The Letter, The List and My Greatest Fear

Mansfield, Pa. I was there for the week for basketball camp. I don’t know how it became a thing in our town, hundreds of miles away, but for anyone serious about basketball, at least any of us between 10 and 14, you went to Mansfield for a week of basketball camp. I was the most serious about it and I was there. I was about 12 and it was great.

It was a great time for a 12 year old who was obsessed. I was the kid who had a basketball in my hand every minute. I was the kid in Western New York, where it can snow in 8 or 9 different months a year, who would shovel the court to play in January. Or October, if need be. I was the kid who played a level up always. I was obsessed and good as far as anyone could tell. This was the first big year away at camp and the first time I shined outside my own town. I was good against the good kids my age from other towns. I could run with the good kids older then me. It was a buzz.

My dad picked me up and my memory is that he told me we had to get going fast. Mom wasn’t home and we had to get moving.

‘Where’s mom?’ I asked.

‘She had to go to see Grammy.’ He said.


‘She’s there now.’

A lot of things happened in our house without advanced warning. There were six or seven kids at that time, including a toddler, so it’s possible these plans were always in the works and I was just never informed. Still, weird for her to travel alone, but to be honest, she’d gone to Israel on her own while 8 months pregnant with the little one so who’s to say if it was weird that she went on short notice to see her parents.

‘Why?’ I asked.

Here’s where my memory fails me. I don’t know if I asked that. Maybe I didn’t, though I can’t imagine it wouldn’t have come up. Maybe we were driving a friend of mine home or something and he couldn’t tell me. Whatever was said I didn’t know ‘why’ she was gone until I read it in a letter. Might have been in the car right when I was packed up and we were ready to go. I have a memory of it being a letter I read when I got it on the kitchen table when we got all the way home. In hindsight I can imagine a dad wanting to keep it from a kid as long as possible.

What is true is that I found out in a letter. My dad probably wrote it. Might have been mom, but I can’t imagine. It was one of them. My grandfather was dead and he’d killed himself. It was a suicide letter by proxy.

I haven’t been writing much lately. I have to start again. I’m nervous about losing writing. I fear it’s like basketball. I’m old and unable and all those years of pounding my knees on pavement have not left me very able with a hoop and a ball anymore. I can shoot, I’ll always be able to shoot, but the rest is rusty and the will and ability to fix that are gone.

I’ve been sharing the writing I’ve done in the past in different ways recently. It’s been good to reach some new people and find some new life in old stories about times gone by. It’s been interesting to mine my own work, produced largely without reflection. Or rather, to reflect on what I was compelled to write over time.

I recently shared a piece that was written as if it were a letter to my sons. It was a letter outlining the fact that what I want for them is to feel loved and to love. I want the person they love to love them and to inspire laughter and curiosity and energy and compassion and passion and all the things that love alone can fulfill, but I don’t care if the person they love is a man or a woman. I will very much care about who that person is, I just won’t care about that.

It’s in line with a lot of my work, really. Often I’m sending a message out through time and space hoping they will see it and know they were loved. Know that I’m aware of the things I got wrong. Sorry for the parts I’ll fail at. I want them to know that I was a failure. That I was a drunken mess for years. That I had false starts and self doubt and self loathing. That I was depressed. That I hated school. That I didn’t know what I was doing when they came along and all I wanted to do was do right by them. That love so amazing as the love they and their mom have brought to my life is worth slogging through painful times for. That even the hope of it is enough.

I remember having a conversation with my sister a number of years back where I told her that I have always kept a list in my head of who it is I think is most at risk of killing themselves. It’s not some list of sad celebrities or self destructive artists of one sort or another. It was a list of family and friends. Mostly family. A list I at times put myself on. A chronicle of my real time assessments of presumed depressive states that were potential life changing suicides. I did it subconsciously and without noticing I was doing it for years. It sounds like bullshit to me, but it was true. I was truly unaware of this constant drone in my psyche.

One of the recurring points I’ve made over the years was the startling and profound understanding of mortality that I had when I saw my kids the seconds after they were born. It’s more pronounced after the first, sure but that isn’t to say it wasn’t there with the second. It’s a bell that can’t be unrung, but it can certainly be rung again.

It was a rolling realization but the fact is that it was inevitable, being me, that sooner than later the fear of the worst thing I could ever imagine would occur to me. What if some day, too far out to imagine, but not so far out I can avoid ever thinking about, one of my kids, in a moment of pain and suffering and confusion and hopelessness and depression killed himself. It’s the worst thought I can imagine. It’s vomit inducing to say. It’s my biggest fear and I’ve never acknowledged it until now.

Because I got that letter. The one that I had no idea would ripple into the future not in weeks or months or even years, but in generations. In families that weren’t even imagined yet. In the darkest corners of my imagination and in the lists I’d construct mindlessly for hopes that somehow the preparation would perhaps soften a blow I couldn’t possibly see coming.

I’m not capable of having an objective view of my life. By definition it’s impossible, but at times my subjective experience of it can lead to insights that perhaps obvious to others are still profound for me. So saying that it would appear my grandfather killing himself may have effected me and my point of view may sound obvious to you, it wasn’t to me. It wasn’t at all.

I felt bad after reading the letter. I felt hurt even. There was no ‘good’ way to tell me and at a time when communication at a distance was not like it is today I understand why I’d learn about it this way. But it felt like I was left a few days behind. I came back to everyone being in the third or fourth day. I came back to a process that I was left out of. It wasn’t like it was anyone’s fault. I’m really only putting it together right here. At the time I just felt out of synch with the world. I didn’t know what else to do then keep doing what I did. I probably went and shot hoops. It’s literally how I spent an easy 50% of my waking hours at that time.

What I didn’t do was cry. I felt terrible about that. I wanted to so badly, but it just didn’t happen at that time. I didn’t really shed a tear. Maybe I would have had I been there for the group horror, but I wasn’t and I was a twelve year old boy. Emotions are hard always, but they’re a more confounding sort of hard, a less tethered kind at that age. It was 30 years later, when a young man I only knew through others and only enough to say hello to killed himself that I finally wrote about him, and my grandfather and read it to my mother that I really bawled about it.

The tears were not just sad tears. The tears I’ve shed for this event are sorrow filled to be sure, but they are rage informed as well. Confusion and fear are in tears for a suicide as well. There’s empathy and judgement and all of it just comes out. It doesn’t get processed or fixed with a good cry. That’s the thing about suicide. It doesn’t, as far as I can tell it can’t get resolved.

I write because I write. I have only this single keyhole through which to see the world and from where I’m looking the threat of finding out the worst news imaginable is possible because I’ve found it out before. And I’ve watched others find out what it all means, over time, others more directly related and I can’t ever lose the fear of it. So I write. I write about as many of the feelings and failings I can muster the courage or the perspective to find in my story. I write to the worries I have that can keep me up, about what if they don’t know how much I love them. What if they are disconnected at a time when I can’t reach them and they think an awful thought and I can’t hug them and hold them and assure them they are loved. What if they are afraid of me or think I will judge them harshly and I add weight to the burdens I can’t know that they will someday carry. And I write.

I write because it brings me joy and relief and understanding and it can fill me with pride and drive me to dig deeper. In doing so I’ve come to understand that I don’t always see all the forces compelling creation. I don’t always understand why the topics come to the surface. When they do I can ignore them or indulge and some I’ve indulged should likely have been ignored and many I’ve ignored should probably have been explored. The process of creating over time though is starting to reveal reason’s to me and one of them is I don’t want to ever catch myself ever thinking I’ve ever failed to do everything in my power to keep these two names, these two magical and wonderful human beings as far away as possible from my tragic lists. Lists I can’t sop making.

Finding Compassion and Mourning Loss

Most of what I write is done in my head while I’m actively engaged in other pursuits. If an idea sticks around long enough to congeal into a sentence and if I whittle and hammer that sentence into something I think might be of some value, I jot it down. Usually digitally, but this trait is so ingrained that I have boxes and boxes of handwritten sentences from the past 25 years or so stacked in various spots in and around my house. Of those I would guess that a substantial portion, perhaps as much as 5% of them, are about the topic of suicide. A good chunk from my teens and twenties was about my sincere and often serious consideration. It was a part of my character I referred to as ‘my death wish’. For me I faked my death by drinking ungodly amounts of liquor both sadly and alone. There are innumerable times in which I put myself in situations in which I could, and even should have wound up dead. I suppose that for me it was enough of a manifestation of my feelings to satisfy me.

In retrospect I have a hard time understanding why I was so sad. I thought I was awful for no real reason. And not ‘I’m really in the dumps’ kind of awful, but rather, ‘the lives of those near me would be better if I were dead. I make life awful just by being in it.’ It sounds crazy to me now, but when you have a soundtrack of your own voice working to construct sentences around such a feeling all day every day, it can really start to blot out reality and sound rational when it isn’t ever given the light of day to be refuted by the world around you.

Another part I’ve spent a good deal of time writing about was my grandfather. When I was 12 my grandfather killed himself. I’ve written quite a bit about this privately, but so many other people, almost all of the people in my life, are so effected by it that I feel sometimes like something as basic as simply saying it, saying that my grandfather killed himself is somehow stealing the pain of others or exacerbating the pain that others are experiencing. No one tells you not to say it, it just feels like something not to mention.

It’s had perhaps as profound an impact on my life as anything else. I’m a middle kid from a giant Irish-Catholic family and the timing of this for the person that had to bare the brunt of it in my household could not have been worse. Six kids to raise, more than half of them teens and a toddler for good measure. She has handled this with grace as she does all things. Much of the story is hers, but the small part that has been mine has been a weight and I bring it up only to inform you of the root of my perspective.

There are people who will read this who may have thoughts about my sharing of my perspective and my past. All of these peoples opinions are valid. As are mine. The thing is, we all see the world through our own personal keyhole. With such limited access to such a broad subject as life, what we see through that keyhole is at least as informed by what is on our side of the door as it is by what is on the other.

There have been several occasions, most recently the passing of Robin Williams, which have brought me closer and closer to a tipping point in terms of my feelings about suicide. My thoughts about those that go through with what I thought about often as a young man. Sadly, an event in my circle occurred last night which has made me think about the subject once more. An event so sad and only sad that I find myself changed.

A young man, far younger then me and far too young to have died, passed at his own hands last night. A man I didn’t know well but a person who profoundly touched many of the lives that have touched my own. There is infinite sadness filling the hole he has left.

Until now, due to my early, personal and all consuming experience with coping with suicide,the subject,I have held very stern and fairly cold and unforgiving opinions about people that have chosen to end their pain this way. I’ve always had endless compassion and empathy for the survivors. The sons and daughters and the brothers and sisters and of course, the mothers and fathers and husbands and wives. I’ve witnessed as best as one can from a short but protected distance the journey that ensues for those closest to the person in such pain.  My feelings of anger led me to a position all these years of anger and judgment. How selfish, I’d think? These were my firm, defensible opinions. Not uninformed I might add. And every time popular culture would start godding up a Robin Williams for example or before him the similar feelings I found myself feeling in the aftermath of the overdose death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, I’d find myself prepped and ready to unleash all of my pent up anger and frustration and judgment. I’d craft an impenetrable wall of logic, passion and scorn, wad it up into a ball and hurl it at the world.

With this event, with this tragic and epically sad event I feel nothing but compassion. I fear all the judgment I’ve made in the past was merely a way of releasing the anger I felt at my grandfather for compromising my family. To some degree it took me getting to a certain age so I could get some perspective. He was my papa. If parents are gods to a child as the world slowly emerges while they hold your hand, Papa’s are Zeus. To such a small creature as myself the thought of compassion or empathy for Zeus sounds crazy. But you grow up and you learn that they are simply human, just like you. You know this earlier, but emotionally it takes some time to think of them as anything but residents of Mt. Olympus. This latest news has informed that perspective and filled me with sadness.

I’m sick for the mere thought of his parents. The journey they are on now is one with no maps, no guarantees and virtually no guides. I am positively sick for them.

He was a young man who accomplished impressive things in his short time. Not of the typical, garden variety worldly accomplishments kind. He accomplished great acts of caring and loving and giving that I was afforded the opportunity to witness first hand a thousand times over at the place where I knew him. It was a place of work, yes, but it was more a community of caring and he was an admired practitioner in a land of giants. To know that there was so much love their for the taking had it been what he needed just kills me. Love of truly good people who thought the world of him. And not just yesterday, everyday. He was squarely in the middle of this powerful community. And even that didn’t save him.

I have been there. I often had to remind myself of how awfully I judged people that did this in order to keep myself from trying it. I think it was chemical and I think it was situational and I think it lasted much longer than it should have because of depressants. Alcohol. But I also think I did things that put me in a position to die, and not little things we all did a few times, real things. I’m lucky. It always surprises me when I hear people say that they can’t imagine what he must have been feeling. I always assumed we all could understand it. I can put myself at the moment. I can see how one gets there. I can remember being that age and that stage and feeling it. Intensely.

As has been true since I first found out it had happened, my thoughts and feelings about my Grandfather continue to evolve. Thankfully. Now, as a man, as a parent I have a great deal more understanding and acceptance that despite whatever was happening, he didn’t know how his final act would so effect those around him. He had no idea, couldn’t see so far beyond the giant pain that was hurting him so deeply. Whatever ideas we all think we have about the event, we don’t know. What we can surmise though is this. He was in extreme pain. He was a man that loved his family dearly and deeply and the pain was enough to block out even that. So now I take the time to feel sorry for him. Truly sad for him. It took me almost 30 years.

%d bloggers like this: