Evelyn knew that her son, Jerry, always liked birds. They were his first fixation; every parent remembers each of their children’s first fixation—so, at a young age, he would prattle on, almost mechanically, about the capacity of a crow to remember a human face, how ravens could mimic human speech, how owls ate their prey whole. He hadn’t used such sophisticated language, of course. The precise way he expressed his love for the creatures was lost to time.
When he turned eleven, she bought him a parakeet—or a budgie, as Jerry insisted they were properly called in their native Australia; how smart he was, so said the teenage girl behind the counter. Of course, they had to then buy a parakeet for Andrea, their nine-year-old daughter, because fair is fair, and pledge to get one for Kyle, then six, when he got old enough to take care of it (an offer he never redeemed).
Was Jerry happy with the blue and green “budgie” that his parents, after some resistance, allowed him to name Bruno? Hard to tell. Maybe, for a bit. He admired Bruno, enjoyed taking him out to fly around the bathroom, giving him food sticks, and watching the bird peck. When Andrea was going to have her bird fly around the bathroom, that’s when Jerry needed to let Bruno out too, and he liked to play Bruno’s bodyguard, saying, “hey hey hey!” and separating Bruno and Andrea’s bird, a bright yellow thing she named Oskar, with an oven mitt if they nipped at each other. Jerry seemed most engaged when the opportunity came to intervene.
But Bruno would peck at Jerry sometimes, and Jerry reciprocated with inanition, letting the bird go too long without food or water or cage-cleaning to the point that he became the “family bird” until Jerry promised his mother he’d be more responsible. Jerry, from then on, fulfilled his obligations dutifully, by all appearances, although the frequency with which he’d take the bird out lessened each year. How to account for why Jerry remained so abstractly interested in birds and less-so with the real article? It’s as if he’d been found out in something, and therefore expressed his interest in birds less and less—although, the same could be said about all topics as he got older.
So, imagine Bruno broke free from his cage and flew around the household right now, if the poor wheezy bird could still fly for so long. What would he see, as he went from room to room? Evelyn bawling, screaming and gnashing, her husband Patrick holding her, so frustratingly stoic. Bruno would see Andrea, now fourteen, and Kyle too, now eleven, and what would he feel of their unguarded moments? Relief, indifference?
The bird would notice, perhaps with some pleasure, that Jerry was nowhere to be seen. If so, would it feel a satisfaction at the calamity, at the grief—payback for his lonely nights shivering in Jerry’s room, or payback for his inapposite name? Is it worth discussing the other members of the family, their passions, their pursuits, the trajectory their lives were taking up to this point? No, not now. Bruno would fly out, leave this family to their grieving, much as we will now, else this would be too grueling.
Because Jerry, at the age of seventeen, on the cusp of graduating high school, is dead. He killed himself, without even whatever quantum of closure might be provided by a suicide note.
Let’s check back—it’s been a month. As if that really mattered, though. As if that made a difference in any appreciable way. As if, during that month, Evelyn thought about anything other than when she’d found his corpse.
When she’d found him, Evelyn had made sure to knock several times. You always had to knock several times because Jerry relished privacy, and he expected that preference to be honored. Patrick would give one or two solid knocks that doubled as commands. Andrea’s were rapid-fire, impatient knocks in quick succession—the knocks of someone never eager to approach. Kyle’s were respectful, if unnatural knocks, timid with deferential pauses. Evelyn would give languorous, patient knocks—enough time for Jerry to stop whatever he was doing and assemble himself.
But this time, Evelyn had knocked enough. Opening the door and finding him hanging there was the equivalent of watching him kill himself; it all came in a rush—she could see it in the afterimages. The plummet, the tensile arc of his swing, his tongue squirting, an almost comical grimace—so strange to see that enigmatic face of his, once so definite, now so unchanging. In some versions of the imagining, there was an exaggerated crunch-crash of his neck snapping, instant death, better than some alternatives she saw: his desperate, futile kicks to right himself back on the stepladder. To deepen the wound, she thought despite herself that, to witness such kicks would have been perhaps the first and only time she’d ever seen him zealously try to do anything. And what a Jerry outcome, wasn’t it? Hopeless failure.
Who would have thought you could tie bedsheets to the motor housing of a ceiling fan? Jerry was a skinny boy but certainly, he weighed too much for the fan to withstand. Grimly enough, you can’t argue with results. She had never imagined him capable of displaying such physical ingenuity to tie such a stable knot, execute such a plan. He was never a Boy Scout; he had worn Velcro sneakers until he was ten.
This is too much. We’ll need to come back after scabs have formed over these wounds.
“My problem is, if I had to sum it up in one issue, is I know I have problems, but I don’t value myself enough to do anything about them, I guess. So, I continue to suffer but won’t do anything about it to lessen my suffering because I always feel like, what’s the point?” Jerry had said, months before his eventual suicide, as he leaned on his elbows, as he sat atop a wooden table in the park, staring into the dreary, cloudy middle distance that lay beyond his outstretched feet.
Graham nodded solemnly. “That makes sense and isn’t uncommon, unfortunately. This sounds terribly clichéd—and I know how you hate clichés—but some clichés are clichés because truth bears so much repeating. No one hates us as much as we hate ourselves.” Jerry blinked and then, realizing he was being looked at, nodded. “But some people truly deserve to feel the way they feel. Maybe the suffering, the self-hatred I feel…Maybe, I deserve it.”
Graham looked thoughtful, a slight bob to his head, as if he had to let the speaker know that every sentence uttered in his direction was independently analyzed and computed. “If someone was truly disliked by many, many people—essentially a type of pariah in their community—it would behoove them to better understand why that was. There is great wisdom in a crowd, especially when it comes to why a community of people reject someone which, to a healthy-minded person, should indicate that there very well may be something about themselves they need to change. We know all about the wisdom of a community, after all.”
Jerry signaled his agreement.
“But for you, Jerry, the hatred is internal. Your trouble is a self-imposed isolation and loneliness, of pushing people away—not of being actively rejected. You know that. We’ve talked about that. The reason you do that is because you think you are better than other people, smarter than them. You value intelligence. You recognize your own intelligence and so find the mass of others lacking, and that causes you to devalue them.”
Jerry bobbed his head again in agreement, the movement helping to conceal his involuntary eyeroll. He’d heard all this before, although he recognized its truth. But there was something to be said about novelty.
“Let me ask you Jerry, why are you sitting on top of the picnic table instead of standing here with me?”
Jerry looked back over his shoulder at Graham, then looked again toward the chilly, unused playground. Before he could ready a response, Graham placed the tips of the fingers of this left hand to his temple and prognosticated: “Let me fancy a guess.”
“Okay, you do that.” Good. This would save Jerry the effort of having to think of something snappy to say.
“Firstly, lying on top of a picnic table in a park—that’s something you aren’t supposed to be doing, and there’s something you like about distinguishing yourself, even if there’s no one else here, because you are still doing something you aren’t supposed to be doing. Secondly, your stance—I see you adjusted yourself to be leaning on your elbows, a kind of cliché, casual bad-boy stance, which reinforces your own perception of yourself as outside the ordinary. From your elevated position, it’s almost like you are looking down in disdain. And thirdly, or maybe more like as an added bonus: instead of facing me, you are facing that playground that’s not being used, which I am sure reminds you of the ticky-tack, dreadfully boring suburban environment you can’t wait to escape.”
Waiting a beat, Jerry asked, “Done?”
“So, how’d I do?”
“It was more that I just didn’t want to be seen walking around with a middle-aged man. For your own protection, you know. Doesn’t look good.”
Graham laughed. Jerry adjusted his position, first sitting up, then descending from the table altogether. He was perceptive, this Graham. Jerry didn’t like that feeling of being summed up and explained. It made him feel diminutive, reduced. Even if it wasn’t entirely accurate, it appeared accurate, and that perception of accuracy made him feel self-conscious. Especially not when there was an undeniable grain of truth—more than a grain, really, more like a half a bushel—but there was much that Graham was missing, and Jerry didn’t want to invite continued probing.
Now that Jerry was off the table, Graham came over to him and, with his typical brio of homey, comfortable atavism, shook Jerry’s hand.
“I want you to stick around, friend. There are reasons for you to stay. Your life is important, and so are you, even if you don’t believe it yet. You aren’t going to kill yourself.”
“Say it. I want to hear it from you.”
Jerry smiled cavalierly.
Graham pressed on. “I get it: us depressed people hate sincerity. But still, you know the drill. I want to hear you say it.”
“You know I won’t kill myself.”
“No one knows anything. That’s the point of this, as you know, of us meeting, of us all meeting together, our community. It’s important.”
“I know it is. It isn’t easy finding you all, as you know.”
“We know. That’s intentional.”
“Yeah, you are only for the doomed cases, the tough ones, the SWAT Team of Suicide Prevention.”
Graham bellowed a laugh, a genuine laugh that revealed, in hindsight, that this previous laugh rang a bit hollow, a bit forced. “I like that. Well, you’re still here, and you haven’t tried anything since, have you?” But it wasn’t framed as a question.
“So we’re doing something right. I’d tell you that we’ve never had a member of our support group relapse—”
“I’d believe that, for sure—”
“But I don’t like saying that because I feel like that might have the unintended consequence of encouraging someone to be the first. You know us: We all think we’re so unique.”
Jerry made a face to suggest he understood. “If that ever happened for that reason, well, then you’d have to re-evaluate your admissions committee.”
As they walked toward Graham’s car, Jerry looked back at that ticky-tack playground, and simultaneously admired Graham’s perspicacity while resenting his conclusion: This town was fucking lame, and these people within were, for the most part, stupid, vain, and fundamentally sloppy, in both their emotions and intellect. They lacked possession of themselves, and it greatly depressed him to have to go out and function in their world.
Well, he had Graham here and the others, his online companions, that formed his band of brothers which, at various times, assumed the roles of emotional support group, philosophical debate club, or simply his other world he could lose himself in.
That wasn’t nothing.
Sure. It wasn’t.
It’s now been approximately three months after Jerry’s suicide, and something like a new normal has settled upon the family. As a family unit, they attract that aura of attendant sympathy wherever they go, with whoever they talk to. They could fail to bring a gift to a housewarming party or foodstuff to a potluck or forget to pick someone up, and no one would dare say anything. Not that Andrea took advantage of this, but she could fail to hand in an assignment and have an acceptable excuse at the ready.
Everyone processed things differently. No one wanted to go to therapy. Evelyn wanted to scream at them to do so, if only because that’s the thing you are supposed to do. She wanted to grab Andrea by the hair and scream at her for never getting along with her brother, even though no one got along with Jerry, and Andrea’s approach towards him— reactive, tentative, wary— was empirically sound.
Was that true? Did Jerry not get along with anybody? He’d had friends when he was younger. He could be sharp-witted and clever when he wanted to be; he was a smart boy. He read a lot, spent all day on his computer, playing video games and talking to his friends online. She’d seen him, heard him, talking with people on his headset while playing shooting games on his PlayStation, and she figured that communication was better than nothing.
The youngest, Kyle—that nonentity. Truth be told, equal attention can’t be paid to every child. Kyle had always stayed away from the Jerry-Andrea drama, never had any opinions, didn’t want to get involved, silently and un-showily did what was right and what was expected of him, acquired the appropriate interests and temperament, as if just enough to keep up appearances without attracting scrutiny. With his silence and withdrawal, Evelyn sometimes imagined him counting down the days until he could leave. He shared that with his departed brother: the feeling that behind closed doors, he’d let out a big sigh of relief and pursued interests he deigned to keep to himself.
Evelyn wanted to curse her husband, his temperament being so quietly reasonable and grounded, his refrains of ‘what can we do’, and that nagging feeling that he had processed this, was further along in the healing process and, worst of all, the fact that his was an unflagging, infuriating patience. It was as if her dedication to this emotional wretchedness and profound hopelessness at the loss of her son was the talismanic proof of her love, and that it was somehow deserved recompense for all the things she hadn’t properly done: she didn’t poke and prod and investigate enough, she didn’t shape his development enough, she wasn’t engaged enough in his life, wasn’t that it? Why else does a seventeen-year-old, one who never had to worry about money, who wasn’t being physically or sexually abused, who had nothing to escape from, do such a thing? By not wallowing alongside her, it was as if her husband was agreeing that the burden of the shame was properly allocated among the deserving parties: her and only her.
But what are you supposed to do? You can’t be a helicopter parent. Was it worth it for her to have kept her distance, fearful of Jerry’s every dismissive, unkind word? Was it worth it, her submission in the face of his recalcitrant refusal to reveal? Was it worth it, avoiding those eyes rolls, the worst thing she thought he could ever do with his eyes until she found them jutting, distended and now, literally lifeless? Apparently, even in death she couldn’t avoid that look of ghoulish judgment and disdain.
That neck cracking. Those eyes, positively lunging from their sockets.
It was approximately four months later, and Andrea felt frozen. She knew she needed to proceed carefully. Evelyn, after sitting on the couch next to her under some pretense of small talk, had just asked her if she knew any of Jerry’s friends at school who she could talk to about him. Mom had wisely and immediately broadened that request: Did she know any of Jerry’s friends? This, saving Andrea from the awkwardness of letting it dawn upon Mom that Jerry truly did not have any close friends.
Mom had, of course, been at the funeral. None of the kids from school who attended could honestly be described as Jerry’s friends, at least not in the classical meaning of the word. Family friends, Andrea’s friends, Kyle’s friends, people who casually knew him and paid him no mind. Sure, many of them knew Jerry and had nothing bad to say—who could say anything bad at a funeral? But likely there was nothing conceivably bad they could say because Jerry had kept to himself.
Was there anyone, Mom insisted? Anyone Mom could talk to, with the obvious explanation being that Mom was still—and perhaps forever would be—riddled with guilt. Andrea blanched, sensed a dismantling of the assumed understandings that oft separate parents from children. It was almost frightening: parents provided guidance and made the rules, and inherent in that guidance was the expectation that it would be exercised appropriately. That Mom’s request was so transparently a bad idea chilled Andrea to the bone; this was someone she loved, relied upon and trusted, and that the mother she loved and relied upon so much could be so wrong, well…that was a very harrowing thought indeed. So tenuous was the stability that kept the family unit functioning: she imagined no food in the fridge, the family phones cut off due to lack of payment, her mother on the corner of her bed, knees to chest, rocking back and forth babbling to herself.
“I can try and find out,” was the best Andrea could offer.
Mom smiled weakly and placed her hand warmly on Andrea’s face. “Thank you.”
Andrea saw then the stable, competent Mom she knew, and Andrea smiled back, as if forgetting that this wasn’t the first time that Mom had pursued this doomed inquiry. Mom, so competent, just wanted to hear that Andrea understood and would help, and that would be enough. That Mom then asked what Andrea wanted from the grocery store—confirming with her that she’d get Andrea’s requested mozzarella sticks, tangerines, and crunchy peanut butter—furthered that impression, because here again was Normal Mom discussing normal, healthy Mom things.
In the parking lot of the Key Food, after the car was turned off and she readied to climb out, Evelyn found herself instead unable to move, hands wrapped tightly against the steering wheel, seeking to bend it. She unclenched her hands.
What was she doing? She was a self-possessed, analytical woman. She was frustrated and, in quixotically rending the steering wheel, there was that primal satisfaction of physical exertion, of directing that bottled energy elsewhere. Andrea couldn’t be relied on to look into anything, Evelyn knew, because no one can be relied upon to do what you want to be done, with the effort you require, other than yourself.
But such activities weren’t fruitful, she knew. Just think about, look at yourself in some imagined third-person perspective. Is this a healthy approach: to sit, parked in a Key Food parking lot, death-gripping a steering wheel, while some geriatric townie gives you the side-eye as she pushes her shopping cart of canned soups and cranberry juice, or whatever the fuck, to her SUV?
No, of course not.
The uncontrollable thing about terrific loss is that the weight of it can creep upon you so impassively, so surreptitiously and then, suddenly, it’s occupying your gut and your heart, so solidly and so completely. The reality of her son’s death, so very briefly forgotten beneath the muddle of her pep talk, reasserted itself with total primacy: your son is dead, and that fact won’t change. Psych yourself back up all you like, but that fact reigns supreme.
Still, she got out, fighting through the tears, believing somehow that they’d stop because they had to stop, because people didn’t cry going into grocery stores. Through the misty veil, she acknowledged—remotely and distantly as if observing it on behalf of someone else—a great black shape speeding toward her from her periphery. She paused and, instincts taking over, took a colossal gallop backward as a black SUV seemed to swerve. Her heart in her chest, she heard no honk, no screech of tires, became only aware of, bizarrely, some different old biddy, with a crown of soft white hair, silently putting her hands to her half-open mouth in a classic look of shock. The driver of the black SUV only seemed to regain control of its momentum as it pulled toward the curb to exit the parking lot.
Evelyn stayed put, caught her breath, felt the onlook of strangers and sensed the shaking of their head, intuited the murmurings of ‘Can you believe that?’ In an alternative world, she thought subconsciously, where Evelyn had ended up splattered in the Key Food parking lot, there’d be at least one good-hearted woman who’d speak truthfully and honestly to the police about what she’d witnessed. And then reality reasserted itself again, and she clenched her stomach, dreading that old biddy coming over to her and asking her if she was alright and, to think, Evelyn could cry and emote and that innocent beautiful woman would think it was because of the outpouring of pent-up relief from that close-call with the SUV. How lovely it would be to pour out all her feelings upon someone who knew nothing about her?
With the throat-clenching drama gone, what else could she do but go into the store and get her family’s groceries?
Jerry had shaken hands with all four of them. Graham he knew, of course. Each of their meetings had ended with a handshake, given Graham’s belief that tactile exchanges had a stabilizing, grounding effect—a commitment. Until next time. The presumed pledge being that there will be a next time.
In a sense, he knew the other three, but he had never met them in the flesh before. The man he knew online as “Acer” was Steven, probably the closest to his age at twenty-four. “Bizarro” was a well-kempt, fit but otherwise anodyne, middle-aged Eric, and “Moebius” was a non-distinct Dan. They’d all traveled some ways to meet Jerry and, while he was convinced that he was intellectually indifferent to social expectations, in reality, his palms were sweaty, and his heart was racing. He had already been accepted, he told himself. But during online interactions, he could be collected, calibrated—an expression of pure intellect. Online, he could be charming, comforting and stimulating—as many a cyber-sex partner could attest—but with physical presence came worries about his appearance, his ego, his haughtiness, or just his inherent alien, discomfiting otherness that couldn’t be camouflaged.
But, if any group of people should understand, it should be them.
“I’ve been thinking for a while before this meeting,” Jerry began—tempted to bail on the opener, but there was no turning back—“that it’d be ironic if the sheer pressure and anxiety of a meeting like this would be the impetus for a candidate to off themselves.”
They all smiled and laughed.
“Ever think of that?”
“That’s never happened before, although I guess that’s something new for us to have to worry about,” joked Eric.
“Well, with how our system works, I don’t think we need to lose too much sleep about it,” said Steven, smiling. “With our terms, our people have to be pretty committed. So, don’t get any ideas, buddy.”
“You can say whatever you’d like about how extreme it all is, but one thing you can’t deny is that commitment is kind of baked into this whole enterprise,” added Dan after a pause.
“You can say that again.” Jerry’s knowing contribution, like he was an old guy commiserating with his friends about the same ole shit, the weather or untrustworthy politicians or other common pablum. Funny how he hated himself for that comment. Guys all shooting the shit with pitter-patter, the supposed comfort of group acceptance, the strained and forced overreactions and smiles to the banal, the rituals of small talk. Funny, this suicide support group—certainly the most dedicated and capable such group that ever existed, always reminded him of his inescapable exhaustion with life. Not out of high school and already saturated with bitterness. He couldn’t imagine ever being free of it because the disgust and the tedium was part of—baked into, to borrow Dan’s phrase—the whole enterprise of social interaction.
This support group might have worked better if it had remained entirely online although, with the type of commitment entrants to its inner circle needed to make, he could understand the idea, at least, about meeting in person. He bet all these guys thought he should be impressed with the sacrifice they were making in traveling however far they’d traveled to come meet him. He should reflect graciousness, but not overdo it. They should expect this. In conniving, he forgot the blundering, awkward parts of himself.
Graham, as Jerry’s ambassador of sorts, made eye contact with whomever was speaking throughout the meeting and, as everything was going accordingly, nodded sagaciously and in concert with everyone’s points, redoubling his efforts when it was Jerry doing the speaking.
When the expected lull came, Jerry spoke passionately about how the group’s support had helped him, had kept him alive at his darkest times. Jerry paused, corrected himself to explain that, to describe it as ‘darkest times’ was misleading, because that implied one distinct low point, when the truth of the matter was that he lived perpetually at the low point, like a little crab ‘scuttling around the bottom of the sea floor.’
“If I think about it intellectually, which I do often, ruminating endlessly and obsessively—” and here the others chuckled, because they knew what Jerry meant— “I still come to the same conclusion. I don’t, intellectually and objectively, think there is any reason to live. I don’t believe in God or Heaven and Hell or a higher power,” and, of course, they all knew he wasn’t saying anything that they all didn’t agree with.
“But still, I remain here. I persist, if you will, with your help, this group’s help, and that’s an act of faith, in a sense. I’m not my thoughts but separate from them. Meditation, self-reflection, exercise, obligation, commitment, tethering myself to reality, faith in action, and I can’t…I can’t necessarily, intellectually validate why this should work but I suppose results speak for themselves. I find it interesting, and I’m still here.” After Jerry finished, they again all chuckled because again, he wasn’t saying anything they themselves didn’t struggle with and struggle against daily.
“Process,” Steven started, after a dignified pause. “That’s what it is. You understand, it's a process. You do the process, your thoughts—destructive thoughts, at least—subside, and you feel better. It is a type of faith, as you say, but faith with results. You don’t argue against it, you just accept the negative thoughts for what they are: thoughts, only thoughts, separate from yourself, that come and go randomly like waves in the ocean.
“It’s when you think, ‘I can’t live with myself anymore.’ That’s what helps to articulate the tension how, in a sense, your thoughts are separate and apart from who you are. When you think that, who is the ‘I’ and who is the ‘myself?’ You commit to us and you do what’s expected of you and, over time, it gets better.”
Steven spoke solemnly or, at least to him, as you couldn’t be too doctrinaire in explaining anything to the congenitally suicidal, who, by temperament, were skeptical and dismissive.