Another thing you’re not allowed to say in this culture of p.c. confinement and denial (on top of saying on TV that the 9/11 attackers weren’t cowards and saying online that Hurricane Ike was a case of the chickens coming home to roost for Houston/Galveston) is “why did he kill himself?” Go to an Irish wake and after a couple of whiskeys the friends and family of the deceased, standing off in a corner or outside on the street with a cigarette, will confide what his or her life was really like and why it ended as it did. But don’t ask in mixed company. We all know and accept this.
I’m not saying one should trumpet the sad particulars or make them part of the lead graph, God forbid, but somewhere in the obit or tribute piece or farewell speech I think it’s right and fair and complete to explain what happened. Okay, maybe not in a tribute speech, and maybe not in a standard obit either, but I don’t believe in sweeping stuff under the carpet. Not altogether.
I’m bringing this up because when an obviously gifted and well-respected writer takes his own life, as David Foster Wallace did on Friday night, no writers of tributes ever ask, much less provide any sort of answer.
People avoid any mention or allusion to the particulars out of (a) sensitivity for the immediate family and close friends, (b) a natural human instinct to counter-act the goblins of darkness and tragedy that we all carry around by emphasizing the positive — by creating a counter-myth, and (c) out of a standard emotional-political urge to honor and cherish those things about the deceased that were beautiful or elegant or inspiring or what-have-you.
Sorry to step out of bounds, but when someone dies I want to know why, and too bad if that offends you. I want to know what happened. And it doesn’t make me a monster for asking.
Because life is not just about what you’ve done with your potential or lack of one — not just about being brilliant or mediocre or being wonderfully creative or not having the moxie to do anything more than order a beer at a tavern or re-fill a monthly prescription at the pharmacy. Life is also about stuff that happens to you, and how you stand up to it…or not.
It’s about how you respond to hungry wolves sticking their snouts through the hole in your front door or to hurricane waves washing over your lifeboat when one of your oars has been washed away and your rations are gone too. Life can be cruel and fierce and sometimes brutal, and when someone I know or respect has gone under I want to know why, and anyone who says this isn’t the first question out of their lips when a person suddenly passes is a liar.
This said, Glenn Kenny‘s tribute piece about Wallace, posted earlier today, is very well written and remembered.