Fifteen Years Gone: On Life After Suicide

IMG_0773.JPGI don’t think I’ve ever really dealt with my brother Stephen’s suicide. This may seem like an odd thing for me to say, given the volume of writing I have done on the subject of suicide, often invoking the memories of my uncle and brother. I’ve been with more people than I can count sharing stories of what it is like to have your life rocked in the way that only suicide can provide.

I’ve given advice that I first received with disdain and incredulity. The real grief will sneak up on you when you least expect it. No, it won’t, I said. It’ll be the seemingly smallest details that crush your heart. Nah, I’m over that, I responded in the initial years of grief, not yet understanding.

It takes years to understand. At least it has for me. Fifteen years. Fifteen years of mentioning Stephen, lecturing on suicide and the Bible, working with survivors and trying to help others get help before they take a step they can’t do over.  It takes years to understand that while your loved one may be gone in body, your relationship continues. Only you can keep it stuck in a rut.

I realized today, while processing with my therapist, that I have a ticking time bomb inside of me. I only share the “intimate stories” that I’ve carefully selected for public consumption. There is no duplicity. I don’t leave things out or embellish, at least no more so than our tricky minds rearrange things in the light of trauma.

The pictures of Stephen have largely been stored away, but not because I am ashamed of him. Rather, because I’m afraid that if I see one of these pictures it will trigger unaccessed memories.

I’m terrified to listen to the dozens of cassette tapes I have of our band/comedy team, “The Experimentals.” It will suck me into a time warp, back to the room that is now piled with clothes, books, and cat litter but was my bedroom. Was the place where we recorded hundreds of hours of teenage shenanigans.

How gorgeous was my brother? Seriously. Seeing this picture has brought up a lot of memories and I’m not sure how to deal with them. So long have I held them down so that they don’t pop up, like his body, and bump against the shore.

It has been fifteen years since I heard Stephen’s voice, and I easily could. In the corner of my office, hidden behind a set of bells, is a red case. It is my Pulp Fiction; in it is held treasure, but death surrounds it. In that case are tapes of us doing our characters: Billy Bob Joe Frank and Cleetus, two good ole boys we subconsciously knew we were only two generations removed from being; Chester and Leonard, two old men disillusioned with the world; Jimmy and Billy, created a decade before Cartman, two ruthless obese teenagers, with voices very similar to the aforementioned character, who headed the local mob knocking over Entenmann’s trucks.

On there are the recordings of my start as a guitarist trying to be cool like his brother. I’m sure that on there are many examples of me having a meltdown. Bipolar doesn’t just start overnight, yo’. It grows in ya’. Schizophrenia, too. So I think I imagine that I’m afraid to hear what is there to be heard. We could both be incredibly mean. Mental illness will do that.

In the back of my mind, I knew that October 12 was coming up. And I have known that it is the 15th year.But in many ways I really forgot. I didn’t access the information with my soul. That seems significant to me. I was walking out the door, having almost forgotten my therapy appointment, when it suddenly slapped me in the face. Tomorrow is the day. THE day.

Fifteen years.

The number matters, yes.  But it is what will happen in the coming year. I promised Stephen in my heart and in my head that I would complete a terminal degree. We’ll never have the houses side-by-side, cousins playing with one another as we competed to see who could become the greater literary success, but I’ll earn a doctorate for both of us. 

What do I do then? That’s the question that I’ve been wrestling with.  

It is never lost on me that while I love the life I have and can never imagine doing anything other than being a loving servant, the first footfall in this direction came in the microseconds after learning that Stephen’s body had been found washed up outside a riverboat restaurant on the Newport side of the Ohio River.

Stephen would find it absolutely amusing that I have become a devout believer in God and a minister as a result of his death. Stephen was an atheist. He’d probably say, “Aaron, you always did have a penchant for the dramatic.” But those hoped-for lives of over twenty-five years ago were not lives. They were hopes that we could be better than the pain and anguish of living inside of minds that are both brilliant and prisons.

I haven’t dealt with Stephen’s death because I only integrate him into my life in ways that are safe, that keep me from accessing the depth of pain and despair that has not lessened one bit. It means accepting that this pressure I have placed on myself has really been a form of avoidance. And I just can’t do that anymore.

I have to work in terms of projects. It is simply how I am wired. And I do want people to know him, to show why when I think of safety and love I think of being on the back of his motorcycle, throttle wide open, with him yelling at me “You’re all clear kid!”

I have purchased a cassette player that has an MP3 converter. I have a digital camera, and I will slowly start going through the pictures. And by the time next year rolls around, I will have made a tribute film to our relationship.

After fifteen years, it is time to start grieving properly so Stephen and I can move on to the next phase of our relationship.  To honor him tomorrow, I will spend the day helping others.

The Gospel According to Luke (Skywalker)

harrison-ford-han-solo-and-mark-hamill-lukePrologue

I was born in 1976, too young to remember seeing A New Hope or Empire Strikes Back in the theater, but old enough to have had both the films firmly in my grasp when my father took me and my best friend, Kevin Cooney, to see Return of the Jedi for my 8th birthday. I’ll never forget the wonder, the magic, the sense of adventure and satisfaction that filled me. I demanded that we see it again, and sure enough, I convinced my grandmother (who thoroughly hated it) to take me a few weeks later. Thus began my lifelong fandom.

I’ll never claim to be the biggest Star Wars fan in the world; I don’t do cosplay; I don’t read the books; I don’t watch non-theatrical releases; my T-shirt collection is sparse; my toys are long since lost or broken. But Star Wars was my entire childhood; my brother, of blessed memory, was Han Solo. There was no question about roles when we played Star Wars. He was the cool, suave, impossible, handsome renegade and I was the cute, somewhat annoying whiner who was too smart for his own good. Even at the time, I was the most spiritual person in my atheist family. When my brother died in 2002 and I officiated his memorial service, I told the story about how we used to go riding on his Kawasaki KZ-650, and before he’d open up the throttle, he’d yell to me as I held on, “You’re all clear kid!”

Star Wars has shaped my life.

Luke-and-Yoda-Hiking-on-Dagobah

It Is Your Destiny

My favorite film has been and will always be The Empire Strikes back. I think part of the reason is that this was the only film in the original trilogy that I owned on VHS for about five years. I would watch it at least once a week, with particular attention paid to Luke in the Dagobah System. Upon arrival, he is the same impatient brat who was eager to leave Tatooine; certainly, watching Obi Wan being struck down has shaped him. He’s joined the Rebellion and he feels the nascent seeds of spirituality growing within him. He has tapped into the Force, and he is hooked. Like his father before him, Luke feels his own power but is conflicted as to why he desires it. Is it to be like the hero Annakin he has heard so little about from his Aunt and Uncle? Is it to destroy Darth Vader, his nemesis, and the Emperor? With Yoda’s tutelage, Luke begins the Dark Night of the Soul. He explores his own limits, his own preconceptions, his own ideas about what it means to be a Jedi. Before George Lucas nearly ruined the entire franchise with the midichlorians, Empire presents a hero on a spiritual journey. Learning that Vader and Anakin are one and the same is an assault on who Luke thinks he is; it causes him to question his identity and his role in the world. It creates, first and foremost, a spiritual crisis. After losing his hand–a trope throughout the films–Luke must lose other things as well: his anger, his confusion, his desires.

did-return-of-the-jedi-s-alternate-ending-inspire-episode-7-672411 So when we first see Luke in Return of the Jedi, he is a changed man. His vocal cadence is slower, more confident. He is able to easily manipulate the mind of Bib Fortuna. He is in complete control of a seemingly impossible situation. We assume that his training has continued under Yoda, but we also sense that he has had to come to terms with himself; we can imagine many long walks, many sleepless nights as he wrestles with the legacy of his parentage. We speculate that he has felt rage, betrayal, confusion, and all the other emotions that come with devastating news.

But we should never forget that being a Jedi is a spiritual pursuit. The Force is not a weapon, but rather an energy that creates, pervades, and destroys all things, concepts that are equally applicable to Christianity and Buddhism, Judaism and Hinduism, Islam and Taoism. A Jedi Knight is equal parts monk and warrior, teacher and minister.

luke-skywalkerFAThe Force Awakens (and spoilers abound)

I was antsy upon sitting down to view The Force Awakens, in no small part because of the prequels. Most of us fans know this conversation, so I need not repeat it. My friend Derrick Weston, who encouraged me to write this piece as part of a larger project a group of us Star Wars geeks are unfolding, had messaged me and, without any spoilers, simply wrote, “JJ did it.” So while I was nervous, Derrick’s assurance let me know that I was in for a treat. The film unfolded and I found myself grinning from ear to ear, but in the back of my mind I was wondering, Where’s Luke? I perked up upon learning that Luke had been training new Jedis, only to have them destroyed by Kylo Ren (Ben Solo), who is seeking to complete what his grandfather (Annakin or Vader, I wonder) had started. Sadly, some jackass on a political thread had ruined the major plot points, so Han’s death did not surprise me, although I still gasped and felt a part of my childhood die as his body, like Darth Maul, Luke, and the Emperor before him, fell into a vast space toward an unknown bottom. Still, I wondered, where’s Luke?

And then it came. Rey’s arduous climb up the steps; the wonderful helicopter shots establishing the remoteness of place, a scene wholly unlike the CGI-rendered worlds that plagued the prequels. A solitary, hooded figure, wearing the robes of Obi Wan Kenobi, of Mace Windu, of Qui-Gon, of Yoda, of Annakin Skywalker. Turning around and pulling off the hood, there he was. Luke. Older. Bearded. His eyes–owed to masterful acting by Mark Hamill–betraying knowledge, confusion, surprise, trepidation, and peace. The lightsaber that had been passed from his father to Obi Wan to Luke to…now in the hand of Rey (who has an as yet unknown relationship to Luke), extended as an offering. For the second time, I gasped. Cue music and credits.

Its been three weeks since I’ve seen the film. I need to go back and watch it again; I know that there things that I’m missing, but luckily I am part of a group of smart people willing to spend their time having online discussions about this aspect or that aspect. It is fun to be part of such a community.

But today would have been my brother’s 47th birthday. He is on my mind and on my heart. And I am thinking about my journey and how it mirrors Luke’s. I was an atheist learning toward agnosticism when Stephen took his own life in 2002. I won’t write much about it; if you want to know the story (shameless plug), buy my book The Many Deaths of Judas Iscariot: A Meditation on Suicide. Stephen’s death led to my conversion, which led to attending a church, which led to suggestions that I go to seminary, which led to a three year process toward ordination, which ended in my pastoring a small church in my hometown of Yellow Springs, Ohio. My own impatience and need to go out to conquer the world has required some truncating and training; I have been impetuous; I have wanted to get away from where I grew up and to join something big and exciting. I’ve wanted to pastor a big church and have thousands of people follow my blog and read my books. I’ve felt jealousy at colleagues who have achieved that.

Yet, I realize that I am ultimately looking to be Luke on that island. At least, what I am projecting upon him. A man who prepares for his calling; one who sees the world around him in trouble, but who has the wisdom to wait. To connect with the Force (or God) for direction. A man who no longer allows himself to be directed by passions and desires for greatness, but rather to serve. To protect. To love. To combat evil, but out of compassion and understanding.

After all these years, I still want to be Luke.