He was just a kid.
Fifteen I think, something like that, too young to have experienced too much in life at that point, but old enough to die by his own hand.
His father, only a year and change older than me, had already dealt with some issues of his own. Diabetes, a member of his family on both sides for generations, had already taken its toll on him by the time he hit his forties. An infection here, a partial amputation there, diminished eyesight and curtailed life’s work. He was dealing with it, and every time I saw him, which was rarely, he had a smile on his face and exuded that down home southern charm and sense of humor that hearkened back to his days as the star quarterback at his high school. He was happy then. But this death, this loss, this forceful ripping of the fabric of his own life hit him harder than any linebacker shooting the gap ever had. This death sacked him and took his breath away.
I heard bits and pieces of what had happened from the family. Eventually, I knew I just needed to get down there, to see and hear and grieve with them, if just for a little while. So I drove. It was hot, southern hot, bake under the shade trees hot. Sleeves rolled up, trying to show respect by wearing a tie, but nobody cared about that.
Death did not wear a tie.
Death came in whatever he might be wearing at the time. He slipped in casually, like an old friend or a relative, parking his hearse on the side of the old country road and walking up the long driveway to the house like the rest of us, turning his chair around backwards and swinging one leg over the back, straddling it, arms folded across it in from of him, tracing little arcs in the sand with the toe of his boot. Waiting under the shade trees with the family for the boy to come home. Knowing that he never would.
The boy had gotten involved in some stuff at school that was much worse than anyone knew. Information from friends drifted in as the months went by. Perusal of his computer enlightened his parents too little, too late. He had been a good kid, popular at school, dating, playing sports, involved. He had two loving parents and a sister and a nice house in the country and a life that some kids could only dream about.
The others held him to a promise that Sunday, told him that he had to do it. It was a rite of passage, I suppose, much like shaving for the first time when you didn’t really need to but felt obligated to because you were fifteen and it was just time to shave. The pills were there and they would be taken. Just before church would be the right time. It would be easy. He could not fail.
But as in all plans made by fifteen year olds, plans that are half thought out and incompletely mapped, something went wrong. The pills, the trip to church, the sickness, the overwhelming sickness that threatened not to kill but to embarrass, all spun out of control. The teenage thoughts about the wrath of his parents that would be so terrible and swift that it could not be endured.
He went home, up the stairs to the bedroom, mother in constant attendance at this point, to lie down and get through it. The mental and physical torture of sickness and guilt and worry about peer reprisals and parental punishment and all of it must have been too painful, too horrible, too frightening for this boy, this child. When mother went out the door, down the stairs to fetch a glass of water, Death glided silently into that room. He walked to the corner and stood, his gaze fixed not on the boy (the boy would take care of himself) but the nightstand. Death knew what was in the nightstand, and so did the boy. An end to the pain of embarrassment, the fear of punishment, the torture of facing them. An end that at fifteen, even at fifteen, his child brain, his child mind could not fully understand (how could he?). A single moment that he saw as parole, but that would be a lifetime prison sentence for his tortured family.
She heard the single shot from downstairs.
Death passed her, boots softly scuffing the carpet as he went downstairs to wait outside for the boy’s father to come home as soon as he received the news. She frantically ran up to the room, feeling a cold chill, knowing in her mother’s heart what had just happened. Not understanding, but knowing.
The boy, the child, the life cleanly snuffed out, the unfulfilled promise of things that would never be. Small. Inert.
The gun. Small. Spent.
Death, boots scuffing through the hot sand outside, pulling up a chair, swinging his leg across the back, lighting up, taking a first long drag, and waiting, as he always did, in the shade.
Greg Smith is a psychiatrist who blogs at gregsmithmd.