[TRIGGER WARNING – For those whose triggers may include open discussion of suicide and depression.]
One year ago today, my cousin Patrick took his own life with a gun.
I wish he had picked a different date, to begin with. Of course, given the option I would have much preferred he not do it at all… But if he had to, why couldn’t it have been something anonymous? Why not March 28th or June 3rd or something? Something not in the zeitgeist that could be more easily forgotten as the years roll on? No… Patrick had to pick April 1st–April Fool’s Day. Very funny, PJ. Just like you to get the last laugh.
I could spend this entire post on sad, angry things. But I don’t think that’s fair. I don’t think of Patrick as a sad, angry person. His end shouldn’t define him. So I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to tell you what I miss about my cousin and why he was so important to me. About how he was side-splittingly funny and so smart he made Alex Trebeck look like a moron. (Literally. He rarely missed a question on Jeopardy.) I’m writing this partly because I never really said any of this to him and partly because I’ve just been writing this in my head for the past year and need to get it out. There is a lot of regret in my feelings about the whole situation, so some bitterness is bound to come out, for which I’m sorry in advance. But I want to do my best to tell you what I loved about who Patrick was, rather than what I hate about how he left us.
Patrick was 14 years older than me. We didn’t exactly grow up together. In fact, for most of my early life, I remember Patrick being a kind of nebulous presence that all the adults talked about, but who mostly just breezed in and out of family gatherings on his own agenda. There are definitely cousins in the family that had much closer, decades-long relationships with him that make mine look small in a one-to-one comparison. I’m not saying that to be self-deprecating or anything like that. It’s just that Pam and Duke and Terry would have been more in-tune with him, being closer to his age-group–especially Pam. In our family, we all might be the same level of cousins, but there’s something of a generational gap in most of the age-groups. You get that a lot in big families. Even my brother and I are 8 years apart. Unless you grew up in a house with one of them, the age groups didn’t do a lot of intermingling during at least my younger years. My generation didn’t run much with Patrick.
We just knew that he was cool.
Even as a kid, I felt a sense of obligation to try to impress the older cousins and a desire to fit in with them. I guess every kid has that. I didn’t want them to think of me as some little kid, nipping at their heels. I wanted them to think I was as cool as I thought they were. Patrick and Pam were (unless I’m mistaken) the first of their age-group. Therefore, they were the barometers of cool. (I actually still kind of embarrassingly think of them that way. I still get a little stupidly nervous when Pam’s around, ha…) Of course, no kid is very cool, especially when they’re trying to be. So it would be a few years before Patrick and I would have much to say to one another.
The main place Patrick and I would see each other was at Thanksgiving. That’s where we started to connect. There are two that stick out, and I’m not sure if they happened in this order or not. Years run together and sometimes a memory writes itself into the wrong order. It’s funny…the details really aren’t that important, yet when somebody in the story dies, it feels critical to get it as right as possible. It’s frustrating that nothing’s as clear as it feels like it should be–that timelines merge or disappear entirely. So, it is with disappointment that I state that I don’t know what age I was in either of these stories. I know they were both AFTER my mom died, so I was over the age of 14, but in both events I was also still in high-school, so under 18.
The event I remember happening first took place on one particularly cold year. I don’t remember why my brother and I were outside. It seems strange that we would have been…and I know we hadn’t just arrived, and I don’t think we were leaving. There are some of those unimportant details I’d give anything to remember… I do know why Patrick was outside. He was smoking. We walked over to him and he was standing there looking obviously irritated. I think one of his parents had said something to him to piss him off. He was standing there in a cool leather jacket and a cool sweater, smoking a cool-looking cigarette and cussing. That made sense to me.
There is perhaps some context needed… We don’t come from a bad family. We come from a supportive, loving family that sometimes gets on each other’s nerves. We also come from a family that likes to sweep some of the less pleasant details and stories under the rug, especially if there are kids present…so there were a lot of stories I hadn’t heard by that time in my life. That day, Patrick was irritated enough that he told a few of the more unseemly ones to us, mostly just because he had access to the information and figured it was safe to vent to us. Of course, I won’t repeat them here…but that was the first time that I realized that there was a whole side to the family that I’d never seen–it was the first time anyone had let me in on that. By the end of the conversation, we were laughing. Patrick always had the ability to find the joke in any situation.
For a long time, I didn’t really know how I fit into Mom’s side of the family. Up to the point of that Thanksgiving, I’d really only seen them as Bible-thumping, boring, old Baptists and a grouping of their kids who were either rebelling uncreatively, or were on their way to also being boring. (No offense to anyone–I’m trying to say this was a misconception.) I didn’t understand that it was a lot more complicated than that and we were all cut from the same patchwork.
Listening to Patrick that day filled in some of the gaps for me–and not just because it was the first time I’d heard anyone from the family outside of my own household say swear-words. I started to see how I fit into it. I started to see myself IN it. As much as I probably should’ve known better, I started to see some of myself in Patrick, too. (And vice-versa.) As cool as I thought Patrick was before then, he became something of a family-hero of mine that day. I immediately developed a fondness for leather jackets, cool sweaters, and smoking. In fact, there’s one sweater that I bought about five years ago specifically because I thought it looked like something Patrick would wear. It was in regular rotation this Winter.
Most people probably thought I smoked because my dad smoked. Not so. I mean…I don’t MIND that my dad smoked. In fact, if he came over today and lit up standing in my livingroom, I’d probably come as close to thanking him as anything. But Dad had nothing to do with why I started smoking. I started smoking because it matched the jacket and the sweater. It was cool. (That’s right, kids. You heard me.)
The other Thanksgiving story means a lot more, all things considered. I know that Dad came to the gathering that particular year, so it must have been one of the first ones after Mom died. Dad didn’t go to very many after that for a variety of reasons. But I know he was at that one, because Dad relayed some very important information to me. He’d been talking to Patrick…and it turned out Patrick was a Red Dwarf fan.
If you’re not familiar with the show, Red Dwarf is a British comedy show that is based in a sci-fi setting. It’s only semi-popular in the US among a very specific set of geeks. When you find someone else who knows what it is, it feels almost like you’ve been speaking Swahili for years and finally someone else understood what you were saying. After spending most of my life not knowing how I fit into the family and feeling uncomfortable in my own skin, Patrick–the cool cousin–spoke Swahili! I watched the whole series in the week following his funeral.
We talked. An actual, pressure-off, grown-up conversation about our mutual interests. I grew to understand that this was a guy who not only looked and acted cool, he actually WAS cool. He liked a lot of the same things I did and he didn’t feel my same need to apologize for that. He just was who he was and tried to have a good time. And he was hilariously funny. Even at funerals, he’d find a way to make you smile if you talked to him. And I always tried to talk to him, or at least be at the adjoining table so I could hear him drop in just the right one-liner at just the right time. We didn’t hang out outside of family gatherings…it was only after he died that I found out he had a Facebook page (his last status was “73% of all statistics are made up on the spot”). Nevertheless, when you’ve spent most of your life feeling in one way or another like a dork, having one of the cool kids pull up a chair for you means the world.
And that’s how our relationship worked. We’d see each other at family events, greet each other as friends, talk about mutual interests, and part ways until next time. It doesn’t sound like much.
It was a lot.
I wasn’t among the first called when Patrick got married. In fact if memory serves, I think that actually took a lot of people by surprise when there was just suddenly a new cousin at Thanksgiving that year. But we always welcome a new family member. I didn’t know a lot about his personal life…but even in what little I knew, I kind of admired him. Patrick had gotten married later in life than a lot of people do, and that always kind of gave me some hope. I’m 34. My best hairline is behind me… But there has always been a voice in the back of my head (which I’ve never shared with anyone before this post) that said, “If it can work out later in life for Patrick…” After he died, I had to spend longer than I’d like to mention confronting what “working out” was supposed to look like–because a gunshot doesn’t work for me. It just doesn’t.
I didn’t know Patrick’s demons–or at least no more than the family rumor-mill would reveal. In general, they weren’t my business and with all due respect, they’re definitely not yours, dear reader. So I’m not going to post much about them here… But I will say this… It is so, so easy to let things get away from you. It is so much easier than anyone ever expects to suddenly find yourself in too deep, saying the wrong things, doing the wrong things, and suddenly you don’t know how to get out or where to turn. Patrick made some very bad, very wrong turns.
On April 1, 2014, I was in an Applebee’s with my friend Tara. We were talking through the art of what would be my “Ink-Stained Fingers” album–Tara did the photography. I got a text from my dad asking me to call him ASAP. It’s not unusual to get a text from Dad reading, “Call me as soon as you can” or “if you’re free give me a call.” So I ignored it, thinking he just needed to ask me something and I’d call him after we were done. About 15 minutes later, my brother texted me, much more ominously.
At that point, I was concerned, and I spoke with Dave on the phone. I was expecting him to tell me that our Grandmother had died (she turns 90 this month, by the way). Instead, Dave told me that Patrick had killed himself. Tara had to sit there across the table and watch me process it. I still feel bad about that. I don’t remember what-all I said to her, but I know the meeting was over at that point… I’m pretty sure that I was speaking Swahili.
I went home from the restaurant after texting a handful of friends about what had happened. I was home alone for a few beats–my roommate was on his way after getting my text, but hadn’t arrived yet. I know I called in to work and told them I’d be gone for a couple of days, but I’d try to work from home–although I think they knew that was an empty promise. (I’m grateful for their understanding on that.) In the couple of quiet moments I had, by instinct, I lit a cigarette. By the second drag, it felt like the cigarette weighed 100 pounds. It didn’t feel like it was so cool anymore. I stabbed it out without finishing it. I have not had a cigarette since.
The ashes followed me for a few days, though. There were ashes at Patrick’s funeral, instead of a coffin. From what I understand, the cremation was necessary. I don’t remember who it was that made a joke about the ashes being filtered or unfiltered, but I know I was grateful for it–gallows humor is one of the highest arts. Y’know, cremations really suck. They feel…unfinished. Looking through the photos there, I made a quiet promise to Patrick–or the idea of him, anyway–that I wasn’t going to smoke ever again, so that any time I wanted a cigarette, I’d think about him. As you might imagine, I’ve thought about him a lot.
At the funeral, one of the speakers mentioned an old Jewish custom–the Remembrance Stone. The origin of it is somewhat disputed, from research I’ve done since, but essentially the idea is that a friend or family member leaves a small stone at the grave of a dead loved one, as a sign that they were there. There was no grave, in this case, but the funeral home still provided stones. We were encouraged to take one and carry it with us for a while, until we felt like putting them down–which I think is a lovely idea. My stone stayed in my pocket probably a little longer than it needed to… It was there until I got used to the weight and the feel, and the cold, smooth surface was identifiable from other stones even in the dark. It stayed there until one day I realized it must have fallen out, and that I missed the feel of it. That lasted only a few days before I more or less forgot about it.
A few days ago, I was rooting through my couch looking for a pen I’d dropped and my finger brushed over something familiarly cold and smooth. Patrick’s Remembrance Stone had found me again, just in time for the anniversary. Today, it will be in my pocket. Tomorrow, I plan to leave it somewhere sunny. I wonder…did the speaker at the funeral realize the irony of how much Patrick loved The Rolling Stones?
It’s a year later. It feels like barely any time has passed at all. Suicide is the worst thing you can do to the people around you. You leave so many lives emptier and so many things unresolved. Patrick probably had no idea that his suicide would wound me so deeply. He didn’t have any reason to consider that. We weren’t in each other’s daily lives. He wasn’t to know I’d be a zombie for weeks. Or that on the day I got back to work, after the morning meeting, three different people would comment to tell me that it sounded like I wasn’t “there” when I was speaking, and was I doing okay? Or that it would take me until season five of Red Dwarf before I finally started laughing at it again…
In the end, I don’t know that it would have made any difference…but I wish I had told Patrick how much he meant to me and how much I looked up to him. I know some of you will have the natural inclination to write “I’m sure he knew” in the comments… But please don’t. He didn’t know. That’s the reality. I didn’t ever tell him, he didn’t know, and that has to be okay. (I’d like to think that he knows it by NOW, though.)
I dedicated the “Ink-Stained Fingers” album to him, of course. I also wrote a song about him for the “Something to Look Forward to…” album. And now I’m writing this. So I guess I’m not sure when I’ll be done writing about Patrick. Unfortunately, I’ve known several people who have committed suicide. But this was different. This was family. That’s a ghost that follows you a while, from what I can tell.
This is the part where I’m supposed to impart some sort of life-lesson, I think. That seems so trite sometimes. I’m writing about missing someone I cared about and I’m supposed to tack on a personal application, when the fact of the matter is that it’s a year later and I’m still not okay with it. I guess the main thing I can say is that if you’re reading this…don’t ever make somebody write this. Don’t ever put anybody else through THIS. Don’t make a permanent decision over a temporary problem. You can overcome whatever you are going through. It may feel like if you did it, you’d be putting an end to your pain, but the truth is that all you’d be doing is repurposing it and passing it along to everybody else–including some people you never would have imagined would be wounded. And that changes who you are and who you deserve to be to them. Forever.
If you need help, get help. Talk to somebody–ANYBODY–and get through it. Be bigger than the pain. Be bigger than the hurt. And if you get the chance, maybe be nice to some kid that thinks you’re cool. Because that means everything to them.
I miss you, Patrick. Even if what you did wasn’t cool.