I imagined writing this after finally managing a good night’s sleep upon returning to Utah but now, after failing to materially sleep for five consecutive days, I find myself concluding that the catharsis of writing must precede the release of sleeping. The perfectionist in me will need to accept a reduced scope and quality in the knowledge that I will be returning to this matter for years to come.
Saturday 13 May held the promise of a good day. In Utah I was tidying up the garage in preparation for assembling a workbench intended to home my new 3D printer, a project spurred by a desire to print auxiliary parts for my paragliding setup but which I also imagined encouraging me to dabble in robotics again. In Maryland my brother Benjamin was suiting up for a friend’s wedding, an outing with his wife that would be their first recreational adulting in too long amidst the maelstrom of start-up life, dual careers, and raising their young daughter. Our brother James, however, would call us each in turn to deliver dark news that derailed any possibility of normalcy — our sister Jennifer had killed herself.
Jennifer had dropped her dog off with my parents on Thursday, something she had done on many previous occasions when she “needed a break”, but then entered comms blackout all Friday in a way that troubled my mother, and so my parents traveled to her apartment to do a wellness check on Saturday morning. Unable to raise her upon arrival they summoned the police who after entering the apartment did my parents the mercy of not allowing them to enter. Knowing what I do now I shudder at the thought of the un-unsee-able horror my parents would have witnessed had they had a key and entered unilaterally.
The Unfolding Ordeal
On Sunday I booked airfare to Maryland via a Monday/Tuesday redeye flight, imagining an excruciating but logical and incremental procession of ordeals — the clearing of her apartment, a family-only viewing, a public viewing, a funeral, and then a gathering at my parents’ house. That would have followed a logical if agonizing script with which I had been brutally familiarized with the passing of my brother John in late 2019.
On Monday my parents and brother James went to the funeral home to make arrangements. There the director noted that this had proven one of the more difficult cases he had navigated in decades of work and strongly encouraged my family not to view the body. My parents thus made the decision to send Jennifer directly to cremation without viewing her and to have only a funeral with her ashes in an urn on Friday.
Attending to her apartment, meanwhile, kept getting delayed. Tuesday turned into Wednesday and then Thursday. I began to form a clearer picture of her last moments when I was told that the biohazard team needed, among other things, to remove drywall. It would not be until a full week after her funeral that the fully detailed reality crystallized with the confluence of a coroner’s report, a police report, and a bank statement — Jennifer had impulse-purchased a Remington 12 gauge shotgun for a singular purpose on Thursday and then made her dramatic exit with it on Friday.
And so I just stewed for three days until the funeral with no intermediary outlet for my grief. For various reasons I was processing the experience differently than the period between learning of my brother’s death and his funeral — “grief stacking” from the temporal proximity of losing Jennifer to losing John; “grief constipation” from the mechanism of her death robbing me of the ability to process in stages with the facilitating contexts; and a toxic cocktail of confusion and anger owing to the senselessness of it all.
Also, the universe is not above a wholly gratuitous “fuck you” for the lulz, which it saw fit to remind me when I was walking my old neighborhood in Baltimore’s Federal Hill during this stewing period. I snapped a photo that had my 2008-2011 era apartment in view to the left and the Ropewalk Tavern to the right. On a whim I sent the photo to Jim, a kind soul of a bartender I had met there who had since moved to Detroit and with whom I had kept in sporadic contact, receiving a reply the next day.
You always think there will be another chance to see someone until there isn’t.
I saw my sister in person for the last time at my brother’s funeral. I had imagined seeing her over the summer during a happier kind of Maryland sojourn. Fortune favors the proactive, I missed that shot, and there are no do-overs.
At the funeral a long-time family friend and in particular a close friend of Jennifer, Heather Brown, gave the eulogy. This proved the best and, arguably, the only good part of the ceremonial send-off of Jennifer. I’m not sure which matters owed to an explicit decision versus a ball being dropped because it was all too overwhelming but the elements present in John’s funeral were in large measure missing from Jennifer’s. Not only was her body not fit to be viewed but for some reason there wasn’t even a picture at the ceremony. There was just an urn and three vases of flowers. No symbolic closing of a coffin, no symbolic lifting of a coffin by the remaining siblings into a hearse as we had done with John, no group embrace by those siblings at a central and logical moment, nothing of the sort, some of which seemed unavoidable, some of which seemed an oversight…
The most surreal fail came at the end. When I asked my parents what they wanted done with the flowers and in which car the urn should go the funeral director interceded to note that in fact the urn was only a temporary one for the funeral. He then proceeded to take a coffee-grounds sized bag containing my sisters ashes out of the urn, place it in a slightly larger cloth one that resembled a miniature version of a reusable grocery bag, and then look at my family expectantly. Everyone had a deer-in-headlights moment and then turned wordlessly to look beseechingly at me. And so I picked up the bag, carefully cradled it to my sternum, and took it out to my parents’ car, noting that the heft of what remained of Jennifer’s 32-year-old corporeal existence must have matched almost exactly what I felt when I carried her similarly as a baby eleven years my junior.
I’m not a religious person but I can appreciate how the institutions thereof have over millennia tuned the rituals around saying a final goodbye to someone. I could have used some of that on that day. Sadly, though, the only thing on offer from the religious officiants present was the tiresome reminder that they believe that anyone who doesn’t accept Jesus during their tenure on this planet has the eternal torture of the fires of hell as their next and only waypoint. Read the room, bro — anyone who made their exit in this manner was already somehow experiencing hell on earth.
In addition to blocking on the biohazard team completing their work, our entry of Jennifer’s apartment also hinged on sorting through an executorship establishment workflow, finally culminating in my father entering her place on the Monday after her funeral to do a survey with the idea being that the moving work would happen on Tuesday. I had intended to help but on Monday evening James called me to let me know that my presence would be redundant as there would be no heavy-lifting to be done and really pretty minimal stuff to take altogether owing to the cleaning team having unilaterally thrown away so much of her stuff. I could imagine it having been meaningful and cathartic to pack up her books, maybe to keep a few… but all of them were gone, casualties of the huge blast radius she managed with her final act.
It seemed the universe didn’t want to grant me any manner of meaningful closure with Jennifer in this moment. Finding that will be a long and winding process with no prospect of real completion. I take solace, however, in the silver lining of the trip having included playing chess with my seven year old nephew Joey (son of the late John), employing my juggling skills to make my three year old niece Elli giggle uncontrollably, and getting to spend material time with friends and family I had not seen in too long, even though by the end I was running on adrenaline and fumes with a hard and painful crash imminent (“Introvert’s Death March” I only half-jokingly call such a socialization marathon).
About twenty minutes after greeting this strange Viking she had not seen in ~ 2 years by hiding behind Ben’s legs as if I were the most terrifying thing she had seen in recent memory…
Laura to Dave: “Dave, you have food in your beard again and you really don’t have the excuse that Andrew does.”
An Ominous Background
Thirty two appears statistically to be an inauspicious age for my sibling cohort. It was at that age that I, the eldest of five, had a rock climbing fall…
… whose follow-on MRIs would reveal that my near future would include radiation…
… and surgery…
… and being given a month’s worth of Dilaudid, a drug that Matthew Perry described as his favorite in his recent auto-biography, and one that I am pretty sure permanently rewired my brain, making my (wholly successful!) quest never to relapse a daily project wherein I must fill my life to the brim with other things to give such lingering addiction no quarter.
I was lucky to have so much structure, support, and drive that I could always keep those demons at bay but sadly my brother John was not so fortunate. He never quite attained reliable traction in adult life and spent 15 years in an episodic and gradually worsening death spiral of drug addiction that culminated in his 2019 passing with the fentanyl he bought off the street leaving him dead in his car on the side of a city road. When my favorite rock climbing partner passed he was thirty two.
In 2011 I found myself sitting in a locked down unit of a mental hospital, visiting my sister in the aftermath of her first suicide attempt, trying in vain to understand what had sent her down that path. She would make a series of such attempts, some seemingly more serious than others, progressing over the years from swallowing pills, to cutting wrists, to finally shooting herself in the head. She had tattoos reading “Never Again” inked over her shredded wrists but then ignored the memory device and slashed through them during her penultimate episode. Along the way, however, she would also receive an undergraduate degree in psychology, a master’s degree in social work, and just a few months before killing herself a certification in the state of Maryland. They say that nearly all social workers go into the field half to help others and half to figure themselves out. She seemed to be on that path and doing really well in recent times which makes this most recent turn of events all the more shocking and perplexing. When my baby sister passed, so full of promise, she was also thirty two.
Making Sense Of The Senseless
When pondering a death we might more easily end up with feelings of anger in the case of suicide because there appears to be a certain intentionality to it that we may reflexively ascribe to some manner of weakness, selfishness, delusionality, or other flaw.
Worth remembering, though, is that we are meat machines consisting of various organs all of which are prone to numerous faults of mechanical, electrical, or chemical flavors. Would you get angry at someone with a congenital lung or heart defect? Why, then, deem the brain so special, ye Cartesian Dualists?
And we are incredibly stateful machines. How easy it is to protect our egos by looking down on others without understanding all the nuances of the history that brought them to where they are. I, myself, am prone to anxiety and depression, have suffered various outrageous slings and arrows, but somehow have channeled those characteristics and experiences into a career and hobbies that either benefit from them, damp them, or both, and yet I don’t pretend to understand why I managed to be more functional.
Our proclivity toward tidy categories also drives us to take a binary view toward “suicide”. I think, rather, we ought reason in terms of a continuum. Perhaps pulling the trigger of a gun represents a greater intentionality than getting poisoned by badly cut street drugs, but by how much? And how might we differently reason about two brains that each made a decision to pull the trigger of a gun, one with a functional composition of neurotransmitters in place and another with a temporarily horrific imbalance? Who is the “I” or “you” of which we so casually speak?
I personally can’t fathom what people mean when they speak of “free will”. It doesn’t help that when I ask them to define what it means they can’t even do that. After many years of pondering this topic I’m left only with a concept that I will call Locality Of Agency and that exists on a continuum.
Imagine two scenarios involving a spaceship within the gravitational pull of a sun such that no action by the ship causes it to fall into the sun and the crew to perish but in the different scenarios the ship variously does or does not have the fuel to escape the gravity well. In the scenario of inadequate fuel there does not exist Locality Of Agency at the ship and the crew is doomed because the sun is inescapably in charge. In the scenario of adequate fuel there does exist Locality Of Agency at the ship, perhaps even at the captain of the ship, but the captain either does or does not have the skill and/or will to take advantage of that. How do we judge “them”, an amalgam of deterministic particles, when they either succeed or fail? Will we say that they were heroic in one scenario and disgraceful in another?
Perhaps all outcomes in life are just a matter of luck in a game where the die was cast 13.7 billion years ago and we have to wait for this massive and irreducible computer to run its course to know the ending to each story even though every one of them was always going to end the way it did. There is possibly a deep truth to the aphorism that “existence is a prison”. And maybe in that knowledge we can at least have more empathy for others even if we can’t as a practical matter bring ourselves to forgive them.
But don’t worry about me. “Free Will” is my personal favorite delusion. It sure feels like I have it and frankly I don’t have anything better to do with my time than to live life to its fullest. Perhaps the whole conscious experience is essentially like the sensorial smorgasbord of being strapped into a rollercoaster. Good thing I fucking love rollercoasters.
Everything Is Harder Than Anyone Admits
To “Settlers Of Catan” someone will forever be a transitive verb phrase with a very specific meaning in Gibbs family parlance.
I liked the Internet a lot more before Surveillance Capitalism ruined it, turning it into an advertising revenue driven hellscape where we are all obliged to continually publish a self-aggrandizing highlights reel, and where to the extent that we eschew such a lopsided portrayal of our realities The Algorithm will still find a way to weaponize and monetize our content in a manner that fuels record levels of depression, addiction, alienation, and partisanship. I don’t know what complex confluence of factors caused my sister to effect a permanent solution to a temporary problem but it does feel like we have manufactured a world where there is lead in the water, we are all getting slowly poisoned by it in a variety of ways, and probably this was at least part of her story.
So as an exercise in psychological countermeasures and personal integrity I made a video for her, alas crafted too late to help her specifically but nonetheless maybe an example of a way we may at least occasionally engage to inoculate ourselves and others against the worst of the filter-warped cyber-sphere we inhabit…