I'm the kind of person who skips to the conversation when reading a book.
… man’s right to kill himself is inviolable, but sometimes a friend can make it unnecessary.
John Steinbeck, Cannery Row
The other day I had an old camp song running through my head. As is my wont, I started singing it out loud.
“Nobody likes me… everybody hates me… think I’ll go eat some worms,” I was singing, when Grace interrupted.
“I always picture a suicidal fish when I hear that song,” she said.
“Really?” I glanced over at her to see if she was serious.
She was half laughing as she told me. “Yeah. Can’t you just picture some poor little fish, swimming around in a school, and feeling like nobody likes her? So she swims off to find a big fat juicy worm on a hook. Suicide.”
In a sick way, it was a funny mental picture. At least, it would have been funny, had not there recently been a suicide amongst the students at Deirdre’s small college.
Deirdre goes to a tiny college that prides itself on community. Its rural location forces the students to look inward, to the college, for their community and social life. Its very size means that everyone knows everyone else, at least by sight.
This suicide rocked the world there.
Deirdre classified him as “something between a friend and an acquaintance.” She told me, “We hung out a few times. Some of his close friends were my close friends.”
She came home a few days after the suicide. When I picked her up, I wasn’t sure about the 3 hour ride home. Would it be silent, filled with sorrows too deep for words?
No, she talked the whole way home. She described the events of the day it happened, her thoughts, her feelings, and how the campus, as a whole, dealt with everything.
He had driven to Niagara Falls, scaled the fence, waded out into the river, and let the current take over.
Andrew was very articulate when he was a little boy. He could express his feelings very well, and, one day, when I was pregnant with somebody, he said to me, “When the new baby comes, will you still have enough love for me?”
I scooped him in my arms and told him, “Mommy’s love isn’t like a pie that gets cut into pieces, and when all the pieces are gone, it’s all gone, too. Mommy’s love is like a waterfall. It keeps flowing and overflowing. There is more than enough for everyone.”
When we visited Niagara Falls a few years later, I remembered that conversation because I was struck with the immensity of the power of all that water. I knew that my love was so very human and that I had probably exaggerated its bigness. I also knew that God’s love made even Niagara Falls look puny.
And now, here was this young man, full of promise, full of despair, walking out into the Niagara River, and throwing himself into its powerful current. His body was never recovered.
Where was Love, my waterfall metaphor, when he did that? Or, did his pain just pollute the river?
I only know that I will never look at Niagara Falls the same way.
I started reading Cannery Row by John Steinbeck the other day. I had written a post by the same name, but had never read the book. One of the first characters introduced is a Chinese storekeeper named Lee Chong. One day, a man with a huge tab came into Lee Chong’s store to settle accounts. After paying his bill in full, he left the store and killed himself. Steinbeck says,
It was deeply a part of Lee’s kindness and understanding that a man’s right to kill himself is inviolable, but sometimes a friend can make it unnecessary.
On our car ride home, Deirdre described a time when she had suicidal thoughts. She said, “It’s like a blackness that closes in on you. You can’t see anything else because of it. All you can see is this one thing, and it’s overwhelming.”
Yet, sometimes a friend can make it unnecessary. Sometimes, a friend can reach into that darkness. Maybe, sometimes, in that state of mind, a person can’t see anything else, but maybe they can feel the hand of a friend.
I’m sure many students at Deirdre’s college feel the guilt (wrongly) of not having been that friend. Many of them tried to reach into his darkness. His choice was his own. This is not their fault.
It still leaves an ache and a hole. A hole — the one thing you can’t make in the water of the Niagara River. In the hearts of his parents and other family, in the hearts of his dearest friends, in the hearts of a student body at a tiny college in western New York, the hole is bigger than Niagara Falls.
Grieve with me.