The news lately has been making me anxious: children are killed by airstrikes in Syria; a hurricane kills hundreds of people in Haiti, just a few years after a devastating earthquake. I listen to political commercials and just shake my head. And then the news hits closer to home: a young man, desperately sad, takes his own life, leaving a grieving family behind, a family who will probably never understand his final action.
That story took me back to junior high, when I woke up one morning to hear that the father of one of my friends had taken the same path.
Though I never knew Lisa’s dad well, he was larger than life to me. He was a doctor, handsome and genial, brilliant and multi-talented, mysterious and somewhat aloof. I knew him as the man who, on a hunting trip in Alaska, had shot and killed a big brown bear – and I played for countless hours on that bear rug in their attic. He and his wife regularly played bridge with my parents, and I knew that mother and daddy found him entertaining, intense, and intriguing. Though I took ballet lessons for years in their basement, I didn’t see him around the house much. His two daughters were my friends and students in my parents’ classes. They are to this day, as was he, brilliant and talented.
I remember not knowing what to say to Lisa when I saw her at school, suffering in a way that I could not comprehend. “I’m really sorry about your dad,” I remember telling her. I remember that she nodded.
Before then, she had always said that she wanted to be a doctor. She was certainly smart enough. But she was also a talented artist. Lisa began the Thayer Junior High girl trends of wearing two different colors of fishnet pantyhose together, and wearing one color of tights under a different color of fishnet pantyhose. She also taught herself to play the bassoon. In the end, art won out.
My mother told me that Lisa’s father, too, had been an artist. He took up photography with a vengeance, shooting photo after photo, until he wore himself out on photography. His next venture was something else, and then the next was something else, and on and on. He seemed never to be satisfied, my mother said.
But in the end, he was a thoughtful husband and parent. My mother told this story of the night he used a shotgun to take his life.
Apparently, he had been planning the event for some time. He waited until his family was going to be out of town for the evening. The coroner, Doc Smith, received a call. “Doc, I’m going to need an ambulance in a few minutes.”
Doc Smith was suspicious. “What’s going on?” he asked. “Don’t worry about it,” Doc Smith heard on the other end of the line.
He quickly arranged for the ambulance and rushed up the hill and around the corner – everything in Thayer is within shouting distance. He instinctively knew that something bad was happening.
When he arrived, he saw that the lights were on in the house, not in the office next to the house, and when he got inside, he found what the good doctor had planned carefully for his family not to see.
I don’t know how my friends and their mother recovered, but they eventually seemed to, and life went on. I often wonder how that event shaped the years following, whether their decisions were affected by what occurred one night in the spring of 1965.
I know only that I was affected so profoundly that when I read of another young man’s escape from his pain, I could think of only one thing – an escape that occurred 51 years ago, when I was only 12.
Rather than wondering, rather than being judgmental, perhaps we should simply offer our support to those who are left behind, not pretending to understand their pain – or his – but simply acknowledging that it exists and that it will affect their lives from here on in, as it will affect our own.
Deborah Mitchell is a a local attorney and a Municipal Court Judge.