Suicide: Never easy

Savannah Morning News column, March 30, 2014

Suicide: never easy.


Did I know she was a cheerleader, a hottie, a smarty-pants? No. No idea. Did I know her as a traveler – to Chile, to Morocco, to Patagonia or Hungary? Negative. Did I know she was a reader and sometimes smoked cigarettes and loved spas? Not really.

Did I know her?

I knew her as much as you can know anyone you see three or four times a week on a certain corner, at a certain coffee shop, in a certain small town called Savannah.  I knew to want to hug her at a New Year’s Eve party and to mean it, to bend down to pet her low-to-the-ground dog and to hold the leash while she went inside to get a cup of coffee. I knew her dress style enough to kid about her dress-for-success outfits and to say, “Must be a work day, eh?” or maybe, “Got an interview?”

I knew her car.

I knew her smile.

I knew enough to wonder, while we were both coming and going, stopping and starting, fishing and wishing, how the job hunt was coming. Ah, the job hunt question. That’s like asking how someone’s book project is going or their work on a painting. Bad form but you can’t help yourself. You want to know but you don’t want to ask; you don’t want to jinx it. You’ll find out soon enough, right?

I knew she liked pencils and lingerie and purses. I knew she was from Hawaii and went to school in Minnesota, so I wasn’t surprised to hear about the night of her first snowfall, how she made snow angels, how the blanket of silence from snow must have draped around her.

I knew she wasn’t doing what she expected to be doing, but that’s true for a lot of people, right?

I didn’t know she was facing bankruptcy.

I didn’t know that in her misery, in her distress, in her suffering, she would steal away, furtively, stealthily, telling a few friends she was going one place before changing course and going somewhere else.  No one knew she had left town with purpose: to take her life. If anyone had a clue, all the friends who came later from Oregon, California, Tennessee, Germany, New York to be together last week, in town, at the coffee shop, at the beach, to mourn, to cry, to tell stories, well, few were saying they knew this would happen. Bad form.

The trouble with suicide is it’s just so darn final. It makes mincemeat out of hope. It buries the possibility of change. Maybe if she had taken the right yoga class this wouldn’t have happened. Maybe if the perfect job in law had come around she could have dug out of the hole. Maybe if something she read in all those books in her apartment had spoken to her, really spoken, she’d be on another path.

Maybe if she had reread a hand-written inscription from a friend in a Dr. Seuss children’s book I snagged, “Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?” things would be different. It read, “No matter how dark and impossible things may seem, always remember that we are lucky! Lucky to be blessed with good health and good friends.”

For people who knew her she’ll never be a statistic. She’ll always be Esther.

But for the statisticians her death follows a horrific trend, which is that more people die from suicide than homicide. And those numbers don’t count the people who are shielded from that definition by family members or friends. In 2009 there were roughly 36,500 suicides in the U.S. Homicides in that same year numbered 16,500. We kill ourselves more than we kill each other.

There’s something terribly wrong with that.

But there’s something really wonderful about all the people who in her death came to remember, to laugh, to try to make sense of what was and what could have been. She left her mark – on new friends, on old friends. Of that, I think she would be pleased.


Sometimes the car is best

Savannah Morning News column, March 23, 2014

A post-St. Patty’s Day conversation


Five blocks from the house this is the conversation in the car:

Did you bring leashes for the dogs?

No. Did you?

Nope. What about sunglasses?

Nope. Forgot ‘em.

What about the luffas as house gifts?

Got ‘em.

By the time we pull away we have everything short of a rented U-haul, which would have worked too, for a two-day drive-and-stay in Durham, N.C.: a plastic container of dog food, two dog pillows, two human pillows, two suitcases spilling over with choices, six computer thingeys (two laptops, two smartphones, an iPad and a Kindle), a mess of power cords and connections, a bag of beets, broccoli and bok choy straight from the Back Forty Farm, a stack of books (you never know), a couple bags of groceries, one ice chest, two pairs of boots.

This is what it means to travel by car. Your packing can be sloppy. Your planning can be chaotic. You can leave whenever you want and not be afraid to miss the plane or miss the train or have to hunt for parking. You can take that time in the car – you and dozens of snowbirds on I-95 with Quebec and New York license plates and kayaks and bicycles on their cars heading back north — to handle miscommunications with your bank or your credit card company and not feel as if you want to throw the phone out the window, even if it turns out you are talking to someone in Mumbai, which used to be Bombay, which at 20 million is the fifth most populous city in the world (this is something you have time to look up on your smartphone, data plan be damned) – if you have a passenger to do your bidding. You can say, “Let’s listen to a little Ella Fitzgerald. Find me some tunes” or,  “What’s the capital of Tanzania?” (Dodoma).

You can stare out the window and pretend the ragged plastic bags caught in the web of bare tree limbs are complicated ice sculptures, like the ones you saw in the Disney movie, “Frozen.”

Once you’ve landed at your destination, you can put the restaurant-decision-making in someone else’s hands. You can eat a really good pumpernickel bagel that tastes the way it is supposed to.

You have time to recall earlier conversations running through your brain, like the friend who said, “But you’re going to miss the St. Patrick’s Day parade,” when I told him my plans. He sounded a little challenging, a bit accusatory as if I were being disloyal to my city, as if my city were a lover, as if I haven’t gone to at least 20 other parades. Then I tell him a three-day weekend is a good chance to visit old friends. Then his face softens. You have to make room for friends, I say. Everyone knows that. You have to put it on the calendar or the visits never happen. Everyone knows that too.

If Savannah, the king of festivals and parades and artists, is Cyndi Lauper – especially March 17 — then Durham, filled with Duke graduates and brainiacs and Yiddish book clubs (well, one), is Al Gore. Not that anyone in Durham with a Phd seems to have any better chance of getting a job than anywhere else in the country. This seems to be a dismal and real theme of the decade– so many people with graduate degrees, so few jobs, so many people in despair over student loans, so little hope of ever paying them off.

I got my St. Patrick’s Day fix at a neighborhood house concert of chamber music where four cello players, one dressed in green, ended the chilly, late-afternoon recital of Bach and more esoteric selections with “Danny Boy.”

“It’s for St. Patrick’s Day,” the woman behind me whispered to her friend. “It’s tomorrow.”

But we knew that.

Two days after St. Patrick’s Day, here’s the conversation in the post office:

Did you go to the parade?

Nope. Trying to keep my life simple. You?

Nope. Not this year. Maybe next.