Surviving a friend’s suicide

‘I know something about black holes now—because there was one inside of him.’


There is a weapon called the neutron bomb, designed to destroy all life in the target area without doing too much damage to man-made structures. That’s how suicide feels to the survivors: Things might look untouched on the outside, but inside your entire world has been blown to smithereens.

One of the saddest things about suicide is the way its shock and horror tend to blot out the rest of a person’s life — all the ordinary coffee-sipping mornings and sweet sunlit afternoons. It’s as if you’ve spilled ink all over your favorite picture. I don’t want that to happen to my memories of Jon. He was brilliant, funny, restless, kind, sarcastic, gentle and moody. He was tall and had a red beard. He liked fishing and drinking beer and fixing broken things and sitting around campfires and talking and making music. I miss his red beard and the shape of his nose, the loose-limbed way he moved into a room, the tilt of his head as he turned to speak, swiveling on a barstool. I miss his gravelly voice and his full-bodied laugh and his insight into the clues in the Sunday crossword.

I did a watercolor of him once. He was playing his guitar, his big freckled hands roaming over the strings, head tilted back and eyes closed, singing. There’s a beat-up baseball cap on his head and his sneakered foot taps out the rhythm. I used to think that if you painted something sincerely, you would come to know it well. And I thought I knew Jon very well; I memorized the shape of his long body in the darkness. I think I was closer to him than anyone. But when the darkness came over him, as it sometimes did, I could not find a way through the crazy fog of his anger and pain. 

When we broke up, I cried all night and listened to Patsy Cline and wallowed in heartbreak. But our friendship survived, maybe even grew stronger. This was the guy who drove all the way from Denver to Cripple Creek, Colorado, one Christmas during a major snowstorm to deal with one of my antique-plumbing catastrophes. When back surgery landed me in the hospital, he visited daily and rubbed my feet and listened to me gripe. I showed him all my artwork, and he told me the truth about it.

When I moved to the Western Slope, he sent me tapes of music and wacky postcards and slightly wistful love poems. And whenever he was passing through – he pretty much lived on the road, in his big green truck with its handmade camper – he always stopped to visit me, and lingered.

Late at night on one of these visits, he told me he’d tried to kill himself and been hospitalized for two months. What do you say when a friend says something like that? I don’t know what I said to him; the words are drowned out by the howling silence of What Happened After. But I think I know something about black holes now, because there was one inside my friend, with a gravitational field too strong for any light to escape it. Jon went out of his way to sound matter-of-fact. He failed this time, he said calmly, but sooner or later he’d succeed; this wasn’t his first attempt, and a person got better with practice.

We debated the subject of suicide as if we were civilized ethicists of opposing viewpoints on a PBS talk show. He was a far better debater than I, reasoned, single-minded and fierce on this awful subject. What could I do but cry and plead? All his words were cool and careful, and his eyes were windows into nothing.

Jon said that something inside him had been broken from birth – that he came into the world missing something crucial. Other people had tried to fix him, but it couldn’t be done. “I’m a plumber,” he said. “I know when something is broken.” He had never been able to lead a normal life and now, in his 40s, he was getting tired of trying.

It was an endless, harrowing night, and yet in the morning he seemed himself again – apologized for being so “heavy,” and told me not to worry. “I’m just depressed,” he said. “I’ll be all right.”

“Promise me,” I said stupidly. “Get some help. Stay with me.” He smiled and shook his head no, flicked away his ever-present toothpick, gave me a brief hard hug, and drove away.

And one night in January, two years later, he climbed into his truck, and turned on the engine, and never got out again.

“All you need is love,” the old song goes. No. All we have is love, in the end, and sometimes it isn’t enough. Jon, my old friend, Jon, you bastard, you forgot that we are sewn into each other’s lives like pieces in a quilt, and you cannot tear your own piece out without ripping all the other pieces that touch it. I chased after him in my thoughts, demanding: What should I have done? What could I have done? But he was gone and I never heard his reply.

A priest friend told me there are three kinds of depression. The ordinary kind we all have to face— like entering a dark tunnel, he said, but you can still see light behind you and glimpse it up ahead. In serious depression, you can no longer see either end of the tunnel, and you need to be reminded that they exist. But Jon was so deep in the tunnel that he’d forgotten it was a tunnel. The darkness was all there was and ever would be.

Well, years have gone by, and the seams of my quilt piece are mended, if still somewhat ragged. I light candles and pray for Jon’s peace and hope that he’s finally found it, wherever he is. He sends me postcards in my dreams, and sometimes I can read them.

During late-night guitar sessions, we used to come up with goofy words for songs. One of them was George Strait’s jukebox classic, “Amarillo by morning.” I don’t know if you remember the original — it was one of those romantic-rodeo-rider type songs — but the words went something like this:
Amarillo by morning, up from San Antone.
Everything that I got is just what I’ve got on.
I ain’t got a dime, but what I got is mine.
I ain’t rich, but Lord I’m free.
Amarillo by morning, Amarillo is where I’ll be.

Typical romantical cowboy stuff. Well, Jon and I rewrote it so we could sing about armadillos instead, and we sat around the campfire singing, and we stuffed ourselves full of guacamole and laughed until the tequila came out of our noses. Which is how I like to remember him now, his head tilted back in the firelight grinning as he sings his fool heart out.

Armadillos in mourning, crying by the road,
Members of the family, squashed flatter than a toad,
They don’t get much time to get across that line,
and so many of them never do
Armadillos in mourning -- Life’s much safer in a zoo.

Amen to that, old friend.

The author is the magazine’s copy editor.

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