So Little to Remember

Matt Mullican, Untitled, 1985. Oil paint on paper, 18 × 24". Courtesy of the artist and The Drawing Center. Photo by Cathy Carver.

June 4, 1996—New York

All of life is reduced to triviality in the tick of a clock, the pull of a trigger, the ring of a phone, six words in your father’s wavering voice: Your brother took his life yesterday. In an instant the world as you knew it vanishes. Your brother took his life yesterday.

June 8—Tracy, MN

At the funeral, a family friend says to me: “They rule out foul play? You know, monkey business? Doesn’t seem like him, know what I mean?”

Later, my uncle tells of overhearing someone in our family say that if he’d been forced to choose which of the brothers would off himself, the odds would’ve favored me.

Each of us searches for a story. To Dad, it was “impulsive.” It just wasn’t Dan. He was happy; he always had that sparkle in his eye. He got drunk and had the impulse and, unlike most people, he acted on it. To Mom, he was crushed by the loss of Wendy. He fell hard for the women in his life, who were few, and when he lost them it was like the end of the world, and when he lost this one he decided to end his time in this world. To Aunt Ruth, Wendy’s account of Dan’s insomnia means he was suffering from depression; this is a classic symptom. He was a perfectionist. Work was dragging him down. He was behind on a job and blamed himself when he shouldn’t have. This fueled the depression, along with his breakup with Wendy.

Somewhere between and beyond these explanations lies the truth. But the truth can’t be known, so we make up the version that suits us.

July 5—Albuquerque

This morning we drove to the storage unit on the outskirts of Albuquerque and put Dan’s possessions neatly into the U-Haul. There was no emotional response from anyone. We approached it as a task to be accomplished, a chore to be done, and we did it, simple as that. A life, or the remnants thereof, packed neatly into a 5×8 trailer. We’ll unpack and sort through all of it when we get back to Minnesota, I guess, and maybe have some tears then.

The rest of the crew went hot air ballooning this morning, and as we gathered in the driveway just before dawn, the sky in the east beginning to illuminate the pink cottonball clouds, I quietly told them I wouldn’t be going along. “Come on, we could use an extra hand,” Aunt Ellen said. No, I said, but thank you. Uncle Robert was incredulous. “You’re not going?” I explained that my lasting memory of my brother is a vision of him outlined against the blue sky, standing tall in the basket of that balloon as we drifted over the desert. I’d like to keep that image untarnished for now. “But it’s the best way to celebrate his life,” Robert said. Sorry, man. I’m not feeling celebratory.

Mother: “A guy came up to me at the funeral and told me he wasn’t sure if this was the best time, but he had to tell me a story. And he told me about a time he was depressed, drunk, and heartsick about a girl, and he got to the point where it just seemed right to end his life. It just seemed like the right thing to do. He said it was almost a comforting feeling. And I understood what he was talking about. I’ve been there. It was at the farm, I was about your age. I was depressed and lonely and hated my life. The only thing that kept me from doing it was you kids. I was standing in the laundry room, which is where your dad kept his shotgun, and I realized I didn’t know how to load it. It was the middle of the night, and there were a bunch of people staying over, relatives I think, but I was standing there alone, and I remember thinking maybe I should do it with pills, but of course we didn’t have a damn thing in the medicine cabinet, we were so poor.”

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