother: “A guy came up to me at the funeral and told me he wasn’t sure if this was the best time, but he had to tell me a story. And he told me about a time he was depressed, drunk, and heartsick about a girl, and he got to the point where it just seemed right to end his life. It just seemed like the right thing to do. He said it was almost a comforting feeling. And I understood what he was talking about. I’ve been there. It was at the farm, I was about your age. I was depressed and lonely and hated my life. The only thing that kept me from doing it was you kids. I was standing in the laundry room, which is where your dad kept his shotgun, and I realized I didn’t know how to load it. It was the middle of the night, and there were a bunch of people staying over, relatives I think, but I was standing there alone, and I remember thinking maybe I should do it with pills, but of course we didn’t have a damn thing in the medicine cabinet, we were so poor.”
Dad has tried to look through Dan’s things but can only do it for a few minutes at a time. Then he comes back in from the garage.
July 25—New York
I think I should think about him more often than I do. I feel guilty not thinking of him for a few hours.
My sister arrives today for a four-day visit. A chance to reach out,
take steps toward getting to know her better. Why is it, as Norman Maclean wrote, that “it is those we live with and love and should know who elude us”?
How long must we bear our burdens of guilt? Grandpa still wells up with tears telling of his last conversation with Joe, in which he chastised his son on the subject of money. Joe has been dead twenty years.
September 5—Missoula, MT
I try to remember distinct moments of happiness from my boyhood. I recall a time when Dan was sick and Dad and I went fishing on the Des Moines River below the dam. We each caught three northern pike, and I returned home feeling euphoric and triumphant over my brother, who was still on the couch with a fever. I dangled the fish in front of his face in a kind of taunt.
I meet my counselor, a red-bearded, gentle-eyed man named John. By the time our session is over he’s told me his best friend killed himself and he was sexually abused by his uncle. The Truman Capote theory of interviewing: expose yourself first and your subject will reciprocate. John wants to send me to another counselor. He thinks it’s a good idea because the other guy’s specialties are chemical dependency and grief and loss. The more immediate goal is to get me into a group session for grief and loss; I am ambivalent. What can I say to a bunch of strangers? Will we sit in a circle, hold hands, and cry together? Shit. I think I’ll just disappear for awhile, stop answering the phone.
An acquaintance in a bar: He chose his own path, man. That’s how I look at it. He chose his own path.
Right. But most of us stop walking when it leads to the edge of a cliff.
From the beginning, Dan and I had a wariness of each other born of contrast. I liked to read, he liked to play with matchbox cars. I liked to play sports, he liked to take apart and reassemble lawnmower engines. I used to practically bribe him to play football, baseball, and basketball with me. He was much more partial than I was to riding in the tractor with our father.
“No girl could comfort him, because the source of his tears was not himself.”
—Andre Dubus, “Falling in Love”
Strange dreams in a strange bed last night. Reliving the rituals of death, except in the end we are all viewing Dan’s body from the balcony of a gymnasium. I go downstairs for a closer look, to pay more intimate last respects, and suddenly he sits bolt upright in the casket, wide-eyed and terrified. I run to him and extend my hands to pull him out, and then my mind mercifully wakes itself.
January 3, 1997—Trimont, MN
I drive today to visit Dan’s grave. I trudge to the headstone with the name Connors. That is all there is to see. The ground stones are buried beneath the snow. The trees are bare. The flowers are gone. There are no words to be said. None. I walk off and out through the open gate, get into my car, and drive away.
January 23—Missoula, MT
Four in the morning, lying in bed, and I cannot sleep. Bits of memory swarm and swirl in my head. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with Mother, aunt Roxie, and my sister Lisa, pinning snapshots of Dan to a bulletin board for the wake. Dan holding a stringer of fish, Dan leaning against his new pickup truck, Dan trim and muscular in a wrestling singlet. Mother being overwhelmed by the pictures, having to hurry from the room with tears streaming down her cheeks. And a conversation with John Leonard, one of Dan’s friends, in which he tells me that he and Dan used to drive out to our old farmplace late on summer nights and sit in the yard drinking beer, listening to the wind in the trees.1 No matter where their evening had taken them, it would always end at the farm. They’d park in the lane and sit in the bed of the truck, looking up at the stars. Bit by bit the place was coming undone: first the windows of the house shot out, then chunks of lumber wrenched free and hauled off, finally whole walls smashed and copper wire stripped. Each time they showed up the place looked worse.
“It burned him up,” John said. “He used to say he hoped the vandals came while we were there, so he could whip their asses. The worse the place looked, the more Dan talked about the way it had been when you guys were kids. He remembered everything. He could tell stories for hours, about you guys playing war with buckets of sour green apples, the hay forts you built in the hay loft, the way you used to slide down the stairs in the house inside your sleeping bags, pretending to be bobsledders. He loved that place. He hated having to leave it. I’m just glad he was gone for New Mexico by the time the Lindberghs bought the place and burned it down.”
I never thought to wonder whether he had the same nostalgic yearnings I did, whether he, like me, drove there and walked through the skeletal shell of what was once our life. It saddened me to think we had this in common but never knew it, yet it also touched me to think of him there, sitting on the hood of his truck drinking beer in the heavy summer air. He was the one who never tried to bleed the country out of himself, drop by solitary drop. I am more conscious of him now, after his passing, than I was at any time during his life, even when we lived together in the same house. As we grew older I looked askance at him, as though one of us was somehow a mistake, a product of different blood, an outsider. Sometimes I thought it was him and sometimes I thought it was me, but rarely did I think of him as someone dear and important to me.
“And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.”
—Denis Johnson, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking”
Put the gun back in the cabinet, wash your face in the bathroom sink, undress at the foot of the bed, and go to sleep with a humble and forgiving heart, and the hope that tomorrow may bring the light. Tomorrow, maybe tomorrow, just around the bend unseen, lies that “miracle, a miracle of coherence and release.”
It is when I am dozing off at night and waking in the morning that my visions of Dan come most clearly. I picture him outlined against a clear blue sky in the basket of a hot air balloon: square jaw, crystal blue eyes, wide black cowboy hat set on his head. Then, the next moment, I see him as I think he must have looked in the end: slumped on the couch, gun across his knees, eyes sad and lifeless, jaw hanging open like a baby at sleep. Clots of blood and brain matter smeared across the upholstery and the wall. The smell of gunpowder, acrid, hanging in the air. The echo of a gunshot that none of his neighbors even heard.
I remember driving back to mom and dad’s house from the Breezy Point Tavern after a night of beer and pool, three or four days after Dan’s funeral. My uncle Mike, Lisa, and me. Mike and I were buzzed from the drinking. Above us the sky was clear, midnight black but punctured by thousands upon thousands of star lights. Lisa pulled the car to the side of the road. We lay down side by side on the highway, the black tar radiating heat from the day’s sun, and stared at the glittering sky. I wanted so firmly to believe that Daniel had ascended to the heavens, to some place whose splendor is beyond our mortal comprehension, a place where his soul would never fret for all eternity. I strained to make that indescribable leap to faith in something, a God, some nebulous idea of a creator and master. I leapt and hung in the air, hung there, felt the air beneath me leading everywhere and nowhere, to all knowledge and the most sublime ignorance, and I could not find footing. He is nowhere but where we put him. He is six feet under the earth in a neatly plotted piece of grass surrounded by a chain-link fence on the edge of a tiny hamlet on the plains of southern Minnesota.
Some nights I wake in a cold sweat, tangled in the sheets, and I cannot help but think: If only it had been me.
The cruelty lies in our inability, now that we feel the desire so urgently, to reconcile and make amends with him. It is no wonder that some days we allow ourselves to hate him and his deed.
Spoke with Mother last night. At the end of a pleasant conversation, I asked how she handled the one-year anniversary of Dan’s suicide. Not well, was her answer. She’d been to the grave several times lately, which surprised me, since she now lives seventy-five miles away. I asked if she and dad ever talked about his death. She said, No, and began to choke up.
I called to wish Dad a happy Father’s Day. Unlike with Mother, I am unable to break the barrier of silence that separates our grief over the loss of our son and brother. We go it alone, tough, reticent, unemotional, just as men ought to—or so he was taught, and taught me. We do now say goodbye on the telephone with the words “I love you,” which is vast progress over where we stood with each other until what seems like such a short time ago.
Memory: A picnic table in the park, a warm, clear summer day—the day, in fact, of my return to Minnesota after it became clear I could not function in New York, almost exactly one year ago. I am meeting Mother for lunch. We share turkey sandwiches, crackers, and grapes, and amidst the gaiety of the birds chirping in the trees and the children shrieking with delight on the jungle gym our somberness offers a stark counterpoint. After a few questions I zero in on what’s troubling her, at least on this particular day: she feels she had the chance to save him and did not. Apparently, after Emily called off the wedding with Dan, he went through a difficult period when he drank heavily and considered moving back home from Albuquerque. He called and said as much one time, and Mother reasoned against him. She told him that all other facets of his life were going well there: his job, his friends, his passion for hot air ballooning. What did he have to come back to? Not much. A few old high school buddies who still drank too much beer, and the prospect of a low-paying, manual-labor job. Running home, she told him, was not the answer to his blues. She assured him he would get over Emily at some point, and when he did there would be other women in his life. After all, he was a handsome young man, gainfully employed, with a nice apartment, a hot air balloon, and a winsome personality. How could he go wrong? Only by tossing it all away and fleeing back to a place that held no promise. He of course saw the logic in this; many of us have the instinct to run when circumstances alter how we view ourselves and our condition. With a little time we come to our senses and see that running will solve nothing—it will do nothing, in fact, but postpone the day when we face our demons and back them down.
And of course Mother was right. Soon he was in love again and on top of the world. Only that world crumbled, and before he could sort through it and piece it back together he perpetrated the ultimate act of self-pity. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, Mother tells me she knows she told him the wrong thing; she should have told him to pack his bags and come home.
I hate the third of the month, hate it, loathe it, dread it without even realizing what I’m dreading. When will this end?
November 22—New York
What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.
—Theodore Roethke, “In a Dark Time”
April 26, 1998—Missoula, MT
The one thought that shadows my every day is that with a properly timed phone call I might have saved my brother from himself. The day he killed himself was the day I arrived in New York. I called and spoke to Mother that afternoon to let her know I was in the city safely. She said she’d spoken to Dan earlier in the day, and he’d told her that Wendy had broken up with him. Mother said he was very sad about it. She said I ought to give him a call. It might cheer him to hear from me. I told her I would call him when everything calmed down for me in New York and I felt more settled. When I hung up the phone I immediately put it out of my mind and thought instead of my first day of work the next day, and of the wonderful summer I would have in the city with Marie. We made love and laughed and held each other and while we did so he shot a bullet through one side of his head and out the other. The next time the phone rang it was my father telling me my brother had killed himself, and every day since I think that if I had just called him that night like Mother suggested he would be alive; I might have prevented his death by speaking a few simple words to him over the telephone like a decent brother. And I wonder how a man can reconcile this guilt with the prospect of living another fifty years with it hung around his neck like a stone. I wonder if he would have killed himself even if I had called, and if that would have been more terrible still. All I can do is wonder, wonder, wonder. Alone in my apartment at night I wonder, walking the streets alone under the street lamps I wonder, staring out at the river I wonder if I neglected the most sacred human duty, the duty we have to care for those whom we love.
October 14—Minneapolis, MN
I wander in the afternoon, take the bus across the river. All the heavy breathing and heaving of heavy bosoms, heavy buttocks. Claustrophobia. I burst from the bus into the crisp air. I walk. Rain begins to fall. I duck into a bar for a drink and become lugubriously depressed. It’s clear the occasion of what would have been Dan’s 25th birthday is the cause for this nausea. The day will pass. It has passed. Tomorrow is near. Sleep.
Memory: We are standing atop the soft heap of chopped corn stalks in the silage wagon. For some reason we decide it is a good idea to fight a silage war. I do not remember if this is a mutual decision or a case of one party simply defending himself against the aggression of the other. No matter. Soon we have ourselves a furious fight. The object, clearly, is to maim or wound the opponent with a barrage of silage and force him into a shameful surrender. Advances are made. One combatant comes forward; the other retreats, re-arms, rallies, fights off the charge and begins one of his own. We circle warily.
He cocks his arm, fires, and just like that half the world goes black in a flash of pain. I cover my eye with one hand, gesture for a halt to the shelling with the other. What happens next is a matter of differing memory. I contend I asked for mercy as I tried to coax a piece of cornstalk from my eye. But he did not relent. Sensing weakness and a chance for the fatal blow, he only increased the barrage. Stunned, half-blind, I stagger backward and lose my balance. Suddenly the world is gone beneath my feet. Just as soon as I realize I am falling, I land with a wicked crumpled sound on the ground fifteen feet below the heaped silage in the wagon. When I try to pick myself up off the ground, I find I cannot lean on my left arm. Pain flares out of my elbow. So now I am half-blind and crippled. I am lying on the ground, unable to lift myself up, and I am wailing in confusion and pain. If all of this weren’t enough humiliation, my brother seems to find it profoundly amusing. He is standing above me, a shadowy figure on the edge of my blurred vision, but it is clear from his posture and his gestures that he is doubling over in a fit of uncontrollable belly laughter. Battle over. Only my wailing continues. As it continues, his laughter subsides. Clearly, he senses, I am hurt. I am, after all, the older brother, averse to displays of weakness. He climbs down the ladder on the side of the wagon. He stands next to where I lie on the ground as I hold my left elbow with my right hand.
“You okay?” he asks, cautiously.
I force back the tears, strangle the crying in my throat. “I don’t think so,” I say. A midnight X-ray revealed that I’d broken a bone in my elbow, and I wore a sling all the rest of that summer. In order to sleep without pain I had to remain still on my back with my wounded arm tucked against my stomach. Accustomed to sleeping on my side, curled in a ball, I often lay awake for hours, staring at the ceiling, and when I did fade into dreams they turned into nightmares.
Once, I became so badly scared I cried out for my mother. Had I still slept above my brother I might have been shamed into silence, but after the fall I’d traded bedrooms with my 2-year-old sister, since I couldn’t climb down from the top bunk. Dan now slept where once I had, a fact that wounded my pride.
While I was home I drove with Mother to Rachel’s wedding. On the way there she stopped and bought a bouquet of flowers. Before the service, we walked over to the cemetery. Mother laid half the bouquet on Uncle Ed’s grave and half on Dan’s. As we walked away, she began to cry. “That’s all I can do,” she said.
I held her hand. This felt insufficient. I put my arm around her. We walked back to the car.
“You can also love me,” I said.
“I do,” she said, “I do.”
“I know you do,” I said.
July 27, 1999—New York
“Like almost all who wrote about suicide expressing their own doubts, Montaigne did not kill himself. It is as if talking about suicide also exorcised it.”
—George Minois, History of Suicide
Mother says: “The last time we talked I think he tried to warn me. I said, ‘Why don’t you give her some time to think about things? That’s all you can do.’ And he said, ‘Oh, I’m going to give her a lot of time.’”
It would not be an exaggeration to say we were strangers. We shared a home for sixteen years, yet I do not recall us confiding our hopes or our fears. His presence fades like the color in old photographs. Yet he created for me a point at which my own life truly began. To imagine my life without the mark of his death is as impossible as imagining myself a woman or a resident of Mars.
I overheard Mother say to Marie in the next room last night that her grandfather on her mother’s side killed himself. I did not know this. Or I knew it once and had forgotten. But I’m almost certain I did not know this. It is appalling, and strangely moving, that she would so readily volunteer this information to my girlfriend but not to me. Our worship of secrets, our ritualistic silence.
I told Marie tonight that part of the reason I had to end our relationship involved my belief that I may one day end my life with my own hand. I do not want to pass that legacy to a lover. I do not want to leave a wife and children asking why. I do not, this moment, want to die. But the feeling grips me sometimes, a fierce clutch of despair. I must find a method to overcome these funks. I lack a certain charisma.
“The virtue of hope is the one talented people need most. They tend to trust in themselves—and when their own resources fail them they will prefer despair to reliance on anyone else, even on God. It gives them a kind of feeling of distinction.”
—Thomas Merton, in a letter to Evelyn Waugh
I thought today of driving those icy rural roads in Minnesota, of gaining speed as I reached a curve. I imagined the car turning cartwheels in a snowy field.
When you are sure that you’re alone,
Tell yourself to not be sure.
This universe is not the first.
The other ones are not the same.
—Frederick Seidel, “The Childhood Sunlight”
February 13, 2000
If I’d called Dan as my mother suggested I’d have prevented his death; I’d have altered the course and character of his evening just enough to jar him from the path that led him to the closet, the gun, the bullet. It’s perverse, of course, to think of oneself as a culprit in this way. Yet the facts remain. Mother urged me to call him. I did not. Within hours he killed himself. I’d not talked to him in months. Mother urged me to call him because on the phone with her he’d sounded sad. What a what-if to be left with.
“What one must be enabled to recognize, at four o’clock in the morning, is that one has no right, at least not for reasons of private anguish, to take one’s life. All lives are connected to other lives and when one man goes, much more than the man goes with him. One has to look on oneself as the custodian of a quantity and a quality—oneself—which is absolutely unique in the world because it has never been here before and will never be here again. But it is extremely difficult, in this place and time, to look on oneself this way. Where all human connections are distrusted, the human being is very quickly lost.”
—James Baldwin, “Nothing Personal”
“Is it conceivable to murder someone in order to count for something in his life? Then it is conceivable to kill oneself so as to count for something in one’s own life. Here’s the difficulty about suicide: it is an act of ambition that can be committed only when one has passed beyond ambition.”
“Suicide often seems to the outsider a supremely motiveless perversity, performed, as Montesquieu complained, ‘most unaccountably . . . in the very bosom of happiness,’ and for reasons which seem trivial or even imperceptible. Thus Pavese killed himself at the height of both his creative powers and his public success, using as his excuse an unhappy affair with a dim little American actress whom he had known only briefly. On hearing of his death, her only comment was, ‘I didn’t know he was so famous.’”
—A. Alvarez, The Savage God
E. arrives a day early—a surprise. She makes dinner while I do laundry. Later we talk about suicide and my brother. She calls it the ultimate act of selfishness, and something rises within me, some urge to defend him. But I remain silent on this point; I would rather her say the uncomfortable thing than nothing at all.
We were walking in the neighborhood when somehow the conversation alighted on the subject of guilt. I admitted I had guilt, deep and entrenched, concerning certain events of my life, certain actions. She asked for an example, and I told her, for the first time, about my telephone conversation with Mother on the day of Dan’s death. How she urged me to call him and attempt to lift his spirits. My judgment that it could wait. And my sense that in not picking up the telephone that day I missed a chance to save him through a small act of connection. The weight of this, its implications, the somberness of my voice all scare her, I think. She urges me to see a shrink.
Lisa tells again of receiving a message from Dan on the day he died. “I thought it was the weirdest thing. I wasn’t there when he called, and I remember thinking something must be wrong. He never called. He’d left home—what?—four years before. And he never called me. Not once. Until I got that call out of the blue. And my first thought was something must have happened. Something serious was going on. So I called him and left a message, but I never heard back.”
The anniversary of Dan’s birth. I cannot consider it a birthday. That word implies not only celebration but the possibility of renewal. Neither of which applies today.
Only the faces can fill the emptiness. Only the endless parade of visages can banish the visage of the dead brother. And so I step into the streets.
E. says: “When we mourn, we are mourning the loss of something we never had. What we are mourning is the loss of a possibility.”
March 21, 2001
“I live only because it is in my power to die when I choose to: without the idea of suicide, I’d have killed myself right away.”
—E. M. Cioran
Dad and I take the train to Yankee Stadium and have a beer in a bar before the game. Walking toward the ticket window I feel a great surge of benevolence, the adrenaline of the crowd like a shared drug, the scalpers and the hot dog hawkers, the murmur of ten thousand shuffling pairs of feet and the cry of as many joyous voices. An afternoon’s steady drizzle finally ceases an hour before game time. We take our seats, four rows back of the wall, just inside the foul pole down the right-field line. Delgado homers twice and the Jays crush the Yankees; the crowd is demoralized, but I am ebullient. Few things make me happier than the Yankees getting drubbed—that and talking sports with my father, one of the only subjects we can speak at length about, everything from the gnomic utterances of Bud Grant to forgotten utility players on the 1987 Twins. After the game, though, the conversation veers strangely in McHale’s Bar as we sit over a nightcap. “Do you remember that glass etching your brother did in high school shop class, the mirror with the Detroit Pistons logo on it?” Sure, I say, and I do—he was no basketball fan at all, really, but he gravitated to the Pistons because I was a Laker fan, and he liked the Pistons’ thuggish style of play. Anyway, my father continues: “When I took it out of the box I found tiny blood spatters on it. I wiped them off before your mother saw them. That apartment must have been a mess.” This is the first time in years he’s uttered anything about his son’s death in my presence, and I am so stunned I do not know what to say.
“Death is the sanction of everything the storyteller can tell. He has borrowed his authority from death.”
Since my brother’s death I’ve been haunted by the ringing of telephones. Somewhere deep in my subconscious the piercing jingle of a phone is fused to memories of sudden loss.
Sometime around midnight on this day exactly five years ago my brother shot himself in the brain. And in those five years I have spent a ghastly amount of time trying to give his act meaning, shape; trying to bring it into congruence with the facts of his and our family’s lives as I know them. And the truth is that his suicide is an act outside of life—it is a clean breach. It is a black hole. It sucked all questions and answers away with it. I can never give the act meaning in and of itself; I can only play the angles, as it were. By exploring not so much the gunshot itself but its echo in the lives of all who remain.
The anniversary of his death passes without too much agony. I left work with that familiar tightening of the chest but I fought against it, decided not to come home and curl into the fetal position in my bed but instead smoke a joint and walk in the streets, angling uptown amid the throngs of strangers. The nearness of people and yet no obligation to connect. The consolations of anonymity.
“All families of suicides are alike. They wear a kind of permanent letter S on their chests. Their guilt is never assuaged. Their anxiety never lifts. They are freaks among families the way prodigies are freaks among individuals.”
Yesterday I arrived in Albuquerque. I stopped first at the Sandoval County courthouse. I could not remember where Dan lived but for some reason I thought his apartment may have been in Rio Rancho. Turns out he lived in Albuquerque proper, and after a half hour of work by the county clerk, I was directed to the Albuquerque Police Department and the Office of Medical Investigators, each of which had a file on Dan’s death. I went first to the police, who promptly made copies of the file at fifty cents per page, eight pages in all. The laconic language of the police report: “The decedent was seated on the living room couch which was against the west wall of the living room. An SKS rifle was found to the immediate right of the decedent between his right arm and right leg. The decedent was attired in green shorts and T-shirt. . . . Several pieces of skull fragments, brain matter and high-velocity blood spatter were found throughout the lower level of the apartment . . .” Later the officer writes, “I took overall photos of the apartment, exterior and interior.” So I ask the clerk if I am entitled to copies of the photos as well, and she directs me to an office on the second floor called Criminalistics. There I begin to fill out paperwork, but the clerk leaves promptly at 11:30 for lunch, and I am left with a dozen questions and no one to answer them. Eventually I deduce that the developing of the pictures will take several days, by which time I will be back in New York and unable to pick them up in person. I take a sheaf of paperwork that seems to indicate the possibility of ordering copies of the photos by mail.
Downstairs I ask the first clerk for directions to the Office of Medical Investigators, and twenty minutes later, on a satellite campus of the University of New Mexico, two very kind men greet me, the records manager and the doctor who performed the autopsy. The records manager is bearded, solemn, soft-spoken, while the medical examiner is genial to the point of weirdness, smiling in the midst of very touchy sentences. Walt, the bearded one, hands me the autopsy file. I ask him if photos are an additional part of the file, and he says that, more than likely, they have photos, unless they were misplaced or overexposed or harmed in the developing. He promises to check for me and says that if they exist, I do have a right to see them or have them copied. He could mail them to me if I desired. The doctor seems mildly alarmed by this; he asks Walt how quickly they could be pulled from the archives. The doc turns to me and says, “I personally think it’s much better if you sit down with us here and allow us to explain what you’re seeing. The images, from my reading of the report—and I confess I don’t remember this particular case—but the images will likely be very graphic. I would feel much more comfortable showing them to you here than putting them in the mail to you and having them arrive one day in your box. If you see them and you still want copies we’ll be happy to have them made and sent to you.”
Walt consults his photo archivist. Turns out the photos are readily accessible, so I relent and agree to come back in two hours for a viewing.
Afternoon cumulus have begun to sprout like enormous white mushrooms over the valley. The temperature is 100 degrees. My palm makes a sweaty print on the manila envelope containing the autopsy report. As I walk across campus I feel no urge to open it. My purpose does not entail haste. I’m not working as a reporter with a deadline or a detective on a case. The freshness of the evidence isn’t at issue. There is no criminal who at any moment might strike again.
There is an empty basketball court in the middle of campus. I ask around and learn the circulation desk at the library keeps a ball it allows to be checked out like a book. I leave my driver’s license and dribble along the sidewalk toward the court. My veins quiver with adrenaline. I begin the routine I developed as a teenager dreaming of making the varsity: a couple of hard runs at the basket, left-hand layup then right, a few short jumpers, little five and eight footers kissed off the board, then some turnaround fadeaways from the free-throw circle. Legs limbering and the sweat beginning to flow, I drift out beyond the three-point line, working my way around it right to left, squaring my shoulders before I shoot, chasing down the rebound and spinning the ball out in front of me as I sprint back toward the arc, where I catch the ball and turn, make a quick fake and step one step to the left or right before leaping and following through, releasing at the apex of the jump, the seams in the ball perpendicular to my fingers—a habit of the purest shooters, the gym rats with a kind of aesthetic devotion verging on the religious for the pretty arc and spin of the perfect jump shot. I am deep inside a trance of fingertip and follow-through and ball and net, the world reduced to a set of internalized geometries, when a tall, broad-shouldered Indian man saunters onto the court, snares a rebound in his huge hands, and takes a shot, banking it in from ten feet. He wears jeans and a sweaty tank top and has a slightly forward-leaning posture of defiance.
You got a nice shot, he says.
Thanks. You too.
I played some.
Me too. Long time ago.
He laughs and says, I know how it is.
We circle and shoot with unspoken playground etiquette, one man rebounding, the other shooting, the shooter entitled to at least five shots and as many beyond that as he can make in a row, the roles switching when the shooter misses. Within twelve feet he’s deadly. He always shoots while moving to his right. He doesn’t dribble well with his left hand. I note these things in half-conscious anticipation of the question he asks a few minutes later, after he’s curled his arm around the ball and wiped the sweat from his brow.
Wanna go one-on-one?
Shoot for ball?
Sure. Make-it-take-it to eleven, win by two?
He nods and takes off his shirt. A livid red worm stretches across one breast and below his last rib, clearly carved there with a knife, though I do not ask.
His free throw bounces off the back rim. Mine touches nothing but the bottom of the net. I step out beyond the three-point arc. He rolls the ball to me as if it were a bowling ball. I bend to pick it up. He gives me a five-foot cushion, daring me to shoot from where I stand. He’ll learn soon enough, I think, as I loft a shot toward the rim.
One-zero, I say.
You like that shot, huh?
I’ll take it if you give it to me.
He rolls the ball toward my feet again, a small taunt, a gesture
of disrespect meant to annoy me. I don’t hesitate this time. I crouch and lift the ball from the asphalt and cock it above my shoulder and bend at the knees and rise and shoot, one fluid motion that lasts a quarter of a second.
Two-zero, I say.
He slaps the ball between his hands and mumbles something I can’t hear. Outwardly I project an air of utter placidity but in my head I talk a silent stream of trash. Okay, motherfucker, you don’t want to set up in my face? I’m gonna shoot you down without breaking a sweat. You’re not even going to get a shot off before it’s over. I’m gonna blank your Navajo ass. Eleven-zip, motherfucker.
He bounces the ball to me, a token of begrudging respect. I catch it and shoot again in a single coiled stroke. He leaps toward me, stretching to block or tip the shot, but he’s late by a fraction of a second.
The freebies are over. He knows he can’t give me space. He doesn’t bounce or roll the ball anymore, he hands it over from arm’s length. He crowds me and waves his hands in my face. I dribble backward a couple of steps, slowly, nonchalantly, and when he starts moving toward me, his momentum carrying him away from the basket, I make a quick crossover dribble, right hand to left, and blow past him toward the hoop.
Later, when I’ve finished my whipping of him and we’ve shaken hands, we sit in the shade and share water from his jug. He says his name is Raymond. He tells me about his job on the campus grounds crew. He’s been doing the same few things every day for five summers now: mowing, trimming trees and bushes, inspecting and maintaining the sprinkler system. Today he’d been repairing a valve in a sprinkler and merely wanted to prolong his break, divert his mind from the boredom of his work. He thanks me for playing with him, shakes my hand again very intently, says I am a worthy foe. And suddenly I feel awful. I realize I’ve made him a stand-in for my brother, the brother I’d always begged to shoot hoops with me when we were kids, the brother whose corpse is described in painstaking, clinical detail in the soggy manila envelope at my feet, the brother toward whom I feel an intense and burning anger just now. He stepped into a psychological maelstrom without even realizing it.
I return the basketball, retrieve my license, and walk across the grounds to the office of the medical investigator. I am ushered into a bland conference room equipped with a slide projector and a pull-down screen. First the doctor offers explication of some of the more technical language in the autopsy report. “Distorted calvarium,” for instance, means Dan’s skull collapsed from the force of the bullet. I am again warned that what I am about to see is gruesome. I swivel in my chair and face the screen. “Are you ready?” the doctor asks. Walt sits in his chair, somber and silent. “Yes, I’m ready,” I say, and the doctor turns out the lights.
The image that materializes on the screen is more horrific than my morbid imagination had previously conjured. A giant chunk of the left side of his head is gone. His left eye and ear are still intact, but barely—above them is a gaping red cavity where his brain used to be. A piece of skull appears to hang as if on a hinge from the left side of his head, and what remains of his right forehead is crumpled inward. His eyes stare implacably at the camera, and his mouth hangs slightly ajar, as if he were in the middle of saying something when he pulled the trigger. The doctor shows four more pictures, but it is this first that stays with me—the force of the bullet evident in all its ferocity, the visual confirmation of the laconic language of the autopsy report: “Portions of the cerebral hemisphere are submitted in a separate plastic bag.”
July 28—New York
The photos from the Albuquerque Police Department arrived today. Three dozen 3×5 snapshots, for the most part artless, bland—unremarkable views of Dan’s apartment. But a handful possess a startling clarity: one of his brain, seemingly intact, salmon-colored and glistening, lying next to his rigid body on the couch, as if it were a skinned cat curled close to him for warmth. Another of a wall spattered with blood and bits of skull and brain. And the most horrifying of all: a close-up of the telephone, the keypad sprinkled with blood, his foot in a white sock next to it. As if he were keeping the phone near in an effort to save himself from himself. As if all it would have taken to avert the tragedy was that the damn thing had rung.
I am attempting a demystification. That is what I tell myself. I am reining in my imagination, replacing garish images of my own devising with the clinical, forensic truth. By facing his action in all its gruesomeness—by staring unflinchingly at the carnage—I hope to fashion my own liberation.
“And each of us has his private nightmare.”
He would have been 28 years old today. He would have been 28 instead of a perpetual 22.
I called Mother to wish her a happy birthday, and after an hour of conversational meandering we alight on Dan. I was surprised to learn she felt a similar curiosity about certain facets of his death about which she could only guess. But her most startling revelation was this: After reading my essay in the Georgia Review, she felt an urge to begin writing down thoughts she had about Dan. Just a few words every so often, not even whole sentences—in fact when I go back and read it later it usually sounds stupid to me, she said. I don’t know big words like you do. I can’t make things sound beautiful the way you do. I don’t even know why I do it. I haven’t shared it with anyone, not even your dad. But sometimes I have these thoughts and feelings and it helps to get them out.
“There is so little to remember of anyone—an anecdote, a conversation at a table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long.”
—Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
May 30, 2002—Albuquerque
Morning in Albuquerque. Sun burning through the motel curtains. The Sandias obscured by a cloud of white dust. I drive along Central Ave., the old Route 66, until I find a family diner out of 1950. Across the street, an adobe building with an awning that says, in large letters, guns, beneath a picture of a revolver. It occurs to me I may one day need to hold in my hands an SKS semiautomatic rifle. What this would tell me I do not know, but I must be open to any act that could possibly lead to a greater understanding.
I drive to Dan’s old apartment complex. Nondescript concrete boxes with doors painted a fading turquoise. When I inquire in the office, the woman behind the counter says, “Well, you have my sympathy. My oldest daughter killed herself on Easter night of ’98. Easter isn’t such a nice holiday anymore.” Her daughter was 42 and had two daughters of her own.
Dan’s apartment was the last in the E block, No. 43. I always wondered why no one heard the shots, but there are no apartments above or below his, just one attached to one side. A cheerless place, cookie-cutter architecture, a tiny pool and a communal laundry room. No one from Dan’s time works here any longer. I am not surprised.
I walk again around the periphery of the complex, which is surrounded by a tall wooden fence. I have it in mind to go off on foot for a while, to collect myself and see what kind of neighborhood my brother called home for the last few years of his life, but there is no way out except the drive, which connects to a road jammed with rush-hour traffic.
I sit in a narrow patch of grass under a wilted tree and smoke a cigarette. I think of how many times I’ve gone into the streets of the city seeking oblivion or solace amid the anonymous crowds, how the simple act of walking often turned me back from my darkest impulses. Maybe he died because there was nowhere to walk.
Dinner with Dan’s ex-fiancée Emily, his former boss George, and George’s wife Barbara. Emily, touchingly, asks more than once: Did your parents hate me when I called off the wedding? Were they angry with me? I can see why they might blame me for what happened.
I assure her they did not.
There were two sides to him, she says. He once threw a glass and shattered it against a wall. Toward the end of our relationship he was drinking a lot. He was different when he drank.
When Barbara takes Emily’s little daughter Megan into the living room to put some lotion on her arms, Emily leans across the table and says, I don’t know why, but I feel a strong connection to you. Like you’re a brother in a weird way. I know that makes no sense, since we only saw each other once before, but maybe we went through some of the same things afterward.
Yes, I tell her, no doubt we did.
There’s something I want to ask you, she says. Dan had a secret. I’m pretty sure I’m the only one he ever told, but I wonder if he told you too.
I’m not sure what she means but I can’t think of any secret.
I don’t know if I should share it now, she says. I mean, if you agree to keep someone’s secret do you still have to keep it after he’s gone?
I of course want her to give it up, so I tell her I have a unique philosophy in that I keep notebooks. People closest to me may learn my secrets—such as they are—after my death unless I destroy those notebooks, and I have accepted that. Just then Barbara returns. Emily offers to lead me up the highway to the hotel where I have a reservation—an excuse for us to be alone for a moment. And there she tells me Dan’s secret. She says that Dan told her he was raped as a boy. And when she gives Dan’s description of the person who did it, I know exactly who it was.
June 10—New York
I am still stunned by that one harsh word: rape. The terrible secret he carried for years and only told Emily when he felt he was losing her. How sad—how terrible and how sad. The secrets we carry, our shame and our guilt.
I suspect this early act of sexual violence played a role in his troubled efforts at sexual intimacy. Or perhaps the physical act of sex troubled him not at all? Perhaps emotional intimacy was the thing he feared—the burden of his dark and shameful secret. I wonder if Emily was the only person in whom he confided, or if others knew. I doubt he told another living soul. Emily was the woman he intended to marry. No one knew him better.
July 9—Trimont, MN
On the stretch of old Highway 30 where Dan and I as boys walked the ditches and scavenged aluminum cans to sell at the recycling plant for spending money, there is now a large blue and white sign: “Adopt-a-Highway—This Section Available.”
I told Mom and Dad about Emily’s revelation. Mom was stunned. Dad said, “That explains some things.” And perhaps it does. But I wonder: how much can one fact explain? Maybe all we need to know is that childhood sexual abuse increases the risk of suicide, and he was abused. End of story.
I walked with Mother when she went back to work. She asked me if she could confront X if she saw him. I told her I would rather she didn’t. I want to maintain for myself the element of surprise, to gauge his reaction, to prevent him from concocting a story in advance, so she said she’d keep it to herself. For her, Dan’s death does not become easier to accept. She still cries when she thinks about it for any length of time. And now I’ve given her one more thing to cry about. Well done, son.
Before I leave to catch my flight out of Minneapolis, Mother says to me, “There is a blue book in the office on top of a box in the closet. It has an angel on the cover. You can read it if you want.”
This is what I find:
June 3rd—I was at work & Bill told me that Bob had called & said to go home for a minute. I thought he’d hurt his back. When I walked in the door, Bob was leaning against the kitchen sink with Father Evers beside him. Bob grabbed me and pulled me against him. I thought he said Dad died, then I realized he said Dan. I was stunned. After a short length of time, sitting on the couch, I asked Father Evers if Dan would go to hell for this—I didn’t know if Dan believed in God. After that I don’t remember much for the next week. My heavy heart was in my throat & I couldn’t swallow or breathe. I couldn’t eat, drink, think or sleep. The neighbor kid asked his dad why we were having so much fun if Dan had died. He had heard all of these people out on the deck all night long laughing and telling stories, trying to deal with his death in the best way they knew how.
Sam & Jan went to Granite Falls to tell Lisa & bring her home. Who told Phil about Dan? When did he find out? Was he alone when he heard? How terrible that he had to take that long plane ride by himself.
Dan called Sunday at noon. Thinking back on that conversation, I think he knew what he was going to do. He said he and Wendy were having trouble. I said, “Give her some time.” He said, “Oh I’ll give her a lot of time.” If I had only known, I would have got on a plane right then & gone down to see him. I forgot to tell him “I love you” before I handed the phone to Bob so they could talk about fishing.
Sam & Jan helped us through the funeral decisions. We were told to bring friends in case we couldn’t understand any of the decisions we needed to make. I’m sure that Mr. Almlie thought we would be VERY distressed over this suicide. Lisa was with us & helped make some of the decisions, which I hardly remember. I only knew I didn’t want to bury him, I wanted him alive.
Bob made the decision not to see his body, after Almlie said it wouldn’t be a good idea. I regret that decision to this day, but don’t hold it against Bob. He wanted to remember him like he was, not with a hole blown through his head—maybe he didn’t have his face left. We were glad when Lisa went to the funeral home late the next night when his body finally came in. She came back reporting that he looked fine. She only saw, under the napkin across his face, a bruised looking spot on the one side, & they had his eyes sewn shut. They cut off a small lock of his hair & she brought it back to me. That’s all I have left of him & I keep it in a small coin purse in a drawer. I can’t bring it out to look at because it brings all that heartache back again.
It takes all my strength to not think about him & talk about him. That’s the only way I’ve been able to get through these past 5 yrs.
Even writing this, the tears are flowing so hard I can hardly see the page.
Every year on this day, and on his birthday, I just want to stay in bed. I don’t want to do anything or see anybody. Thank God today fell on Sunday so I didn’t have to go to work.
I finally realized after reading Phil’s story in the Georgia Review: this didn’t just happen to me. My whole family is having a tough time. I want to hug them all right now. Were we bad parents that we didn’t raise our son to feel strong enough not to take his own life?
Now when I see a beautiful morning, a beautiful sunset, a bird, lovers in a park, people fishing, I think: Why did he want to give that up? Why did he want to deprive us of his birthdays, his wedding, his children, visits to his home?
I need someone to say the right words to me so that I can deal with this heartbreaking sadness in a positive way because right now—all I do is cry.
In new ink:
I worry about my kids being lonely and being alone.
In new ink, different color:
There are days when I feel guilty for not crying or for being able to sleep.
double rainbow on his funeral day
Liberated by writing this down.
When asked how many kids I have, it’s hard to answer three. I’m afraid they’ll ask me about Dan. And if I talk about him, I’ll cry.
It’s my birthday, Phil called and we talked for 2 hrs., some about Dan. I cry while I’m talking but it still feels good to talk. I want to talk about him but can’t without crying.
On a Post-It note stuck to the page:
When I hear a song on the radio that I knew he liked I want to turn it off—but I can’t force myself. If it stays on maybe he is close by listening.
Confronting this, I am devastated; partway through it I begin to bawl like a child. I have no idea how to tell her what it means to me, both intrinsically and in the fact of her sharing it. I can only think to copy it into my own notebook (a violation? Yet she said that I should “use it however you like”), scribbling through a scrim of tears.
July 20—Hillsboro, NM
Dan and I were given a fleet of toy tractors one Christmas as boys. To the east of the farmhouse, along the north wall of the garage, we practiced industrial agriculture in miniature. We gathered seeds spilled from the planter or stole handfuls from the seed bags stacked in the granary and we dug little rows in the dirt. We tucked the seeds in the furrows and with our tractors we covered them in a thin layer of soil. We watered our little fields with spray from the garden hose and tilled between the rows to keep the weeds at bay. Within weeks we had perfect little corn plants straining toward the sun, and they were ours, our stab at practicing for the agricultural artistry of adulthood, for a future that, for reasons beyond our control, would not be ours.
September 16—New York
What do I remember of him? Playing with tractors in the sandbox, riding our bikes to the river, tossing rocks at the heads of mud turtles. Fishing at the lake. Fishing at the dam, mud in our shoes. Throwing snowballs at Johnny Weinzetl’s car, building a treehouse behind Luft’s place, smoking dried lawn grass rolled up in business envelopes, thinking we were tough and adult. Drinking Black Velvet from a four-pack of little travel-size bottles stolen from the neighbor’s cupboard. And then a many-years-long blank. My entering the seventh grade first caused a rift. The misery of being at the bottom of the pecking order made it attractive for me to look down on him; the relief of passing on to eighth grade made me haughty toward him and his little seventh-grade pals, scrawny tykes, know-nothing punks. I watched one autumn night during halftime of the varsity football game while my best friend beat the shit out of him. I chose not to defend my own brother. He would have to learn to fight for himself. It would be good for him, teach him a little caution, a little humility, hopefully a little toughness. This was the way of things: bigger boys had more power. Strength ruled. I did not want to cast my lot with weakness. I knew to do nothing was wrong; I knew the proper response was to step in and protect one’s own. I felt shame not only for him but for myself. I detested my own cowardice so intensely I could not face him. I avoided him so deftly I do not even know if he begrudged my lack of intervention, or if he was merely embarrassed, or if it all meant so little it barely made a difference. These were not the kinds of things we talked about. We were not the talking kind. Not about fear, or loyalty, or disappointment in one another. After that moment we were on our own. Godspeed and good luck.
Walking in the streets tonight, downtown Manhattan, and a transvestite makes a pass at me. For a moment, the briefest of moments, I think: This is my chance, my chance to feel a dick in my ass, to play out my fantasies of anal rape, to become my brother, however briefly. Instead I turn away and move on.
“There is always a sheet of paper. There is always a pen. There is always a way out.”
—H. L. Mencken
I had been planning my visit for half a year, all the while in silence. I knew myself, knew my capacity for anger—I knew, in other words, that I needed some time to chill. Plan some lines of inquiry. Judge what it was, exactly, I wanted to know. But it was less about what I wanted to know and more about what I wanted him to know. I knew what he’d done, plain and simple. He’d raped my brother. Maybe one shred of justice could be wrung from the whole sad affair: he would forever know that I knew. Because I knew. I had no doubt. He was that kind, a big-time closet case, a bit of a sadist. Pleasure in cruelty. I could tell stories. Boy, could I tell stories. Suffice it to say in my youth I knew him and did not like him. A righteous dislike, the first of my life and therefore extra powerful.
So I traveled out of my way to see him, in the squalid town better left unnamed. I found him in his office—a little flabbier than I remembered him, a bit too falsely jovial, in the manner of an upbeat high school football coach. He shook my hand, eagerly. He invited me in to his office. I sensed immediately the pride he felt in his office, in having an office.
I wanted to tell you in person how sorry I was about the death of ——, I said.
A very dear connection of his had died not long before, and I wanted him to believe I’d come in honest sympathy. He told me about ——’s final hours, some touching last moments they’d had together, a death with ease and dignity. I nodded my head in all the right ways. He appeared to both appreciate and yet be baffled by my coming. We hadn’t spoken in years. He wanted to know how life was for me in New York. I told him it had been good but was coming to an end. I’d quit my job and was broke and had no prospects there anymore. He appeared to be made uneasy by my candor; people didn’t talk this way, not where we were from.
What will you do next? he said.
I don’t know, I said, and meant it. I nearly said: Probably punch you in the mouth, you stupid fuck.
Finally our conversation dwindled to inanities. The moment had arrived to announce my purpose. I felt the most unexpected thing just then. I felt nervous, ashamed even somehow. I could barely bring myself to look at him. In fact, I turned away, looked at the wall. What if I was wrong? What if I had the wrong guy? What if my brother had made up a story for sympathy in a moment of vulnerability, when he felt himself to be losing his fiancée? I forgot what it was I had rehearsed to say. I nearly rose and left without explanation. Then it returned to me.
You’re a God-fearing man, correct?
He appeared mystified.
I go to church, yes, if that’s what you mean.
Have you asked God’s forgiveness for what you did to my brother?
I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about, he said.
You may have thought him innocent but for the flush of color rising up his neck.
I think you know what I’m talking about.
No, I don’t, I really don’t.
You’re gonna force me to say it.
Say what? I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Come on, man. I can think of more than one thing you did to him.
Well, I suppose—and here he listed some of his minor offenses, some of which I’d been privy to myself, as witness or fellow victim.
I’m not talking about the run-of-the-mill cruelties, I said.
My voice sounded weird to me, quavery, as if the nervousness were returning. This wasn’t going to be easy. He wasn’t just going to confess. I suppose I’d known that, but suddenly it made me very angry.
I’m talking about what you might call sexually inappropriate behavior. Euphemistically.
I have no memory of that, of anything like that, he said. His neck was growing more and more red. I couldn’t look at him for the color of his neck.
You raped my brother, I said.
No, no! he said.
You fucked my little brother in the ass.
I don’t recall any such thing! he said. He was trying not to get agitated. His office door was open. He was trying not to get agitated and failing horribly. I got up and closed the door.
I really don’t have any recollection of anything like that, he said, his eyes shining as if he were about to cry.
Had he suppressed the memory so deeply it was no longer real to him? Or was he telling the truth? Only God and my brother could say for certain, and lacking communication with either of them, I shall never know. But I believe I saw it on his face—I want to believe I saw it on his face—a kind of terror known only to the criminal who thought (and for decades!) that he’d gotten away with a hideous crime. We went round and round: I told him what I’d heard and was sure I knew, and he repeated his denial, that he had no memory, no recollection, of any such thing. It was this that infuriated me more than anything: He could not say he didn’t do it, only that he had no memory of it. After a couple of minutes I was so disgusted I put an end to it.
Look, asshole, I know you’ve got your little sham life with the wife and kids, even though you’re the biggest closet case I’ve ever seen. So I’m going to protect you. I’m not going to name you. I only wanted you to know that I know. So here we are. If you ever want to talk about what happened, I’d be happy to listen. Here’s my number. (I scrawled it on a piece of paper, though I knew he’d never call it.) Be in touch. And good luck with your God.
I took his hand in a handshake against his will and squeezed it as hard as I could, hoping to hear the snap of bone, which I did not.
January 14, 2003
“Does anything in nature despair except man? An animal with a foot caught in a trap does not seem to despair. It is too busy trying to survive. It is all closed in, to a kind of still, intense waiting. Is this a key? Keep busy with survival. Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain, psychic pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go.”
—May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude
In the earliest of my memories there is no such thing as I. There is only we. Dan and I were born one year and nine days apart, and though I was the older I have no recollection of life before he appeared.
I remember in summertime we picked half-grown apples from the trees at the end of the garden and carried them in little grain pails. We pretended they were artillery and grenades in our mock games of guerrilla warfare around the farm. We crept along the perimeters of the hayloft and quonset hut and tried to position ourselves for an ambush. We climbed the eaves pipe to the roof of the farrowing barn, hoping to gain an elevated perch from which to shell the enemy. When one of us finally managed to hit the other, the victim was obliged to fall down and play dead. We kept score, each hit a single battle victory, and the war was only won when one of us hit the other five times. Both the winner and the loser sported bruises for days afterward.
There was an old schoolhouse just down the road—an abandoned one-room country school with a pot-bellied stove and a blackboard still hung on one wall. Several desks were scattered about the room, some of them tipped on their sides. When we played there dust motes stirred in the light slanting through the cracked windowpane. One day we startled a skunk who’d been taking shelter under the floorboards. We ran when we saw it, and it ran when it saw us, and thankfully a moving target isn’t easy to hit when the thing taking aim is moving too. We’d heard that the only way to rid yourself of the stench of a skunk was to take a bath in tomato juice, a thought that repulsed us and, mercifully, a remedy we never had to endure. One close call was enough: we never played in the old schoolhouse again. A short while later it was struck by lightning and charred. Someone decided the risk of it burning was too great—it was only a short distance from a telephone pole, and the wires passed uncomfortably close overhead. So it was demolished, the wood hauled away for kindling in someone’s stove.
A line from a study published in American Family Physician:
“When variables known to be related to suicide attempts were controlled for, patients with a history of sexual assault were six times more likely to report having attempted suicide than those without such a history.”
People told me I should try antidepressants. They told me I should see a shrink. They said I should do these things to lessen the pain, but I didn’t want to lessen the pain. They said I ought to be on a journey in search of closure, but I stoutly rejected the very notion of closure. The search for closure, I thought, was the real psychosis—the idea that the most painful events of the past can be sealed forever behind a door.
News of the rape made him even more mysterious and distant to me. How could I imagine that, the act itself, much less what it meant to him, how it played out in his emotional life? How could I dream my way into his shame? In some perverse way, this revelation put an end to my desire to learn more about his life. I couldn’t bear to think there were more skeletons leering in the closet, waiting to be discovered, if only I managed to find the person with the knowledge of the secret. Besides, learning he’d been raped shifted the blame equation. It’s not that I fell for the temptation to draw a straight, bright line from his violation as a young boy to the moment he shot himself in the head; it was that everything about him became infinitely more complicated. Cracks appeared in my story of who had failed him, and how, and when. The simple and persistent notion that it was my inability to pick up the phone and call him that led to his death—my hold on that idea began to slip. Previously, it was as if I couldn’t bear the thought that other factors contributed to his death, anything other than my failure to call him the day of it. I needed that distinction; I needed to believe I was that important to him. Yet for the first time I saw clearly that, although I did not call him that day, Mother did have the chance to speak to him and it didn’t matter. And Lisa tried to call him—twice—and only got his answering machine. Yet I clung to the notion that my call would have been answered, and that it would have swayed him. In this way, it was never about him. It was always about me. The news that he was raped as a small boy—this brought to the surface a hidden truth of his death, an obvious truth I had failed, somehow, to grasp. That it was about him; that it was nothing personal, at least insofar as his family was concerned. Can we possibly make our peace with that? That perhaps there is nothing we could have done differently with the knowledge we possessed at the time? That he’d hidden his pain and shame so brilliantly, so capably, that we never could have known him in all his complexity no matter how hard we may have tried?
“To atone and to forgive are complementary acts. In forgiving a sin, he who has been sinned against initiates the exchange that reestablishes the bond. We forgive once we give up attachment to our wounds.”
—Lewis Hyde, The Gift
I’ve tried to arrange in my mind the chronology of what I know about his final hours. I’ve sought out all the official records, talked to those who knew him best toward the end—all but his final girlfriend, Wendy, the last person to speak to him before his death. No one seems to know where she’s gone, although I’ve asked around. A part of me isn’t sure I want to reach her. I’ve tried to imagine the enormity of her guilt, his killing himself the day after she broke it off with him. I assume she wouldn’t be terribly happy to see me if I showed up on her doorstep unannounced.
Still, she talked to my aunt the day of Dan’s death, told her side of the story—a story that has passed on to me. With bits and pieces gathered here and there, I’ve fleshed out as much of the rest of it as I likely ever will.
He spent the afternoon with friends. One of them had a hot tub. They soaked and drank beer and told stories and laughed. They were all hot air balloonists, he and his friends, and their stories circled around dubious weather conditions, hairy takeoffs, botched landings.
The afternoon passed toward evening. Someone suggested they move on to a bar, a neighborhood place they liked on the north edge of Albuquerque. Dan said he wanted to go home and get his own darts so he could play a few games of cricket at the bar. Seven o’clock, it was agreed. They’d meet at seven.
Back in his apartment, he opened a bottle of scotch, poured himself a glass. He picked up the telephone and dialed Wendy’s number. She’d been his girlfriend nine months and his ex since the previous day. She was twelve years older than Dan, separated but not divorced from her husband; Dan had met her at a hot air balloon rally.
He asked if he might come over and have a talk.
No, she said, we don’t have anything to talk about.
He asked if he might at least come over and see her children. They were 7 and 9 and they’d begun to dress in cowboy hats and boots, in imitation of him.
I told you already, she said. I need some space. I need to figure things out. I care about you, but the kids are confused. Their father leaves. A new guy steps in. They don’t know what’s going on. Hell, I don’t know what’s going on.
He said, Please, this is important to me. It’s important to us.
She said, Damnit, don’t you listen? What about what’s important to me? For Christ’s sake, I’m still married. I need some space to figure out what I should be doing, for me and for the kids. Can’t you give me that?
He said it wasn’t fair to cut him out like that. What about what he wanted?
Listen, she said, I’ll call you in a few days. I’ve got to go. I’m hanging up now.
He dialed her number. She didn’t answer. He left a message on the machine and hung up.
He dialed again. This time it rang and rang.
She’d unplugged the machine.
From then on it’s all conjecture. Maybe he’s sitting on the couch, drinking from a lowball glass, working it around in his hand, swirling the ice. Maybe he’s up and pacing the apartment. Maybe he sets the scotch down and tries the phone again. Maybe he’s thinking the only thing to do is hurt her back. Maybe he’s thinking the only thing to do is hurt himself.
He goes to the bathroom to piss. Or he steps outside for some fresh air. He goes again to the freezer, puts another chunk of ice in his glass, fills the glass with scotch. Or maybe he opens a beer. He paces from one room to the next. Or maybe he sits on the couch and works the glass around in his hand.
There it is, he thinks. Right there, behind the closet door, the answer for everything.
He opens the closet. He reaches for the gun. He feels the barrel, the smooth cool metal of it. Maybe he caresses it. Maybe he simply connects the clip. He drinks a long swallow of scotch. Or maybe he cracks another beer. He walks from one end of the apartment to the other, brandishing the gun. Or maybe he sits and tests it against his temple, savoring the chill of it. He leans into it, relieved by the onrushing prospect of freedom. Freedom from rejection, freedom from disappointment, freedom from pain. Maybe he’s utterly calm. Maybe he takes his time. Maybe he’s itching to get it over. Maybe he’s furious. Maybe he feels nothing at all. His head’s inside a goldfish bowl. There is no one and nothing else in his diminishing world, nothing but the vice grip of pain, squeezing him without mercy, pushing him toward the only light he can see, the flash from the mouth of the gun.
But is there any comfort to be found?
Man is in love and loves what vanishes,
What more is there to say?
—W. B. Yeats, “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”
“You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anything.”
—Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
Childhood sexual abuse. Reliance on alcohol to dull the memories and manage the shame. A drink too many in a difficult moment and a reach into the closet for the gun.
Could his story be as straightforward as that?
His birthday again. I’d like to erase the day from the calendar.
For anyone who takes a minute to ponder the effect of his own death by suicide on those who love him, the thought may save him—and save the loved ones the crushing guilt of believing they didn’t do enough. The one who slips past this question and slips through the thin membrane separating life and death ensures the sentence of eternal guilt is imposed on all who loved him. By not thinking of his family, he makes certain they will never stop thinking of him.
December 24—Trimont, MN
This house, these people, their affections and teasings and casual cruelties and subtle coercions—all of it makes me think of Dan. I still sometimes envy his escape from human entanglements, his gesture of renunciation. I find it more interesting than the petty domestic dramas I witness among the living. He made a statement of thundering finality and left no means of answering it. So much of the rest of life is compromise, discipline, responsibility, the slow choking off of ambition, the resignation toward a death that will come at a time not of one’s own choosing. He renounced all of it; he renounced his very self. Even now I can’t be certain whether he exercised the greatest courage or succumbed to the most appalling cowardice.
March 16, 2004—New York
When I picture us at the age of about 10, I see myself with a basketball shooting endlessly at the hoop on the side of the granary and I see him hunched over some project in a corner of the garage, which was actually a kind of shop. It was a world of metallic smells and funky fumes that made you feel funny if you sniffed them too long at close range, and all the various tools in boxes or hung on pegs seemed to speak to him of a world that made sense, a world you could take apart and reassemble with your hands, a world in which every thing fit with some other thing and if it stopped fitting you threw it out and replaced it with others. It was a world he could manage; it was a world he in fact mastered, working with his hands all his life. A lawnmower was a world. A china cabinet was a world. He left beautiful furniture all over this country, from New Mexico and Colorado to Minnesota and Iowa. I have seen and touched it with my own eyes and hands. Everything fits. Everything is snug and plum. It seems natural, then, to wonder whether his undoing was that thing he could not make fit in the story of himself, the one thing that did not make sense and could never be discarded.
We lost our family farm in 1984 and moved to Tracy, MN, fifteen miles away. The property remained abandoned for nearly a decade, until the buildings were finally razed and set on fire. ↩