(These are the words that I read at the funeral of my brother a month ago. I'm posting today in acknowledgment of International Suicide Survivors' Day.
I have spent a great deal of my life thinking about death -- ever since fourth grade when a classmate and her family died in the crash of their small plane. When confronted by my brother's suicide, I felt as if all that thinking had made me not one whit more ready to navigate the soul-crushing rapids of grief, regret, anger, and incomprehension -- to say nothing of family psychodrama and physical exhaustion -- that I was plunged into. Maybe I'm wrong; maybe as a philosopher I've been doing special ninja training for dealing with death, and without it I'd have been a puddle on the floor. I'm not sure. I know that if it hadn't been for others' kindness and willingness to sit openly with my emotions, I would have been hopeless. When finally I was sitting in the airport on my way home after the funeral, it dawned on me: this is just beginning. And I am still, and continuously, grateful for that support.
This text is almost unedited, aside from a few details for clarification. It bears all the marks of the occasion on which it was delivered.
I know I'm a decent writer, and at least part of why I'm decent, and that my brother would have wanted me to speak. It was the most difficult writing I've ever done.)
I am going to talk about Clayton and myself as little boys; and I’m going to talk about what we – any of us – do next; but I need to start with where I am , which has been a very dark and difficult place. Some of what I say will also seem kind of high-altitude; that's what you get when you have a philosopher talk at a funeral.
When Clay was about 3, and I was about 9, we played a game. We played games all growing up, into my high school years, but this was the very first. It was called Whee, and it was played by him standing on the top stair and me a few stairs down, or him on the couch and me on the floor, ready to catch him. He'd yell Whee! and jump. I’d catch him. That was the game. He did it over and over. He had the abandon of a little boy and he just laughed and laughed. I have no idea how many times but in my memory it lasted for months, every day.
And then one day, one time, I didn't catch him.
I don’t know why I did it. I might have had some wrongheaded idea about getting him an early start in the school of hard knocks, or I might have thought the surprise would be funny and even fun. It might have been sheer perversity. Maybe I was getting tired of the game.
The moment it happened I knew it was not funny, and not fun. He was shocked and frightened. I knew I was wrong, that I wanted to play the game again, the way we had been. I wanted it to go back to how it was before.
It never did. We never played it again. He never jumped into my arms again.
Now that's only one story; I have a lot of stories about Clay, and stories were a huge part of how we grew up. We listened to records with stories, I made up stories, we had a whole repertoire of games as we got older that were based on stories we made up. When I was going through his things this week, I found a folder with stories I wrote for him and gave him as presents for birthdays or Christmas or just because. He'd kept them this whole time. They were really about him and me because the stories were based on our make-believe. All of those stories were also games; we didn’t stop playing. But that game from when he was three, was lost.
And I have stories about Clay from when I was there and from when I wasn't. How he lugged my bands’ heavy sound and light equipment to and from our shows. How he traveled around Europe with his friends and almost got swept off a ship during a storm. How as a kid he was transfixed by the animatronic musical bears at Disneyland. How he plied visiting friends or relatives with endless courses of sushi and refused to pocket the tip himself. Stories about how smart he was; how funny; how beautiful. About his music – I’ve been listening to his album while I work on these words, one track in particular over and over, and it reminds me that back in the day when I was playing a lot of live music, people would sometimes say, Isn’t your little brother also a musician? and I would always answer, My brother is the real musician.
Because of where we are, though, there's this story that seems especially pertinent. I was newly adrift from the religion of my youth when my grandmother, my father’s mother, died. At the funeral, I was suddenly, palpably struck by a kind of certainty in the service. Everyone seemed to know -- to really Know where my grandmother was "now" -- and I didn't. I thought I might be the only one in the room who didn't “know.” And this weird juxtaposition seemed so strange that I really couldn’t be quiet. Wow, I kept saying, befuddled, kind of under my breath. Wow, Oh wow. And Clay, who was sitting next to me, kept looking at me sideways and finally leaned over and whispered to me, there at my grandmothers funeral, Dude, are you stoned?!
It’s a story about how succinctly he related to my sort of baffled bemusement in the world; and there are a lot of stories like that too, and I keep smiling and laughing at them, and then something brings me up short and I think -- But he's dead.
And everything shuts down, and there seems no point or possibility of smiling or laughing. And I can't help but wonder if somehow the real story, the story that culminated last week, was the story I started with, the one where he jumped, and I didn’t catch him. It frightens me. I feel a kind of bottomless shame.
And the point isn’t whether I should or shouldn’t feel this. But I think some of you also are asking yourself questions like this; Did I miss anything? Was there something I should have seen, was there something I did see/ What if something – what if that one thing – had gone differently?. Or maybe you wonder whether anything will ever seem right. You wonder if you can laugh again. You can even find it a weird kind of affront that there is laughing, smiling, business as usual. That anything should still go on at all.
The best expression I know of this helpless ruined-feeling is the poem my niece asked to have read today. It's by W.H. Auden, and some of you will know it; it’s been heard at more than one funeral. Clay wrote so many lyrics; he understood the power and force of poetry; and as I said to my niece, it can be helpful sometimes to have someone else express what you feel:
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone.If anyone here has been feeling this, feels this right now, or feels this tomorrow or next week or month or into the future, whenever it comes on you, I won't try to tell you to feel a different way. I think that the way to feel better is to let yourself feel as bad as you feel; and it can feel completely disorienting that the sun comes up still. The poem starts with plans for some social and civil indication of mourning but it ends with a kind of apocalypse; and I absolutely get it. It doesn’t just feel like a personal or private catastrophe. It seems like the Election coverage should be suspended, businesses close-- the world just stop. Why shouldn't the landscape be wiped away? The stars extinguished. The stars are not wanted now. Put out every one.
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone.
Silence the pianos, and with muffled drum
bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message, He Is Dead.
Put crepe bows round the necks of the public doves.
Let traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my north, my south, my east and west
My working week, my Sunday rest
My noon my midnight, my talk, my song.
I thought that love would last forever. I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one.
Pack up the moon, dismantle the sun
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
But I want to talk about why I chose a different lyric for the back of the keepsake bookmark you can each take. The front has a lyric from Clay. The back has a line from a song by Sting, which I have a special reason for including: partly because Clay loved it; and partly because I remember the time he first played it for me. Clayton and I were roommates for a while in the mid 90s with a lot of other musicians, and we'd often push music on each other, recommending things, but it was rare for us to say, You gotta listen to this, Now. But one day he told me, Let me play you this song. He put it in, he turned it up loud. I was surprised; it's almost a country song, and not stand-out remarkable in Sting's work, but there came a moment when I understood what Clay loved about it. The song is about a divorce, and I've omitted a few lines that refer specifically to that, but I'll tell you about the story in the song. In this verse, the singer goes out under the stars at night, hurting, missing his wife and kids, hurting over how she's found someone new. Then he looks up and he chooses a star for himself, one for his wife's lover, one for her, one for each child. Then comes the last part that I've chosen. It's when he's seen, or made, this new constellation that he says
"Something made me smile. Something seemed to ease the pain."And then as I was listening, Clay looked with his uncanny eyes into mine, and his huge smile broke over his face as he sang along,
"Something about the universe, and how it's all connected...",fully expecting me to just get it, and I did, I heard exactly why he loved this moment; the way the music opens up right there and shows you how sorrow and pain will flower into something broader and deeper and more mysterious, a context that goes on and on ....
But how can that be? How can it be both that the stars are not wanted, and that the stars can ease our pain?
It’s a huge and hard question, and Clay sometimes asked me about it -- not in those terms, but it’s what we talked about the very last time I saw him. I don’t know how, and I cannot give anybody a recipe for making it work. I think it doesn’t work like a recipe. I think sometimes one poem is true, and sometimes the other poem, and we just have to be with wherever we are.
We're bewildered and disoriented. We want it to make sense and it doesn’t. It can feel that somehow everything that happened before was always leading here; that it not only hurts by ending, but that it somehow recasts everything that came before; as though. Did we even know Clay?
I’m saying this out loud because I've asked it inside and I’ve heard others ask it. They are real questions and real feelings and you can’t ignore them. But they aren’t the only feelings. This is one moment in Clay's story. It's not the summing up, not the culmination; it’s not the "meaning" of it.
We didn’t know things about him. Some of us knew more, or differently, but none of us knew everything; and none of us knew what it was like to be him We do not know what it is like to be each other. That we are all connected doesn’t make us all the same. Our stories open onto each other, and Clay’s story opens onto each of ours.
If there's a biggest story of all, a story that makes final sense of it all I don't know much about it, and Clayton was suspicious of claims to know very much about it. I don’t know any more than I did at my grandmother’s funeral. I have a faith that somehow all things can rest in the final word of love, that All Manner of Thing Shall be Well -- but I don't have a picture of what that looks like; it’s not a matter for argument, it’s a matter for prayer – which is another kind of lyric, unless lyric is really a kind of prayer. This is what we talked about the last time I saw Clay. He had a lot of questions for me about my faith, such as it is; we kept talking til they closed the café, and then we stood in the parking lot and kept talking. It was December, and cold, but Clay kept pressing; he preferred an honest longing to any too-pat answer. When Clay prayed at my father’s funeral, he struggled to find the prayer he could pray with integrity, and he prayed: God, if it’s possible, if it works this way, let him know now how many people love him.
The last story here I want to tell isn’t really a story; it just this. As I said, I've been listening to Clayton's album of course while I worked on this talk, and one song in particular, over and over. It's mostly instrumental; with a few lyrics that I won't read -- I'll let you go find them. But I can tell you the name of the song. It's called, I'll Catch You.
I don't really have an expectation of a scenario that in a different world my little brother will jump into my arms. I don’t know if things work that way. But I am sure, absolutely sure, that his story isn't over. Because our story is still ongoing. I'm sure, because I still love him.