I Knew Someone Who Died, For Reasons Uknown
This isn't a blog for sympathy. I have known a few people who have died and, I am sure, plenty of people have. I am not saddened, nor do I feel a loss. But, I cannot kid you and say that I am not at all curious about his life and the circumstances surrounding his death.
I really didn't know the person—as an adult anyway, but as someone from childhood. He and his sister were nice—twins you know. Outside, they were The All-American Family. And inside, I am pretty sure they were too. They were always part of some organization that was thought to be, by many Americans, integral to character development in the 1980's. Whether it was Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, a protestant church, an academic honors society, or some special summer camp, they were always active in the community. His name was Johnny.
I went over to Johnny's house a few times. It was always very clean, and it struck me as peculiar that they hung the American flag on their porch. You see, they lived in a picturesque suburb—very Norman Rockwell, and I was raised in a city. I remember this one time, he and I were playing, and his sister, wearing forest green corduroy overalls, jumped into our way—making a big “X” with outstretched arms and legs. This effectively blocked our way. We had been excluding her, as most boys tend to do to girls, from our playing. He took a toy gun, and lightly whacked her in the crotch a few times. Perhaps, it was more of a tap than a whack. His mother, more concerned than angry, spoke to him, and quickly corrected his behavior. She had explained to Johnny why he should not do that, as best a parent can to a child. She wasn't out of control; it was perfectly executed. Almost like it should have been in a “How to Discipline Your Child. An instructional film for new-mothers”. Other than that, I do not really have many memories about him. Wait—I just remembered he liked watching “Jem” over “G.I. Joe”. At the time, I had thought that was the most peculiar thing about him. Although, not damningly peculiar—he probably liked watching the hot cartoon girls. I mean you can't fault a guy who has an eye for the female of the species. Johnny was probably more developed than I was at that age.
Fast forward twenty-three-odd years
A month ago, I had heard his sister, Julia, had married, and traveled around the world. She had just graduated from an ivy league university and he was going to Wharton Business School. As well as to be expected from someone with his background, I remarked. I was indifferent that they were doing well. They had become, largely, strangers. Then today, I find out he killed himself. And, the part that disturbs me is not how he took his own life—people kill themselves all the time. It is a person's life and a person's choice to do so. I don't judge a human being who makes that choice. However, most Americans will. Most Americans will call that “selfish”, or, “cowardly” or, “sick”. I don't think there is anything cowardly about ending your own life. I don't think that one arrives at that decision easily. And I don't think there should be any shame associated with it at all. It is nothing more or less selfish than other decisions people make all the time. In America, suicide is a terrible taboo. Americans will openly tell you anything about someone close to them dying: accidental drug overdose, drunk car accident, cancer, anything that stops short of something like AIDS. An AIDS death in America may still be more taboo than suicide.
We should get to the part that disturbs me: The Obituary
Specifically, the way it reads; it sounds more like a resume for some phantasmagorical job. It sounds almost like how one might be surmised to a college board. It sounds like a bad advertisement written for an unknown orator and author. It sounds like—they are trying to sell him. Maybe not him specifically. But his life. To keep things fairly anonymous, well, as anonymous as they can whilst I write this to the world, I have already changed his name and rewrote the obituary to change the facts but not the tone.
“Johnny was driven in business. He was renown for his intelligence and his ability to solve problems quickly and efficiently. His college friends remember him fondly for being both social and charismatic. He was the warm little center that the life of this world crowded around. In high school he was remembered for his beautiful blue eyes and "saving the day" in a school play. A globe-trotter, Johnny enjoyed visiting Europe, Australia, North, Central, and South America, and Africa. No matter where he went he always enjoyed himself. Whether it was running with the bulls, partying in Brazil, greeting the new year in Australia, and sky diving in Panama... family in the U.S. and Sydney and gigantic group of comrades here and around the world. His kind-heart and generosity are a virtue unto us all.”
All right, now I rewrote a lot of this. And as I did, I thought two things. Who wrote this obituary? I think I did his memory a much better service by rewriting this. I mean, my rewrite was to preserve anonymity, and yet it actually made the obit sound better! That's how horrible this thing was written! Do you understand what I am saying about the way the obituary reads?
Who gives a shit about business? This is a person's life here. And is it not in poor taste to make his “renown for problem-solving” the second line of your son's suicide obituary?
You know as I read and retyped his obituary, a small part of me felt bad for the guy. Very small. I mean there are people out there who are dealing with much bigger problems than business. Maybe I am projecting a bit much, but if this is how people remember me—fuck me! I am doomed!—Who was it that surrounded me in my life? Where is the real me: The human being? Not that guy who traveled a lot. It seems we lived comparable lifestyles, but were a million miles away in our intentions and our personal journey. Who gives a shit if you had traveled? I take back what I wrote about it being written as if it were an advertisement. That is an insult to copywriters. Well, some anyway.
Americans love—fucking LOVE—extroversion! In America, if you are well read, intelligent, and well spoken—it doesn't matter. However, if you have been a million places—despite how little you actually understood about where you were or how long you had been there—you're thought to be as “worldly”. Americans are all about showmanship and little about substance. If they could, Americans would eat birthday cakes every day.
I don't know how this turned into a critique about America.
Let me end this entry. Life is rather interesting. I mean, Johnny's suicide hasn't made me introspective today. I am pretty introspective as it is, but this time, I was focused on something different. And while I was thinking about his life, a memory suddenly popped into of my head. It wasn't of Johnny. I am not that “Gee-Whiz”. That type of story would sicken me. I would kill myself if I learned some valuable lesson in some stranger's suicide. Life is not “an after-school special”.
I digress; I was on my way to throwing out the garbage, and then I remembered watching a documentary on PBS about African Fig Trees. Yes, this is what popped into my head. There was one thing that stuck out: Fig trees bloom at completely random intervals. They are one of the few things on this planet that are completely random. In doing this, the tree ensures that all the animals are fed. And that randomness is completely fair and impartial. And I see life a bit like this way. Life in its kindness and cruelty—its crippling cruelty that comes out of nowhere—is completely fair too. I don't think Johnny's death made me think of this. I would have come to it sooner or later anyway. If anything, his death probably distracted me from this. I remember it gestating a few days ago: I thought of fig trees and random walks. Anyway, I don't think there is a lesson to be learned here. I think if you have been looking for that from me, you're looking in the wrong place. Johnny's life and death doesn't matter at all.