Shattered Lives - Part One
Several years ago I went downtown once a week to sing with a University choir. It was musically intense, which was what made it fun. The people, mostly medical, were nice enough and several pre-rehearsal and post-concert parties provided some social interaction.
One young Peds resident was a particularly nice guy. He was married to one of the altos, who was something other than a physician. I chatted with him several times, and was impressed with how enjoyable the interactions were. He had a sweet, gentle way about him that made even passing conversations memorable. He was also funny as hell and had a lovely baritone voice.
About three weeks after the Winter Concert -- where he did a beautiful job with a difficult solo -- I came home to the following message on my machine:
Michael Smith passed away yesterday.followed by information about the memorial service.
To say I was stunned is to say Antarctica is chilly. What the hell had happened?
It has been referred to as the Black Dog. Some have recently opined that we are overdiagnosing it; medicalizing the normal vicissitudes of life. However you feel about those issues, it cannot be denied that depression can be a fatal disease.
If I had been asked to line up everyone in that choir in order of likelihood that they were depressed, Mike would have been at the very end of the line. I had had no idea. It turned out no one had. Whether or not he was under treatment, he hid his misery masterfully; right up until the end. It was a gun. His wife found him. No further details were forthcoming; none were needed.
The service was on a weekday afternoon in an old stone church in a quiet neighborhood in New Jersey. It took forever to find a place to park. Cars crowded along both sides of the tree-lined street. It was startling to see how many people managed to squeeze into the tiny church. I knew practically no one but it didn't matter.
His wife read this, by W. H. Auden:
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,I was able to hold back my tears, until her voice cracked. Then I lost it, as did many others. People spoke of him; his gentle nature; his humor; his music. The agony was palpable, seeming to congeal into the unspoken word "Why?" asked over and over, because it was unanswerable.
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
After the service there was a receiving line of sorts, filing through to greet the family. His wife was the only person I knew. The older lady with the parchment skin and vacant eyes was clearly his mother; the sturdy man beside her obviously his father; the girl with red-rimmed eyes so like his had to have been his sister.
What do you say? You murmur, "I'm so sorry" and hope it sounds at least as sincere as the thousand other times they've already heard it. They say, "Thank you for coming," over and over, and eventually you realize they're not really listening. Their bodies are there, overdressed for the time of day though not for the occasion, but their souls are twisted in grief somewhere far away. They aren't crying, but only because it's the first time in days they've been able to stop.
I got pulled over for speeding on the way home. I apologized to the plainclothes cop and told her I was distracted, that I had just come from a funeral. I hadn't intended it as an excuse, though, so I was pleasantly surprised and grateful when she came back with just a warning. I felt like an intruder; an interloper; a fraud. Why did this hit me so hard? I hardly knew the guy. Still, my distress and grief were real.
I lost my mother twenty-one years ago and a dear uncle five years ago. I've lost patients -- including some young and unexpectedly -- though none to suicide. I've been at arm's length to my fair share of life's tragedies and in general I tend to cope well enough. But that one really got to me, and I never did figure out exactly why.
Gradually I was able to stop thinking about Mike every day. The sadness lifted. I can only hope his family has found some measure of peace in the ensuing years, though I really didn't know them, so there was no way to keep in touch. Life has moved on.
But now it's happened again.