Thelma called, panic in her voice - something strange and quite beyond words: “George shot himself. He’s upstairs.”
A quiet man who gave no evidence of distress … no sign of anything at all … I think in his late 50s at the time … so who knows what pain danced around him.
I walked over to the house, just a block away … one of those large, three-story affairs, a central Pennsylvania railroad town …
Thelma answered the door … I don’t recall if anyone else was there yet … the police, an ambulance - I have no idea.
I went upstairs … did I go alone?
But in my mind’s eye, there I stand by the bed … George on his back, head on a pillow … lots of blood … where’s the gun? I don’t know … I don’t recall seeing it … lost in the folds of the bed?
I suppose Thelma thought he’d gone up for a Sunday afternoon nap.
But with a gun in hand, George ended his life instead …
That day, for the first time in my life, I wondered about suicide.
Like most folks, I had easily thought that suicide was a sin. Period! I had never dealt with it, never known of anyone in the family or in our circle of friends who took their own life.
I remember thinking that George, a gentle soul, was certainly no sinner in this case, and certainly not deserving of eternal hellfire, or whatever grim punishments the church conjures up to keep wandering souls in line.
Did George shake his fist in the face of God?
Did George heroically assert his independence and end his life in some kind of ironic rebellion against God?
Was he guilty of some supreme cowardice?
I’m 28 at the time, and hurriedly thinking it through because the funeral is three days away.
It was then and there that I became clear - whatever suicide may be, it’s no sin … neither pride nor arrogance. It’s a moment of desperation, as the mind cannot see any other way out, of whatever the dilemma is.
And no condemnation for the broken-hearted. No condemnation for those lost in sorrow, entangled in whatever heartache has come their way, either of their doing, or simply the circumstances of life … who knows just how tangled the pathways are for anyone. And when the moment comes, it all must make sense to them, even as it leave us bewildered as we try to figure out what will never make any sense to the living.
So, there it was for me … my first suicide funeral … and I spoke about the kindness and mercy and love of God for George … I remember saying something about our own struggles, and whatever hope I might offer, it’s not an encouragement to end our lives. But it is to say: None of the living can fathom the darkness that drove George to take a gun, load it, hold it in hand, place it to his head …
Did he take a deep breath?
Was he crying?
Was he thinking of Thelma?
Did it take long to decide?
I’ll never forget that Sunday afternoon and the funeral that followed.
It was a moment to decide.
I made the right choice, at least for me.
In subsequent years, other suicides would follow … amazing how people take their lives … some gave no hint whatsoever; others were clearly on a troubled road heading downward. Some do it in the home; others by a tree with a rifle … or in the car on the roadside. Maybe a note is left; in most cases, no note at all.
I’ve always remembered that moment when I had to decide.
On a Sunday afternoon!