To John, My Friend

I never think about you anymore, but I was going through some old boxes and found a card you’d sent me for my 19th birthday back in May of ‘74. The last thing I ever got from you, the only thing, was like finding a message in a bottle. A plea for help that nobody found, nobody answered, and is still floating around even after the castaway is gone. You didn’t leave a note. We all die, and one way or another, we all have some hand in our own deaths. Maybe in some ways, everything we write is a suicide note.

Somebody once told me that when you absolutely decide to kill yourself, there is a seven minute window of opportunity to shake them out of it, seven minutes where if the process is interrupted, it takes a while to reset the “internal mechanism.” So if you can get to them in that seven minutes, you have a chance to save them. I didn’t save you. There was no phone call, no knock on the door, no favorite song on the radio, no second thought of hope or future to save you. I often find myself measuring out everything in seven minute increments. It’s not a long time. About as long as it takes to wash your face and brush your teeth at bedtime. About as long as it takes to pump your car full of gas. As long as it takes to listen to “Stairway To Heaven.”

The Unit, the mental hospital where we first met in ‘71 is gone. They bulldozed it over. It took two decades but The Doc finally lost his license to practice psychiatry in Minnesota, so he took his millions and bought his way into another adolescent psych unit in California where I heard he continued abusing his patients. His kids. The place is a park now about a block from the Mayo Clinic. Statues of children dancing hand in hand. Thirty years later to the week, I did Grand Rounds to the Mayo shrinks, the first consumer to ever do so. One of the retired doctors from The Unit came to hear me, to apologize to me after thirty years. He didn’t think I’d forgotten. He thought that he’d forgotten. I’ll forgive them all if they don’t forget, and thirty years would restore even Judas to good company these days. But Jesus died for our sins.

At a college party we were all sitting around talking about the movie “The Big Chill” where old college friends are brought together at the funeral of their friend, Alex, who had killed himself. We were all trying to figure out which character in the movie we were most like. They all told me I was most like Alex.

The police said that it appeared you had been sitting in the dark for some time in the basement, then turned on the light and pulled the trigger. I don’t know how they could know that, but I believe it. Nobody wants to die in the dark. It took a full day and cost your mom and dad five thousand dollars for the forensic team to clean up. Your mom tried to make a joke and said why didn’t you do it in the garage as they’d just put in new carpet and paneling in the basement. We’re all still cleaning up the mess.

Why is it that you’re the one who died, and I feel like the one left for dead? When I talk in public about suicide I speak politely and say how I hate the disease, the despair, but don’t hate the person. I never use the word “commit;”
“People commit sins and crimes, but don’t commit suicide.” But I do hate. I hate your weakness and your laziness and your impulsiveness. I hate it that the chaplain told me “God never gives you any more than you can handle.” And I asked him,” Does that mean that if I were a weaker person, John would still be alive?” I hate that by doing it, you made suicide real, a viable option for me. You always hear about crimes without victims. What about victims without crimes? Who do I blame? Who do I strike at for retribution? How will I ever really know if it was my fault, or something I did or didn’t do, something I said or didn’t say? How do I stop grieving for parts of my life that I lost or never had because of what you did. I hate your selfishness. When is it enough?

When will it be over? It only took Ulysses twenty years to get home from the Trojan War. I’m like those Japanese soldiers still hiding out on remote Pacific islands, still fighting WWII. When do I get to go home? When is the war over? I’m at thirty years and still counting.
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I never think about you anymore. It doesn’t hurt as bad. I do feel sorry that you never got to hear Bruce Springsteen, or see the “Lord Of The Rings” movies, or visit the Redwoods, or fall in love or have kids or ride a Harley-Davidson through The West like you always dreamed about. Sometimes I think I’m living your life, trying to make your dreams a reality, that I’m trying to somehow let your ghost live vicariously through me. But that isn’t true. The truth is, if there is any, that I’m living vicariously through you.

I still have a relationship with you. A 12 gauge can end a lot of things but not that. That doesn’t die. I still talk to you. I can’t believe a 19 year old kid could teach me so much, and I’m still learning. About The Will To Live vs. The Will To Not Die. There’s a difference. I’m 49, old enough to be your father now, crawling death-quick into middle age, and you’ll always be 19. I’m a mess now, you would laugh. MS and depression and kidney stones. Elizabethians believed kidney stones were the residue of unshed tears. I wish I could cry more and care less.

19 is so young, too young. I still remember where I was when I heard you were dead. Still remember who I was. In those last few months you seemed to be doing better. You had a small, constant smile on your face, a glow around you. We sat in Country Kitchen in the middle of the night, shoved quarters into the little jukebox at our table and played ”Born To Be Wild,” twenty eight times in a row. Thirty years of experience later, I understand you had the grace of someone who had surrendered, and the smile was the private joke that you were beyond all pain. On dark nights I’ve asked: “Please, God. Give me that smile.” But the price is too high, not just for me, for all of us. So I carry it, and try to find some peace even in the weight. Learning that the demons come out at night, but so do the muses. But please, God. No more nights like those. I wanted to do the same over the years. Take the easy way out. Tried in different ways to “catch up.” I always felt left behind. I came close more than once. One of my friends said: “If we started digging your grave every time we thought you were gonna die, we’d be eating chop suey in China.” But I’m still here. Jimi Hendrix said: “If I’m free it’s only because I keep running.”

It’s easy to die, everybody dies. It’s harder to live. You left me in it, up to my neck. But you’re still my friend and I miss you. I’ve searched but can’t find any photos and I’ve forgetten what you looked like. I never got to say “goodbye.”

And even though I sometimes don’t know why, except that you would want me to, I will keep getting up every morning, and keep making decisions, even if they’re the wrong ones. I’ll keep reaching through the flames, keep living every day in spite of you, because of you, for you.