Ask anyone who’s acquainted with a suicide: we all have a “what-if” story. The impulse to craft a counterfactual narrative is impossible to resist. For years the thought that shadowed me was that with a properly timed phone call I might have saved him. On the day of his death, I called and spoke to our mother to let her know I was in New York safely. She said she’d spoken to Dan earlier in the day, and he confessed that his girlfriend, the older married woman, had broken up with him. She said I ought to give him a call; it might cheer him up to hear from me. I told her I’d call him when everything settled down for me in New York, when I felt more at home. After I hung up the phone I put it out of my mind and thought instead of my starting work the next day. When the phone rang again, it was my father.
The proximity of these phone calls haunted me. I couldn’t help but think that if I’d just called him that night, like my mother suggested, I might have prevented his death by speaking a few simple words to him over the telephone like a decent brother. But then I’d never thought of myself as my brother’s keeper while he was alive. He was tough and reticent, self-assured and seemingly unflappable. He didn’t need me looking out for him. He could look out for himself.
Now he no longer had any such choice, and neither did I. Our mother and father could barely speak of him. To become the guardian of his memory suddenly seemed the most pressing business of my life. Who besides me would assume the role of curator of his story? I undertook the task with compulsive rigor. I wore the flannel shirts he’d left behind until they hung on me like rags. I went to the police for a look at their reports. I went to the office of the state medical examiner for copies of the autopsy findings. I ordered duplicates of the photos taken by the cops and the doctors, photos of him dead in situ, clinical close-ups of his wounds. I stared at these pictures, trying to penetrate the mystery of him, the mystery of how he’d arrived at this place, sprawled on the couch, gun at his side, his head exploded from the force of the bullets. I read and reread the reports, trying to find some hidden significance in phrases such as “portions of cerebral hemisphere are submitted in a separate plastic bag.”
Suicide turned him into something of a cipher. People saw him one way or the other: sufferer or coward, victim or murderer. He either succumbed to outside forces or succumbed to the darkest forces within. In the days and weeks after his death, when people’s explanations were forming and then soon calcifying—little stories they thought they could live with—I often thought I must be the only one who vacillated between the two extremes, pitying him one hour and hating him the next. Everyone else, it seemed, had chosen a fixed version of his story. The gunshot was a sudden impulse, the gunshot was a calculated rebuke. He slipped over the edge, he was pushed over the edge. He was broken by a battle with depression, he was broken by the sudden loss of love. He was afraid of failure, he was too accustomed to it. He clung too tightly to other people, he didn’t know how to reach out for help. The list of explanations was as long as the list of people who’d known him, and each was a simplification, perhaps even a lie.