My friend Brian and I had a complicated relationship from the start — sometime in 1994, if memory serves. He was a former teacher of my dear friend Mike, and so there was something of a power imbalance at the start. But he was welcoming to all, personable and passionate, and we became fast and close friends.
Until about two years later, when I was preparing to move to Chicago. In retrospect, it became clear that he was simply sad that a new friend was leaving town, but the way he chose to express this was…contentious. As personable and welcoming as he could be, he could also be the biggest, nastiest dickhead you’ve ever met. Following an evening when he verbally flayed me for my reasons for the move, I washed my hands of him.
It took about three years for me to realize that a lot of what he’d been saying was spot on. So I wrote him a letter, extended an olive branch, and we renewed our friendship, stronger than ever. Over the next decade or so, we remained extremely close. He was one of the very few Clevelanders to visit us in California. We played a lot of poker. We drank a lot of whiskey. I named him Best Man at my wedding. He gave a killer toast. He was in town for a chilly barbecue on the 4th of July in California when we discussed moving back to Cleveland. He was ecstatic.
But just a couple years later, things started to go downhill for him. He bought a house that ended up needing a lot of work. Then he lost his job just as the economy was imploding. As a teacher in a Catholic school, the jobs simply weren’t there. He successfully completed a Masters program, but it seemed to make no difference for the job prospects. He started drinking more. He fell out with one girlfriend, then another. He started to feel like the world was out to get him, I think, and when he developed a massive misunderstanding about how I and our other friends thought of him, he relinquished virtually all contact with us and would not be persuaded that he was still welcome.
After something like two years of unemployment, he lost his house and moved in with his parents. This was, it turned out, a good development. He told me he felt like he was helping them by being there. Though his relationship with them was never great, I think he felt like he was needed again. He was writing more, he said, and seemed to be using his improving relationship with his parents as fuel for reaching out to other estranged friends. Our relationship didn’t improve much, but it seemed that he was making an effort to be more understanding — or at least more communicative. (His maddeningly cryptic emails are the stuff of legend.) So all in all, it seemed that things were getting better. Slowly, but noticeably.
Then his father died.
And a few days later — sometime around when we were driving to Hong Kong to return from China — he went into the garage and put a gun to his head.
One of the things that makes suicide such a reprehensibly selfish act is that we have no way of knowing at this point what he was thinking. But I have my suspicions: I think that he probably felt, once his father died, that he was somehow poisonous to everyone he was around. This is the way he thought of himself, and I could imagine this loss simply being too much to handle. They say that people on antidepressants have a higher risk of suicide shortly after they start taking the pills; there’s no definite explanation, but the theory is that once they start feeling better, a bad day — or other setback — feels so much worse. It’s a perspective thing; part of depression is that you don’t realize how bad you really feel. So once you start to feel better, it becomes clearer how bad the bad times really are. And some people can’t handle that. I suspect something similar happened here.
That is, of course, no excuse. I don’t know that there is an excuse for suicide — not like this, not for a person with friends and family and others willing and able to help one’s situation. As I say, it’s reprehensible, and another reason why is that it leaves those around you with nothing but questions. Questions, and regret.
Could we have done more to prevent this? The real pisser is that yes, we could have. There is always more that could have been done. Those left behind can imagine so many ways things could have been different, ways they could have tried to help, each more outlandish than the last. Could we have forced him into rehab for alcoholism? Should we have invited him into our homes instead of allowing him to move in with his parents? Should we have kept in better contact, simply not let him pull away in spite of any abuse he may have dealt out in response?
But that’s the emotional response. Practically speaking, I really believe all his (former or current) friends did as much as they possibly could. You extend what help you can, to the best of your ability, and you hope it’s enough. In this case, it wasn’t, but that’s his problem, not ours. I’m sorry if that sounds callous, but suicide is a callous business.
One of the things I hate about this situation is that my feelings about Brian right now are all negative: anger, regret, frustration at not being able to tell him what a dumbass he was for even seriously thinking about it. And that colors my older memories, the better ones. And there are many, because when he was at his best he was a remarkable person.
And so, though he specifically requested no ceremony be made following his death (such a cruel blow to his family, who lost father and brother in a handful of days), these are the memories I plan to keep.
I remember Christmas parties. Brian was legendary for his Christmas parties, which gathered a huge and ever-changing group of smart, funny, talented individuals to eat great food, drink great drink, and sing and play Christmas songs. Friends, family, colleagues, former student, and passing acquaintances were all welcome. For many years it was one of the highlights of the season for me.
I remember poker games, when he would play with brutal recklessness and (usually) good humor. He taught me to play, and for years we gathered a weekly group in my parents’ basement for nights of cards that could last until the sun came up.
I remember sitting on the floor of his house, smoking long-stemmed pipes and debating religion, politics, love, and anything else that seemed worthy of debate. I suspect a great deal of wine and/or whiskey was consumed.
I remember him making bacon-infused mashed potatoes in the kitchen of our rental house in San Francisco. Yesterday I saw the recipe he wrote out for us, to attempt to recreate the majesty.
I remember near-weekly breakfasts at the diner near his house, where he would shamelessly flirt with the waitresses (no matter the age, ethnicity, or body type) and devour corned beef hash and eggs while we gossiped about news of the day. Later I would attempt to resume these get-togethers as a way of jump-starting our relationship, but they never took.
I remember sitting in on one of his classes and realizing that, yes, he really was a phenomenal teacher of religion. Though he felt his relationship with the divine had soured, he was in the seminary once upon a time, and retained a passion for religion, and the knowledge to back it up.
I remember sending letters back and forth from Chicago or San Francisco, often written on the insides of whiskey boxes, full of literary allusions and snippets of poetry.
I have a picture that I took at a going-away party before he went to teach English in China for a year. He’s standing in front of a bonfire, head-high staff in one hand, hand-rolled cigarette in the other, smirking self-deprecatingly at something one of the other partiers was saying.
That was Brian in a nutshell. And though right now I’m angry, frustrated, disappointed, and hurt, that’s the Brian i’ll remember.