Thursday, September 10, 2015
School was less than a block away when I was a kid, so I walked, every day, sometimes out the front door, sometimes out the back. And I went home every noon because I could.
That's when I saw what I did. I was walking back to school after lunch when two men lugged a body out of John's house. On a stretcher--that's what I remember, and the body was covered. Completely. I was maybe a fifth or sixth grade kid, something like that, nudging up someplace close to what the church used to call "the age of discretion."
An old couple lived next door, just a man and his wife. I don't remember him as jovial or even all that friendly. We knew the old people in the neighborhood who could--which is to say couldn't--be teased. Step anywhere close to Mrs. Lensink's garden, and she'd be out that back door and all over you. John and his wife barely came out the door.
John worked for the city, for a man--a relative, my mom used to say, named Hard. That's all I knew. I was a kid.
But I knew John was dead. That's what I remember. His body was covered on that stretcher.
My parents didn't keep me from the truth. They talked about it that night at supper, in a hushed distress that made me fearful because I wasn't used to seeing my parents so distracted. John had hung himself in the basement of his house, the house right across the alley.
I don't think I'd ever heard the word suicide in a context in which the victim was someone I knew, an image I never saw but has stayed with me through more than a half century. That memory comes packaged in an image I never saw: the body of an old man hanging from a ceiling rafter just across the alley. On summer Saturdays John mowed his lawn right there on the other side of our white picket fence. I still see John hanging himself even though I never did.
There are more stories, including a man who was once a friend, a man I hadn't seen for years, a guy I remember as a smart kid with a sharp sense of humor, good-looking. Hung himself in his garage.
Years ago, I wrote a story about a young woman who tried to commit suicide. I worked hard at trying to imagine the depth of despair she'd have to reach to consider checking out of life. I don't remember the story or the title, and I'm sure I never finished it. But even trying to go there in my imagination darkened my soul in a way that I've never forgotten.
A week ago or so chairs and desks and tables in the recreation center at Northwestern College were strewn with cards like the one up there at the top of the page, a sweet little image designed to speak kindly to the students just returned to college. I picked one up.
"We keep going and we go together," that says on its backside, and more. "Above all else, we choose to stay. We choose to fight the darkness and the sadness, to fight the questions and the lies and the myth of all that's missing."
The sweet little card carries a simple little message that's full of heart: "Life is worth living."
And it announces that today is World Suicide Prevention Day.
There's no story I'm not telling you. I didn't lose a brother, a relative, a really close friend, a mom or a dad. In any very close sense, I'm not a victim of suicide.
But I remember the time two men carried John's covered body out the back door of the house across the alley. It's not something I choose to remember. I just do. We don't forget such things.
We'll see you tomorrow.