I was not present when my dad died, but my brother was.
My dad had a stroke–I think he was 66–and held on for over a decade after that. When he was 77, he had surgery on his foot, which, in his condition was very risky. It was taking a very long time to heal from the surgery so he was moved to convalescent/rehab facility while they worked on it. My brother would visit him almost every day.
One day, my brother showed up and walked in on a scene that he described to me later as “brutal.”
A large black man was straddling him on the bed, trying to perform heroic life saving efforts. He was crushing my dads tiny, worn out old man body into the bed. Other people were scrambling around, doing what people do at a code. My brother heard the gurgling sounds coming from dad, and saw the blood gushing from his mouth. These were the last few moments of his life.
A nurse noticed my brother standing there in the doorway, grabbed him by the arm and escorted him out, “you don’t need to see this.”
What a way to go. Brutal indeed–almost 8 decades on this earth and all the things he had seen and done–lights out motherfucker! I am kind of glad I was not there. My brother, who is multiple times tougher than me teared up telling me that story–and I have never seen that from him before or since.
I am not suicidal–never really have been. The closest thing to an existential crisis of that magnitude I have ever experienced was during my divorce in 2000. I remember I went quail hunting with a few buddies, because I had been sitting around the house feeling sorry for myself for months. Despondent, losing weight, going broke. The outside air would help I thought.
I was in a ravine by myself, and my friends were out of sight. A picture flashed in my head of me placing the shotgun barrel in my mouth and ending it. I thought, “they will just think I shot at a bird and it will be a while before anyone even knows.” And just as quickly as the thought arose, it left and I shrugged it off as weird. For I knew–as I have always known–that there was a future. As long as I could imagine that future where things were different, I would stay alive.
Vicktor Frankl hits the mark here:
“A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth-that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which a man can aspire.
Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of human is through love and in love.
I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for the brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when a man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way-an honorable way-in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.
For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words,”The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”
In my moment of “suicidality,” it was not the thought of any particular “beloved” but the thought of some greater love–attainable at some point in the uncharted territory of a glorious future–that I just knew was possible. To give up meant to loose hope of another reality that was mine to have with patience and perseverance.
And although I have no suicidal tendencies, I think about death– a lot. Maybe because of my chosen profession.
We had a suicide in my unit this week and I have a job to do. Its my least favorite part of this job, actually. I will go to the unit of this young man and speak to the formation. I will introduce myself to 150 or so soldiers who never see me, have no idea who I am. And under great internal pressure to “fix” their hurting or have some super deep words of wisdom to impart, I will have no illusions about what I can really do. I will say something like “everybody deals with stuff like this differently. Some of you were closer to him than others. Some of you will process this one way, and others will do it another. There is no ‘right’ way. But if you feel you aren’t handling it well, come see me. Otherwise, do what you gotta do and drive on.”
And that’s it. There is no magic trick to it. We (the army) have learned not to force people to come to briefings, and group sessions to talk about their feelings or whatever. There is almost no benefit to that kind of heavy handed approach, even if it comes from the right place in your heart. And it can also do some harm.
Do you think about your death much? If I could wave a magic wand over my future and be able to plan it, I think it would look something like this. Some time in the not too distant future, after Mychael and I established ourselves in Montana, and my kids are old enough to have married and start taking care of themselves I will be a member of the volunteer search and rescue team. Old enough to be an old man, but still able to propel myself on my own power. On a cold, dark snowy afternoon, me and my horse will be rope extracting some poor lost camper out of a canyon. My horse will lose his footing, and we will plunge to our deaths in the rocks below. At least I will have died doing something good.
Me and Joshua. Destined for greatness?
But, the truth is, I will probably die from a catastrophic cardiac event, just like pretty much every person on both sides of my family. Its kind of a big genetic load.
The great dichotomy is this–I don’t want to die because I want to see how the story ends. This “future orientation” is probably the biggest untapped protective factor against suicide out there. And it is especially important for men in this screwed up world that does not value mens deep need to create and lead a family. I want to see what kind of people my kids turn out to be. I want to see their children playing on the ranch that I have built for them. I want to know that everything worked out, and then on the day of my choosing, go out in a blaze of glory so they can all have a really cool story to tell.
When I look around and see all the wonders and mountains there are still left for me to conquer, I think “with heaven to look forward to, this is as bad as it will ever get.”
On the other hand, if you get too attached to the world, you will let it, and all its temptations consume and ultimately define you. I don’t want that either.
If you are a man–single, married, divorcing, whatever–know this: I think I understand the competing urges to live and to give up. Don’t give up. There is a future.