Thursday, October 04, 2007

Suicide Is Not Painless

Ring out the bells again
like we did when spring began
wake me up when September ends

Here comes the rain again
falling from the stars
drenched in my pain again
becoming who we are

As my memory rests
but never forgets what I lost
wake me up when September ends

Summer has come and passed
The innocent can never last
wake me up when September ends

-- Green Day

When I began this blog, I envisioned it as a forum to discuss American history and current events. I never imagined how often I would vent my feelings after the deaths of loved ones.

Last year ended and the new year began with the deaths of my mother, my father-in-law, and a 19-year-old cat I had known longer than my wife. After that fierce season of mortality, I spent much of the summer consumed by the mundane heartaches of life: homesickness following a move to a new city; the resulting domestic strife; a nasty adult case of the chickenpox; and finally, a moment of hypoglycemia resulting in a low-speed car crash and a broken clavicle. Wounded, I nevertheless deluded myself that this was as bad as it could get.

That changed on that ill-starred anniversary of September 11. On that Monday, my sister Marie’s oldest son Danny Ray Pugh hanged himself. For Danny, life had always been a struggle. When he was born, Rh factor left him desperately ill and he tenaciously held on to life for several precarious days while we prepared for the worst. A learning disability narrowed his horizons and dystonia robbed him at times of control of his body. He survived, but grew into a man-child, gentle and unprepared for the demands of an unforgiving adult world.

Danny could never manage money. As a small child he once beamed as he showed off his brand-new Hot Wheels car. Marie and my brother-in-law David asked Danny how he got the car and Danny, his angel face beaming, explained that he had traded his tricycle for it. Sadly, dollars and cents remained indecipherable runes to Danny as he got older. My mother, who suffered from borderline personality disorder, enabled his immaturity with money, time and again bailing out Danny when he got in financial trouble. This proved lethal when my mother died from cancer nine months ago.

She left Danny a $10,000 inheritance. Danny promptly gave the whole amount to a woman he was attracted to and she, as swiftly, dumped him. This happened even as Danny, earning poverty wages at a grocery store, began manically spending and gave up coping with mounting debt. At 2 a.m. the morning he died, in the parking lot of his workplace, his truck was repossessed. Danny told his co-workers unconvincingly that the truck was being repaired, but he was obviously embarrassed and grew quiet. He nevertheless regained composure, told the same jokes he always told, called his friends by the nicknames he gave every friendly acquaintance, and rode home with a friend. When the friend dropped him off, Danny smiled and told his ride he would see him Wednesday.

On their rural property, David and Marie had built an apartment for Danny and for Marie’s younger son Jeremy. Danny got there around 6-7 in the morning. Around 9 a.m., Marie went out to the shed attached to the apartment. In the dim light she saw Danny’s face from the side and it appeared to her that he was standing. She called his name and received no answer. Approaching him, she saw the rope and began screaming.

In the days since, I have taken some comfort in the words of the Roman poet Aeschylus.

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.

I still pray fervently for that day when our grief might yield to wisdom through the awful grace of God. I await the day that our eyes might once more be dry, our hearts no longer heavy but light with joy, our minds not clouded with darkness but filled with hopeful dreams of the future. Right now, that moment seems so painfully far away.

I have always relied on the magic of words. I write books and make speeches. I rely on words to inspire, to motivate, to calm and to enrage. On this occasion, words failed me. I couldn’t find the magic words that could undo the terrible events of September 11, the incantation that would give my sister peace of mind and make our family whole once again.

Danny was the first baby I ever held and I ache for his loss. What we have lived through is grotesque and obscene. I want to calm a grieving mother, but I realize that I am not calm myself. Instead, I am angry, filled with rage because a mother should not have to bury her son, because I was not supposed to speak at my nephew’s funeral but he was supposed to crack jokes at my expense during mine.

You made a terrible, terrible mistake Danny. You imagined you were alone, without friends and without a lifeline. I wish you could have witnessed the heartbreak your death has caused. I wish you could have seen the tears, and heard us ask over and over again that unanswerable question, “Why?”

Like too many people in this world, you felt bankrupt but you were blind to the treasure lying at your feet. All around you were people who loved you and who would have done anything to purchase you one more breath of life. They came by the dozens to my sister’s house and almost 200 people attended the funeral service of a young man who sacked groceries -- grieving friends and family who feel that a light in their soul has forever dimmed.

The Apostle Paul knew something about the magic of words, but also their tragic limitations. As he writes in his First Letter to the Corinthians, “Though I speak with the tongue of men and angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” With charity, with forgiveness, comes wisdom and with that wisdom comes the awful grace of God. Once we set aside our anger at this young man’s death, we realize that Danny’s terrible end is just a small piece of a too short, but often joyful life. Once I get past that terrible final act, I remember Danny’s infectious laugh, his smile and his beautiful eyes. I remember his unmistakable, friendly East Texas drawl. I remember Danny as a wrestling fanatic, then as a roper, and then as a tattoo-addicted, ear-lobe gauged, body modifying, walking work of art.

Danny was always a work in progress. He tirelessly recreated himself. Growing up in the highly intolerant East Texas atmosphere, for a brief time he held that region's unfortunate attitude towards African Americans, gays, and so on. But this was an abberation. Danny's heart was more open than that, and he became in his final years a gentle soul who welcomed all to his table.

One image of Danny remains etched in my mind. I remember watching him once in an elementary school play. The teacher cast him as a tree. Danny stood there on the back of the stage with his silly paper costume. When the cue came, he stretched his arms which were made up like braches, his angel face beaming. That was Danny, content to be in the background yet somehow still commanding attention.

Through it all, Danny was sui generis, one of a kind. He loved to give and to receive and his appetite in all things was voracious. If one tattoo was good, a hundred were better. No one was going to tell him who he was, what he was going to look like or what he was going to be. Danny, for instance, liked to dip snuff. Marie, David, Jeremy and many of Danny friends tried to get him to quit that nasty habit. One time Danny was grounded for what seemed like a life sentence after Marie and David caught him dipping.

The day that Danny’s punishment ended, Marie and David spotted a snuff can in Danny’s car. Determined to end that nonsense, David marched Danny to every tobacco dealer in Hunt County, told the merchants in no uncertain terms that Danny was underage, and that if he was sold chewing tobacco in their store again, they would have to deal with the law. Danny turned beet-red. David then made Danny eat a tugboat’s worth of snuff, hoping to make him sick. Danny put on a stoic face.

David became a high school football coach on steroids. It was a hot Texas summer day, over a hundred degrees, and David made Danny run laps behind the house. Through all the physical torture, Danny never broke. Unfortunately, he kept dipping snuff. He did so even when Jeremy and his friend Steven began putting Tabasco on his tobacco, and even cologne. They would watch Danny dip and he would keep a straight face, determined not to sweat or wretch in front of his would-be reformers. That was Danny. For good or bad, he was an unshakably independent spirit.

Danny’s presence continues to be felt, both as a heavy shadow and as a light. Learning disability aside, my nephew loved to pull pranks on his co-workers and figured out how to program the cash registers at Kroger’s so they would chime simultaneously after he left each morning. No one was ever able to figure how he did this or how to stop the registers from ringing. The Wednesday after his death, the cash registers tolled again, Danny’s last extended middle finger at convention.

Yet, he had us all fooled. He gave the perfect imitation of a happy-go-lucky free spirit, untouched by the ordinary pressures of life. For him, tomorrow and its obligations never seemed to exist. I still think that perhaps for much of his life he did feel joy and hope. Yet inside, dependency and fear lay coiled like a snake. There was a dark corner of his soul none of us ever saw and all in his family are torturing their souls trying to recall the tell-tale signs of his future doom that we somehow missed.

That’s a fool’s errand born of narcissism. Depression is a great deceiver, turning honey to gall and rendering friends and family invisible. None of us was so big or so important that we could cut through the thick, private haze of despair that clouded Danny’s mind in those last days. Danny was a creature of impulse, whether he was implanting a stud in his face, running a red light, adding another tattoo to the canvas of his body, or, at the very end, surrendering to a lightening moment of panic. The spontaneity that made Danny exciting also proved his tragic undoing.

We loved Danny. We can no longer tell him that directly. In the lonely moments when I want to speak to him again, to go back in time and prevent his suicide, I ask if there was any point to his suffering and his senseless, too-early death. Towards that end, I have turned to Viktor Frankl, the Austrian founder of logotherapy, a school of psychology that emphasizes humanity’s seemingly intrinsic need to create meaning in the face of suffering.

The Nazis seized Frankl, who was Jewish, in 1942 and transported him, his wife, and his parents to the Theresianstadt concentration camp. The SS later moved Frankl to Auschwitz and then to Dachau. Sitting under chimneys belching the grey snow of human ashes, Frankl observed that those camp inmates who found their torment meaningless were the most likely to seek a quick exit by grabbing the electric fences surrounding the camps. Those who found small, even trivial purpose in their ordeal greatly improved their chance at survival. As he noted in his classic, post-war book “Man in Search for Meaning”;

If a prisoner felt that he could no longer endure the realities of camp life, he found a way out in his mental life - an invaluable opportunity to dwell in the spiritual domain, the one that the SS were unable to destroy. Spiritual life strengthened the prisoner, helped him adapt, and thereby improved his chances of survival.

To Frankl, the meanings people attach to life that allow them to survive don’t have to answer fundamental questions, such as why we suffer and die. They don’t have to be the philosophical equivalent of quantum physics. “For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour,” Frankl noted. “What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person's life at a given moment.” Frankl focused on surviving the camps so he could see his wife face-to-face again, if for nothing else then as an act of defiance aimed at his Nazi torturers.

By the time Allied troops freed Frankl at war’s end, his wife had died at the Bergen-Belsen camp, but the therapist summoned his courage and lived on, devoting himself to the study of suicide prevention and depression and honing techniques that came to be known as the “Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy.”

Frankl’s life and suffering was not meaningless and neither was my nephew Danny’s. If I can find meaning in Danny’s terrible end, it is that we can never allow ourselves the self-indulgent luxury of imagining that we are alone. As the song says, “We’re one, but we’re not the same. We’ve got to carry each other, carry each other.” Our lives are worth so much more than any material things we might possess. We will never again see someone like Danny, but we will guarantee his legacy if we pledge to each other our mutual love, support, honesty, and most of all, our shared determination to survive.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.


Tad Banyon said...

I pray that you keep half of that in mind if you should ever become hopelessly depressed. Don't leave us like Danny left you. I love ya, buddy.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Phillips,
I share in your grief for my father shot himself this summer. And I,too, believe that there is wisdom enmeshed in this horrible tragedy. The hours of desperate crying out of WHY doesn't end too quickly, but instead is surrounded with unexpected moments of truth and love and peace. I am sorry for you and your family's loss. I wll include all of you in my prayers.

Mary Shomon said...

A true tribute to Danny. Would that you never had to write it though...