Elegy

by Logan Davis

 

My sister never calls. That was my first sign of trouble, but I held  the phone to my face as I took the elevator to my next class, my final undergraduate semester.

“What’s up?” I said.

“Have you been on Facebook at all today?” “No.”

She took a deep breath. “Hyrum passed away.” “What?” “Yeah. His mom and sister posted about it just now.”

I wanted to hang up. “Let me figure this out.”

“Okay.”

***

Hyrum and I would have endlessly long conversations almost every day in high school. Most of them were about the dumbest things, but  I treasured those afternoons and evenings we spent breathing in the Oregon air and spitting nonsense back and forth.

“You know what nobody ever means?” he asked. “‘I’m not mad.’ Nobody ever says that when they’re actually not mad.”

I laughed. He was right.

“And when people say, ‘I’m fine,’” he continued. “Nobody ever says ‘I’m fine’ when they’re actually fine.”

***

John Milton wrote an epic titled “Samson Agonistes” retelling the final day of Samson’s life, his strength gone, his eyes gouged out, and his person made into a kind of circus act by the Philistines. Milton himself had gone blind early in his life and it is believed this piece was his way of wrestling with that new reality. Immediately prior to the poem is an introduction he titled “Of that sort of dramatic poem which is called tragedy.” In it, he referred to tragic poems as “the gravest, moralest, and most profitable of all other poems,” ones where authors and readers are allowed “to purge the mind of those and such like passions, that is to temper and reduce them to just measure with a kind of delight, stirred up by reading or seeing those passions well-imitated.”

***

Five minutes after talking with my sister, I called my friend Kevin. “Logan!” He was cheerful and groggy. I’d probably woken him up. “Hyrum passed away.”

“What?” I heard him shift around and get on his computer. “Hyrum?” “Yeah.”

“Oh my God. Oh my God.” I heard him typing. “Oh my God.” “Yeah.”

“Do you know what happened?”

“No, I just barely heard about it.” “Oh my God.”

I felt like hell. I kept thinking about how Hyrum must have died. I knew he’d had trouble with alcohol in the past.

He’d used alcohol, and like most do, to numb himself. His childhood had broken a lot of what could have been his future. He’d been severely abused and stabbed by his parents until he was adopted by a much kinder and more loving family. Though they took good care of him and his sister, his early childhood held to him the way the sun bruises our skin, usually invisibly. In the course of his life he’d been diagnosed with PTSD and reactive attachment disorder, but refused counseling. I can taste the alcohol as I write it.

I wanted to hang up. “I have to get to class.” “Okay.”

***

I spent two years of my life as a missionary. I’d grown up in the faith, believing everything my parents and teachers presented to me.

Returned missionaries in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will often share experiences they had had during those years away from home. These stories are shared in church meetings and dinner conversations alike. Some are eager to share their stories, and others are loath. I’m the latter. Most of my stories from my mission are either personal to my spirituality or are too cliché, stories of answered prayers that every Mormon I’ve met seems to have. Because of this, I tend to keep my mission experiences to myself. So, I’ll share just one. A short one, a little indulgence.

I and another missionary had been meeting with Linda for a few months, ever since I arrived in  Pittsburgh.  On  this  particular  visit we were talking about life and death and what happens after death. The Mormon view of the afterlife differs from most other traditional Christian beliefs, which we were spending some time explaining. To be brief, Mormons believe in a short, preliminary afterlife divided into paradise and prison. Later, each of us will be resurrected and face our final judgment.

“So is there an actual division between paradise and prison, like a wall or something?” Linda asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve never been there.”

Linda laughed and I laughed with her, like the prospect of a field trip through death would be amusing for someone to try, like someday I might be able to afford a timeshare in heaven.

***

I left my class early to field a couple phone calls and send out texts. My parents called me first.

“Hey. How are you doing?” my dad asked. “Been better.”

“How are you feeling?” my mom chimed in. “That’s a loaded question.”

“Let us know what you need. If you want to go to the funeral we can help.” I thanked them and hung up.

I texted my girlfriend. “Hyrum passed away.”

“I’m so sorry. Come by my apartment when you can,” she said. I told her I would.

I texted my friend Casey and let him know. He lived in the same neighborhood as Hyrum and I during high school. The three of us plus Kevin formed what we called our wolf pack.

Casey checked Facebook then sent me a screenshot of Hyrum’s mother’s post. In it was a comment I hadn’t seen yet from a concerned friend. “What happened?” they asked. She’d responded, “He chose to leave.”

“Did he kill himself?” Casey asked.

Hyrum was twenty-five and in good health. Under those circumstances there are only two ways to go: on accident or on purpose. The evidence supported only one. I could feel the conclusion wrapping in, like a tunnel whose ceiling suddenly drops to half its height. I wanted to shake it. I needed some headspace. There had to be another way out. I couldn’t find a way to answer Casey. I couldn’t find the will to lie.

“I don’t know,” I said.

Casey was still living in Portland not far from Hyrum’s parents. I asked him to update me if he heard about funeral news, which he said he would.

“Love you bro,” I texted. “Love you too man.”

***

My friendship with Hyrum has no explanation. Not because it’s complicated, but because it seems like common knowledge. We were best friends all throughout high school. Nobody ever had reason to question it. If one of us was spoken of, the other was almost always included. Nobody ever had to ask how we became best friends. I could more easily explain why ants have six legs; why the earth spins on an axis; why children are afraid of the dark; why my dreams are blurry; or why the sound of the ocean is better in person.

Why were Hyrum and I best friends? That answer predates reason.

***

A mutual friend of Hyrum’s called me next. She’d struggled with depression, anorexia, and bulimia in high school. Hyrum and I had done our best to help her stay afloat during those particularly acidic years.

“What happened?” she asked.

“I don’t know.” I could hear her baby boy playing in the background. “How long had he been struggling?”

“I don’t know.”

“Were he and his girlfriend still together?” “I don’t know.”

“Do you know when the services are?” “I don’t know.”

“It sounds like suicide. Was it suicide?” “I don’t know.”

“Are you doing okay?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know.”

***

I’ve never spent a lot of time thinking about death. I’ve heard before that it’s only the second most feared thing in the world, the first being public speaking. Never one to shy away from public speaking, I’ve remained sure death is really nothing to fear.

The truth is, I’m not sure there are many people qualified to talk about death: there are no experts.

***

Matthew, a mutual friend of Hyrum’s, asked me to lunch in the cafe at the Museum of Art on campus that afternoon. I walked through   the door. My emotions shifted for just a minute. I thought maybe the

presence of art somehow dispelled the intensity of emotion. I usually find art extraordinarily evocative, however, so it seemed unlikely. I couldn’t shake the undeniable shift in feeling, as if I’d shed a layer of anxiety, like the finger of God had anointed the back of my neck with mint, a calming oil sliding down the ridges of my spine. However, I couldn’t nail down what caused this change.

It was because of the door, it came to me. I wondered if that’s what death was like for Hyrum. I imagined it was just like walking through a door for him, from one room to the next; like he stepped through the portal from pain to paradise; I remembered “portal” means a gate  or   a doorway, and maybe that’s what moving to the other side was like; just opening a door; like stepping through a portal; maybe he felt the pain of it all drift away for a minute; he might have stepped into that room and completely forgotten why he’d entered; he could have stood there a minute, wondering what to do next, wondering if he could go back, only to realize the door had been deadbolted shut; maybe, but how could I know.

***

I was recently helping a friend with a student film. My character, an angsty teen who was fighting with his dad, had just had drugs found on him. The director was helping me get into character.

“I want you to think of the most selfish thing you’ve ever done,” the director said.

I’m standing just outside the church building Hyrum and I attended growing up; I’m not facing him; I can’t  face him; You  need to clean  up your act, I say; he shuffles awkwardly; he’d been in the middle of teen struggles and I didn’t know how to handle it; I can feel my ribs collapsing on themselves; I can’t keep hanging out with you; I don’t feel like it’s good for me; there’s a long silence; how long had I been thinking this; how long had others said this to me; Okay, he says; If that’s what you want; it isn’t, but I’d already said it and couldn’t swallow those words again; they flew too fast.

“Do you have a memory you could use?” the director asked. “Yeah.”

***

I met Matthew in the upstairs cafe at the museum. We shared a hug and condolences at Hyrum’s loss.

“How are you holding up?” he asked. “Been better. You?”

“Same.”

“I thought it might have been an April Fool’s joke.” “Me too.”

It wasn’t April Fool’s Day. It was April 2. I thought maybe we were getting the joke late. That year, April Fool’s Day also happened to be Easter Sunday.

We stood in silence for a while. This was the first time since I got  the news that I could really commiserate with someone. Matthew knew Hyrum just as well as I did. Had I brought up the coincidence of April Fool’s Day and Hyrum’s suicide in the same breath with anyone else I would have immediately felt like I was going to hell. I may still go to hell, regardless.

“Do you know what happened?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Matthew said. “My mom forwarded me a text this morning.” He handed me his phone. A few of the mothers of our friends had received texts from Mrs. Beste. Matthew’s mom was one of them, or had somehow had it forwarded to her. “Hyrum hung himself last night in his attic. Please don’t call me. I don’t want to talk to anyone.” I read it three times.

“Are you okay?” Matthew asked. “Yeah. I’m fine.”

***

While imprisoned in Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde witnessed the first hanging to take place there in eighteen years. The man had murdered his wife. Wilde wrote “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” describing his experience witnessing the execution. In it, Wilde’s description of the victim is yoked with the hope that God has welcomed him back into His arms:

And he of the swollen purple throat,
And the stark and staring eyes,
Waits for the holy hands that took
The thief to Paradise;
And a broken and a contrite heart
The Lord will not despise.

***

I’d wanted to kill myself once. Twice, really, but I only thought of the one time after Hyrum’s death. I’d dated a girl for the better part of two and a half years when she met someone else. It all sounds melodramatic now, but it didn’t then. It all seemed too real to be just my emotions getting the better of me. The urges would come in moments I’d least expect. I remember one time in particular driving to the grocery store or to McDonald’s or somewhere insignificant when suddenly I became aware of how fast a car could go and how much metal there was around me. I wondered how quickly I could slip through that door to the other side.

As was often the case, I took to writing as a means of catharsis. I had neither the genius nor the time-tested tools to write epic poetry or ballads, and resorted to sonnets or free form end-rhyme most often. I created an image of Lady Death and wrote to her. These poems allowed me to dance with Death without following her too far to her side. After working through that depression and bidding farewell to my Lady, though, I sometimes wondered how fast I’d locked myself on my side, and how easily I might unlock the door again. After Hyrum’s death, the thought flitted briefly through my mind and the door inched open.

None of those poems will be included in this piece for three reasons: first, none of them are any good, catharsis not merit enough to make those sonnets objectively good poems. Second, they no longer exist. Having served their therapeutic purposes, I promptly made myself rid of them.

The third reason is summed up in one of the sonnets themselves. The title of the poem came from a personal adage. I titled it “There is No Gentle Way to Fire a Gun.” I ruminated on the different ways one can take their own life and came to the conclusion that none of them are particularly enviable: all forms of suicide are messy. None of them are graceful or beautiful in any way.

Although those poems were meant to keep me from suicide, they ended up, when viewed in a particular light, romanticizing death, and  I don’t want anyone to have any reason for any argument that I might find any kind of beauty in suicide. Let me be clear: I don’t.

***

The word elegy comes from the Greek elegos meaning mourning, or a mournful poem. Pastoral elegies are usually longer poems that are split into three main parts: mourning for the loss of the dearly departed, a summation of their achievements and glory, and some source of comfort or hope for those left behind to find joy again.

My favorite elegy follows none of these rules. It was written by W.S. Merwin after the death of his lifelong friend and fellow poet James Wright. It is simply titled Elegy and consists of one line:

Who would I show it to.

***

Matthew and I finished up lunch. The conversation had moved on to topics of Easter and family and what we were planning on doing

the following semester. We’d always stop midway through those conversations.

“How do you think his family is taking it?” he asked me.

“I haven’t talked to them in a while. I can’t imagine they’re doing well, though.”

“I don’t blame them.”

We sat in silence. I scraped the last of my pasta from my bowl. “You know,” I said, “I think today is the first time I’ve ever unironically told Casey that I love him.”

Matthew laughed, and I laughed with him, like tragedy was a fitting excuse to let the people we care about have any evidence to believe we mean it. I laughed even more because I realized I had figured a text was enough.

***

I sat on the couch in Hyrum’s living room. I wouldn’t be able to tell you the year or season, but that never made a difference for us. “You know,” Hyrum said, “we’re going to rule the world one day. You and I, we’re going to rule the world.”

***

I went to my girlfriend’s apartment after meeting up with Matthew. She opened the door and I recognized the shirt she was wearing, an orange and white long sleeve tee that had “Oregon” spelled across the back she’d bought only a few days earlier. “Nice shirt,” I said.

She wrapped me up in an embrace as I stepped in, not even worried about closing the door. We stood there a long time. I thought after a while maybe we’d never end that embrace and just stand there forever; we’d never let go and watch the world move on around us out of the corners of our eyes; her roommates would have to squeeze around us when they left and mumble apologies when they got back; the world would gray and that door would always stay just ajar; years would go by; decades; then centuries; and we’d stay there in that embrace; no one would ask us to leave or care we were there; until, finally, Hyrum would come walking through that door and we’d open our arms up enough to let him in.

We broke the embrace, and I closed the door.