About a year ago ( September 30, 2010), my uncle killed himself. I was the first time I had experienced the death of someone close to me that I loved.
This past Sunday, my local UU church observed a Day of the Dead service, and my family and I remembered Dan’s passing. We brought pictures of Dan to the church to place on an altar with other pictures congregants had brought of loved ones. The pastor slowly struck a bell while the congregants one by one spoke the names of their loved ones aloud. It was difficult for me to say Dan’s name.
Dan was 55 years old. He was an atheist, not a casual agnostic, but an active skeptic. A few days before he died, I emailed Dan a quote from Nietzsche that I thought he would appreciate (Nietzsche was a favorite philosopher of his):
“You will never pray again, never adore again, never again rest in endless trust; you do not permit yourself to stop before any ultimate wisdom, ultimate goodness, ultimate power, while unharnessing your thoughts; you have no perpetual guardian and friend for your seven solitudes; you live without a view of mountains with snow on their peaks and fire in their hearts; there is no avenger for you any more nor any final improver; there is no longer any reason in what happens, no love in what will happen to you; no resting place is open any longer to your heart, where it only needs to find and no longer to seek; you resist any ultimate peace; you will the eternal recurrence of war and peace: man of renunciation, all this you wish to renounce? Who will give you the strength for that? Nobody yet has had this strength!”
I didn’t get a response, which was not unusual, but a couple days later I learned that Dan had committed suicide. I couldn’t help but think that this quote had played some part in his decision.
Dan was a complicated person, and very difficult to read, because he was a “pleaser”. He was an actor by profession, an improvisationalist, and a nude model. He had adult ADD and struggled with anger management (although I never saw it) and a pathological (in my opinion) need to please others. He would rarely express his own preferences or say “no” to any request. He played very well with my children, just like he did with my brother and I when we were young. He was fun-loving and a great listener … too good, in fact. The last time I saw him, I met him for lunch. I talked too much about my own issues and overlooked the fact that he seemed a little depressed.
It was easy for others to infantilize him, and he often went along with this. He looked younger than his age, so he could have passed for an older brother of mine. He was irresponsible with money and his own personal security, financial and otherwise. He usually seemed to be more comfortable playing with kids than interacting with adults — first with my brother and I when we were kids, and then with my kids later. To my kids, he was their uncle, not mine. Although he was my uncle, I often semi-consciously thought of him as a brother. He was what many people would call a “free spirit”, but there was a depth to him that was often obscured by his playfulness. I admired him greatly. He was very intelligent and was truly wise (though not in practical matters).
I don’t know why he killed himself. It may have been because of a fight he had with my father the day before. It may have been because he had been semi-cut off by my father, who had been supporting him. It may have been because he was having difficulty holding down a job. It may have been because his career as an actor seemed to be going nowhere. It may have been because he could not pay the rent on the theater he had rented for his new improv group. It may have been because of health problems he was having. He had a heart attack a few years previously, which I think really scared him, though he rarely spoke of it. It may have been because of the quote I sent him. It may have been none of this, or all of it.
At his funeral, I quashed the anger I felt at Dan for killing himself and tried to give his decision some dignity in my eulogy of him, and perhaps absolve myself of the guilt I felt over sending him that quote:
“I will remember Dan as a man of strength. To me, Dan was what one his favorite philosophers called a ‘man of renunciation’, because he denied himself the comfort of belief and the peace of prayer. But Dan was also someone who seemed to me to find great joy in life, a joy that perhaps only comes with a belief that our existence is finite. That belief is a choice, I think, that requires incredible strength. And I see Dan now as a man of great strength. Certainly he was also a man of great compassion, love, intelligence, creativity, and playfulness, but he was also a man of strength. A man with strength of conviction, but who also knew the strength of gentle persuasion. A man with strength to take the burdens and the sorrows of others on himself. A man with the strength to set aside pride and to get down on the ground and play Barbies with my daughter, and just be silly with my son who so needs that. A man who had a great deal of wisdom to share, but who also had the strength just to listen most of the time. I will remember Dan as a man who found strength through joy. And a man who ultimately found the strength to choose, when joy was no longer possible to him. My memories of Dan will always be of him playing, first with me and my brother, and then with my son and my daughter. But I will remember him for his strength. To Dan I dedicate these words:
“To look life in the face
To look life in the face
And to know it for what it is
At last, to know it
To love it for what it is
To put it away.”
I wanted to believe that Dan’s decision was an act of strength. Perhaps it was the one thing he did for himself. Or maybe he thought everyone would be better off without him. And this is was my fear, because it means I failed to communicate to him how important he was to me, how much I loved him, how much I needed him in my life. I don’t believe Dan is “out there” anywhere. But I wish he were, so I could tell him these things.
On my way back from a business trip today, I am going to stop by his grave. He is buried on top of the grave of his younger brother, Josiah, who died at the age of 25 when I was 7 years old — almost the same age my daughter was when Dan died. I will never forget the cry that came from my daughter when I told her Dan had died. And then I cannot understand Dan’s decision. Is the love of a little girl not enough to live for?