How do you talk about suicide when you don’t … when you can’t … understand it?
How do you feel about a friend who’s as close to you as a brother and voluntarily goes where none return? How do you say goodbye when he just goes off and leaves you … forever?
How do you not feel that in some sense you were part of whatever it was that weighed down on him? Or that you weren’t there to help carry his load?
I suppose you could point to alcohol and drugs causing his behavior to deteriorate from merely eccentric to truly bizarre, like the morning he thrust his face into his cereal bowl, from which it emerged with milk dripping off of it to announce to his startled wife, “I’m never going to be famous!” … after which he calmly marched out of the house, stopping in the doorway to inform his now seriously alarmed spouse “I’m changing my name to Raven.”
With that he ran off with an eighteen year old assistant, leaving his wife and infant son … never to see them again. I too never heard from him again, but his journey as “Raven” didn’t turn out well. After about ten years Raven put a bullet in his head.
As tragic as his abandonment of his family was, in a way it may have turned out better for his son than Raven’s own youth had been for him. … at fourteen he had discovered his father lying dead in their garden clutching a pistol in his lifeless hand.
We’d talked about that experience in one of those late evenings of true confessions during our freshman year at Berkeley when we both lived at Durant Place. My roommate Ray and I tried our best to help him get through his fears about his ability to cope without resorting to his dad’s terminal solution … but in the end we couldn’t say anything that ever took root.
It was like trying to tell a clinically depressed person to cheer-up and expecting him to do just that! Our prescriptions were simple and hollow and fell far short of real help. But we did our sincere best. It was like trying to find your way through a cluttered room in darkness, stumbling over obstacles you couldn’t see and didn’t know were there.
In the end, after I’d digested the news of his suicide, I just stopped trying to understand or judge him, I simply tried to accept the fact that he was gone. Suicide isn’t something many of us can fathom. It’s like trying to comprehend infinity or absurdity or mortality, it’ll drive you insane.
Raven and I were kindred spirits of sorts. We were both confirmed bohemians, which, roughly translated meant we were beatnik wannabes who’d adopted the beat ideology and lifestyle while foregoing its penury and obligatory zen monastery pilgrimage to some remote Asian monastery.
Raven was without a doubt one of the most intelligent and capable people I’ve ever met. He came to Berkeley as a music major, but his lack of performance skills severely limited his future in that field. So he changed his major to anthropology which he loved, and at which he excelled. By the time he was awarded his doctorate in the subject he’d spent several summers on expeditions in southern Mexico during which he discovered, among other things, the tip of a buried pyramid … since excavated.
He could read, speak and write ancient Mayan fluently, and sculpt pre-Columbian figurines as well as any pre-Columbian. He was a pre-eminent authority on the pre-Mayan peoples of Mexico. He accepted free lance archeological work and lectured at prestigious scientific gatherings.
Raven and I shared many unforgettable adventures together, both during our first year in Berkeley, and afterwards when we roomed together after I’d returned from my hitch in the army. We were like brothers, but, sooner or later, brothers grow up and apart.
The last time I saw Raven he was sitting on a curb on Ward Street as I pulled out of my driveway heading north to settle in Vancouver, BC. He stared at my hijacked U-Haul without noticeable emotion, just staring like he’d lost his best friend … which, as it turned out, he had.
Although I’ll never see Raven again he’ll always be with me in the memories that keep those who were dear to us close to us.
I can’t say I was surprised when I heard about his suicide because in a dreadful way it seemed inevitable. I have no insights to offer regarding his choice of suicide, or about suicide itself. I can only offer my remembrance of the exceptional, but flawed man I loved … and this poem in remembrance of, and farewell to, my brother.
On Friday nights/When the world was young/We’d ride up to Tilden*/On my one-six-five**
High above campus/We’d smoke and joke/And talk of women/Secrets, demons and dreams
We’d watch the sun/Fall to the Pacific/And lights flicker like stars/Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge
When life shone star-bright/When we were young/Long before they found you/Lying beside your gun
*a sprawling, forested park in the hills east of Berkeley
**a small Honda motorcycle
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