Spanish Borders

This past week, a mentor and friend of mine killed himself. I'm not quite sure what to write about this, but I've been thinking about it, and about him, a lot, and I don't think I can pull off writing about anything else at the moment.

It took me a while to believe it. He didn't live near me, we communicated via e-mail, and there's no new physical absence that tells me that he really is gone. For the first couple days, I turned on my computer each morning half expecting to see a message saying "Wow - everyone actually fell for that!" And each morning, the realization, again: There won't be any e-mail. He's gone. He's not coming back. We've lost him.

And the part that's hard to understand, what my mind keeps coming back to, is that this is what he chose. This wasn't an accident; it was design, his own design, because for some reason, leaving this world seemed a better choice than continuing in it.

As far as I know, the only note he left was one asking that whoever found him notify his wife. There was no explanation. Everyone I know, everyone I've spoken to, has been asking themselves the same thing. What happened?

It's hard to think about the fact of suicide, what it means about his life and how he left. I wonder how long he knew he was going to do it. Had he planned it for a while, gone through the last days or weeks conscious that each thing he did, he would never do again? Did he wake up that morning and know it was the last day of his life? Or was it a spur of the moment, a moment when everything overwhelmed him and he reached for his gun? Was the misery something he had carried with him for a long time, something that had only now reached the breaking point, or was it new and devastating?

I don't know.

I want to know, though. I want to know what happened, and even more than that, I want to know what it was that made his life seem unliveable. I want to know the reason, to understand how someone who adored his children could leave them this way. Why someone who talked about survival so much in his work could kill himself. I feel like it's important, like I can't properly mourn him if I don't know why this happened.

I want to know that there was a reason, a good reason, to do this, so that I can't be angry at him for leaving us all the way he did. I want the grief to be clean.

In German, there's an expression that's sometimes used for suicide. "Den Freitod wählen": choosing the free death. It's a phrase that reminds me that there is a distinction between a death you choose yourself and a death that is chosen for you, and that sometimes choosing your own death is the only freedom that remains. It's a phrase that reminds me vividly of Walter Benjamin, the brilliant philosopher and - more to the point - German socialist Jew. Trapped, in 1940, on the border between France and Spain, denied entry to Spain, knowing the Nazis were approaching, he chose death by his own hand. A death he could control. Freitod.

"Den Freitod wählen": it's a final, noble gesture. It's courageous, when suicide so often seems cowardly. And I want that noble gesture. I want to see the Spanish border and the approaching Nazis, to understand that he really had no choice.

But I have to ask myself why I want that. And the answer is not a courageous one at all: it would make it easier to grieve. He would be simply a victim; he would not have chosen death over life, but would merely have chosen the time and the place of an inevitable death.

But it isn't easy. He chose to kill himself, and perhaps there was a compelling reason; in his mind, at least, he must have arrived at some kind of Spanish border. But we don't know what it was. We don't even know for sure that it was there. There is no note, and even if there were, it would be only one piece of a puzzle with too many missing pieces.

And so we have to grieve without knowing the reason. And we mourn for his life as well as his death, for the fact that he lived with a weight on him, a sorrow that drove him to this. That he lived his life with a misery he didn't share, pain that gathered inside and made leaving this way a solution. And we have to wonder what this means for his work, for his insistence on the importance of survival. Did he make a liar of himself in the end?

I don't know the answer to that. I'm not sure that I ever will. And I'm beginning to understand - and, gradually, to accept - that I can't look to him for any of the answers. Neither his life nor what I know of his death will answer the questions I have.

I'm tempted to say that that it's up to each one of us to make sense of it, to find our own explanation; but that's not it either.

In the end, I think that what may be hardest is to understand that there is no explanation; we will find nothing that could truly explain this. This is the limit of storytelling, where our narratives break down and fail.

And strange as it seems, I think that's something he would appreciate. His favorite authors were the ones who brought us to the limits of storytelling, who understood our need for justification and rationalization and who toyed with and refused that need. It seems somehow oddly appropriate to try not to make sense of this, to accept that we cannot understand what led to his suicide; we will never know what Spanish border he saw as he pulled the trigger - or even if he saw one at all.

It seems appropriate, a fitting way to remember him. But right now, I don't think I can do it. Right now, I need stories. I still need to believe in reasons. Even if I know I will never find them.

August 30, 2002

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last updated 30. August 2002

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