I first met my girlfriend, the love of my life, back in 1995. But we didn’t start dating until 2002. She lived outside of Charlotte, and I lived outside of Atlanta. We eventually decided to move in together, and since she had a mortgage and my lease was almost up, it only made sense for me to move in with her.
One of the first people I met after I moved to Charlotte was my neighbor. Let’s call him Tom. Tom was in his late 50s, with a head full of white hair and a little beer belly. He almost looked like Santa Claus minus the beard.
Tom and his wife had lived in our townhouse complex since the late 1980s, and Tom knew every little eccentricity the builders indulged themselves when building our townhomes. So I often asked him for advice with home improvement projects, or borrowed some tools from him, since he was the kind of guy who always had the 9/32″ drill bit or handful of #10 deck screws you needed to finish a job. Tom even came over and helped when we had a couple of minor emergencies, like when the upstairs toilet sprung a leak or when the pipe leading out of our hot water heater cracked, spewing water all over the crawlspace. I also remember stopping by his house one time to ask if he knew a good local place to get my kitchen knives sharpened; Tom told me to save my money and did it himself instead, and did a great job.
Because our complex has a huge common back yard, Tom received a fair amount of money from the homeowner’s association each month for cutting the grass. The yard is so big that it would often take him two or three days to cut it all. And since I work from home most days, it drove me insane to hear that lawnmower running all the damn time as I tried to concentrate on creating a batch file, or troubleshooting a wacky IIS server, or figuring out why desktop clients weren’t resolving DNS names correctly.
But Tom did so much more than that. He’d get out his Weed Eater and cut the bits of the lawn his riding mower couldn’t reach. He sprayed Round-Up wherever weeds poked up in the cracks of the parking lot. He trimmed the annoying sticker bushes in front of all the units. He cleared out the brush at the edges of the property. Although he didn’t do the work himself, he kept an eye out for soil erosion, dying trees, and bad patches of asphalt in the parking lot and alerted the right professionals when the time came (Tom was a good ol’ boy who seemed to “have a guy” for everything). When snow and ice arrived, Tom was the one who woke up early to throw salt on everyone’s walkway and put traffic cones at the top of our steep entrance so that no one would wreck their car. Tom was the first one to run outside and offer assistance when cars would wreck in front of our property. He was also the neighborhood snake killer, mouse hunter and spider wrangler, never afraid to do what scared the hell out of the rest of us.
As time went on, I got to know Tom better and better. He loved to play guitar, and I would sometimes hear him late in the evening playing his six-string on his patio out back. I did computer work for Tom and his wife from time to time, and I saw the autographed posters of obscure, yet incredibly talented guitarists on his office wall. His office had guitar stands, straps, picks, slides, capos and spare strings lying all over the place, just like every other guitarist I’ve ever known. I saw the digital pictures of his children and grandchildren on his desktop. I cleaned up the music files on his computer. The music wasn’t my cup of tea, mind you, but you can learn a lot about someone from their iTunes library.
Tom was a mellow guy. I never heard him raise his voice once, not to his wife, nor his granddaughter, nor even his loveable but hyperactive little dog. And I wasn’t even all that special. All the little things Tom did for me, he did for everybody. He could have been tired, grumpy, or in a rotten mood generally. But if ever anyone needed anything, Tom would smile, and in his North Carolina drawl he’d ask what he could do to help.
* * *
I was sitting at the desk here in my home office this past Tuesday. It was a few minutes past noon, and I was trying to remotely fix a printing problem on a computer in Raleigh. Suddenly, I heard a loud pop. I didn’t pay it any mind. It could have been one of the thousands of cars that pass by every day. Or some nearby construction. Or the power plant down the street. Or maybe even bored kids playing with leftover fireworks.
I kept working on that computer, secretly cursing anyone still using Windows XP in 2012, when, several minutes later, I heard a commotion from the back yard. I didn’t pay much attention to that, either. School’s out, and some of the renters a few units over have kids. I figured it was just them playing in the backyard and having a good time.
After several moments, I just got the feeling that something was wrong. I opened the window in my office to listen to the commotion. I couldn’t quite make out what was being said, because all the air conditioners in the immediate area were running at full blast. But it just didn’t sound right. It didn’t sound like kids having fun… it sounded like a woman wailing. I went downstairs and walked out on the back deck, but thanks to the air conditioners I couldn’t make out anything there, either. I scanned our backyard, but couldn’t see anything amiss.
Because the client was waiting on me to fix her computer, I shrugged the whole thing off and went back upstairs to try and figure out how HP had complicated my life yet again. But I hadn’t been back upstairs for more than two or three minutes before I heard sirens. And worse yet, the sirens only lasted for about twenty seconds. Our local volunteer fire department is just down the street, so if the sirens only last for a few seconds, you know trouble is near. I got up and looked out the front window. And there were ambulances, fire trucks and police cars all over our parking lot. I went downstairs, grabbed my keys (so I could use “getting the mail” as an excuse for being out) and walked outside.
Paramedics and policemen were walking in to Tom’s place. I walked right past the mailboxes and approached his walkway, getting as close as I dared to without getting in the way. I’d seen another of my neighbors, let’s call him John, walk out and speak to his wife, who was standing 20 feet away on the opposite side of the walkway. John turned back and was walking back in to Tom’s place. I asked him what had happened.
“Tom shot himself.”
* * *
I don’t know why people do the things they do. Sometimes people get desperate and rob liquor stores or banks to feed their families (or, more likely, a drug addiction). Sometimes people get so wrapped up in love and jealousy that they beat or kill their loved ones. I’m not in any way condoning that, but as Chris Rock once said, if you “haven’t seriously thought about killing a motherfucker, you ain’t been in love”. So I can sort of understand where that comes from.
But this I just don’t get. I’m not going to use this post to gossip about Tom, but I will say that, as far as anyone around here knows, he had no reason to kill himself. He wasn’t having any kind of affair; in fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anyone who loved his wife more than Tom did. As far as I know, Tom was doing OK financially. He’d had a few health problems recently, but it was nothing out of the ordinary for someone approaching seventy. I talked to Tom’s wife last night and she told me, with some of the most honest eyes I’ve ever seen, that she had no idea why he did it. And I believe her.
Maybe I’m the weird one here, but I don’t personally know anyone who took their own life. At least I didn’t… until this week. And the thing I’ll never forget about that day was John leading Tom’s wife out of their house just after I walked up. She was bawling, the kind of crying I’ve only heard a couple of times in my life. I’ll never be able to forget her face, the look of shock, confusion and loss all hitting her at once. The horror of seeing her husband lying in a pool of blood on the patio of the home they’d loved each other in for so long. The look of betrayal, that the one person you loved more than anyone else in the whole damn world could rip themselves away from you forever. The deep, almost primal sadness that comes from knowing that life will never be the same. That it will take her years to get that image out of her head, and how it haunts her whether her eyes are open or closed. That the man who used to sit with you and hold your hand on the patio out back, who used to entertain you with little ditties on his guitar sat in the very same seat on that very same patio and decided, for reasons no one will ever really know, to end it all just after noon on a random Tuesday in July.
I don’t really know what else to say, other than that a tiny little piece of my heart died this week. I’ve had friends who died, mostly in car wrecks. And I know as I get older, it’s only going to get worse. One terrible day in the future, my parents will pass on, and I’m not sure how I’ll be able to cope with that. But everyone else I know who died either died in a tragic accident, or from a terrible disease, or simple old age. No one I’ve ever known simply ceased to be. I can’t fathom what sort of problems Tom thought he had to where suicide would be the only solution. I’m not one to use my blog for “touchy feely” stuff (this isn’t LiveJournal, after all). But I just needed to vent. And if you’ve read this far… thank you for letting me do that.
UPDATE: A few days have passed. In fact, Tom’s funeral was today. It was sad. I’m not one for “psychobabble”, so I’m not gonna talk about “survivor’s guilt” or any other such nonsense. Nor am I going to pretend that I played any important role in Tom’s life. But something did happen at the house this week that makes me choke up.
We have an air intake vent in the second floor ceiling. It sometimes gets dusty, so Lisa asked me to clean it off. The problem is, the drunken monkeys who built our house put the screws that hold the vent up directly into the drywall. Not into a joist or stud. No drywall anchors or molly bolts or anything… just screws in drywall. As I cleaned the vent, one of the screws fell out. The little guy had been improbably holding that corner of the vent up since 1985, so I can’t really complain. But since the hole in the drywall is now completely stripped, I have to figure out how to put it back up. It’s exactly the sort of thing I’d ask Tom about. I keep wondering what might have happened if Lisa had asked me to clean it a day earlier. Could I have knocked on their door, looking for advice, at just the right moment for him to change his mind? Lisa and I often shared peppers and tomatoes from our garden with Tom and his wife. Could I have taken some to Tom on Tuesday?
Could I have done anything to change the course of events?
* * *
“And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”
– Revelation 21:4
“The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering.”
– Ben Okri