He left a cold, wordless goodbye in the garage. We’ve tried making sense of it ever since.
Unanswered questions are always one cruel part of suicide’s trauma. The puzzle of intention never entirely fits together; there is no straight, unimpeachable line from A to B. In my brother’s case, we were only able to piece together the events of the fateful night from the testimony of a few friends. A pool game. A couple of drinks. Nothing out of the ordinary, they had insisted.
So why then had my mother returned home to find him in her garage, slumped over the steering wheel with the car window rolled down? He was 24 and had just enrolled at the local community college.
There are, of course, a million guesses one can reasonably make when a person takes his own life. I used to try making them. On the one hand, the story of his life seemed to inevitably point to this ending. There had been a speech impediment and remedial reading. He’d been hard to toilet train. There had been the high fever, and with it, permanently stained teeth. Always, there was a social awkwardness about my brother which, with unseen force, pushed him to the outside of social circles. He was always the last to be picked on the playground, the first to be stranded at the lunchroom. On occasion, I even denied being his sister, avoiding him in the hallways at school when I’d see him lumber around a corner alone.
And then, we’d moved from Tennessee to Ohio right before his freshman year of high school. Unlike others, who might have parlayed social awkwardness into academic achievement or theatre performance, my brother hung with the druggies. He started smoking weed at 14. Throughout high school, he was regularly abusing alcohol, even earning points on his driver’s license for driving while drunk. After he’d graduated and moved in with friends—co-workers from the neighborhood McDonalds—he was doing harder stuff. Cocaine? Heroine? Those are only guesses at the substances he’d been using on the day he disappeared, calling nearly five days later and alluding to conspiratorial threats on his life.
That was the bottom. And if ever there was a time that his suicide might have made sense, it was then, especially after his girlfriend—the mother of his infant son—broke up with him and started sleeping with the guy one bedroom over. But he didn’t end it. Not yet anyway. He moved in with my mother and stepfather. He started attending church. Then he enrolled in the local community college, deciding upon a culinary program. My mother bought him a brand new set of knives. Most of all, he had this blond-haired, blue-eyed little boy to live for, a son whom he loved so deeply. Even now, I can see James in his arms, proud papa delight in his eyes.
Suicide doesn’t make sense. That’s half the grief of it. At least when my father had unexpectedly died several years earlier, the coroner had issued an autopsy report. We had a legible reason for death. We had an explanation. But when my brother took his own life, there were only maddening questions followed by a heavy burden of shame. The questions never resolved into answers, and the shame left us with a throbbing, aching silence.
For many years, I rarely talked about my brother or his death. Sometimes, when asked if I had a sibling, I would evasively answer, “It’s just me.” Other times, I might offer a vague explanation for having lost my brother at such a young age—something too intimate, “Please don’t ask anything more.” Suicide was the blight on our family history, the telltale sign that something had gone terribly wrong. I made sure that no one but my closest friends knew about my brother, and even my mother and I tacitly agreed that he was, forever after, the “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.”
Twenty years later, we’ve made many critical gains in terms of our understanding of mental health, and it’s now as if I have both permission and vocabulary to name what happened to my brother. I understand—now—that substance abuse is often a form of self-medication for people struggling from depression and mental illness. I understand—now—that two-thirds of all reported suicides have had a history of chronic mental illness and depression. It wasn’t that my brother was a bad egg and our family screwed-up any more than any other family. Chances were very good that physiologically, something was askance. Had we known, something might have been different.
I no longer struggle with the guilt that every suicide survivor inevitably suffers as part of the aftermath. Having lost my brother, I know the impossibility of retracing my steps to find where I could have prevented the accident. But I can tell the story. And there’s something healing about that.
Most of all, I can remember that my brother’s life was more than the sum of his death.
His name was David.