Mary, Art, Bee, and Christopher – 1971.
Christopher committed suicide on May 6, 2010. He announced his intention to end his life at Mary’s wake. He said he was following her example. Over the next year he made sure that everyone around him knew his plan: relatives, friends, doctors, his parole officer, probably even the clerk at the liquor store.
There was factually nothing anyone could do to stop him. Or at least, nothing the family could do. His doctor provided the means – the autopsy said he had enough Oxy in his system to kill a dozen men.
He was forty-six when he died, Mary was forty-eight, and they were both old by the standards of my family.
When I was little it seemed obvious that everyone who grew up on the farm was destined to die young: of the seven siblings, only my mother lived to see a fiftieth birthday. They were born and raised in poverty, with all the attendant physical dangers, but that doesn’t entirely explain the early deaths. They were smart and wild, but that doesn’t justify the mayhem.
Suicide is an ugly word. Look at the outline, the shape of the letters, think about what it implies. Death is always difficult but suicide is a choice. I was raised to see it as a basic right, the ultimate grace. But as an adult I view the act as aggressive, violent, ruinous. I have an intellectual and philosophical appreciation of the complexity of the question, but I also know that when Christopher and Mary ended their own pain they guaranteed the surviving family would suffer. Would my mother be alive now if the others had died of natural causes? Probably. Suicide is contagious.
As a child I didn’t have enough experience to understand our family story. The aunts and uncles and cousins were just my kin, the people I belonged to and with. I perceived them as blazing giants bringing joy and destruction. I loved them, and they loved me.
I turned forty-eight this year with a wrenching sense of dislocation: I have outlived most of the people who raised me. I don’t have a script for what comes next.