Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99 per year.
Subscribe for Full Access
June 2024 Issue [Readings]

Dark Knights of the Soul

From Getting to Know Death, which will be published this month by Bloomsbury.

I have been close to people who one day found themselves in the desperate place and didn’t make it out.

I remember struggling to write a letter to a young man whose father had just hanged himself. The father had been the builder of our house. He was charming and talented and proud of his son. I wrote these things to the son and then came the point in the letter where I was supposed to write something hopeful for the future. All I could think of to convey was No, you’ll never get over it, but the time will come when you will be glad you can’t get over it because the loved one remains alive in your heart as you continue to engage with the who and the why of him.

Two people in my family didn’t make it out of their desperate place: my father and my brother.

Though I had seen my father only twice when I was a child, I sent him an invitation to my high school graduation. Mother said not to expect him to show up, but he did. He, his new wife, and his brother drove from Smithfield, North Carolina, to Portsmouth, Virginia, for the ceremony. In the early-summer weeks that followed, we wrote letters to each other. He had elegant handwriting and prose to match. He wrote that he would like more than anything to get to know me better. Could I—would it be possible for me to spend a few weeks with them at the beach this summer? I was in my first desperate place at that time and decided to tell him about it—though not all of it. I ended up going to the beach and returning with them to Smithfield and entering Peace College in the fall, paid for by my father.

My father had been doing some personal bookkeeping of his own. At the age of fifty, he had at last achieved a measure of stability. Finally, after thirty years of intemperate living, he had managed to stop drinking, had married a new widow in town with a prosperous brother-in-law, and was manager of sales at the brother-in-law’s car dealership. My father confided to me during the weeks we spent at his brother-in-law’s beach cottage that he regretted not having made more of himself. “You mustn’t let it happen to you,” he said. “Nobody is prepared for how quickly time passes, and you don’t want to be one of those people who wakes up in the late afternoon with nothing to show for it.” But later, in a radiant moment while we were lying on the beach working on our tans, he told me that I had come along at just the right time, and if he continued to win his battle against depression and alcohol, and if automobile sales continued like this, well, the future didn’t look so hopeless after all.

As we lay side by side, congratulating ourselves for finding each other, I had no idea that old disappointments were biding their time, stealthily building like waves, which in less than three years would drown him. One winter afternoon when I was a junior at Chapel Hill, he phoned his brother at his office. “Just felt like saying hello, old son,” he said. “Son” was what the brothers called each other. After he hung up, he lay down on the floor of his bedroom in Smithfield and shot himself in the head.

Losing ground. Was that the thing that ultimately killed him? In his twenties, he began losing jobs, losing status, but always got back on his feet. A charming, handsome man, he did not need to keep a steady job as long as his mother was alive. And after her death, there would be other admirers waiting in line for whom his looks and charm were enough. By the time he met my mother, he was an alcoholic. After that came the mental disorders, given different psychiatric names as the years went by.

When they were driving back to Smithfield after my high school graduation, he came with a raging toothache. They found a dentist along the road who pulled the tooth. But the pain continued, and when they got home, the dentist told him it had been the wrong tooth. “I should have known,” he would finish this story, laughing. “I should have known when we drove into the parking lot and his shingle read: doctor payne
.” He still had the charm but the looks were going.

This is from a June 16, 2018, New York Times op-ed, “What Kept Me from Killing Myself,” by the Iraq War veteran Kevin Powers. “Throughout that summer and into the fall . . . just below the surface of my semiconsciousness, was the constant thought: Maybe I won’t wake up this time.” Powers continues:

I doubt much needs to be said about the kind of despair that would make such an idea a source of comfort, despair that came not from accepting that things were as bad as they were going to get but, worse, that they might go on like that forever. The next step felt both logical and inevitable.

This sounds along the lines of what my twenty-eight-year-old brother might have been thinking in the hours that led up to his death.

In the last week of his life, Tommy was working on a long poem. He left behind two drafts. He titled one “Why Not Just Leave It Alone?” and the other “Why Change the World?” One line is the same in both drafts: “My pride is broken since my lover’s gone.” Both drafts end with the same image of the poet being laid to rest in his wooden home, “With my trooper hat on my chest bone.”

It was October 2, 1983. What happened, what we know happened, as opposed to all that we can never know, was that on the Sunday afternoon after Mother’s birthday, Tommy ironed a shirt at his parents’ house, where he had been living with his three-year-old son. He told Mother he was going over to see J., the woman he loved, a nurse who also had a three-year-old son. They had planned to marry; they had even made out a budget. Then J. suddenly broke it off. Tommy told Mother he was going over to ask J. to reconsider. “I’m going to settle it one way or another before the afternoon is out,” he said, and drove off alone.

couple found shot was the headline in the newspaper the next morning.

The day before, on Mother’s birthday, I knew Tommy was unhappy. But Tommy was always unhappy. He “felt things more than most” was the family euphemism for his troubled nature. He most took to heart the family’s fractures as well as the world’s. Drawing you in with his shy, closemouthed smile, he would offer his latest tale of woe. But always, always in his stories, there had been a quality of suspense, of entertainment. He starred in them as the knight-errant, complete with pratfalls and setbacks, but a knight-errant who picked himself up, dusted himself off, and set out on his next mission. Tommy was a modern Samaritan who carried a first-aid kit and a blue emergency beacon in his car in case he came across an accident.

We were in the kitchen and he told me the story of J. suddenly breaking up with him. But this time something was different. I was not, as usual, deriving the usual listener’s satisfaction from his story. Many years later, when remembering that kitchen scene, I realized what had spooked me about it: Not only was there not a trace of the shy, closemouthed smile, there was no knight-errant starring in my brother’s story. The tone was new: one of bafflement and resignation. There was no sense of any future missions. There was no tug of suspense. It was like a story that had already ended.

Tommy would be sixty-three now. He was born the same summer that my father drove from Smithfield to Glen Burnie, Maryland, and rescued me from my desperate place. If on that October afternoon twenty-eight years later there had not been a pistol handy in the glove compartment of J.’s car, would Tommy have remarried somebody else and raised his son and reconciled himself to a fallen world, as long as he had a first-aid kit and a job that gave him the satisfaction that he was rescuing people from injustice?

But now I do hear his voice, the old Tommy voice, just as it was in life, chiding me as he defends the position of his beloved National Rifle Association with its singsong refrain: “Gail, guns don’t kill people. People do.” I continue to engage with the who and why of my father and my brother.

During my life, I have found myself in the desperate place four times. But that first time, at age eighteen, was by far the worst.

Summer 1955 in Glen Burnie, Maryland. Everybody seemed to have a future but me. I had received a letter from Mother Winters, my mentor from ninth grade. She congratulated me on being salutatorian, asked about my plans for college, and brought me news of some of my classmates. “Pat has won the four-year Angier Duke scholarship to Duke, Carolyn will be going to Radcliffe, Stuart and Lee to St. Mary’s in Raleigh . . . ” Here I stopped reading and felt . . . what? A dry mouth, a pang in the chest, a sense of going down, of losing myself. All I knew to do was mark my position.

My position. At the time, I couldn’t hold all of it in my mind. If I had tried, I might have despaired, or lashed out and hurt myself or somebody else. I had so little experience to draw from and there was no escape.

Since my early teens, I had been building my life on false premises. I was creating a persona that was more extroverted than I really was. She pretended to more confidence and security than I felt. I became a pro at embellishing and editing my history. When I entered a new school, I “went out” for things I was good at that would bring me attention. The school paper, the drama club, painting posters and scenery, entering competitions—and, of course, getting high grades. I dated lots of boys, made it a point to be cagey and hard to get until each got fed up and moved on, usually just as I had begun to appreciate him.

That was the outside of things. At home, other dramas were playing out. We were not free people. Our embattled breadwinner, who was angry much of the time, sometimes knocked one of us to the floor for challenging him. There was no money for us except what he doled out and no going anywhere he didn’t drive us. As I entered my teens, the breadwinner, who was only twelve years older than me, often spoke of how he “loved” me. His voice trembled. At night I would wake to find him kneeling in the dark beside my bed, his hand taking liberties.

My mother had shed her former confident self. As a child, I knew a mother who arrived home on the 10:00 pm bus after her wartime job on the newspaper, a woman who taught college and on weekends typed up love stories that earned one hundred dollars apiece. This powerless woman seemed more like someone I was visiting in prison. Only I was in prison with her. She suffered because there was no money to send me to college. She made phone calls to a private college in Baltimore to see if I could go as a day student. The registrar said a partial scholarship might be arranged, given my academic record, but where was the rest of the money to come from? There was no “rest of the money,” my stepfather reminded us, as though we were dim-witted. He suggested I take a year off and find a job, “maybe in sales work,” and save up for college next year. He added magnanimously that I could continue to live under his roof for the time being without paying rent.

That’s the way the ground lay that June 1955 morning in Glen Burnie, when the girl sat cross-legged on her bed, the letter from her old teacher clutched in her fist. “Pat to Duke, Carolyn to Radcliffe, Stuart and Lee to St. Mary’s.”

This is my life, but I may not get to do what I want in it.

I can’t see a way out of this.

Things will not necessarily get better.

In my novel Unfinished Desires, about life at a girls’ school, two old nuns are being driven back to their retirement home from a doctor’s visit, and one says to the other, “There was a sentence this morning in that Prayer for Holy Women: ‘In our weakness Your power reaches perfection.’ What do you think it means, Sister Paula?” Sister Paula thinks for a minute and then replies, “I think it means you have to admit you can’t save yourself before you’re fully available to God.”

That morning in Glen Burnie, God was undergoing some very slippery changes in my psyche. He had ceased being the attentive Heavenly Father who was always aware of me. All I could be certain of that long-ago summer morning was that I could not save myself.

But something else did, something already embedded in the tissue of my particular circumstances: the earthly father who had been the absent father. In a mood of defiant resignation, I decided to send him an invitation to my graduation. Of course he wouldn’t come.

But he did come. And when we were lying beside each other on the beach, he said, “When I opened your invitation, after I got over being pleasantly surprised, I thought to myself, Well, this is one thing I did that came to fruition. And then, after we began to write letters to each other, it struck me that I might be the rescuer you needed.

More from

| View All Issues |

April 1976

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now