By Ellen Blum Barish
Titan. Teacher. Talker.
Tender. Thoughtful. Truthful.
Tenor. Tea drinker. Tolkien-lover.
Tyrannous. Troubled. Trying.
Preparing for Douglas’s memorial, I was still so numb from the news of his suicide that I could only grasp one word at a time, as if I were recovering from a blow to the head. Memorials are one of those few gatherings in which being a writer can actually be useful, and so not being able to string words together into sentences was only adding to my heartbreak. In the days before the service, as I was struggling to write something thoughtful or healing, words beginning with the letter t came to me. The first, titan, because of his genius and then, teacher, because he was professorial in all ways. The rest came swiftly, even if verbs and articles didn’t.
My list of t words was a weary attempt at honoring someone I’ve known and loved for more than thirty years, but I didn’t have any practice eulogizing a dear friend who died from a bullet that he sent through his head.
But offer it I did, to our gathering of six, all friends from college who had long histories with Douglas, who listened quietly as I recited my stupid t words on the campus where we all met in the late 1970s.
On the year he took his life, it had been close to four years since I had spoken with him. He’d been pulling away. On his fiftieth birthday, I sent him a coffee table book of Grateful Dead concert photography, but I never heard back, which irked me more than made me worry. On his fifty-first, I emailed him, but he didn’t reply. In previous years, when there was a chance for us to get together in Chicago, he’d grab a flight or jump into his beige Honda from his Lawrence, Kansas, home and, voila, reunion. His recent non-response was deafening; his absence creeping into every gathering, turning talk to the question of why he was shutting us out of his life. During that year, all six of us had all reached out to him in various ways, leaving emails, voice messages, acknowledging his birthday, the new year. I had gone as far as anonymously calling the university where he taught to ask the department secretary to confirm that he was still teaching there, which he was.
On his fifty-second, I sent another email.
I wrote, “Hoping this finds you well and that this day brings you joy and peace. Know that you are in our hearts.”
Later that day, he wrote back, simply, “Thank you.”
That birthday prompted a series of conversations between the six of us about what was going on with him.
We had several theories.
There was the bat mitzvah overload theory. Between us, all of us Jewish, there were six children celebrating bat or bar mitzvahs over a half dozen years. Douglas, who didn’t identify with any religion, made the trip up for two or three but then just stopped. A single, agnostic guy with no kids. We couldn’t blame him.
There was the theory that professional disappointments were at the root of his pulling away. The strain of grants not earned, articles not published; that job in D.C. that he really wanted but didn’t get.
Most of us shared the theory that he had gone off his antidepressants and stopped going to therapy. He’d been depressed for most of his teaching life, but it seemed to us that when he was seeing his therapist and taking his medication, he had been doing well. But somewhere around his fiftieth birthday, he had confessed to Steve, with whom he was the closest, that he simply didn’t want to talk or take medicine anymore.
There was a short-lived suspicion that he might be gay and not out. I didn’t subscribe to this theory, because during my first two years of college, he and I dated. In his heyday— our heyday—he looked like red haired, freckled Christian Bale. Imagine Christian, with a tinge of Howdy Doody. I’ll never forget him in his puffy blue parka and plaid, woolen bucket hat. He was, without a doubt, a self-professed computer geek with a Middle-earthy charm, drinking tea and calling friends “M’lady” and “M’lord.” He was insistent on being the teacher, in being right, and eventually I wanted to be more like a colleague so I moved on. In later years, the Christian Bale–Howdy Doodiness faded and he became a ringer for Mario Batali, bald head and ponytail included.
It took some time for us to meet back in the middle for what would become decades of friendship that would also, weirdly and wonderfully, include a close camaraderie with my husband. They shared a passion for disc golf, cycle-commuting, home-brewed beer, science fiction, Chicago Blues, and the Dead.
Douglas did date women but since becoming a tenured professor of computer science, he had been decidedly single, living in a ranch house with two black retrievers and an expansive video, television, and audio library.
He and Steve had exchanged email in recent years, but Douglas had even been avoiding Steve’s calls. Steve talked about flying down for an intervention, but before he did, he called Douglas, first unlisting his cell number. And Douglas picked up. Caught. Douglas confirmed that he was dodging us. He told Steve it was “the least bad alternative to avoid dumping gloom, doom, pessimism, and angst on top of your existence.”
In an email he later sent to Steve, he wrote, “I told Ellen some of this, and she was kind enough to say that my argument was logical, cogent, and reasonable, and what I said might well be true, but couldn’t I enjoy myself anyway? A reasonable question, and if I were sufficiently Zen, maybe I could do it, but the practical answer is no.”
He went on to tell the story about the Zen Monk who, while walking through the forest, hears a lion running after him. He outruns him, but, in doing so falls over a cliff, grabbing a bush on the way down, which stops him. Looking up, he sees the lion. Looking down, he sees a tiger. Both are hungry and anticipating lunch. But the bush is slowly ripping out of the hillside and he will soon fall down to the tiger. It’s then that he notices a big, beautiful strawberry on the bush. He picks the berry, takes a bite and smiling, says, “Delicious!”
“So,” wrote Douglas, “while I aspire to the monk’s moment-by-moment existence, in this case, I have been unable to reach that level of enjoying the moment while still seeing the lion and the tiger because you guys would want to help with the cause of my problems but cannot, or want me to cheer up, and I am simply not cheerful in the face of these lions and tigers. The only strawberries have been the books, videos, and students wanting to learn a few things I know how to teach.”
He then he added, “Sorry for the worry.”
It was a poetic description of depression. I learned later that the strawberry plant has actually been used to treat depression. None of us could disagree with his facts. That was the thing about Douglas—he bated and urged argument on, like sport. I saw it as a sign of his passion, the place he was most passionate—an argument with someone else in which he felt strongly. Why argue if you don’t care? That he stayed away from us, and the arguments, struck me as a frightening sign of his loss of interest in life.
But I kept thinking that as long as he showed up to class and had students who needed him, he was stable, even if we weren’t in his life. At the university, he worked on Linux systems, the free, open-source program designed for simultaneous multi-uses which dovetailed perfectly with his often-voiced philosophy that information should be freely dispersed to everyone, that the pursuit of knowledge is good for its own sake, and that people should live harmoniously with others.
And, there were Susan and John, two former computer science professor colleagues from Kansas about whom we’d all heard a lot. They currently lived and taught in Arkansas with Douglas and spent many holidays with him, even in those depressed years.
Other than teaching students and periodic visits with Susan and John, he was a loner. An only child, his father left when he was eighteen months old. He hadn’t spoken to his mother in twenty years. And his college buddies, the ones he was pushing away for reasons we will never fully know, were two, three and four states away.
Yet signs that he was losing his patience were becoming evident. There was that letter he wrote to Bill O’Reilly in 2005:
I have heard you are publishing an enemy’s list. I can think of nothing I would like better, at this moment, than to be included on the list of enemies of such a self-important, self-serving, egotistical, amoral, and slime-covered opportunist as you so obviously are.
Susan’s husband John saw Douglas ten days before his death.
“He seemed happier than usual,” Susan told me in a recent conversation, “not as abrasive as he could usually get.” Later, the gun receipt date confirmed that by that time, he had made his plans.
Douglas sent Susan and John a touchy-feely email thanking them for their friendship that struck them as uncharacteristic.
He didn’t show up for the first day of class. A department member phoned Susan. Susan and John called the police who said they might be able to find him via cell signal, which heightened their worry.
Susan and John left for work and, when the housekeeper later arrived, she found a box in the driveway. It was Douglas’s electronic library containing over a thousand hours of content. His worldy goods, dropped off, in a drive-by.
Douglas’ car was found by the landowners of a farm on an Arkansas highway, dead from a gun shot to his head.
Twelve days after he died, we gathered on campus to say goodbye; we left red carnations at locations where each of us had shared something with him to acknowledge our coming of age there. We began at the dorms where we all met and ended at the lake, where everyone managed to speak in full sentences, except me.
Some months later, Susan and John organized an academic fund at the university. A perfect legacy honoring the teacher, the titan. But what about the man?
This year, on his birthday I felt, as I did every year, the urge to reach out again. Even though, in the latter part of his life, he didn’t reach back. But maybe in death. Recently, Susan told me that her husband was in the airport and saw a tee-shirt printed with words that we all swear could have been a direct quote from Douglas himself. A suggestion of his presence, still floating in the world; a possible response to our questions.
It said, “I can explain it to you, but I can’t understand it for you.”
ELLEN BLUM BARISH is a Chicago-based writer whose essays have appeared in Literary Mama, Tablet, and The Chicago Tribune and have aired on Chicago Public Radio. She is author of Views from the Home Office Window, a collection of essays from her syndicated newspaper column on motherhood. She has taught writing at Northwestern University, StoryStudio Chicago, and several other Chicago-area universities and adult education venues. Ellen also is a private writing coach, specializing in personal essay and memoir. Learn more at www.ellenblumbarish.com. This is her first piece for Full Grown People.