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September 15, 2010

How little we know

We don’t see each other any more unless someone dies or gets married, and people aren’t getting married so much anymore, not at our age. So, it was a reunion, of sorts, a mixer, even, with all of us who knew the decedent trying to make sense of our gathering. Our friend had died, by his own hand, and the universal reaction among those who knew him was bewilderment … and sorrow. There were perhaps warning signs, but it seems that a truly desperate soul can find a way to hide the depth of its despair.

Dave was a golden-hearted fellow, by all accounts of those at the visitation; sure, if he’d had enemies or detractors, they probably would have stayed home or otherwise held their tongues, but the generosity of his spirit was fairly well known. He had no ill will toward people. He wouldn’t share gossip. Where he showed his influence in a group, it was toward a brighter, more upbeat attitude. He wouldn’t even cuss at bad drivers. His enthusiasm for the adventure of life was profound.

And now he’s gone.

I remember when I first realized that a human could end his or her own life. I was in grade school, and I was particularly miserable. I couldn’t comprehend how I felt so completely on the outside of something that everybody else seemed to understand. How did they manage to escape the sense of gravity that plagued me? How could they be so unified in their approach, and why couldn’t I join their conversations?

There was a boy in my homeroom class in ninth grade (I believe) who succeeded in taking his own life, but it was so close to the beginning of the new school year that few of us even knew who he was. I only have the vaguest memory of his existence. I remember thinking he was a good-looking kid and seemed to have sufficient self-confidence, but I really didn’t know him at all. Still, I carry him with me, even now, like a charge to do the most I can with this little life.

I saw in a movie one time a ritual among an aboriginal tribe that would burn the bodies of their dead and then take bits of bone from the ashes and grind them into a powder. They would mix this powder with the remaining powder of the bones of previously deceased tribesmen, take a small amount of the whole and add water. They would then drink this concoction, the entire body of the survivors, a funereal communion. In this way, it was explained, the souls of the tribes’ fallen brethren were passed forward into the bodies of all those who remained.

It struck me at the time that this grisly activity is not so different from the way we deal with the death of a fallen friend or family member. As we gather to share grief, we reinforce our shared memories and absorb something of the diminishing spirit of our departed loved ones. Ever since I saw that movie (and I’ll be damned if I can’t remember the name of it), I have considered that ritual, symbolically, whenever I attend a funeral, quietly recognizing the way the deceased had affected my life and how I might react to their passing, incorporating something of their spirit into mine.

As it turns out, this process is considerably more difficult when the deceased is a victim of suicide. My meditations upon this passing have taken me into dark territory as I found myself identifying with my friend’s despair, and the juxtaposition of his former brightness with the horror of the way he passed tended to create an unresolving loop of difficult emotions.

But I walked out into a beautiful day, and the cloud-dappled blue sky helped to reset my spirit on a path of wonder. Meanwhile, it continues to surprise me how difficult it can be to have friends. May we always pursue such work.

For further study: “Joe Versus the Volcano” was panned by everyone (except Roger Ebert, who rightfully recognized its cracked brilliance) when it first appeared in 1990. Tom Hanks stars as a hopeless drone in a dead-end job who is suddenly faced with a terrifying medical diagnosis, a terminal “brain cloud.” In exchange for a few weeks of the good life, he agrees to throw himself into a volcano. Existential hilarity ensues.