(to Oedipus) I cannot say you made the right decision.
You would have been better dead than blind.
Sophoclese, Oedipus the King
People give you leeway when you witness something like a catastrophe, or anything sufficiently discomforting, as long as you didn't plan on it. Things like the slow death of a loved one, an explosion at the mall, school shootings, suicides. People give you room to breathe and a forum for your words because they assume you will speak from pain, and that speaking will make the pain go away. People grant the bystanders of catastrophe freedom and license. Consider this cashing in.
The events surrounding the catastrophe of a suicide leave many questions unanswered, and so begins the talking. The bereaved begin with rhetorical, useless, damaging questions, such as "Why?" and "What could I have done?" The police begin by gathering the facts from evidence, from remains, from witnesses. The scene is a mess of evidence and interlopers, and the emotional responses range from professional apathy, to repressed rage, to unbounded remorse. The corpse has forfeited its right to emotion. It lies sexless, nameless, and dead on the scene, like organic rubble.
At three o'clock on a Tuesday afternoon, Johnny walked outside with a .38 special and shot himself. The bullet entered through the soft flesh under his chin, traveled upward, its velocity largely unimpeded through the oral cavity and sinuses, and exited faceward of the pineal gland. The barrel of the gun left scorch marks under the blood on Johnny's neck. The gun was his own, purchased lawfully three weeks prior. His permits were all in order. He was twenty-six years old.
They're awful, they're horrible, and they're no damn good, suicides. They leave the victims to mourn the villain, and nobody ever forgets, and no amount of talking can make the pain go away. But they're not tragedies. The deceased are not tragic figures, the victims do not enjoy the acquittal of inherent character flaw. Whatever the doctors discover from observation and amassed statistics about the psychology of grieving, the victims still ask themselves, "What could I have done?" To say to them, "It is not your fault," does not ameliorate their grief. To say to them, "There was nothing you could do," is to lie. There is no correct thing to say. No amount of talking can make the pain go away.
I deliver the mail in Asheville, Tennessee. I had a package for Johnny that wouldn't fit in his mailbox. I saw him through the window of his living room. I saw him see me. I held up the package, and he held up a finger for me to wait. He disappeared, and a few seconds later came out of his house with the little gun in his fist. I read the gun in his hand loud and clear, but his face was a storm of emotional white noise through which snatches of clarity drifted like visions of the star-spangled banner. None of the glimpses I caught were aggressive. Neither were any of them afraid. About half way across his lawn to the mailbox, Johnny stopped and stood as if unsure of his surroundings and what he had been about to do. Then he thrust the gun into the air as if in triumph and looked at it in his hand. Then he looked at me. An apology swept across his features, and he jammed the beast under his chin with enough force to arch his back. Just before the shot rang out, I heard his teeth collide in his mouth with an awful, plastic clack, a noise more signifying of lifelessness than any amount of desolate silence. Like a telepath, I read the message that sprayed out of the top of his head loud and clear: sorrow triumphs here.
I didn't ask myself any questions. Still I refuse to. I put the over-stuffed manila envelope back in my satchel and pulled my cellular phone out of my pocket. I called the police. Neighbors came out. Johnny's wife came out. I told the police when they arrived everything that I had witnessed. I told the detectives about Johnny's face before he died. I couldn't even speak to the wife - sorry - the widow. She died later. The details are sketchy, but I believe the consensus was that she just quit living. Sometimes the mercy you ask for isn't what you expect. Sometimes it's terrifyingly accurate.
I didn't ask myself any questions I didn't want to answer, although I heard plenty of answers to questions other people weren't asking. I heard the neighbors saying how he seemed so content at the barbeque. Content, meaning normal, functioning well, adjusted, on track for a long life of dying slowly. I heard the kids say how it was nice of him to let them use his basketball goal. Did they know it was for them that he bought it to begin with? It is not their fault; there was nothing they could have done. I heard them wonder amongst themselves if they could still use it, now that... I heard the wife say many things. She offered more apologies than the devil could ever ask for. It wasn't her fault; there was nothing she could have done.
To keep from asking questions I didn't want to answer, I went home that night, straight home. On any normal Tuesday, I'd hit the pub across the way from the P.O. with the other two mail-carriers and have a beer. I like beer, I like the pub owner, and I like the other two mail-carriers, but I couldn't stand to look any one of the three in the face that night. I went straight home and stared into the television's unblinking eye. Dealing with the police and the one journalist from the town paper kept me on the scene long after the six-o'clock news. The police kept wanting to verify things. The journalist mostly needed comforting. It was eleven at night before the local network affiliates could even hint at the suicide of a small-town man in the middle of the afternoon, just before the kids got home from school. The nation did not notice the population drop.
I watched television, thankful for the familiarity of sit-coms and recycled irony. I watched the mock dramas of twisted game shows designed to gratify contestants' desire for fame and fortune and the audience's artificial desire to witness human strife on a small, controlled scale. I watched the crime drama. I watched the medical drama. I watched the other crime drama while I wondered what happened to the other medical drama. I watched the sci-fi drama that some stenographer would turn into a book. I watched the eleven o'clock news, and then I watched the late-night talk shows. I watched all the commercials.
Somewhere in there, I slept, and even in my sleep, I did not ask questions. In my sleep, I dreamed stone buildings in a stone valley under an eternal fog. The valley was long and narrow and its sides were steep. It was a vast ditch of shuddering stone huts shut tight by the weight of the stones. At either end, the fog burned like a furnace. I carried a wooden box which weighed very little. It was like white pine, unstained and undecorated except for a large stenciled picture of a scorpion on the lid. The box was full of small, black scorpions. I ran frantically among the structures. I was looking for one which was open, but every one I neared had a large query mark smeared on it like passed-over homes. The marked structures trembled, and I fled from them. My erratic path carried me into the thickest of the fog at either end where the valley blazed in light that came from the fog itself, and as I wondered in to the mouth of the furnace, I began to fall.
When I woke up, I felt no different than when I had arrived home the previous day. I had slept in my clothes. I would not go in to work today. I would eat breakfast and watch TV until it was time to each lunch. I would not ask questions. Days passed in a haze of television and sleep. I finally went back to work, and the days passed in a simple haze. I did not go to the pub. I did not drink beer. I went home and watched TV. I answered the phone with silence. I could think of nothing appropriate to say.
One day I woke up and Oprah was on. I was late for work, very late, but I didn't care. I watched Oprah. Her guest was a woman whose father had committed suicide right in front of her when she was five. He had been a distant man, though not cold. He was one whose mind had always seemed
elsewhere, his gaze far away. They had a happy home. There was not excessive bickering. There were no financial crises. It was the American dream. They had two cars, a canoe, a lawnmower, a television with a screen that was considered respectable at the time, a hi-fi system, a Smith-Corona, good China, a dog, a fence... It was the American dream. Her father had a rifle. He sawed the barrel in half with a hacksaw he borrowed from a next door neighbor, and he shot himself in the heart in his garage. She decided as an adult that he must have been bipolar. Maybe he was.
I still did not ask any questions, but I went over to my television set and picked it up off the entertainment center. I walked out the door with it, and the cord popped obligingly out of the socket, dragging behind me like a malfunctioning ripcord. I set the blank eye down on the corner. It was gone within an hour. I called the boss and told him I was going to need a vacation. He agreed that I should take one, since... The next day, I made an appointment with my doctor for a physical. He gave me a clean bill of health. I drove out to Nashville to a small airfield there, and I jumped out of a plane on the third day of my vacation. I was pretty sure the whole time that I didn't intend to open my chute, but there are some questions you just can't escape. You can ignore whatever torture other people endure, and you can ignore injustice on the street. You can forget about the sorrow of relative strangers and estranged relatives, and you can neglect your friends and loved ones, but sooner or later, you have to face up to yourself, open your eyes, and scream.
As I plummeted through the impersonal blue air, I screamed, feeling my throat emit the loudest sound no one would ever hear it make. The questions that I avoided asking about Johnny's suicide I couldn't avoid asking myself. Why? The rhetorical, useless, damaging questions. What could I have done? I didn't know the answers - or rather, my answers were unsatisfactory. Having nothing better to do does not justify a freefall into death. A lack of imagination is no reason to kill yourself. I pulled the cord and the chute blossomed above me.
Since then, I have never asked myself any questions about Johnny; Johnny's dead. But I do wonder sometimes, was his a causeless incident? No good can come of psychoanalyzing the deceased. Their reasons will never match your grief. No amount of talking can make the pain go away. But it concerns me that what happened to Johnny could happen to me. People worry publicly, loudly, aggressively about the epidemic of drugs, of violence, of abduction, of rape, of AIDS, of heart disease, of cancer, of innumerable semi-preventable maladies of this, our society, and presumably suicide falls somewhere on their list, far beneath over-consumption of fried goods and THC. Presumably, it is listed as preventable. But I wonder...
Are there people who are so far detached from their lives that they do not feel alive? Are there people who have tried as hard as they could, done everything right, and been screwed by enduring maleficent synchronicity? Are there people who fall through the cracks of the universe and find that there is no bottom, and that circumstances continue to decay around them? Are there people for whom the hope of oblivion is the one remaining light in their lives, for whom the worst mercy is the greatest ecstasy available to them? There may be, but Johnny was not one of those people. I am not one of those people, and I wonder...
Is there some portion of the human mind that harbors a secret neurotransmitter that initiates a self-destruct sequence? Has our society developed to the point where the media we project at one another stimulate some mysterious, homicidal gland that releases this chemical? Do the cultural symbols we have amassed and wield as weapons in a war for moral-emotional superiority and able-intellectual attrition activate this psychic lysosome that sends us into a downward spiral, terminating when we crash into ourselves? Do we need witnesses to complete the ceremony? Is there no God to save us? Does God hate us?
We are all people of one kind of another. Some of us will not survive to realize this. It is left to those of us that do survive to endure the destruction of those that will not at their own hands. It is left to us survivors to stay those hands. It was not my fault that Johnny blew his God damned brains out all over his nicely manicured lawn for all his poor, dead, widow's ceramic gnomes to gape happily at. But I could have done something. I could have done my job. I could have said, "Christ, Johnny, don't leave me forever hanging. Take this package first, it's my job." I could have gotten angry and yelled, "Oh no, not in front of me, you motherfucker." I could have tried to shove those murderous hormones back inside whatever crazy tissue they had seeped out of. But all I did was call the police once it was over.
Maybe I had to witness it. I certainly won't let it happen again. Be it presumptuous and egocentric, but nobody's ever going to off themselves on my watch again without notes from their doctor and priest. Not on my God damn watch. Let Johnny be a martyr for this cause, then. May I wonder forever, and may the answers to my wonderings be "No." If the answers are "Yes," may the good doctors find and amputate the rebellious gland from us all, and may the priests seal the universal gaps, or at least place a net somewhere to break our fall. And, I pray, to a God who may not love me, let Johnny be the last to die from the terror of a long dark night of American bad dreams, and may his widow be the last to just quit living in Asheville, Tennessee.