When I was a kid, my mom had the sheet music to a couple of songs sitting open constantly on the piano, and she would sit down once in a while and pick through the songs. Things like The Rainbow Connection, the song from the Muppets, The Wind Beneath My Wings, from the movie Beaches but before that it was a Michael McDonald song, and the M*A*S*H theme song. Most people don't know the words to the M*A*S*H theme song, since it actually played as an instrumental during the opening credits, but it goes like this:
Through early morning fog I see
visions of the things to be
the pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see...
that suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
and I can take or leave it if I please.
I try to find a way to make
all our little joys relate
without that ever-present hate
but now I know that it's too late, and...
The game of life is hard to play
I'm gonna lose it anyway
The losing card I'll someday lay
so this is all I have to say.
The only way to win is cheat
And lay it down before I'm beat
and to another give my seat
for that's the only painless feat.
The sword of time will pierce our skins
It doesn't hurt when it begins
But as it works its way on in
The pain grows stronger...watch it grin, but...
A brave man once requested me
to answer questions that are key
is it to be or not to be
and I replied 'oh why ask me?'
'Cause suicide is painless
it brings on many changes
and I can take or leave it if I please.
...and you can do the same thing if you choose.
So, I'm a kid, a pre-teen actually, reading these lyrics on the piano, and its not lost on me the irony of the show, being about war, and the title of the song being Suicide is Painless. But the bigger irony to me, in fact, is in how it related to the other sheet music sitting there, with lyrics like "The lovers, the dreamers, and me" (The Rainbow Connection, as sang by no less than Kermit the Frog) and "Did you ever know that you're my hero?" from The Wind Beneath My Wings. (And by the way, while I love Bette Midler, the Michael McDonald version of the song gives me even bigger goosebumps than hers.) It was always mildly interesting to me to look at all these songs, which I am sure my mom chose not for their lyrics but because they were interesting and somewhat easy for her to play, and try to delve deeper meaning from them. As a preteen, that's what you do, isn't it? Look for and/or assign deeper meaning to everything?
14 years ago yesterday a close friend of mine committed suicide by sticking an antique pistol in his mouth. He was one of our little run-around group in high school, actually, more than that, he was our leader. When I got the call, I was in my room in the sorority house in college, and my roommate comforted me as best she could as I completely fell apart in shock. It was a Friday, and I pulled myself together enough to go out that night and drink my pain into silence at a fraternity party, and then I hopped a flight home the next morning at 6am for the weekend memorial service. I don't think I actually slept between the end of the party and the drive to the airport. Those of our group who could get into town attended together, and we watched his mother valiantly stand at the exit and hug and shake hands with every single person who walked out crying, including the young girl who had been dating him, who's own instability had been the catalyst for this horrific event. The woman even managed to maintain her composure when the girl fell to her knees at her feet, and her father had to scoop her up and carry her out to the car. We had the feeling they probably had to have her sedated, we heard later that she was hospitalized on suicide watch herself. Theirs was not a stable or remotely safe relationship, and if ever an bigger understatement could be made I haven't heard it. Two people on a slow boat to insanity fueled by drug addiction and lifelong emotional abuses can not save each other. Two wrongs can't, and don't, make a right.
When I returned to school that following Monday morning, I went straight to my second class of the day, having missed the first. I was stopped by a girl in my class who said, "I'm so sorry, are you okay?" To which I responded, confused, Yes, thanks. I couldn't figure out how she knew, we were only minor acquaintances. As I sat down in my seat and waited for class to start, I saw the headline of the school newspaper sitting on the desk next to me. A student had been found dead in his car over the weekend, having rigged up a complicated but unfailing system involving the steering wheel, a shotgun, rope and rubber bands, to the point that the bomb squad was called because they couldn't figure out how to dismantle it to get the body out without setting it off again. He was a good friend - the girl approached me because we had all been in another class together the previous semester and she knew he and I were buddies.
Each situation was really quite different, despite the ending. My friend from high school had a history of substance abuse, addiction and bad coping skills, despite a charisma like John F. Kennedy, and in fact took his life less as an act of cowardice but as an act of aggression to make his girlfriend feel bad. There were lot of what if's, like, if he hadn't been mixing substances at that moment he would have reacted differently to their fight, or if only he had been even more fucked up at the time maybe he wouldn't have had the coordination to actually pull the trigger.
Bob, the guy from college, was an Asian orphan, adopted as an infant by American parents who gave him an amazingly rich (on many levels) life, but were possibly too focused on him utilizing to the fullest extent possible that which they gave him, they were evidently a little hard on him from a perfection/grades=success standpoint. They also for some reason kept his Chinese last name, instead of giving him their name, which I can only imagine the feelings of inadequacy that probably caused, despite the fact they probably thought it was a nice gesture to his heritage ( heard this was an issue later, from other friends). He apparently didn't have the courage to tell them he was going to fail most of his classes that semester, because in an effort to push back passive-aggressively he had chosen to skip most of the first half of the term, and I guess it hit him right after mid-terms that there was no going back. His cowardice was evident in the sophistication of the rigging, he didn't actually pull the trigger, he merely set it up to stress the rubber bands until it snapped. God only knows how many hours he sat there before the breaking point.
It made for a rough week.
The guilt that rides you when someone close to you commits suicide is a raw, scraping kind of guilt like a scratch on your arm that doesn't actually bleed but itches and leaves a long, pink scar that you can look at every day and remember how it got there. 14 years later I still get a rush of adrenaline thinking about that phone call I received, and the guilt that came with it, oh, the instant guilt, the guilt that said despite the shock, this didn't come completely out of left field. We all discussed this after the service that day, over drinks at an Applebees. If we hadn't all been spread out at different colleges and universities across the country, maybe we could have spent more time with him, and known just how close to rock-bottom he had come. Maybe we could have gotten rid of that psycho girl, found him someone else to date who would be tender and take care of him, keep him sober. I had spent a lot of time with him that previous summer, actually, before that damaged girl came back into his life (it was a persistently volatile on/off thing), and we talked about doing Outward Bound together. I never followed up. I abandoned him and went back to my super-exciting sorority girl college life. He had failed out of college, and was in outpatient rehab, doing OK, so I thought. But when the rest of us went back to school that August and he was left to entertain himself alone, he was doomed. We tried to tell each other that dark day that we couldn't have interrupted the chain of events. That it wasn't our responsibility to take care of him, but in our minds we knew that if just one of us had given up the life we were building at college and stayed in town that fall, been his go-to buddy and kept him busy, he might have made it.
Suicide is painless, it brings on many changes...
Its not painless for the rest of us. 14 years later, it will blow your mind how much it still hurts.