Tuesday was not a very pleasant day at all.
There was the reappearance of that “ghost” originating back to last summer that I talked about in my last scatterbrained post, where I mentioned my feeling like shouting and letting it all out. There was the sad news that a woman near and dear to the hearts of many in our church passed away, just a couple of weeks short of her 95th birthday. That seemed like enough.
And then there was the scene that took place at a neighbor’s house just over our backyard fence toward late afternoon. Several police cars lined the street around that neighbor’s house, two fire engines were sitting in front of it, a crime scene unit vehicle showed up, and yellow police tape was wrapped around trees and bushes in the front yard to form a new, temporary boundary to the property.
Eventually, we learned that a man with a wife and children had shot himself in the head inside his home, much less than a stone’s throw away from our back yard. His wife had apparently left him for another man, his children were pulling away from contact with him, his business was apparently failing, and his wife ended up getting there just in time to see the shot to the head happen in front of her.
I didn’t know how much of an impact that would have on my own family until I saw a Facebook post from my daughter Alicia that simply said, “I am so sad,” after I had told her what had happened. She had some fond memories of the man who’d shot himself. She’d basically known him for half of her life. When she’d walk down the sidewalk and he’d see her, he’d call out to her by name and say hello and talk to her. Alicia talked about how nice he was as she’d play with a friend of hers next door to us and next door to the man’s home.
How do you explain someone taking their own life — and have it make sense as to the reasons why people get that despondent — to a 12-year-old? All I could do was give her a big hug and a kiss on top of her head, tell her I’m sorry, and let her talk out her feelings.
Suicide isn’t something Alicia, or anyone in my family for that matter, has really had to deal with in such close proximity to our home ever before. It’s something my daughter won’t soon forget, if she ever does.
It’s hard to tell a 12-year-old girl how to deal with a suicide when you yourself had a hard time dealing with it as a 20-something adult.
A case in point …
It’s only been in the last couple of weeks that Alicia was studying the human brain in a school textbook, needing to memorize everything that makes up the sections of the brain, images of the brain being shown in realistic color. I looked through her textbook with her as we sat on some comfortable chairs in the lobby of our church one evening, waiting for the first night of a revival to begin.
“I’ve seen more of a human brain before than I ever care to see again,” I told her. “I know firsthand what color the brain is.”
That statement seemed to fascinate her. I then had to tell her why I’d had such a firsthand “education.” It had to do with my time spent working as a sports editor, oddly enough, at my last newspaper job at a small Blackfoot, Idaho, daily in the mid-1980s. Our newspaper office was near a pawn shop across a busy main street. The area where big rolls of paper for the press would come in to the loading dock was in the back of the building, which faced a back alley.
One of our pressmen just happened to be standing in the big doorway of the loading dock, looking out toward that alley, when a man with a shotgun in his hand — a shotgun which he’d obtained by walking into the nearby pawn shop and simply asking the clerk to see the gun before running out of the store with it — ran into the alley, stopped, loaded the gun with a shotgun shell, and proceeded to blow a quarter of his head away.
The pressman then walked from the loading dock through the paste-up area, toward the front of the building to the editorial department cubicles, his face looking as white as a freshly bleached sheet.
“A guy just blew his brains out in the alley back there. I saw it all,” he said in a quiet yet obvious state of shock.
At that moment in time, getting toward mid-evening, I was the only writer who hadn’t gone home for the day. We had a nighttime news editor on duty to lay out the next day’s news pages. The chore of working on that breaking news story fell to me. I walked back to the alley, by which time police vehicles had already pulled up and the investigation had begun.
The city’s chief of police was there. With a somber face, he looked me square in the eye and asked if I could take official police photographs. I swallowed hard and agreed to do it.
I was warned to watch my step as I made my way through the alley. There was blood and, mostly, brain matter scattered everywhere — on the pavement, on the outside walls of nearby buildings, a power pole. I took pictures from every angle.
I took close-up photos of the man’s face. His eyes were still there, intact, and they were open. Above eye level, a fourth of the left side of his head was gone. The look of despair that remained in his eyes from the instant he pulled the trigger is still burned into my memory to this day.
I not only had to take those photos, I had to gather information on the incident afterward and write the story, plus finish my regular sports editing duties and laying out the sports pages. It turned out that the man was a former Bingham County prosecuting attorney who’d fallen on hard times. He was well-known in the area. Once I was cleared to start contacting people for a reaction and to gather more details (I remember calling former Bingham County Prosecutor Tom Moss, for one, and hearing the shock in his voice upon hearing the news), I put together a comprehensive story for the next morning’s paper.
As usual, I finished late that night/very early morning. But I couldn’t go home. I had to get in my cherry red ’84 Mustang GT with a killer stereo and just drive for a while before going to my studio apartment. I remember I listened to John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Scarecrow” album on cassette as I drove — fast — north down Interstate 15 toward the little town of Shelley where my mother lived and worked, singing my behind off, occasionally yelling out “WHY? WHY DID YOU DO THAT?”
I remember so many details from that night, just like it happened yesterday.
That look of despair in the man’s eyes would keep popping into my mind later at home whenever I’d try to close my own eyes to fall asleep. It turned out that I didn’t sleep at all that night. I wasn’t quite right mentally for the next two weeks.
I drank heavily to try and erase the images, smoked heavily to try and calm my nerves. Toward the end of that battle, I drank the better part of a fifth of Jack Daniel’s in no time at all. When that was done, I ended up on my back on the floor of my studio apartment, spread-eagled, totally numb. I couldn’t have moved if I’d wanted to. The Jack didn’t help a bit. It’s a wonder I didn’t die of alcohol poisoning right there on that floor.
I was much the same then as I am now when it comes to associating particular songs with events that surround me, the things that are going on in my life. The rock group Kansas ended up helping me through some key points in my struggle to deal with this man’s suicide.
In the earlier stages — during the time when the haunting image of the man’s face would appear in my mind whenever I’d try to keep my eyes closed — I dealt with it by playing the Kansas song “Mysteries and Mayhem,” mentioning an “unearthly face before me.”
Toward the end of my two-week ordeal, after I’d managed to sober up and realized I needed some help, I turned to another special Kansas song, “The Devil Game.” I danced like a mutha and sang out loud while the song played. I turned to a “special source,” and — as it says in the song — said “Satan, leave me!”
It was then that I started to pull out of it. But there’s always been one Kansas song I’ve turned to whenever I’ve needed to reach down into the deepest spiritual side of myself, going back to those days long before I ever thought of getting baptized, let alone having found a church I wanted to get baptized into. It’s a song that captures the essence of my spiritual quest from a young age, until I’d found what I was looking for in my mid-30s. It’s a song that I read the lyrics to in a church service one Sabbath morning long ago, early in my marriage.
That song is called “The Wall.” Listening to that one song alone has pulled me out of more funks through the years than I can even try to list.
My 12-year-old daughter has already found the right path to help her through the mysteries and mayhem that can pop up at any time in this earthly life we live. Right now, I’m so glad for that. I’d hate for her, or anyone else, to deal with it the way I used to.