The waitress asked me twice if I was okay. My son looked at me oddly as I tried to smile and tell him what a lovely bridal shower we had just enjoyed for Abby, his fiancée.
I could barely breathe but I was determined not to spoil the bridal shower with the news — that I’d just found out my 50-year-old brother Keith committed suicide.
I downed a cup of spiked punch, settled the shower bill with shaking hands, then drove through 98-degree heat without the air conditioning to my parent’s house because I felt frozen to the bone. I knew something was up with my brother earlier that day after my sister called to say that she and my mother couldn’t come to the shower.
She would only say it had something to do with our only brother.
“How could he do this to Mom and Dad?” I screamed when I saw my sister in Mom and Dad’s driveway.
He knew my parent’s grief over a child who died. Our parents lost their 3-month-old son to sudden infant death syndrome before he was born and still, he did it.
My brother’s cause of death was a gunshot wound to his head, which the police ruled as self-inflicted. The coroner believed he shot himself the evening of June 16, when the clear spring daylight thickened into summer and the sun blazed in a cloudless sky for 15 hours in southeast Michigan, where we live. He lived alone, and had never married. He left no note.
As a reporter, I search for answers. I go online for statistics about suicide and find that the latest hard numbers are from 2007.
I find an April press release from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention based on statistics from 1928 through 2007. It states that the overall suicide rate rises and falls in connection with the economy. The study found the strongest association between business cycles and suicide among people age 25 to 64.
Keith was a plumber and he lost his job in late spring of 2009.
When we went to clean out his house, I saw that he had written his “Call MARVIN” dates on his calendar. MARVIN stands for Michigan Automated Response Voice Interactive Network, a fancy acronym for unemployment benefits.
The last “Call MARVIN” note on his calendar was two weeks before he killed himself. Was he afraid he would be destitute?
I also find a fact sheet online from the National Institute of Mental Health.
Major risk factors for suicide, according to the NIMH, include depression and substance-abuse disorder and 90 percent of people who die by suicide have these risk factors. The study’s lead author concludes that suicide is not caused by any one factor, and is often a combination of factors.
Substance abuse and depression made up my brother’s deadly mix.
Our father spoke with him the day before he killed himself and offered him financial help.
He told Dad he didn’t need it.
My brother posted photos on his Facebook page a couple weeks before he took his life, old photos he scanned in of himself and a high school girlfriend, of him holding the antlers of a deer he shot in one hand and a shotgun in the other, and a photo of him holding his catch, a 10-foot grouper on a fishing trip to Panama.
I posted his death on his Facebook page. His “friends” were in shock.
When we went to plan his funeral, the priest asked me, our mother and my two sisters to describe my brother. The reverend talked about the prevalence of recreational drugs for those of my brother’s generation, and how the drugs decimated lives and families, in an attempt to draw us out.
My mother and sisters sat tight-lipped through his gently probing questions, unwilling to divulge my brother’s story.
We had a hard time describing him without this piece of his life —I said he was an avid hunter and fisherman who lived the swinging single life when he was younger and liked to have a good time. I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
His personality, to me, had flattened out.
He was never gregarious as an adult around us, his family. At his funeral, his high school and childhood friends told the only stories where he seemed to be happy, which were about events that happened years ago, and usually involved drinking.
After a brush with the police a couple years ago, he tried to kick the addiction to Vicodin and vodka. He picked up the addiction when 25 years of working as a plumber caught up with his almost-50-year-old body. Until then beer, and lots of it, was his drug of choice.
He stopped drinking completely for a time and attended a few Narcotics Anonymous meetings but stopped. He told me that he was in much better shape than the people at those meetings, so he quit going. He gradually started drinking beer again at family gatherings and we knew he was a regular at a bar near his home.
Apparently nobody at the bar saw him for about 10 days before he took his life. And we learned he hadn’t cut the grass at his home since spring, although he had a working lawn mower.
Why did he give up?
What was his tipping point?
I was furious with him before he did it — for not coming to see me during my month-long stay in the hospital over the Christmas holidays. I’d had risky surgery to decompress a tonsil at the base of my brain, on the cerebellum, the balance center, which had caused a sack of fluid to form in my spine.
It’s called Chiari malformation with syrinx, a congenital birth defect, a rare condition with rare complications. I awoke from surgery basically paralyzed, with ataxia and flailing arms and limited use of my legs and hands. Feeding myself was a challenge. I couldn’t dress myself, walk, or go to the bathroom by myself. I could barely hold and dial a phone.
I should phone my brother, my mother urged. I managed it, but I was hurt and angry — angry at my mother’s insistence and hurt that I had to initiate contact. I stayed in the rehab unit for three weeks.
My sister tried to coax him to come to see me after I got out of the hospital, when they were already in a car a mile away from my house, but he said no, he was too busy.
He had no job.
I dutifully went to therapy and worked as a newspaper reporter as much as I could from home, struggling to regain dexterity on the computer keyboard. I returned to work in the office a month after I got out of the hospital. My husband was unemployed and I was the wage earner who carried the medical insurance, which I couldn’t do without.
I didn’t know while I fought for my recovery with the love and support of my family, friends and employer, my brother fought silently to find a reason to keep living.
While I had the best medical care my insurance could buy, including a psychiatrist and neurological psychologist, my brother had no health insurance and his only daily contact with other people was at the bar. The psychiatrist who saw me in the hospital wrote an order for Zoloft to stave off my anxiety and depression. He urged me to stay on it for as long as I could, to aid my recovery. He also said no alcohol.
“Alcohol is a depressant,” he said.
I told the psychologist I was afraid of getting hooked on Vicodin, which was also one of my daily cocktail of meds, because my brother had gotten hooked. He replied that since I was concerned, it wasn’t likely to happen.
I found my brother’s calendar at his house when we cleaned it out. He noted my sisters’ and my parents’ birthdays. He noted our grandmother’s birthday, although she died two years ago. We drove two hours to her funeral together, and he saw me break down as the pallbearers loaded her coffin into the hearse. She’d had a hard life, and likely suffered with undiagnosed depression. I wept when I realized she had no more chances to make amends for her harsh words, although I know she loved me, and her sons and her grandchildren in her way.
He knew I’d cry at his funeral.
Still he did it.
I find a story about a forum on suicide in one of the newspapers of the company that I work for. The writer covered a vigil held at the city hall he covers as a beat writer, where a former NFL quarterback and elected officials shared their stories about loved ones who killed themselves.
The quarterback said he carried such a strong belief in the stigma of suicide that he couldn’t recognize it. He said he took his son, who eventually killed himself, to the doctor to prove there was nothing wrong with him.
Another speaker mentions symptoms: sadness, appetite changes, loss of interest in activities, changes in sleep patterns, problems concentrating, feelings of helplessness or hopelessness, risk-taking behavior, withdrawal from friends and family, giving away possessions, neglecting work, fatigue, headaches, and describes these as suicide ingredients of which only five are needed.
“The problem is, we don’t talk about it,” the city councilman said. His stepson, 27, killed himself this past spring, about a month before my brother did. “The problem is connecting those people who have needs with those resources,” he said.
He likened the silence surrounding suicide to the way people avoided talking about cancer decades ago.
“Now, every day we see commercials on television. We know what the signs and the symptoms are, because the stigma has been removed, and those medical issues can be dealt with,” he said.
After Keith’s funeral, someone my mother didn’t know asked her how her son had died.
She could only say, “Complications.”
One of my sister’s good friends asked me at the funeral how Keith had died.
“She didn’t say,” she said.
I’m saying now.