The first song I heard when I turned on the car radio was “Tunnel,” the Third Day song proclaiming:
There’s a light at the end of this tunnel
Shinin’ bright at the end of this tunnel
For you, for you
So keep holdin’ on
That’s the honest truth.
I just got off the phone with a total stranger; the sister of an old friend and former next-door neighbor of ours. She found some old letters from us, and our phone number, in Richard’s rented duplex and decided she should notify us. Richard, our one-time Memphis neighbor and our friend for about twelve years, committed suicide this week.
I get in the car to pick my up my wife and to inform her of the bad news, and this Third Day song is playing on the radio.
While I normally really like the song, and it speaks to me and other friends of mine who often try to ward off those nasty dementors collectively known as deep depression, all I could say was, “well, that light just didn’t shine quite brightly enough for Richard to hold on any longer.”
Music was essential to Richard – it was ingrained in his soul. And so, it has been music that has been speaking to me (or, haunting me) for the past twenty-four hours since I received the call. Ironically, it has not been Richard’s music, per se. Richard loved simple three-or-four piece jazz ensembles. He played bass guitar. And, he loved the Beatles. When we were next-door neighbors (very CLOSE next door neighbors with only a single-car driveway between our side doors), we could hear Beatles or jazz music playing any time he was home.
But instead, songs about pain, despair, and suicide have been on my mind. Like this one from Simon and Garfunkel (“A Most Peculiar Man”):
He died last Saturday
He turned on the gas and he went to sleep
with the windows closed so he’d never wake up
to his silent world and his tiny room…
That was Richard. In some ways the whole song is Richard. While we knew and loved Richard – he was so gentle, caring, and selfless – he was also a solitary and self-described “lonely” man. And that’s exactly what he did… turned on the gas so he’d never wake up to his lonely and silent world…
Then there’s this one from Kate Campbell:
if the heart is a bottomless pit, you gotta watch what you put in it
how much can one heart hold?
before you know it you’re carrying around, a ton of stuff that’ll weigh you down
how much can one heart hold?
Richard came to see us not quite two weeks ago. We went out to eat and talked about classic movies (he was excited that we’re raising our children on Hitchcock and Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra). We showed him around Starkville hoping we could help him find a job here, and that he would stay with us until he got back on his feet. But as we talked privately, it was obvious his heart was carrying around so much pain and hurt and rejection… and no matter how much we and another friend tried to help carry his weight, his heart just couldn’t hold any more.
He and I went out for coffee while he was here. After some tears and a lot of despair, something spurred us into a conversation about George Carlin and Richard Pryor. Richard began to laugh. He laughed hard. We shared favorite Carlin and Pryor quotes with each other and spoke of the deep insightfulness of the two comedians. He became animated as he told stories. It was a moment of pure grace.
But it didn’t last very long.
He came on a Friday night and left before we could even buy him lunch on Sunday. There was something about the way he hugged each of us – my wife and me; long, tight hugs, with a very heart-felt expression of “thank you”; and he eased away, looked deep into our eyes, and said, “goodbye.”
I think, then, I knew…
We called our mutual friend in Memphis who was having daily contact with Richard – buying him groceries, inviting him over for dinner, even trying to help him admit himself into a hospital. Our friend, Dan, continued that regular and deeply caring contact for the next week and a half (even calling and leaving Richard a message on his answering machine about a job fair… on the same day Richard’s sister called me).
My family and I have been watching a whole lot of M*A*S*H episodes together, and well, you know where this is going…
The sword of time will pierce our skins
It doesn’t hurt when it begins
But as it works its way on in
The pain grows stronger, watch it grin
Suicide is painless…
I’m at least thankful that for Richard, with all of the pain and sorrow and loneliness that all seemed to grin as they were destroying him, his suicide was painless. He is finally a soul at rest and peace.
And lest anyone express any judgment upon Richard, think about these words from Frederick Buechner, a minister and author: “Taking your own life is not mentioned as a sin in the Bible. There’s no suggestion that it was considered either shameful or cowardly. When, as in the case of Saul and Judas, pain, horror, and despair reach a certain point, suicide is perhaps less a voluntary act than a reflex action. If you’re being burned alive with a loaded pistol in your hand, it’s hard to see how anyone can seriously hold it against you for pulling the trigger.” (Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary. HarperSanFrancisco, 1993,115-116)
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