Back in 1977 when I was nearly ten years old my mother committed suicide. She had been working up the courage to do this for years, using pills mostly because they seemed less scary than other methods. I suppose if you’re going to voluntarily leave the world you want to make it as easy a trip as possible. Drugs offered an almost etherial journey out of existence. But they never worked very well. When they took effect, she would usually get scared and finally call us from whatever hotel room she had checked into. I guess at the end of the day dying is dying and when you know it’s coming, no matter what method you use, you get scared. After all, you really don’t know what you’re stepping into-- or out of for that matter. There’s no other journey like it in our experience. If you’re going to do something like kill yourself you had better make damn sure you’re ready to go.
She wasn’t ready. After getting her breathy phone call we would rush over to whatever hotel she was in and take her to the hospital to get her stomach pumped. This happened several times. One morning after an incident like this, I found a butcher knife in her overnight bag. I was shocked to see it. You don’t usually find butcher knives in overnight bags. It seemed to me like her last resort, her plan B if the drugs didn’t do the job quick enough. But it wasn’t like her to draw blood. Drugs were the way-- an easy way to black out and never wake up.
But this method was proving to be futile and death had become almost a lust for her. Depression fueled it. She had a chemical imbalance and the medicine they gave her made her face break out. She couldn’t remember what happiness felt like and because of this every happy person in the world seemed alien to her. Is there any real point to living if you’re not happy? She didn’t think so anyway and the drugs weren’t working. Something else had to be done.
It ended up being a gun to the head. It makes sense if you think about it. There’s nothing gradual about it. There’s no time to think. Squeeze the trigger and you’re there-- or not there so to speak. One only has to leap. The fall after the fact is involuntary.
And it worked. She was gone in an instant. My brother and I were not exactly shocked when it happened. We knew it was coming. What bothered us at first was where she did it. It was in the bathroom my brother and I shared in our apartment. We weren’t there, of course. She had arranged a dinner with our grandmother that evening and, after driving us over, cursed under her breath and said that she had forgotten the cake. I remember wondering, “what cake?” but it was too late. She got back in the car, drove off, and never came back. Our bathroom was an odd choice, but after years of thinking it over I suppose there really isn’t a convenient place to take your life. You might as well do it at home among your things. It was in the furthest room inside the apartment, against an outside wall. That makes sense I suppose. That decision had to be one of the last she would ever make.
It wasn’t until the day of the funeral that I realized what a violent act she had done to herself. For reasons I’ll never understand, the decision was made to have an open casket. When I saw the body I was horrified. Apparently, like Humpty Dumpty, the morticians had to put her head back together again piece by piece. A wig and some orange make up-- it didn’t look anything like Mom. Dead people never look like themselves but this was different. She was gone and the body that was hers was gone too. It’s telling that she put the gun to her head instead of any other part of her body. Her brain was the thing that had plagued her for so long. It didn’t work like it should and, unlike other physical ailments, the problem manifested itself in her personality, her mood. At least with cancer you can say, “Look, there’s the tumor! There’s the trouble!” But with a chemical imbalance there’s nothing to point at-- it’s the you that’s wrong with you. After all, what else are we but are brains?
Our brains— It’s odd to think that all we consider to be reality is filtered through this three pound piece of tissue in our skulls. The heart is nothing compared to the brain though we often talk about the heart as if it contained our true selves. You can get an artificial heart and still be you. If you get a new brain you aren’t you any more. If your brain even gets damaged you might not be you anymore. Is there a you at all? Seeing photos of mass graves or of human beings gutted and spread on tables can make you wonder.
We seem to be no more than fleshy machines, tissue animated through a nervous system. A few well placed pokes in the head and whoever you think you are is lost in an instant. So much for the good man and the bad man. It’s all just chemical reactions. A good man can be turned into a bad man with a few strategic pokes. A nervous man can feel at peace with the universe again because of electro-shock therapy. They did this to Jessica Lange in the movie “Francis.” She played Francis Farmer, the famous neurotic actress, and at the end of the movie she gets a needle in her eye to stir up her brain. I was about thirteen years old when I saw this and I remember being profoundly disturbed by it. Francis was well behaved after that poke in the eye. It was the same with Jack Nicholson’s lobotomy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” He was a calmer person but obviously had lost something profound. Or did he? It makes you wonder who the real person is—the disturbed or the undisturbed. Or is the idea of a person just an illusion? Maybe there’s not an us at all, at least not in the way that we usually think about it. Usually when we condense a person down to their real self, their bare essence, we talk about their soul. What is a soul? How is it different than the brain? If a person has a good soul but has an accident that causes damage to the brain is their soul damaged as well? A “bad” man gets a lobotomy and becomes a “good” man. Is his soul good now as well? Is the brain the organ of the soul or is the soul something else entirely? Or is this whole idea of a soul just sentimentality—a way of convincing ourselves that we as human beings are more than just a conglomeration of simple, pulpy stuff? We want to believe that there is another self, a more permanent self somewhere inside of our bodies. We want to believe that our personalities mean something—that they count or last in some way that can’t be explained by the mere function of the human machine.
What is a soul? The very idea of soul seems ridiculous when you look at the basic materials that make up a person. Usually a soul is thought to be a ghostly creature living somewhere inside our bodies, misty but with a human shape. The ancient church has traditionally taught that man is a trinity being made in the imago dei. Man has a body, soul, and spirit. Some have divided it differently—body, mind, and intellect. It doesn’t really matter to me which of these is correct. The prominent question in my mind is whether or not there really is more to our make up than the human machine implies.
I don’t know what Mom believed. All she really wanted was relief from her own thoughts. I’ve wanted to take a vacation from my own head before but never at the expense of ending my life. She was dealing with unimaginable despair. Death was better. It’s hard to argue against that. I guess the real question for her was whether death meant the end of existence period, or the beginning of some life separate from everything else that could logically be called her. She certainly found out, either by entering that next thing—whatever it is-- or by simply not being. Non-being isn’t something I suppose you can actually experience. It’s not like an easy chair or a restful place. There’s no more you even to enjoy the ending of you. I suppose all of us, in some sense, have already experienced non-being—before we were conceived. Our raw material existed in a scattered sort of way, sperm and egg, but there was no consciousness attached to it , no part of us to know us. Thinking back as far as I can on my life I can see where my memory begins to dissolve. I’m suddenly four years old, living in a house. There isn’t anything before this. I can’t recall being a baby and going back even further is impossible. I suppose at that point I have arrived at non-being.
Despite popular Christian preaching to avoid these kinds of issues, the great men of the Bible wrestled with their desires for non-existence and death. Job himself lamented that he did not come into the world as a stillborn infant--
Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb? Why were there knees to receive me and breasts that I might be nursed? Or why was I not hidden in the ground like a stillborn child, like an infant who never saw the light of day? Why is light given to those in misery, and life to the bitter of soul, to those who long for death that does not come, who search for it more than for hidden treasure, who are filled with gladness and rejoice when they reach the grave? Why is life given to a man whose way is hidden, whom God has hedged in? (Job 3)
And then there’s Solomon, “the wisest man to ever live.” He had a morbid debate going on in his mind-- whether it was better to live life and die or to never taste life at all and be stillborn.
And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is he who has not yet been, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 4:2-3)
And you know-- non-being isn’t so bad. It isn’t anything actually. Placed side by side with being and particularly with suffering, non-being looks like a nice alternative. That’s what I think Mom was hoping for-- going back to that state of non-thinking, non-experiencing, non-anything. Or maybe she was hoping for heaven. Outside of a way out I really have no idea what she was hoping for.
But non-existence is usually the second best thing we can imagine. Ultimately, what we want is to be happy, whether in this world or in another. We want to believe that we will exist long after our bodies have stopped working. Beyond all hope, we want to believe that there is more to us than the stuff that makes us…