It was early in June the day our friend Tom got out of bed, long before the sunrise, without disturbing his wife. He got dressed, went to the basement, and fed lettuce to his Russian tortoise Nadenka, as he did every morning. While she munched away in her pen, he wiped the hard drive on his desktop. Looking over his significant gun collection, a point of pride, he selected one of the pair of pearl-handled revolvers, loaded it, and pocketed it. He then stole silently up the stairs, grabbed his cell phone, his wallet, and his car keys, and left a note for his wife telling her where he would be.
He drove for a while that morning, about an hour, to a nature reserve that was one of his favorite spots. He parked along the side of the road, conspicuous, not in any parking spot. But it was still early, quiet. He’d have some time. He got out, left his cell phone and wallet on the dashboard and the keys in the ignition. He took the revolver.
He walked for a while that morning, about a half an hour, to get to the water. Nothing he saw along the way swayed him from his purpose. With the late spring sun rising, he stepped into the water, shoes on, fully clothed. He waded out, and when he got deep enough, he raised his lovely revolver, laid it against his temple and pulled the trigger.
In a way, this was thoughtful. There was no mess. The debris blown through the bullet’s shredding path, the newly-inert body, the gun itself: these things all fell, slipping under the water in the quiet following the sudden sharp shock. After a short time the surface stilled, reflecting back the rising sun and the blue sky like nothing had ever happened.
It took him a week to float.
You now know exactly as much as I do about the death of Tom, our dear friend. For those of us left behind, this is the specialized torment of sudden, impenetrable suicide. We get to keep all our questions, pristine and unanswered.
I can tell you a bit about his life, for context, though it will fail to measure the man. A hippie with a love of guns who used to hang out with the Violent Femmes, he didn’t drink, not really. He preferred pot, particularly his own leggy homegrown dirt weed that was so hilariously weak we used to joke that the only high we ever got off it was from hypoxia trying to hold our breaths long enough to catch a buzz. We used to do Thanksgivings together, and every year he had a new bonsai to show us: beautiful miniature trees his other prized collection. Every last person in his neighborhood knew him by name, and he used to let the kids, all the neighbors’, none his own, take turns feeding Nadenka her daily fare. Despite being almost entirely irreligious, he was an ordained minister; he performed our wedding ceremony. He never showed any signs of depression, or anxiety, or distress. He liked Words with Friends, and the night before the morning he waded into oblivion, he played my husband John a round: “taj,” and even got a double letter score off the “j.”
His memorial service was on our seventh anniversary.
Sometimes it seems suicide turns our loved ones into strangers. At the memorial, his wife stood, the mystery of his death surrounding her like a moat. She asked us, “Did he say anything to you?” We shook our heads and even as I hugged her, I could feel her retreating, already looking for the next person who might have an answer. The gap was unbridgeable. Tom was keeping his secrets, unshared.
I don’t believe in omens or portents. Not usually. But eating finger sandwiches in the basement of a church on our seventh anniversary, wandering through troves of pictures of the man who’d married us, watching his widow quietly ask us all in turn what had gone wrong: it felt like a harbinger.
Looking back now, there are multiple inflection points in John’s downward trajectory, but Tom’s death may have been the biggest.
To say John took it hard misses the meat of it. He had called me to tell me the news, and was crying, his tears then still rare as comets. “We think Tom has killed himself.” Tom’s wife had found the note, of course, and friends she’d called for help had found his car, keys, wallet and phone. Shy finding the last thing, there might still be hope, so helicopters and bloodhounds were scouring the park, and the surrounding areas. After several days, Tom was put on a nationwide missing persons list, his wife waiting for word. Waiting. John, though, was a stranger to hope. This looked too much like what it was.
One thing to know about both Tom and John, the thing that really connected them: they didn’t believe in a life after death, or a merciful god, or that there’s any better place than right here. Suicide seemed anathema, simply not an option. So with Tom suddenly gone, John wasn’t just hurt. He was betrayed. When submerged rumors about Tom began to surface (health problems, issues at work, secretly unhappy in his marriage), John grasped them close. This was good, the last one especially. This meant there was blame. Blame was even better than answers. Blame helped it make sense. At first brutalized, John slowly became inspired.
I think of myself as pretty bright sometimes, perceptive even. But the signs of John’s body slowly dying seem to show up only looking backward. The poison of choice was vodka and cranberry juice. We’d always been drinkers, together: a pair. But that omnipresent red cocktail, John drank alone. The soundtrack of shutting down was the metallic clink of ice cubes as they were loaded into the chamber of a rocks glass, and their rising crackle as they floated up through the fluids John poured.
His gut rebelled first. He had a harder and harder time eating without getting sick. Doctors’ visits started that summer, looking for celiac disease, ulcers, IBS. Nothing matched. Soon, the bulk of his calories came from the cocktails. We planned our social lives around access to toilets, and then began planning less and less. (It’s a secret.)
Blood was next, as if it were trying to free itself. Terrifying nosebleeds came out of nowhere. I lost count of the garbage bags I filled with blood-covered shirts, sweaters and pillowcases. To anyone going through our trash, it surely looked like we were murdering vagabonds on the regular. So I always made sure those bags were at the bottom. (Don’t tell anyone.)
For want of food and blood, his body began an odd atrophy, with swelling abdomen, and skeletal arms and legs. He tried to mow the lawn once, and gave up after five minutes. He just couldn’t physically do it. He was profoundly exhausted all the time. But sleep eluded him. This is not to say that he couldn’t pass out. He was certain that the alcohol was the only reason he was getting to sleep at all. But his brain started to change: anger, disorientation, depression. I’d have just come through the door, back home from work, and he’d be there, starting a fight before I could even get my coat off. He’d put a full dishwasher’s worth of dirty dishes back in the cupboards. Tears came at random times, almost no provocation, with the TV always on, drowning out any sound. (Shhhh.)
As time passed, I watched the poison of choice itself grew paler with the increasing ratio of liquor to mixer. The original oxygenated blood-red of the ruddy Cape Codder waned through diminishing shades of Valentine pink, cherry, strawberry, watermelon, rose, blush: it and John fading together. (It’s none of your business.)
What did I do during this? It seems a fair question. I went to work, I came home, and I went to sleep in my own separate bed, our new normal. I worked out, for sanity, for escape, and to have access to muscle somewhere in the house. I walked the dog. I did grocery shopping, an errand that made him anxious. I cooked food, better and better, even as he ate less and less. I orchestrated an entire household move from our old apartment to our new rented house, hired movers, packed and hauled and unpacked boxes. I did laundry, scraping and scrubbing at bloody fabric if I could catch it quickly enough. I cleaned house, the bathrooms being my least favorite because of the vomit he’d routinely miss, and I’d have to marvel that he could somehow always manage to get it on the underside of the bowl. I mowed the lawn. I took dirty dishes back out of the cupboards. I sat with him and watched TV until I wanted to scratch my own eyes out. I asked him about doctors’ visits. I asked him if he told them how much he drank. I asked him if he even knew that himself.
Sometimes he would answer. Sometimes he would get angry. Sometimes he would just cry.
When I put all these parts together and look back at them, I feel as thick as a fucking brick. I was waiting for something to happen, waiting quietly, because I couldn’t think of anything else to do.
By the time his liver started giving out, no one could ignore it.
In late May, with the first anniversary of Tom’s death approaching, John had taken a week off from work. It was mainly to drink, uninterrupted. On Tuesday of that week, sitting with him outside, I noticed that the whites of his eyes were the yellow of a highlighter marker. I asked him to take off his glasses so I could see. He relented even as he continued to suck vodka with a whisper of cranberry juice down through clinking chunks of ice. I told him I thought he really needed to see a doctor. By Wednesday, his skin was turning its own alarming shade of chartreuse. We walked our dog together that evening, the limit of his physical ability. A neighbor stopped to talk, unable to keep from subtly side-eying him. Finally she asked, “Are you okay? Have you just had a surgery or something?”
This aggravated him. He’d taken the week off, to drink and to not be bothered, and here was his body, betraying him, showing his secrets right there on his face, in his eyes, for all to see. When we got home, he finally agreed that he’d get some bloodwork done. Not the next day, but the day after. This was his week off. Then he poured another drink.
He took the tests Friday morning, vexed that this required him not to drink for the first few hours of the day. A cocktail was in his hand when I got home that evening. We ordered a pizza and were on our way to pick it up when our doctor called with the results. It was well after hours, and I could hear him telling John he needed to report immediately to the nearest emergency room. John responded as if discussing hotel accommodations. “We’re on our way to pick up a pizza, though. How about I check in tomorrow morning?”
I could hear the long pause, then our doctor asking, cautiously, “Is Barbara there?”
By this point I’d parked and we were having a near-fist-fight over possession of the phone. I finally wrestled it from John, and asked the doctor to tell me what to do. His relief was palpable. It almost matched mine. He explained that John’s hemoglobin was dangerously low, and they needed to get him to an ER to assess why.
I assured him we would be there in half an hour. John was sincerely unimpressed with everyone by now. Couldn’t we all just leave him alone? I bartered with him: he could eat two slices of pizza before we left.
We got to the ER and began the wait. When he was finally called, we sat with an intake nurse and her questions.
“How many alcoholic beverages do you consume a day?”
“One or two,” John said smoothly. His response stunned me. I’d never heard him discuss his drinking with a medical professional.
“When was the last time you drank alcohol?”
I couldn’t stay quiet. This was what I’d been waiting for. “He had at least one cocktail today that I know of. And he usually drinks a half-dozen a day that I’m aware of, but I’m sure there are more.” John looked at me, his face perfectly, utterly blank, as if I were a stranger. As if he’d never seen my face before, and that there would be nothing he’d remember about it on looking away.
It’s supposed to be a secret.
The nurse looked at me for a long beat, then looked back at John, and changed some of the intake directives. Instead of going to a floor, he’d be admitted to observation in case of alcohol withdrawal. The man in the bed next to him screamed and vomited all night. John just laid there, bored and tired and sick nearly to death and not at all drunk.
The second day he was there, he got the full diagnosis: alcoholic cirrhosis and end-stage liver disease. When I called in the morning, he asked me not to visit. “I have some things to think about.”
I was used to waiting.
By the third day, he agreed to a visit. It was my first exposure to how the medical profession treats an addict: like they’re taking up a bed that could be used by someone who deserves help. As the nurse on his floor walked with me toward his room, she said, “Your husband is such a nice man…” her ellipsis heavy with the unsaid words … for an alcoholic.
“My husband is a nice man.” I said, pronouncing my own full-stop back at her as hard as I could. But that wasn’t right, even as context. The nice man was my memory of him more than anything, the only thing here my now-confirmed fear that something was wrong, something that we had to fix, to bridge that gap between the life and the dying. Anything I could tell her would, as always, fail to measure the man: He put me through school. He loves Monty Python, Carl Sagan and Tom Waits almost as much as he loves me. He’s a historian who knows everything about plagues and the ways civilizations fall, which they all do eventually, with a preternatural interest in how things end. He cried once, a long time ago, when I showed him new footage from the Apollo missions to the moon. He drinks at least three vodka cranberry juice cocktails before ten in the morning. Every dog we’ve ever met has loved him right away. He wants me to spread his ashes at the Forum in Rome, certain that he’ll die before me.
By the fourth day, he decided that he would stop drinking.
The fifth day he was released, and came home.
And because I’m thick as a brick, and can only see looking backward at this, I can see now that he never came home at all. This was only the beginning of a lingering suicide.
And on the very worst days that are still to come, I’ll wonder why he doesn’t just use a gun.
If you’ve witnessed the progression of suicide by alcohol, we’ve got room for you in Echoes of Recovery – loved one’s healing together.