The week flew by. I found myself managing a crisis on a case in which I am the guardian ad litem which consumed so many hours that I forgot to eat for an entire day, which my friends will find astonishing. But I managed to cram calories into my mouth on the run late in the evening. Then, on Thursday, I savored a stark departure from my vegetarian diet by devouring gluten-free fish and chips at Louie's Wine Dive. (I recommend the petit sirah to pair. The slaw needed seasoning.) I crashed last evening, worn, weak, and wobbly. But today dawned early and I awakened feeling if not refreshed, at least not like I'd been mowed down by a crazed uninsured non-English speaking driver in a mid-sized VW -- a sensation which I've actually experienced so I feel qualified to compare.
In a few hours, two youngish Waldo Brookside Rotarians will squire me to the 7th Annual Benefit for the American Foundation to Prevent Suicide in honor of Kenny Kauffman, hosted by another WB Rotarian, Erika Kauffman Wheeler and her husband, Jack Wheeler. My escorts' wives will be at home with their children; we'll join fifty or so people who've donated to AFSP, one of the leading organizations tackling education, intervention, and comfort for those contemplating suicide and those surviving the self-inflicted deaths of someone whom they loved and could not save.
Like my brother Stephen.
A few weeks ago, I cleaned out a cupboard that I cannot really reach, and out fell a sheath of thin, yellowed computer paper. I lifted it from the floor, knowing from its age and the dot-matrix print what it had to be. Yes -- the title page: Resurrecting Stephen. My feeble, unfinished attempt to make sense of my baby brother's death.
As far as I know my brother only tried to kill himself twice, once by taking an overdose and once, the last, with a shotgun. The story of my brother's despair lives on telephone lines in my memory. Mary, can you come home, Stephen might need a kidney. He had fallen into a coma, near death, and a virus attacked his kidney. He awakened with swollen legs from the poison flooding his muscles and veins. He called 911. He did not ultimately need a kidney but his legs never recovered, something I learned after he died. He faced amputation, or at the very least, crippling decline.
At a gathering some months after his hospitalization, I teased him about that 911 call in the raunchy, brutal way that big families have of making everything a joke. Yo, dude, really, try to kill yourself and call 911? Makes no sense. He did not laugh. He said, instead, with that quiet backwards glance my brothers all use to quell nonsense, I wanted to end pain, not make it worse.
My stomach lurched.
I've written of that exchange in other blogs, on Facebook, in letters, in journals. Each of my siblings has some ghost that lurks beneath the surface, rising when they glimpse some reminder of the youngest of the eight Corleys. I have no leave to speak of what haunts anyone but me; and I have not shaken the feeling of having failed my little brother, in that moment, by making jokes about his agony.
In June of the year following Steve's failed attempt, my nephew Nicholas took the train to Kansas City to spend the summer with "Aunt Mary and little Boomer", his nickname for my son Patrick. I called his mother to let him know that he had safely arrived at my bungalow in Brookside. Gabe sobbed into the phone, Call your brother Mark, Nick's dad, Gabe's husband. I cannot forget my demanding reply: Kevin or Stephen?
She would not say. Just call Mark. Just call Mark.
Nick and I drove to St. Louis in the morning. I left Patrick with someone -- Katrina, maybe; or Punky Thomas; I can't recall. I debated taking him to the funeral but did not want him to remember his Uncle Steve as ashes in a brass box, even that brass box, with a Grateful Dead skull sticker plastered on the side. Instead of hugging my son as we listened to Steve's friends mourn him from the pulpit of my brother Frank's little parish church; instead of standing with my arms around five-year-old Patrick, in the humidity of that June St. Louis day in the cemetery by my parents' graves; I looped my arm through that of Steve's ex-wife, the mother of one of his two lost daughters. My siblings avoided her for reasons that I have no license to relate. But I could not; I knew he had loved her, knew he had adored her daughter, and knew that the loss of them had driven him insane.
Just as I knew that his ragged soul had been the reason for that loss.
A million film clips play in my head when I think of my brother Stephen. From his mouth and his alone, the sound of my first name did not make me cringe. In his eyes, I could dance -- hell, I could fly. He saw beneath the crippled limbs; I do not think he even perceived me as the least impaired.
In another drawer, recently, I found a letter that he wrote me from New Orleans, in which he spoke of trying to make a new life. He lasted another decade after that attempt, which clearly failed. He could not shed his ghosts. He let them carry him away.
When Erika told me about the benefit she started in honor of her father who committed suicide eight years ago, I never hesitated. I bought a ticket. In the 19 years since my brother killed himself, I have seen struggles to combat the lure of death in others whom I love; again, I have no license to tell those stories, but even being on the periphery of their agony moved me beyond reason. In 2014, after the death of my favorite curmudgeon, after the decampment of another whom I loved, I nearly succumbed myself on one grim night, in my car, in front of the public library. Had my friend Paula not sent her husband to find me after my phone accidentally dialed her so that she heard the wracking sobs, my wailed lament, I would not be here to write these words.
I did not know Kenny Kauffman, but I know his daughter. I know the light in her eyes when she speaks of him; I know the grit within her, the determination that compelled her to start this benefit in his honor. I know her grief. I know her sorrow. I will stand with her tonight; and each year, when she hosts the eighth annual, the ninth annual, the tenth annual, I will stand with her again.