Out, Out, Brief Candle

Why would a young man of twenty, extremely gifted and with his most useful years still ahead of him, choose to end his life in a violent manner? In February of 1999, when David, my friend and co-worker, stepped out to the balcony of his apartment, wrapped an American flag around his body, put the barrel of a loaded shotgun to his head, and pulled the trigger, a circle of lives and hearts was instantly shattered. To those of us who knew him, his harsh end was seen as a gruesome outcry, a dreadful act that combined desperation and selfishness.

David was a student and a musician. We worked together in the music department of a huge bookstore that was part of a famous chain, and although I was twenty-five years older than him, we became friendly with each other. He had a restless mind, enjoying the books of James Joyce, the music of Elvis Costello, and the films of Orson Welles. I knew David to be funny, affable, and mischievous, sometimes unstable and always eccentric (I once saw him offer to buy a CD for a customer who was short of money), but while he could be variable in mood and behavior, to me he had not seemed disposed to do what he finally did. On that day, David cancelled his intellect and his talent in the space of a grisly second, leaving an aftermath of blood, horror, anger, grief, and guilt. It was something that could not be accepted or understood.

What was the source of the darkness that infected his spirit? His life appeared to be full of promise. It seemed that David had many reasons to be happy and confident, with a positive outlook on the future, but his personality was marred by a deep vein of self-hate. Although he frequently tried to give an impression of being fearless, I noticed that, in certain ways, he was unduly beholden to his family, displaying a pained willingness to appease his father and his mother that seemed at odds with the more daring elements of his character. Was killing himself a reckless means of declaring his freedom?

As the news of his self-destruction spread from one person to another, tears were shed and uneasy questions were asked. What was David thinking when he made his final decision? Was he unaware of how much he was valued as a person? Or was he merely unconcerned? Why did he choose to use a gun, rather than making a more peaceful end for himself? Why did he wrap himself in an American flag? Was he trying to convey something that expressed his view of American politics? I learned later that, on the weekend before David killed himself, when he was with several of his closest friends, he had talked of wanting to end his life. Being accustomed to his daily flow of outlandish comments, they had not taken him seriously. Hindsight has a bitter taste.

At his funeral, which was attended by hundreds of mourners, I felt the full weight and the wide extent of the tragedy. When his coffin was brought into the church, carried by friends and relations acting as pallbearers, I was overcome by the utter wrongness of what had happened: the body of my young friend, cold and lifeless, was sealed in a box, waiting to be buried. As I listened to the dry prayers and empty consolations that were offered by the priest, I reflected on my own thoughts of self-destruction. Somehow I had been able to survive them and endure into middle age, but David had yielded to the shadows within his youthful soul, departing from his life in savage haste.

The funeral itself was a heavy and painful ordeal. As I observed his distraught family sitting together in a pew at the front of the church, and winced at the piteous sight of his stricken girlfriend, who sobbed and shook throughout the service, it was clear that David's grievous choice could not be judged as anything other than untimely and sickening. I could not condemn David for seeking to quit this unhappy world, but how could he have been so brutal to those who loved him? Could it have been that, having descended into the deep murk of his own unreasoning misery, he was unable to conceive of the profound anguish that would result from his fatal action?

That night I had an intense dream about David. In the dream he came up to me from behind, reaching around to clasp his arms across my midriff. As he suddenly released me, I turned to face him and asked, "David, what are you doing here?" He smiled at me in his usual way, but before he could reply, I awoke. I sat up in my bed, trembling and drenched with sweat.