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THE MID-SOUTHERN WORD FOR DEATH IS EDUCATION by Cary Stough

I grieve that grief

~

Today, when I was being caught up on the news of whether or not my cousin Brian had accepted therapeutic treatment upon being released from the White Oak Psychiatric Hospital, my mother called him a “stubborn soul.” Today was a week after he had called every member of his family speaking of ending his life. A week before when I had spoken to her about the calls every member of my family received I was sitting in a black wooden chair in my partner’s apartment in Allston, Massachusetts, which is about a twenty-minute walk from Harvard University. I had previously been walking around and suddenly came upon a red-brick building not far from the premier art museum on campus stamped with the word “Philosophy.” I knew this to be, then, the building that had housed the Harvard Philosophy Department for however many years it had stood there after being built. The building was stamped with another word, which leads me to believe that the building isn’t as old as the University itself, and the word is the surname of perhaps the University’s most famous exponent—at least in the United States—Ralph Waldo Emerson. The building, as it is referred to on syllabi, is called “Emerson Hall,” denoting that at some time in the past the building, whether or not it had already been built, had been dedicated to the late philosopher, who, at the time of his death, no longer lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts where Harvard University is located, but west of the University in a town called Concord, where the first shot was fired.

According to Google Maps, the precise distance between Emerson Hall and the Ralph Waldo Emerson House—that is, the last house the philosopher occupied before he died—is fourteen point one miles. If I were driving my car, which is a tan Chevrolet Blazer manufactured ten years after my birth, it would take me, approximate to traffic, twenty-three minutes to drive the distance between the two buildings. Emerson, along with many other eminent early American thinkers such as William Greenleaf Eliot and Horatio Alger Jr., had graduated from the Harvard Divinity School some time in the past, long before I was born, long before I would read in a high school classroom in Missouri the words that would—as I tell myself—set into motion my life as a writer. It was a dictum that spurned me into writing, made me conceive of myself as capable of writing. What were these words? They happened to be every single word from Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance,” which I read in a heat, one evening, before the other students and I were to discuss its implications as they related to our lives as high school sophomores. Or it was the phrase found in the essay’s final sentence—“nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles”—that finally did me in the direction of turning my life of uncritical youth into a life of education, of self-searching.

Without knowing it I had been searching for words like these, which felt cut raw out of the hide that religion had made to congeal over my skin. It felt as if someone had dug in a knife and split me into body and shell. The thing I realized then that I would next need to search for was an identification with the type of person I would need to be to discover principles, let alone those to which I would—if I was able to maintain the curious spirit that inaugurated this search—adhere. As a result of the aforementioned splitting, I had the intuition that, not only had the body I now possessed been hidden under the crust of so-called principles—which were only rules that I had been made to follow on behalf of others—but that I was now in a position to question with what capacities this new body could act.

My mind, I haven’t mentioned, was pretty much the same. I hadn’t yet contemplated throwing this body down the middle of a stairwell, or repeatedly temporarily sought to numb the division between these two aspects of my being—intention and extension—through the influence of alcohol. In college, my favorite beer was Stag, then brewed independently and only available in a number of Midwestern North American states, now incorporated, part of a larger corporation. Like so many other once independent beers, Stag is brewed by the conglomerate Budweiser Brewing Co., out of St. Louis, Missouri, and is, ironically, less easily come-by. The reason Stag was by favorite beer was because it tasted golden, it was in a golden can. Stag has, I think, the greatest logo of any beer: the silhouetted head of a stag, or a deer buck, whose antlers almost exceed the confines of the rectangle it’s drawn in, and likewise, seems almost to exceed the two-dimensional confines of its being a logo.

When I drank beer I would change. When I say I would change I mean that the ways in which I interacted with the world, let alone other people or my environment, changed. I began to see things differently. Even before I took a sip of the beer I had grown accustomed to drinking in large amounts throughout the most memorable years of my life I would feel a passion not unlike sadness, and though my body in so many other instances cried out for joy, it was understood that this lowering of my capacity to act in a way joyful, to make joyful judgments regarding the world, was what I deserved. Why was it what I deserved? When I was just beginning to live a life I could call “on my own”— though I didn’t want to live alone at the time, I didn’t know what I wanted—I began entertaining thoughts that would have scared my only living parent if she would ever find out about it, because they were thoughts of suicide. I thought I deserved to be sad and so I thought I deserved to be killed.

I would define thoughts of suicide as thoughts that take as their subject the completion of a flow of intention, brought about by a delusory state, which allowed the thinker to identify with a belief that one could reify one’s being, and from there separate one’s life into multiple perspectives based on an arbitrary and always socially mandated value of worth. From there, the thinker determines whether life should go on, or whether it, this particular life, should end. Some philosophers have attempted to describe life as a flow of processes—binding together linguistics, mathematics, literary impulses, film studies—which either goes on endlessly, connecting to other “lives,” or—as in the case of the suicide—is by some violent slight of the hand neutralized, flattened, water poured on a burner. Brian’s mother is my aunt. Brian’s aunt is my mother. Genealogy is one perspective humans have enjoyed viewing themselves in order to draw out the contours of their materially-bounded identities. After a month of deliberation the only means I thought adequate to the task of killing myself was a set of stairs. More specifically, I intended to drink a carton of beer and throw myself down the central corridor of a set of very tall spiraling stairs that led to my dormitory room, in college, on the fourth floor of the building known as Dogwood Hall at the University of Missouri. I had come to the decision to kill myself by throwing myself down the center of a flight of stairs, down to the floor of the basement, down to the dappled grey concrete that, from so far up, looked like water. If it isn’t already clear, I’ll tell you now: I had come to occupy the position of one who felt trapped in a life without extension. I had come to the end of a life I thought others wanted me to be living.

The thought of carrying on with such a life felt more like dragging a corpse through a hallway, dragging a corpse through the doors of an elevator. In my life I have known several people who have come to occupy this position, the position of one in possession of a knowledge beyond death, such that it will set them free of a life lived without the triumph of principles. All of them have lived and died a million times and I’ve watched them come back to me like real people I’ve grieved for.

One of them tightened a hoop of rope around his neck and stood on top of a chair. And I only heard of this when he told me the story. How he escaped his own end, narrowly, when the rope snapped, and awoke sobbing on the wooden floor.

One of them slipped into a lake, hoping the drivers of the boats wouldn’t notice her as they sailed into her, cracking her sternum. It would eventually be one of those drivers, though, who would pull her out, wet, shaking and irascible.

One of them wears two watches now. At one time, he was a mentor. Due to several classifications of distance, we have since fallen out of touch and I only think of him briefly, now and then.

Another sits alone in a North Canadian wilderness, the unanswered letter I sent him growing warped on the table. It soothes me to think this because, in reality, I have no idea where he is. It’s been over four years.

Finally, another, on a particularly bad night, took with him a bottle of anti-depressives—also known as monoamine oxidase inhibitors, MAOIs—and laid down at his father’s grave. Intending the ingestion of the contents of the bottle of pills would put him fast into an endless sleep, he opened the cap and fell asleep anyway due to his heavy weeping.

This was my brother, who was sixteen years old. Shortly after this episode, which didn’t conclude in his death, Brian had spoken to him over the phone and said something to the effect of “The Devil wants you dead. Capitulation to these demands, surrender to those fatal seductions, is a failure.” A failure of what, I wondered. He always talked like a spy. When my mother, over the phone, was telling me about the phone-call Brian had given my brother at the time and she came to this part of Brian’s speech I asked my mother, Failure of what? She didn’t know, she said. “Or,” she said, “a failure of faith.” Of faith in what, I asked. And she said, “Don’t be silly.” I knew that the answer that I would be given, had I not asked the question facetiously, was God, that my brother had failed to have adequate faith in God and had slipped into the position of those who, bereft of faith, find themselves drawn into the darkness of death.

When I kill myself it won’t be because I have finally occupied some position legible to others. Nor will it be the result of a succession of logic. Nor will it be because I have forgotten about God. It will be done with a gun in the hand of a child, and just as the barrel is pressed to a pre-designated spot below my ribs, and as I’m laying there, as I’m bleeding out, I will craft my fiction, which will have been the story of my life without dread, without the threat of anyone I love throwing themself out a window or locking themself in their car in a smoky garage. It will be without the threat of love, in fact, which is jealousy of another’s life without you, which is to say me, the author of my own beginning, like a golden branch let off into a creek, the currents of which are flowing in search of higher and higher triumphs I won’t ever reach. Angels, come bear me away.

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