I think some people are born wanting to die. Or perhaps it is that they never quite shake off the initial sensations of terror, confusion and resistance they experience upon entrance into the world. We all show up at this party covered in blood and tears, screaming and writhing like banshees. Explanations are myriad, subjective and highly debatable, but whatever process is meant to transform that terrified, confused and resistant creature into a confident, sage and resigned human being is not always successful. Some people show up to their last party covered in blood and tears, confused and terrified, and commit the final and most explicit act of resistance.
One day in February, or maybe it was January, it wasn’t March… It’s a bit of a blur now… I sat at my desk at work, and as I’m inclined to do when on break, or more likely when the program I am using crashes a 3rd time, or most likely when I am bored numb, I opened Facebook. Sometimes I justify this by sharing humorous or intriguing literary gems in a series called “Today in Rare Books” or by concern that there’s been a natural disaster or outbreak of war while I’ve been holed up in cold room filled with old books and no humans and so who would even tell me if the world was ending?
My cousin updated her status: RIP Uncle Shawn.
People are sooo melodramatic on Facebook. What had he done to piss her off this time? Still sick, even for a joke. Because no one had called me to inform me that one of my closest living relatives was dead. Which admittedly says more about how many living relatives I have than how close I had been to Shawn. Still, someone would call, right? I mean… I stood up and calmly gathered my phone and coat and calmly like nothing was wrong because nothing was wrong and I just worry too much – everyone says I worry too much, I really need to stop worrying like this – exited my workplace, a Socialist Realist concrete monstrosity with a supernatural ability to deter human empathy and cell phone signals. I paced about outside the library for a bit and took out my phone. No new messages. My brother speaks with Shawn frequently. If Shawn were dead, my brother would know. And if he knew, he would have told me, and he hadn’t, which meant Shawn was not dead. I called my brother anyway, always assuming the worst, always the pessimist. I never call my brother in the middle of the day. I also never ask him about Shawn. I asked him about Shawn, and of course he’d heard nothing. “Check out Syd’s Facebook. I’ll call you back.” Such a drama queen, such a gossip monger, I should just get back to work. I called Shawn’s sister/next door neighbor. “I am so sorry to bother you and be all paranoid and uhm yeah but i just saw this crazy thing Syd put on facebook and…”
“He shot himself today,” her teenage daughter whispered.
I sank lower to the ground as she told me everything, knees buckling, the spiderweb of sidewalks before me rising to my line of sight. I called my brother, who had called Shawn in the meantime and wound up on the receiving end of a voicemail greeting informing any caller that he would be dead by the time they heard it. I sat, now bottom on the ground, legs extended before me, head resting against the jagged concrete exterior of the library. Chain smoking. Crying. Watching time grind to a halt: clouds stopped midway through their march across a bleak winter sky, fragile twigs on new trees stood still as a troubled wind blew past, students, seconds earlier scurrying in missions to dorms and classrooms, now small lego-figures plotted strategically about the quad.
By sheer coincidence I was scheduled to see my psychiatrist for the first time in six months that very evening. “I’m a bit shaken up of course, but otherwise fine.”
We were not close.
It’s the first thing everyone asks. He was my cousin. Not a parent or grandparent or sibling or child. I don’t have parents or grandparents or children. I have a step-family, which is lovely but hardly the same. My cousins lived far away, but usually came to visit each summer when we were kids. Sometimes my family would visit theirs. The last time I saw Shawn was many years ago when some of us decided to take a crazy road trip to visit my family in Southern Missouri. It was baking hot even at night, we got a flat halfway out of town, billboards for JESUS and XXXGIRLS lined the interstate and neither espresso nor hard liquor could be obtained if one’s life depended on it. And 5 hours into that drive it did. The whole scene was like a David Lynch movie but for real and Shawn was well cast. In a heat index that had me limp in a linen skirt and tank top, he cavorted around in a full length, heavily padded trench coat and cowboy hat, looking like a 19th century bounty hunter. My family lived on Truman Avenue, across the street from the President’s birthplace. We went and looked at the little house-museum for cultural enrichment, him dressed up like that. He rode a bike there. From his house. A few feet away. The bike had been stolen, borrowed, he’d explain, from a 7 year old. He provided the entertainment for much of our stay, the kind of person whose every thought or word was the kind of joke that had you in tears with laughter except half the time you knew they weren’t the kind of the thoughts and words you should be laughing at. He was prone to violence and drinking binges and shooting squirrels in the town park. It’s not entirely shocking he shot himself. He was shooting my aunt’s humming birds last time I saw him.
No. We were not close.
I cried hysterically for a few days, in shock, trying to process it all, how someone could blow their brains out, how my aunt and uncle would survive, how much more tragedy my family could endure, what kind of horrible, desperate place Shawn must have been in that day. I went to work, I saw my therapist, I spent time with friends, I went about my daily routine. We were not close. I had a life to live, obligations and responsibilities. We were not close. Life goes on.
I unravelled anyway.
I would leave the house knowing I had an errand to run, something to accomplish, not knowing what it was, assuming it would eventually come to me, and so I would just keep walking until it did. After a while of walking I would think, this is quite ridiculous you know, you can’t just keep walking forever. Go home and figure out what the hell you left for. I would pass street after street onto which I could turn to make my way home but be unable able to make the decision to turn. I always got home though.
I would get up for work and the mindless routine I’ve had for a decade was no longer routine. Each step demanded a process: of having what felt like a cardiac arrest upon waking, of asking myself, “what do I do first?,” of deciding (coffee? no, shower. no, definitely coffee. no, feed the cat. which one? shit,) of propelling myself from point A to point B to accomplish whichever task I’d finally settled upon, of sometimes taking an hour to do something normally completed in 15 minutes. Soon it would be 11, noon, and I’d have missed half the day of work and the fear and guilt of missing work paralyzed me completely. And I’d collapse exhausted. And begin the process again. Daily goals devolved into inane survival and socialization tactics. Eat a meal today. Talk to another human being today. Leave the house today. It was not that I did not want to do these things. It was not that I lacked the energy. It was not that I felt basic life responsibilities unimportant. It was not a judgement call. More than anything it was not giving up. Because, you see, Shawn had taken that option away from me. Or so I told myself to abstain from exercising it. Which seemed to work.
Bi-monthly sessions with the therapist became bi-weekly sessions and bi-weekly sessions became interspersed with phone calls and those became daily visits to an outpatient program and repeated suggestions of a hospitalization. All of which sucked more than imaginable which is saying a lot since I’d happily run away with my therapist if he asked but he won’t.
No, I insisted. I can handle this. I know how to handle this. I was in shock. That’s all. Just … shock. No, not that Shawn is dead. After those hummingbirds? Existential shock. Shock that I am not. Not dead. And probably won’t be for a while.
Because I can hardly do that to my family now can I? Now I hate myself for having spent the past 37 years imagining that I could do that to my family, without repercussions. Still I think, wouldn’t they all be better off without me? I’m a handful. I cause them so much grief… Who in my position, unable to even go to work and function like a normal human being would not want to off themselves? And in so much pain … cumulative trauma like repeated emotional concussions having left me an idiot half the time. Oh, they’d get over it. They’d give themselves the same cock and bull “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” pep talk they give me and get over it. And oh, and how romantic it would be. Like in a novel, to be young and beautiful and tragic. With the one very notable exception that the actions of characters in novels do not have consequences for generations of real life human beings. Which is something that, to my embarrassment, I’d only now begun to contemplate.
I am mourning, grieving, but not simply for my cousin. In a world of chaos and suffering and injustice, the one thing I always had control over was if I lived or died. That option had always been my best friend, there by my side, on my side, when everyone else dropped the ball. Reliable. Available. Dependable. Immutable. When he pulled the trigger that morning, I lost two things. A cousin and a life-long companion.
Yes. We were close.