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"We need to make books cool again. If you go home with someone & they don't have books, don't fuck 'em."--John Waters

I'm the author of more than twenty novels including SHADOW SEASON, THE COLD SPOT, THE COLDEST MILE, THE MIDNIGHT ROAD, THE DEAD LETTERS, and A CHOIR OF ILL CHILDREN. Look for my next one THE LAST KIND WORDS due out May '12 from Bantam Books. Contact: PicSelf1@aol.com

Thursday, January 8, 2009

I went to a funeral today for a man I'd never met

I went to a funeral today for a man I'd never met.

He shot himself after some binge drinking at a local dive bar. His friends wouldn't let him drive and called him a cab. He got home in a foul mood, argued with his wife, and in a fit of depression where he kept calling himself a loser, he grabbed up a gun. He threatened that he'd kill her with it and then turn it on himself. She ran from the house to a neighbor's place, and while she called 911 they heard a single gunshot. The cops told her not to check on her husband and stay at the neighbor's with the lights out. The cops found him dead while she huddled in the dark.

It's an awful story, and it's easy to make knee-jerk judgments. He must've been a gun freak. He must've had a drug problem. He must've been a drunk. He must've been bitter, mean, guilty, or insane. A loner, someone with a dark soul, a black or empty heart.

But at his memorial service I heard one testimonial after another from his friends and family about how much they loved him. About what a positive influence he was on their lives. I've never heard people sob like this before. After five days of weeping his wife could only whimper throughout. his children found the strength to say a few words about how wonderful a father he was. All their hearts were genuinely broken. His younger brother gave a poignant yet amusing memoir about their time as boys. He spoke of his brother's encouragement, protection, aid, and affection. His taste in books and music, much of which I shared.

I learned some things about him. He was a well-educated man. He had a job working in nuclear waste disposal. He was a mechanic, someone who loved to take apart cars and put them together again. He owned motorcycles. He had a large house in the country. It was full of every tool someone might ever want or need. He had a loving family. He had many neighbors who all thanked him for always helping each one of them out many times over.

Most of us know that loser feeling. We all have different definitions of it. Most of us might feel it when we're too deep in debt. When we can't afford a house. When we're unemployed. When we're incapable. When we're alone and drifting.

I'm trying to figure out what his definition might have been. In all the ways that I understand the word "loser," I can't find how he might have applied it to himself. So far as I know, no one else can either.

I keep looking at his photo from the memorial. He's what some of my buddies and I would call a hip older brother/a cool hepcat dad. He's got a vibe about him, something that makes you think, Hey, I'd like to hang out with this guy. He could show me a great deal about the world, we could have heavy discussions, he could teach a bookworm like me about the forests and lakes and mountains, about tools, about cars, the way my own father never got a chance to.

I have to admit I'm as fascinated by it all as I am moved. I see a handsome woodsman in his early 50s with a thick beard that has less gray in it than my own. He's tall and virile yet unassuming. There's towering douglas fir behind him. He's squinting straight into the camera but he isn't smiling. I noticed in the slideshow presentation at the service that he rarely smiled. He made goofy faces and looked cool, hep, brawny, knowing, but he rarely grinned. Out of 100+ photos of him I only counted two where he smiled.

I try not to make too much of that but perhaps it's a statement of itself. Or maybe not. Maybe he was someone who just didn't mug for the camera. Who didn't like to hit a pose because someone told him to say cheese.

In most of the pictures he's outdoors. In the mountains, in fields, the desert, or on the road. He's straddling a motorcycle or hanging with groups of buddies, kissing his ma. In one, he and his family are all dressed up as characters from the Wizard of Oz. He's the wizard, of course.

In a lot of the photos he's holding tightly to his wife. She's a very pretty lady and she's always lit up brightly. She holds on to him too, as if she fears that he might slip away if she doesn't.

It's an odd feeling, wanting to meet a stranger who's dead by his own hand. But I'm not as interested in his last ugly minutes as I am in meeting the man he was up until that final day.

I'm looking more closely at the memorial photo and I see now that his lips are slightly parted, as if he's just about to say something or just come to the end of a sentence.

I keep wondering what he's said, what he's saying, and what he has left to tell us.


Stace Johnson said...

That's a very touching post, Tom. I recently had a consulting gig where I authored a DVD of one of those post-mortem slide shows. I didn't know the woman who had died, but her daughter is an acquaintance.

The project was in two parts: the slide show set to some of the deceased's favorite songs, and the slide show looping over the audio of her memorial service. Listening to the eulogy and hearing the family members talk through their tears about this woman moved me to tears, and by the time I was done, I wished I had known her. She seemed like a genuine light that had been extinguished.

We all hide skeletons, and in the worst cases that hit the mainstream press, we hear about nothing but the skeletons. But I'm betting that every person has admirable qualities; whether we ever get to see them before death is another question.

Jamie Eyberg said...

My father-in-law took his own life, it will be a year ago on Tuesday. He had been stricken with polio as a child, three years before the vaccine came out. He did things that would have astounded me had he not been on crutches most of his life.

We could understand what he did with that small handmade pistol, the pain he but we found it hard to forgive him and we will never forget him.

~michelle pendergrass said...

I wish I could understand. It's been three years since someone I love deeply hung himself.

I can't ever do anything except cry.

Ricky Lee Grove said...

God, what a post, Tom. You empathy for this fellow is an inspiration. Why he took his life, we'll probably never know unless it has to do with not being able to stand the pain any more. I wish he could read your comments about him and come back.

Lord, lord....

Anonymous said...

Wow, Tom...amazing post.

And as an antigun person, the first thing that comes to mind is that if guns were banned, he wouldn't have had one to use in that hour of blackness.

I, too, have recently been plagued by several deaths between November and December.

In November, a young man hung himself. He was the boyfriend of a girl I've known for four years. The girl and Dorian and I have worked together in theatre (her sister is music director, her mother producer, and her dad has been a director and acts,depending on the show)
The boyfriend wasn't the boyfriend at EVITA auditions in June or so. I met him that day when he came to meet the mother for the first time after dating the 21 year old daughter for a couple of weeks.
A charming, kind, funny boy, who wanted to be a genetic engineer, who already had a degree and was going back for a masters. He was brillant and handsome. They seemed so happy. Her parents loved him (they are wonderful people) and he was welcomed into the family. Facebook pictures documented all their happy times.

Then one day, he hung himself and she found him.
He apparently had issues with depression and alchohol and was on antidepressants. She had spoken with him the night before and he was happy and fine. No one knows when the blackness hit and why.

Sure they had only gone out a few months, but she is still not functioning up to par. And no one knows what went wrong.

and we all shake our heads at the brilliant light that was snuffed out before he had a chance to shine.

Depression is an ugly animal.

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