About two weeks ago in a macho moment I told a friend that in a way I enjoy getting the flu. I explained that the flu is about the only time I hit the bed for days on end and sleep, that otherwise I go full speed day after day. I went on, too, to brag that I had made it through 2012 without having to see a doctor. The problem was 2012 had two weeks to go. Well be careful what you wish for and never brag about good health. The flu found me. I missed Christmas with my family and have been flat on my back since Christmas Eve.
I haven’t been in my car in six days. I’ve suffered six straight days of fever. Suddenly my world has shrunk incredibly but fortunately I’m armed with three books to keep me company. The books, in order of compelling interest are Hemingway’s Boat by Paul Hendrickson, My Reading Life, by Pat Conroy, and My Cross To Bear by Gregg Allman (with Alan Light.)
Each book, devoted to one man’s life, shares a commonality: violence and death. Maybe this connection is unavoidable. Some people maintain that creative people endure some emotional disaster early in life that gives them a worldview different from “normal” people. I have no idea if that is true. I suspect it is. In Gregg Allman’s case a drifter shot his father, Willis Turner Allman, three times in the back in a Tennessee cornfield. It was the day after Christmas, 1949. Greg was two at the time.
Pat Conroy grew up under the harsh eye of a father who brought his Marine training to bear on Pat and the family. The Conroy children endured violence and mental abuse. The father who provided the model for the Great Santini once told Pat that “He’d have been a better writer if he had beat him more” to which Pat replied, “Dad if you had beat me anymore, I’d a been Shakespeare.”
These two books pale in comparison to Richardson’s who focuses on Pilar, Hemingway’s legendary fishing vessel, the one constant in the man’s last twenty-seven years on earth. Wives came and went; fortunes came and went, and through it all was the man and his boat. Through it all too was a heavy load of baggage. You could say it was an inheritance. Hemingway’s lot was to land in a family prone to suicide.
Hemingway’s dad, a physician, killed himself in 1928 with a .32-caliber Smith & Wesson “Long John” Civil War revolver. Despondence over diabetes did him in. Thirty-three years later, 1961, in Ketchum, Idaho, Hemingway did the same, though he used a 12-gauge Boss shotgun. Like father, like son. And apparently like granddaughter. On July 1, 1996, one day before the anniversary of her grandfather’s suicide, Margaux Hemingway died in her studio apartment in Santa Monica. The culprit? An overdose of Phenobarbital. She was 42.
In reading these books (I read them interchangeably) it strikes me how life can turn on a dime for the famous and ordinary. Sunny spirits succumb to the swirling low pressures of depression. There’s the winter season thanks to our solar orbit and there’s the winter of our life when all becomes dark and cold. This storm lurks over the horizon. When it blows in good luck turns to bad. Happiness turns to sadness. As Dad liked to say, “The sun doesn’t shine on the same dog’s ‘tail’ all the time.” (He used a more colorful word, which I prefer.)
While most of us steel ourselves for that inevitable day some harden themselves for a final irreversible act. Throughout Hemingway’s Boat, Everything He Loved In Life, And Lost “suicide” is a ghostly shadow darkening nearly every page of the book. Amid beautiful excerpts of Hemingway’s work the ever-present knowledge that a beautiful mind did itself in cannot be escaped. How can you reconcile the brief passage that follows with the knowledge that the mind creating it blew itself away?
“She had wonderfully beautiful hair and I would lie sometimes and watch her twisting it up in the light that came in the open door, and it shone even in the night as water shines sometimes just before it is really daylight.”
One afternoon as I read of Hemingway’s gifts and melancholia rain begin to fall and then my day blackened even more. At 5:35 that damp December 27th afternoon a good friend sent a terse email. “Tom, John Doe killed himself yesterday.” (I won’t reveal the man’s name for his family’s sake.)
Dead like Allman’s dad the day after Christmas. I found it hard to believe. John Doe as I call him was one of those figures from the past I was sure I’d see again someday. Immediately I began to recall him. My chief memory is seeing his older brother slap him across the back of the head because he reached over and helped himself to my mother’s fried chicken at our campsite one day. He had a marvelous grin and was a fun loving if sometimes irritating fellow. He had a gusto for life that often landed him in difficulty.
In those long-ago idyllic sunny days a pack of us skied and hung out on the lake. John Doe belonged to the pack. And then life broke up the pack and pieces drifted afar just like an ice pack. I last saw him here in Columbia when he attended the University of South Carolina. He had changed and I did not know him. And I will never know him again.
I have known others similar to him, however, one vaguely, and one more familiarly these two other suicides. One man had health issues that kept him from doing the things he loved. The other (it took him three tries to succeed) lost his job and could no longer put his children through college. Insurance money, however, could.
What rainy cold days drenched the life out of these men. At some point the bell curve of life crested and headed downhill. Tragic souls they must have felt their ability to exit this downturn had but one door, the one with the black wreath.
Some say the tendency toward absolute self-destruction is inherited. I agree. I well knew a beautiful woman whose father committed suicide as did his brother, her uncle. I used to worry about her. I no longer do for reasons known only to me.
If only the good die young holds true, then only the damned die at their own hand. The knowledge that children and other loved ones must pick up the pieces and move on discourages most people from this fatal act, the clichéd permanent solution to a temporary problem.
All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray goes the song. What a gloomy time it is to have the flu, miss Christmas, and learn that a friend from youth chose to end his life. No note. Nothing. Now his loved ones must pick up the pieces and play armchair psychologist the remainder of their days.
As the dead of winter approaches brightness, good spirits, and wellness no doubt will be in short supply. The sight of green, tender jonquils rising from winter’s clasp is desperately needed. Spring can’t get here fast enough. Life goes on but it goes on best in the warm sunshine of days bursting with renewal.