I remember where I was when I got the call: I was in my car, pulling into the parking lot of Montgomery County Community College.
I was there to record the podcast, the episode about Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four. I was excited about the show, super-excited. I had pages and pages of notes. I’d been looking forward to that episode for months. I loved that book. I still do, though probably not in the same way, now.
I was happy. I was in a great mood. I was looking forward to a good night and a good show. I’d been having a good month. A good summer. Hell, a pretty good year all around.
My phone rang.
The phone rang, and I saw Scott’s name come up, and I was pretty happy about that too. I figured Scott was calling for one of the usual reasons. He’d gotten a part in a play, or his kids were heading to his parents’ for the weekend and he wanted to see if I was up for cards, or he wanted to ask for advice on buying a Blu-Ray player or something like that. There are some people where you’re just always happy to see their name pop up on your phone.
“Hey, what’s up?” I said.
There was a long silence, and as I pulled into a parking space I wondered if the cellular wilds of Blue Bell had dropped my call.
I remember, very specifically, yanking up the parking brake lever in that silence, waiting.
Scott finally said, “listen, I don’t know how else to say this.” There was another short pause, then, “Larry killed himself.”
I sat there in shock for a few seconds. I thought, this is a wind-up. This is a joke. But I knew it wasn’t. I could hear it in Scott’s voice.
A joke wouldn’t have had that awful silence ahead of it.
I sat there in my car in the MC3 parking lot, I realized that our friend was dead, and I started to quietly laugh.
Scott said, “what… why are you…”
I stopped laughing long enough to say, “no, no, Scotty, I’m sorry, it’s not funny, it’s just…” I laughed again, a little louder. “I’ve got a show in five minutes.”
That’s the last thing I remember until later that night, when I was at Scott’s with everyone else, wondering what the hell we were supposed to do now.
It is useful at this point to stop and talk a little bit about me and my family and our relationship with, well, death.
My mother is great at death. My mother is also a purebred Irish Catholic, and if you weren’t already aware of it those statements are, more or less, necessary corollaries of each other, if not equivalent outright. It is a cultural thing that, while I can understand the genesis of it in an analytical sense, at a purely, historical or sociological level, the rest of me just doesn’t get it at all. It’s like they had second to last pick at the cultural super powers draft and after England had taken “stiff upper lip” and America had chosen “dangerously oblivious optimism” the Irish looked at the board, sighed, and said “well, I guess ‘good at death’ is better than ‘makes really good chocolate.’ You’re up, Belgium.”
Either way, my mother is great at this stuff. When somebody dies she is ON IT. Notify the appropriate parties, call a priest for the mass card, take the nice clothes to the dry cleaners, clear the schedule, make time to visit the family, all the way down the line. From phone call to weeks after the funeral her reaction hits with clockwork precision every time. When it comes to this sort of thing my mother Does Not Fuck Around. She manages to get everything done AND process her feelings at the same time. As cultural inheritances go it’s admittedly not, you know, the Renaissance, but the practical and emotional efficency of it is just astonishing.
My father is… let’s say, he’s not that. My father is the guy who doesn’t go to a funeral not because he is insensitive, or doesn’t want to, or doesn’t care, but because he can’t handle it. I am honestly not sure why this is – over the years I have eventually managed to figure out a lot of thing about my father, but not this one. A lifetime of observation has made it pretty clear, though: my mother is great at death. My father is terrible at it.
But this, also, has resulted in its own odd little efficiency.
My father is a firm believer in knowing when to “call the guy.” Raising a middle class family you learn to fix as much around the house as you can yourself – replacing a leaky faucet or a broken light fixture – but you have to know when you can’t fix something, and when you can’t you “call the guy.” The plumber, or electrician, or whatever. The expert. The person with the knowhow to take care of the problem.
So, when someone dies, my father knows he can’t deal with it, and he calls the guy: my mother. She does all the funeral stuff on both sides of the family. When my father’s relatives die – not something we deal with that often given our sporadic-at-best relations with my father’s family, but still – they actually call my mother. It’d be funny if it weren’t, you know, not.
As (I am often realizing) with a lot of things, when it comes to dealing with death I’ve landed smack in the middle of my parents.
I’ve talked a lot here over the years about my weird – nicely and positively so, but nonetheless weird – upbringing. My parents had an odd sort of division of labor. My mother was mostly responsible for things like right and wrong, morality, responsibility, the importance of family, etc etc, i.e. not coincidentally the prototypical Irish Catholic virtues. My father was mostly responsible for things like the importance of reading books, knowing lots of things about musical theatre, seeing every James Bond movie twelve times, etc etc, i.e. not coincidentally the protypical kid from Lawncrest hiding that he is smarter than everyone he knows virtues.
(Though “only sports and Star Trek allowed on TV” was DEFINITELY my mother’s rule.)
The upshot of this is that when you spend your childhood – indeed, your whole life, but most importantly your childhood – deeply entrenched in JRR Tolkein, Kurt Vonnegut, and the casual death-stoicism of the Irish, you end up pretty sanguine about the whole affair. Death is a thing. It happens, it happens to all of us, it is perfectly natural and though it is sad – oftentimes very, very sad – you recognize that the end of someone’s life is also a time to celebrate it, to mark not just their passing but their living.
This time, though, none of that was working. I could hear it in my mother’s voice when I called her the next day to tell her what had happened. I’ve heard my mother get The Phone Call enough times to know when she’s not responding the way she normally does. I heard in my mother’s voice that same awful pause I heard in Scott’s when the call first came, that silence that says, “I don’t know what to do.”
My mother didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t know what to do, because this time it was different. Death is natural. Suicide is not. A lifetime of Valinor and “so it goes” and “one less drunk” left me completely unprepared for it, and there was no guy to call.
After the Fantastic Four show – which I know I did even though I have no memory of doing so because I edited it later that week, a pretty bizarre experience in and of itself – I was at Scott’s place with a bunch of our friends and the mood was oddly upbeat. I mean it wasn’t exactly super-happy-dance-party, but you think about what gatherings like this are SUPPOSED to be like, and you picture wailing and gnashing of teeth and rending of garments and there just wasn’t any of that. It was just a bunch of us sitting around, talking, occasionally having a laugh.
I am not a psychiatrist – thank the old gods and the new for THAT – but if I had to guess I’d say that the mood that night was mostly because me and everyone else were working very hard to specifically be in that sort of mood. I wouldn’t call it classic “denial” necessarily. I went through that, and I mean literal denial. Like, I didn’t believe that what we were told happened actually happened, and I imagine I wasn’t the only one who briefly entertained notions like that. Larry was some sort of James Bond-type with the Army, after all. He did all that cloak and dagger shit. It wasn’t unreasonable to think that it was a fake-out, or a ploy, or some sort of setup for Larry to go off and do whatever the hell it was he did when he wasn’t here.
But that’s silly, of course, isn’t it? And thankfully I soon recognized it was silly, and the feeling passed. I got home from Scott’s that night, gave my old teddy bear a hug before bed, and laid in bed staring at the ceiling in the dark for a long time before I finally went to sleep.
I spent the next few days with my brain sort of spinning out of control. I kept getting weird ideas, things like deciding that I could upgrade a bunch of parts in my car, or grade my lawn, or refinish the floors in my house. The part of my brain that was still working properly recognized this as a bizarre defense mechanism, an attempt to protect myself from what I was feeling by trying to shift CPU cycles into things that I can control. Luckily for my house and my car I didn’t actually attempt to DO any of these things, I just spent that week moping about and feeling sad.
Then, a few days later, we had our wake, and I learned things, and I got angry.
Here’s something I’ve learned in the interim: being angry at a dead person is pretty fucking stupid. Being angry at a live person is, honestly, only marginally less stupid. But the notion of taking your mental energy – which is limited, even for me – and bending it to something so destructive and negative, at someone who isn’t even around anymore, is a criminal waste of human endeavor. Yoda teaches us “anger, fear, aggression, the Dark Side are they,” and I’ll tell you what: I believe in that ideal as much as I believe in anything.
A few days later we had our wake, and I learned things. I learned things about our friend, and what had transpired over the last few months of his life, and I got angry. I got angry at him, I got angry at myself, I got angry the world in general. I got angrier than I’ve ever been in my life, and I couldn’t stop being angry. I couldn’t stop getting angry. For weeks afterward I couldn’t feel anything else, and it seemed like every day it got worse and worse, and I got angrier and angrier.
For weeks after that night, I had to pretend. I had to pretend I felt things I didn’t because even with the anger I couldn’t shake I knew I couldn’t let people know how I was really feeling. They’d run away if I was lucky; they might have tossed me in a padded room if I wasn’t. So for weeks I pretended to be sad when people asked how I was, and pretended to be funny when we got together to commiserate, and pretended to be calm and professional at work, when through all of it the only coherent thoughts in my head were how much I hated the world and every person and every thing in it, and how I wanted to rip all of it apart with my bare hands, and how I wanted to spew vitriol and filth at everyone I met, but most of all how much I hated Larry for doing this to me.
Here’s an odd thing about the suicide of a friend that you might not know: it’s really hard not to take it personally.
That’s irrational, I know. While I suppose there are instances of a person taking their own life to make a point to someone else, outside of V.iii of Romeo and Juliet I have to think that the Fuck You Suicide is extraordinarily rare. But when it’s someone you care about, and it happens, that’s the thought: “how could you do this to me?” Or, rather, that insane thought is the result of any number of perfectly sane thoughts. You wonder why they didn’t call. You wonder what could have possibly been so bad that they thought they couldn’t ask you for help. You wonder how they could have possibly come to a decision like that. And that’s just thoughts about THEM. Once you run through all of those – and there is a great host more – you turn inward: why didn’t I notice something was wrong? HOW did I not notice? How could I not realize this was going to happen? How could I have been so careless with their feelings?
You take all those thoughts, and you spin them around faster and faster and faster, and you would scarcely believe how quickly it becomes personal, how quickly you get to “how could you do this to me?”
And you get angry. You get angry at a person who isn’t around anymore to apologize, or tell you how misplaced your anger is, or at how you’ve got them all wrong, it was actually this OTHER bit over here that set them off and made them do this terrible thing. You get angry, and there’s no target for your anger, so it builds and builds and builds.
I spent the better part of three weeks like that: angry, at everything, all the time, and doing all I could to hide it not just from anyone who cared about me, but from the only people who might understand.
The phrase Scott’s wife Ruth used to describe one part of the process we were going through as a group was “managing the breakdown.”
The reasoning – and this is so brilliant I was and am legitimately jealous – was that there was a large group of us who were all going through the same thing, who all felt the same way, and that eventually we were all going to hit the wall, and lose it, and not be able to deal with it anymore. But we couldn’t just let it all happen at once. People had kids, people had jobs that mattered a lot more than mine, people had responsibilites that needed to be taken care of. If everyone just lost their shit haphazardly – or, worse, at the same time – all of our lives might get totally fucked at a time when we needed each other.
So the breakdowns got managed. Scott picked one night. Ruth picked another. People picked a time, and gave in, and got reduced to a puddle of goo for a little while, and other people were there to help them through it.
The whole thing is so goddamn genius I really wish I could take credit for it.
I decided to wait a while, partially because the tiny part of my brain that was still rational recognized that other people probably needed it more than I did, and partially because I wasn’t sure I could control myself when it did happen, and I was hoping that some of the anger I was consumed by might subside.
But then the night did come, and I went over to Scott’s place, and we sat down in his basement and…
I don’t mean that literally nothing happened. Things happened. But I was worried that I would lose control, that my anger would finally blow up after all those weeks. It didn’t, though. I don’t know why. I don’t know how. I wish I did; the ability to keep my temper in check would have been pretty goddamn useful any number of times since. But it didn’t.
We just sat there. Scott and I sat there and talked, for a long time. We talked about what had happened, and how we felt – mostly Scott, about that – and about what we were going to do going forward, how our lives would be different and how we’d deal with that.
Understand something – I am a pathological fixer. The need to take everything I see and hear and “make it better” is overwhelming. I can’t help it. (I have theories about where that comes from as well, but that’s another show.) I recognize it’s not my most endearing quality, but I’m pretty sure that night it saved me from losing my mind.
Scott and I talked for a long time, pretty deep into the night, and probably we could have talked a lot more, but once we got to the part of the conversation about how we were going to deal with things going forward, it was like somone shot off a flare in all the darkness my head.
I was broken.
I needed to be fixed.
That, I could do. Or at least I could try.
After Scott and I finished talking, I went home. I sat down in the chair at my desk in my room, and realized that while “I am going to fix myself” is a great idea in theory, I didn’t really have any idea how to actually accomplish that. I’d ridden out the rest of my talk with Scott and the ride home on the pure adrenaline of a good idea, but once I was there I realized that I was perilously close to the opposite of that, the despair that comes from realizing that the good idea was actually unworkable, and in this case I knew what was on the other side of that: what was usually a mild depression was, this time, that same black morass of anger I’d spent the last few weeks in.
As I sat there, my eyes glanced up and I saw my Absolute Sandman sitting up on a shelf, and I thought about Brief Lives.
The Sandman is my favorite comic ever – it is, in fact, my favorite anything ever – and Brief Lives is my favorite part of it. It’s about just what the title says: how all lives, ultimately, are too short, and what that means.
I thought, that’s as much of an omen as I’m going to get.
I walked over and pulled down Volume 3. I headed back to my desk, opened up to the first page of Brief Lives, and started reading.
As I read the story I’d read so many times before I felt the anger I’d been drowning in finally start to slip away and turn into something deeper and sadder, but hopeful all the same. When I read the last words of the story, I thought of my friend who was gone, and started to quietly cry.
“It’s going to be a beautiful day.”