My dad thought my nose was a baby. He said there was a baby on my face, where my nose should be; a full body and a head. He found it funny. He wanted to take a picture so I could see what he saw.
My mom thought my dad was hiding millions of dollars from her, from us. She thought he was part of an international money-laundering scheme.
My dad called as I drove to pick him up to take him to the dentist. “I can’t make it to the appointment,” he said. When I asked him why, he said, “I’m in Bosnia.” Apparently he had been in Bosnia for the last five days. He told me he had received a voice mail message from himself saying he was lost in Bosnia, but he wasn’t afraid. When I got to his room at the assisted living place, he wanted me to listen to his voice mail so I could hear the message. Even though I doubted the message would be there, part of me wondered if he did somehow call himself, if I could hear what he had heard. But no, when I pressed Play, all I heard was myself, a message I had left a couple of days ago, the little-girlishness of my voice making me cringe. Later, he shook his head and laughed a bit, saying “Bosnia”, stunned by his own brain. When I brought up the story a few weeks down the road, he said earnestly, “It wasn’t Bosnia. I was in the Bosphorus.”
My mom thought white vans were chasing her. She thought people were spraying her with poison from their cellphones.
My dad thought President Obama had called upon him to be the new leader of the civil rights movement. He thought the FBI had transported his whole apartment to Washington, DC. “I’m going to be a hometown hero,” he told me excitedly.
My dad’s death certificate reads
(a) Cardiopulmonary Failure
DUE TO, OR AS A CONSEQUENCE OF
(b) Debility and Decline
DUE TO, OR AS A CONSEQUENCE OF
(c) Senile Degeneration Of The Brain
DUE TO, OR AS A CONSEQUENCE OF
(d) Dementia, Vascular”
My mom’s reads “HANGING BY ELECTRIC CORD FROM PIPE.” (clearly there are no capitalization standards from coroner’s office to coroner’s office.) It doesn’t say “DUE TO OR AS A CONSEQUENCE OF Paranoid Delusion” but the subtext is written all over the page.
Watching both parents lose their minds doesn’t give me a lot of faith in the future of my brain. My mind already feels slower than it once did, less electric. I find my memory fading, too; sometimes it feels as if the grooves in my brain are smoothing over, erasing stories trapped in each cleft, a sort of reverse evolution, turning my cerebellum from prune to plum, something firm and blank and tart.
This terrifies me—if I lose my memories, my stories, who am I? I feel panicky when I think of my childhood, my children’s childhoods, being lost to me forever. But maybe a sense of peace comes over people who lose all their memories. If we forget everything, every moment would be brand new. We could just be, like an animal or a plant.
I can remember lying in bed shortly after my mom hanged herself, nursing my baby, who was born one week before her death. I remember thinking I should be doing something more, something active, writing or researching or doing one of the many practical post-death tasks that needed doing, but then I thought about sows, about how a mama pig just lies on her side nursing her piglets, how that’s all she needs to do, that’s her task, she gives herself to it fully, and I let myself drop into that surrender, let myself just be a mother animal nursing her young, mind blank, and I found there was something comforting, liberating, in that. Maybe that’s what it feels like to have your memory erased—you can just be a mammal in your body, living from moment to moment.
In her memoir Ongoingness, Sarah Manguso writes “My goal now is to forget it all so that I’m clean for death.” But I have to remember that’s just memory loss. Delusion is a whole other story. Dementia is a whole other story. And after watching my parents, I know I can’t take my lucidity for granted.
My mom, in her delusion, thought everyone was against her. My dad had his own moments of paranoia and disorientation, but his delusions were more often of the absurd, even sweet, variety. I know I have no control over the matter—over that tender, amazing, convoluted gray matter—but if I have to lose my mind, may it be in the way of my dad. May I say things that make my family laugh and shake their heads instead of traumatize them. May I travel to surprising places without leaving the room, see whimsical things, imagine myself a hero—which sounds quite a bit like the writing life, come to think of it, just without the mediation of the page. Maybe it would help to think of it that way, to think of delusion and dementia as a new way of living inside a story, entering non-linear, unpredictable narrative. A way of life in which we let go of chronology, let go of traditional plot and sentence structure. That makes it sound less scary to me, makes it feel more like art than ruin. But I also know how scary it can be to get trapped inside a story—I saw that in my mom, how terrified and alone she felt in her delusion, especially at the end. Story can save us but it can also imprison us. My mom may have killed herself to kill the story that had taken over her life.
My mind wants to create a happier narrative for itself—one in which it can avoid my parents’ fate, one in which it can hold on as long as my body does, one in which my body and mind stay vitally, inextricably linked, until they both give up the ghost—but at the same time, my mind knows it may not be the final author of my life. None of us know who will have the last word. For now, I’m grateful to be able to string words together, grateful to preserve some sharpness, some clarity, before the light ultimately goes out.
GAYLE BRANDEIS is the author, most recently, of the memoir The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide (Beacon Press) and the poetry collection The Selfless Bliss of the Body (Finishing Line Books). Her other books include Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), and the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), which won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage (Ballantine), Delta Girls (Ballantine), and My Life with the Lincolns (Henry Holt), which received a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a state-wide read in Wisconsin. She currently teaches at Sierra Nevada College and the low residency MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles. Buy her books here.
Hey, hey, I saved the world today. And everybody’s happy now the bad thing’s gone away.
I was in no way thinking along the lines of a proposal. I boarded the plane to Paris with Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song in hand; earlier, I’d had my boyfriend run an X-Acto blade through the thousand-page tome, dividing it into three cartable sections. “Who brings such a depressing book to the south of France?”he’d asked, shaking his head and pressing the knife deeper into the bind. I watched the sinew flex in his forearm and shrugged.
“Don’t be silly,” I’d countered. “The entire country is depressed.”
He asked me to marry him a week into our trip, kneeling down on a grassy hill in Bourgogne. I had to hug myself to keep the wind from whipping up under my jacket, and the sun had dipped so low it was hard to see. “Yes,” I blurted out of custom, and then demurred. “Can I think about it?”
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to commit—we’d lived together faithfully for five years and I wanted kids with him. I’d just always been vocal about the fact that I thought a marriage certificate was irrelevant—not to mention a possible death warrant for romance—and this was the first I was hearing that he did not. In retrospect, my position seems facile: what did I know about an institution that I’d never been a part of? That night, we dined in a hideaway restaurant with a huge brick oven that warmed the entire room. “If I say no, will you still grow old with me?”I asked, the wine drowning out my anxiety.
“Of course,”he said without hesitation, and I knew he meant it.
When I ask him now where the suicide happened in the span of that trip, he never says, After I proposed to you and you said maybe. He says, “After Arles and before Collioure.” He cannot tell me how he felt about it or if he was frightened that day, but seven years later he can tell me the exact gas station where it happened. “Here it is,” he says, pulling it up on Google maps. “Just outside of Montpellier.”
I remember thinking that the rest area felt almost comically American in scope—a football field–sized scrape out of the French countryside with a long row of gas pumps and two convenience areas flanking each end of the asphalt. The bird’s eye view of us, a young couple on a road trip pulling into it, dragged to mind the pivotal scene from The Vanishing—not the original Dutch version, but the American remake with Kiefer Sutherland and Sandra Bullock. “She disappears into a gas station,”I explained, shoving the middle section of The Executioner’s Song into the floorboard and pulling on my sandals. “And then Kiefer Sutherland can’t find her and becomes obsessed and then when he finally finds out what happened—well, it’s the worst possible thing.”
“You and your macabre stories,” he joked, parking outside of the smaller convenience store.
“I don’t like them because they’re macabre,” I said defensively. “I read them to be prepared. In case something bad happens.” I walked across the asphalt lot alone to the bigger convenience plaza, looking for food. In the Mailer book I was reading, people also met terrible fates at the gas station. Gary Gilmore killed a gas station attendant, Max Jensen, for no practical reason. I had told my boyfriend that these stories gave me a sense of control—that if I studied them, I might know how to save people. But Jensen had done exactly what Gilmore asked—given him the money, lain down face first on the floor—and Gilmore had executed him anyway. Now I realized that there was something more important they were cautioning me against: taking people for granted. The people we love, nothing more than a cluster of atoms, too easily destroyed. The narratives implored me to hold tight.
Returning, I cut through a line of cars flanking the side of the store where we’d parked. As I approached the driver’s side window of a small sedan, I saw the back of a man’s head propped against his window. Asleep, I thought, and then had the unmistakable feeling that I should look closer. My eyes shifted downward to his door, which was ajar by maybe a centimeter, and through the tiny sliver I could see his arm slack by his side and a steady line of drool trickling down his chin.
I looked around for help. In the car to my left, a middle-aged French couple sat talking and languidly smoking cigarettes in the afternoon sun. I waved my arms, and when the woman in the passenger seat turned I motioned to his window, flipping my palms heavenward.
She shook her head at me and mouthed, “Non,” then shut her eyes and put her head to the back of her hands to mimic sleeping. Then she turned back to the driver and started talking again.
My face flushed—the cliché of the unflappable French blowing off the overdramatic American—but I steeled myself and tapped the couple’s window again. “No dormir, no dormir,” I mouthed, hating my terrible French. Wearily, she got out of the car, stubbed out her cigarette and tapped his window. When he didn’t respond, she narrowed her eyes at me and cautiously walked around to the passenger side. She opened it and pulled out a note: A Dieu, pour tout ce que tu m’as fait.
To God, for all that you have done to me.
I ran into the gas station. My boyfriend stood at the espresso vending machine, a tiny paper cup in front of him. “Come,” I croaked, “a man is trying to kill himself. Can you tell the attendant to call 911 in French?”
Outside, a small group formed around the man in the car: the smoking couple, a pretty teenaged girl and her mother, the gas station attendant, and us. The six of us looked like stock characters in a canned farce, frozen in indecision until the mother announced she was a registered nurse. Under her direction, we slipped into action—grateful to stay busy until the ambulance arrived.
Combing through his backseat, someone unearthed sleeping pills and an empty six-pack of Heineken. With the car doors open, I could see dozens of small stuffed animals, some with the word Grandpa stitched across them. My stomach knotted: somebody else’s irreplaceable cluster of atoms. My eyes passed over the driver’s legs, which were small and atrophied. He was disabled. To God, for all that you have done to me.
When the paramedics finally arrived, they sauntered out of their vehicle slowly, like tourists stretching their legs at a vista. Even facing calamity, the French took their time. My boyfriend and the man from the smoking couple helped the male paramedic bring him into a tiny back room inside the station, while the female paramedic asked me questions and the nurse translated. After a while, they carried him to the back of the ambulance and my boyfriend returned with a smile.
“They think he’s going to be okay. They’re taking him to the hospital now, but they’re almost positive he’s going to make it.” I smiled, relieved, and he smiled back. “You saved him,” he said, his eyes uncharacteristically big with adrenaline. “You helped save his life.”
I nodded slowly, unsure how to process it. “But what if it isn’t okay with him?” I whispered. The man had wanted to die, and I had intervened. I was instinctually proud, sure that I had done the right thing—but a small part of me still felt uncomfortable altering another man’s life course. I could never know the extent of his suffering. I looked at him. “He was clearly in pain,” I said. “Maybe he needed peace.”
Walking back to the espresso vending machine, he picked up his cup. It had sat there for well over an hour, and nobody had touched it. Only in France, I thought. “If he doesn’t like it,” my boyfriend said, taking a sip, “he can always try again.”
The next year, I married him.
CINDY PRICE (www.cindyprice.net) has written for the New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, The Wall Street Journal, Philadelphia Weekly, Hemispheres, and The New Leader. Her food and travel writing has appeared in three New York Times anthologies and the American Michelin guides, and she has taught classes for the New York Times Knowledge Network, Mediabistro, and Gotham Writer’s Workshop. Born, raised, and educated in the South, she now lives in Maplewood, NJ, with her husband and two sons. Follow her on Twitter @cindyeprice.
On a February night in 2012, there was a knock at my door. When I looked through my door’s peephole, I saw a young man in my hallway. My neighbor’s son from upstairs. I figured that he was going to ask if I had heat or hot water or to borrow something, so when I opened the door and heard him say, “I’ve been wanting to talk to you for a long time. Are you seeing anyone?” I put my hand up for him to stop talking and told him I’d get my keys and come out into the hall.
JR stood on the second step of the landing between our floors. He was built like the high-school football player he’d been—thick neck, broad shoulders, muscular legs. By the way his eyes, the color of wet soil, drifted up into a corner of the ceiling like a student remembering what the textbook said, I could tell that he’d rehearsed this in his head until he’d finally built up the nerve to do it. I knew what I should say. Point out our age difference—he was twenty-three, I was thirty-three. Point out how different we were as people—he wore his pants three sizes too big and I’d once heard him have a yelling match in the front of our building with his ex-girlfriend, while I stopped liking guys who wore baggy jeans in ’96 and kicked my previous boyfriend out for being too chaotic.
It would have been easy, too; it would’ve taken me all of a minute to say, This is sweet but no thanks. Instead, I gave him my phone number.
Breaking both cardinal rules I’d laid down the next day in his bedroom—this is not a relationship and discretion was required—JR and I went on dates, he met some of my friends, and we held hands in public. I played Otis Redding songs for him, introduced him to Carlos the Jackal via a mini-series, and read him Thich Nhat Hahn. He’d drive me to work and pick me up almost every day and make me tea in the evenings.
To see myself through his eyes was to witness feats of sorcery. The thrill was in coming up with more and more things to expand and amaze him with. All random things that I was into that he’d never been exposed to or never had the freedom to express interest in because of the street life he was drawn to. If I stopped too long to think about it, I knew I would find my relationship with JR to be unsustainable, but I swatted the thought away in exchange for how good the attention felt.
One evening, detectives knocked on JR’s door. I lied and said he wasn’t in. They left their card, saying they just wanted to ask him a few questions. JR admitted he’d committed a robbery. There was a good possibility it was caught on video. A week later, he decided to turn himself in.
We spent that evening sitting on the steps of the elementary school that we’d attended, across the street from our building. We had started out the same—two kids with cartoon backpacks and fresh pencils. As much as I joked that my School of Making Better Men was closed, I believed that boy could reemerge, the boy that went to the same gifted junior high school I did and earned a college football scholarship. From the corner at the top of the hill our building sat on, I watched him walk away until he disappeared into the precinct. He was sentenced to five years.
We wrote each other almost every week, at first. JR’s first letter began, “I miss and love you so much. I wish and pray I can go home to see, hold, and sleep with you again.” Another letter continued, “I also find myself trying to ascertain how or why you love a monster like myself. I know I haven’t shown you that side of me, but based on my way of living alone, it should’ve kept you at a distance from me.”
In another letter, “I still can’t believe I’m so lucky to have a woman like you on my side. My shrink tells me that I should call it a blessing, but I call it luck, because blessings have nothing to do with love. Luck has everything to do with it. Then he asked me how do I figure that and I explained, love is luck because not everyone in this world will ever know what love is, nor will they ever experience it. It’s like stumbling upon money in the street. That’s not a blessing, you was hit with enough luck to find that money.”
He closed another letter with, “please don’t leave me alone because without you, I’m just the same old monster I’m known to be.”
After a few months, I stopped writing back.
First letter from John (April 2013)
One afternoon, I checked my OK Cupid account to find a message from JLRodriguez. “Had I recognized you for you I never woulda stopped, but I did, and you probably already got a message that I did…so I will play this however you want me to,” it read. I had randomly popped up on his matches, and he didn’t recognize me until he was already in my profile.
I recognized JLRodriguez as John, a poet I met at a reading in the lower east side two years prior. We’d already been connected on social media, but the reading was our first interaction in real life. He leaned in conspiratorially and asked what happened between me and a publisher that caused the short-story anthology I was editing—that included one of John’s stories—to come to an abrupt halt. Wary, I gave John a diplomatic answer, something about my sense of timing with the publisher’s not being compatible. We didn’t speak again until a year later when we were reading at the same event. We were cordial, nothing more.
In his message, John closed with, “I’m looking like you are, and you look good. At any case, I do hope you find whomever you are looking for.”
I got called out on something I thought I’d hidden well. I was looking. I had been tirelessly looking since I was a child: for answers, love, approval, freedom, happiness. When I found some form of these things—in a conversation with my father, in a new love interest, in an acceptance letter—I sought it out in another way—spirituality, a new love interest, an acceptance letter to something else. Contentment is only a plateau, never a permanent state.
I liked that John offered to meet me on this plateau, as a fellow seeker, but with the openness to know that we might not remain there. If, scrolling through online profiles, I would’ve seen and recognized him, I also would’ve passed, but there was some significance to my appearing on his feed. One that was worth exploring.
Love letter from John (June 24, 2013)
On our first date, John and I had lunch at a Mexican restaurant that had a photograph of Marilyn Monroe on the bathroom wall. I told John I had been reading about the siren archetype and Marilyn Monroe, the prime example. I didn’t tell him that I took a photo of the picture thinking it was a good omen. We talked about Mourid Barghouti’s memoir and Rita Moreno’s autobiography in the park across the street from the restaurant. He gave me a tour of the college campus where he taught freshman English composition courses. It was one of the best dates I ever had.
John was the type of guy to listen to me over the phone so intently, I would ask if he was still there. One day, when I was marooned on my couch with a fever, he brought over tea, Gatorade, and croissants. We often spent time wandering through museums or at readings. He’d send me YouTube links to Wu-tang mashups and I’d send him Robi Rosa or Florence and The Machine songs. He introduced me to Vampire Hunter D and Dungeons and Dragons alignments. I was on equal footing with him intellectually and emotionally, standing on that plateau of contentment. If there was a right way to do a relationship, this was the one I’d gotten the most right. JR was the last page of Act I and John was the first page of Act II.
John was also the type of guy who when I ran out of toilet paper or Brillo pads, brought it up constantly as something that should never happen to an adult. In his thirty-nine years, he’d never once let that happen. The first time I made a meal for him—vegetable lasagna—he said that it was almost, but not quite, as good as his mom’s. In social situations, things could go either way: he was sweet and inquisitive or visibly uncomfortable until he was a block of ice. I wrestled with these pros and cons, but the pros still far outweighed cons.
When I was accepted into a week-long writing workshop in Berkeley, John dropped me off at the Airtran at JFK Airport. We hugged and kissed. “It’s just a week. I’ll see you Monday,” he said. A couple of days later I received a letter via email.
We are far now, so very, and I want you to know how wonderful you make everything.
More than that day, when I saw that picture and wondered who was that beautiful woman; more than when I knew who she was; more than the red-cheeked rush of wonderment in writing you; more than reading your acceptance; it was your willing hand in mine.
You made me feel worthy of love. No one else ever has. It was always me dreaming, forcing the clichéd longing of pseudo-romance. You welcomed me and accepted me and for that, more than anything else that I have experienced, I love you.
You make loving so easy. My time, my concern, and even my Gmail password— it comes as no surprise that I share these things with you, that you find me good at sharing, at noticing, and that you are great at reading me, that you understand, and are willing to deal with the strange seeds watered around me.
With all my love,
I called to tell him he was the absolute best for sending me a love letter. We talked for about an hour. I can’t remember about what exactly, mostly about how things were going for me in the workshop. It was the last time that I ever heard his voice.
When my week in Berkeley was drawing to a close, my instructor pulled me aside during a break from our workshop and told me John was dead. His mother’s body was found earlier in the week, in her apartment, a hammer next to her bed. John was found a couple of days later when he never checked out of a hotel room where he slit his wrists in the bathtub. When I received his letter, he had already killed his mother and I imagine he had already decided he was going to kill himself.
That OK Cupid message, at first so ripe with fate, now seemed like nothing more than a cosmic joke, a lesson sent by a god in a Greek tragedy to humble me. I reread his letters daily. So many things had to align for John and me to meaningfully cross paths: algorithms, previous break-ups, the science behind what we found attractive. I kept regressing down that line of thinking until it seemed possible that even our parents leaving their respective homelands were part of this enormous web that extended further and further into history itself. If this wasn’t an aleph, it was the closest I ever came to a moment where every thing was visible at once, and painfully so. It was overwhelming to grapple with thoughts of chance, fate, and the way time moves more like nesting dolls rather than in any linear fashion, all while crying, making John’s final arrangements, and trying to meet the daily demands of work and parenting.
I did, however, begin to feel that there was still significance in joining John on that little ledge of contentment, beyond notions of good or bad. There is a quote by the sorcerer Don Juan Matus, from Carlos Castaneda’s books, that says, “The basic difference between an ordinary man and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge while an ordinary man takes everything as a blessing or a curse.” The challenge for me was to hold on to goodness and mercy, and the world as a place where these things still existed.
Something in John’s letter prodded me. “My time, my concern, and even my Gmail password.” A list of things he’d given me, except for the password. Yet, here he was saying I had it. John was a poet and he had established a rhythm here, then disrupted it. One night, I was up with newly acquired insomnia when I remembered that he’d once asked me for a favor. He’d given me his Submittable password and asked me to send his manuscript to a publisher. I typed that password into his email and it worked.
John had emailed himself a letter and addressed it to me. The subject line was “just in case,” but I think that he knew I would find it because he counted on my looking. He apologized if I was hurting. His use of the word “if” was grating, as if there was any way I couldn’t be hurting. He said his favorite times were with me. The last five lines read:
You made me a believer in love.
You made me believe.
You did that.
Letter to John. (June 24, 2014)
On the morning of the one-year anniversary of John’s death, I wrote to him.
We haven’t spoken in a minute, I know. You’re certainly making up for that. This morning, I hear you everywhere. And I know there are things we still won’t talk about.
I workshopped an essay about you last week. My group critiquing it said they couldn’t see my love for you. They felt distance there. And they were right. It’s because I still feel shame for having loved you. You left me with a lot of shame, John. To be ashamed of good memories is a fucked up thing.
Anyway, it made me think well, how to do I revise this? What were the things that made me feel love for you? And I keep coming back to that morning we wrote together. You, working on that sci-fi novel. Me, on a short story. That morning, I looked over at you and thought this could be a lot of Sunday mornings. Our equivalent of reading the Sunday Times or going to farmer’s markets or whatever couples do on Sundays. It was symbiotic. It wasn’t that aficiamiento where you’re half-crazed over someone, and I think you knew that. It was the sense of partnership, of working, creating, side by side. Harmony. That’s what I didn’t say in my essay. That this part was so stellar that I was more than willing to work with the more jodon parts of you. Yes, jodon.
People ask me if I think we’d still be together. I always say no, without missing a beat. I don’t know whose benefit that is for. I say the critical, unbending parts of you would’ve swelled like a supernova to overshadow everything.
You know, eventually, I don’t want to remember this date. You, of course, I’d like to remember random things and laugh, but this date, no. I won’t mark it forever so maybe I will talk to you next year. Maybe I won’t. In any case, I’ll see you around, John.
Last letter to JR. (September 2014)
I intended to write to JR because I was working on this essay. I didn’t. It’s been about a year since I’ve written to him. I know that the last time was after John died because I have a letter from him that says, “I won’t lie, I’m glad you’re still single but I’m very sorry about your friend.” I didn’t see the point of getting into details.
I save his letters, the first ones still bound with white ribbon as if I would be able to keep everything that neat for the duration of JR’s incarceration. The ones that came after, the ones I had time to read, but never got around to answering, are piled haphazardly on top. Maybe I’ll still receive the sporadic letter from JR, but one day the letters will stop completely because he will be home, a twenty-eight-year-old man who may not see love, or perhaps me, in the same fortuitous light as before.
I used to wonder if JR grasped the nuance between the terms “luck” and “blessing” when I reread his letters, but it was I that had been using them interchangeably, like shrimp and crab in the same chowder, close enough that I couldn’t be bothered to distinguish between them. Blessings elicit gratitude because of their benefit, suggest having taken action to achieve or suffering to earn. Only good people are blessed. Luck, on the other hand is as transitory and undiscerning as love itself. A spin on a wheel. But lucky or unlucky, blessed or cursed, none of those words really seem to be a good fit for the magnitude or complexity of loving or being loved by JR or John. It was both and neither and all.
GLENDALIZ CAMACHO was born and raised in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. Her writing has appeared in All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014), Southern Pacific Review, and The Acentos Review, among others. She was a 2013 Pushcart Prize nominee and is currently working on a short story collection.
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 disappointmentswere 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.