Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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It was late on a Friday night during my senior year of college when my father called. I was high. Everyone in my Chicago apartment was high. My neighbors were probably high. Dad’s call was doubly unusual: the only thing he did less often than stay awake past ten was use the phone.
He was calling to tell me my great-uncle Ed had died. Ed was elderly, we hadn’t seen him in years, and deaths in my father’s large, old-world family were common and often occasioned no more than a glance at the family tree to predict which arm would be most heavily represented at the services. I’d attended so many funerals over the years that I knew the Nowak Funeral Home kept extra coffee behind a door in the kitchen that said KEEP OUT. Dad repeated a few too many times that Ed had died in his sleep, then told me to be ready to leave at eight the next morning. He and my mother would pick me up.
I hung up the phone and told my roommate, Joe, that my great-uncle had died.
“No, it’s fine. People in my dad’s family die all the time.”
Joe sort of winced at this, and I went to the kitchen for a beer and a moment of self-reflection about mortality.
Come morning I had a searing headache. Dressed in a yellowed white dress shirt and black jeans, I lay on the couch in the front room so I could hear the door buzzer. I knew my parents would arrive early. My mother believed the city was a nightmare hellhole that would take you down if you didn’t sneak up on it unexpected and curse it the whole way.
At 7:39 the buzzer sounded. The remote control for the street entry didn’t work, so I high-speed-stumbled down three flights of stairs to open it. There stood my father, smoking, and there stood my mother, swatting away the smoke as if it were a surprise to her that her husband of twenty years had a thing for cigarettes. She’d been trying for a while to get me to get him to stop. The taglines of her campaign: (1) “He’s going to die.” (2) “I’m going to die because of him.” And, to up the ante further, (3) “You are going to die because of him.” I would remind her that I no longer lived with them, and that the risk of secondhand smoke from fifty miles away was low.
“Can you give me and John a sec?” Dad said to Mom. He rarely, if ever, asked her to do anything. Their relationship was a chaotic battlefield, like a chessboard with nothing but knights. When she did as he asked, I knew something was wrong.
“Ed didn’t die in his sleep,” Dad said. It turned out Ed’s brother Jacek had told Ed he wasn’t ever going to leave the nursing home, because Jacek couldn’t take care of him. An odd man who had been in a mental hospital for long stretches, Jacek could barely care for himself. “Jacek left, and Ed wrote out a will.” Dad lit another cigarette with the one he’d finished. I knew what was coming, but it seemed too terrible to be true. Not knowing what to say, I motioned for a cigarette, and he gave me one.
“He hanged himself with the phone cord,” Dad said. And then, “He left you a grand.”
From his coat pocket Dad produced an envelope with my first name written on it in Ed’s unmistakable handwriting. Ed had Parkinson’s and would use a ruler to write, to ensure a straight, consistent baseline for the tremored characters. Inside the envelope were ten hundred-dollar bills.
We spent the day at the funeral home, greeting family and friends: handshakes and hugs, no tears or breakdowns. None of them knew the real story. Dad had told me to keep it quiet.
I was passing time in the coffee room when my grandfather, another brother of the deceased, appeared. Grandpa didn’t say a lot, but he was always smiling. He’d eaten lard sandwiches during the Depression and shot rabbits for food on the way home from school and reached a full-grown height of five foot three due to a poor diet. Now he was a retired television repairman living in a small house on a lake, listening to Rush Limbaugh during the day and watching Benny Hill and Lawrence Welk at night, my grandmother beside him in a matching recliner.
I didn’t know whether Grandpa knew that I knew. “My dad told me,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
Grandpa got misty, then nodded and said, “He’d had enough.”
To this day I believe this is the most empathetic way to understand suicide.
Near the end of the calling hours, I was still drinking coffee, trying to shake my hangover, and wondering how I was going to get home. My folks said I could stay at their place, but this would have required sleeping on their couch while their two cats mauled me, then wearing the same sweaty clothes again the next day at the funeral.
Frank Nowak, the funeral-home director, approached. “We’re in need of one more pallbearer for tomorrow,” he said. I looked around the room for someone to recommend.
“Can we count on you?” he asked.
I took the train home, and in the morning I made the reverse trip, hoping it would feel shorter than the night before, but of course it seemed longer. I’d stayed up late again, invoking some sort of philosophy about living life while you can, to justify what I was probably going to do anyway.
When I’d told Joe how I was obsessing over the pallbearer duties, he’d said, “Dude, I bet you get to keep the white gloves.”
I took stock of myself on the train ride, coming to the conclusion that I was in no way fit to carry the dead — particularly a dead person who’d survived the Great Depression, fought in World War II, and battled Parkinson’s. My life’s accomplishments at the time consisted of an unfinished symphony for electric guitar, a failed interview for a job at a bagel shop (I’d blown it so badly they’d asked me never to reapply), and a role playing a domestic abuser in a student film.
A small group had assembled by the church doors. The hearse pulled up, and Frank Nowak motioned for us pallbearers to approach. My father and I walked down the steps together. We were given white gloves and reminded that the coffin was very heavy. Frank opened the door to the hearse and instructed us to keep our hands on the rail as the coffin came out. This felt reckless to me: the idea that the coffin would be guided by our hands, that we would gradually support its weight. I turned to my dad to confirm I was understanding correctly.
Dad looked at me, puzzled, then grabbed on to the rail and moved with the casket, inadvertently edging me out of position. As soon as Dad realized his error, he eased his grip and tried to move back, but this left our side unsupported, and the weight quickly shifted. The coffin hit the ground.
I did not get to keep the gloves.
That night, after the dirty looks and the funeral luncheon and the train ride home, I lay in bed, deeply buzzed, making a deal with a God I believed in on an as-needed basis, promising to atone for being a coffin-dropping idiot. I floated the idea that I’d use the money Ed had left me for some charitable purpose, and I felt as if God approved.
The following morning I drank a pot of black coffee and then used the money to buy a Gibson Les Paul from a man called Southside Terry who had no relationship to charity whatsoever. Back at my apartment I noticed the guitar’s serial number had been filed off, a sure sign it had been stolen. Nevertheless I promised to use the instrument, its unproud history aside, to honor Uncle Ed. I would approach it with dignity and respect, in contrast to my previous musical endeavors, which had lacked discipline and focus.
For weeks anyone passing my apartment window was subjected to a drug-induced, high-volume assault of atonal nonsense. A year later the guitar would end up in pieces inside an oversized gym bag after I’d taken it apart, stripped off the finish, and found myself unable to put it back together. I thought of Ed whenever I looked at the bag.
My great-uncle Paul was the first person I ever saw drink an entire case of beer by himself. He sat in a green lawn chair in the sun, next to the small lake my grandparents lived on, a place that served as the epicenter of family get-togethers for decades, and he consumed twenty-four Old Styles, one after another, as the sun crossed the sky. He wore a swimsuit, and now and then he got up and walked into the water up to his waist.
Paul’s small home on Chicago’s South Side was close enough to Midway Airport to qualify for city-subsidized noise-canceling windows. In the basement was a bar over which he presided during gatherings. Christmas lights hung year-round. Paul poured shots and whispered to the other uncles: men’s talk.
At Christmas he wore a Santa hat that always appeared about to fall off. Behind his thin, gold-framed glasses he had a wandering eye. As a kid I found it terrifying how his right eye would be looking directly at you while his left looked sharply to your right, as if from that direction some threat were approaching.
When I was fourteen, I wedged my way onto a seat at his bar next to my dad. Great-Uncle Paul poured himself and my dad holiday-sized shots of Southern Comfort. Paul threw his back as if duty-bound, then coughed. He lit a new Pall Mall and coughed again.
“Uncle Paul,” I said, emboldened by my proximity to the men and their poisons, “if you keep drinking and smoking like that, you’re going to die.”
Paul’s right eye looked at me while his left burned a hole in the wall. “When?” he asked.
The answer would turn out to be 1995, when Paul was sixty-eight.
I was twenty-three and had a job with benefits at this point, though the salary was so low it challenged the very meaning of what one might think of as white-collar work. In my father’s blue-collar family he, my mom, and I had always been the upwardly mobile arm, because we didn’t live in the city, instead occupying a string of modest, newly constructed split-levels in the suburbs. These days I lived on the North Side and laughed at a cousin who asked whether I would be moving back south, now that I was done with “fancy-ass college.”
Frank Nowak appeared to remember me despite the passing of a year or so. Or maybe he acted like he knew everyone as a way of conning them into carrying coffins. Surely, I thought, he recalled what had happened and would not ask me to get back on that horse.
“We’re short a couple of—” he began.
“OK,” I said. “I’ll do it.” My great-uncles had all served in the military. If this was the duty my youthful body would be called upon to perform, I’d be sure not to fuck it up this time.
Paul was a thin guy and at the time of his death probably didn’t weigh 140. His coffin was also a more economical model. Lighter. He had four daughters, all of whom needed money from time to time. Paul had been a butcher, then a security guard. He’d been out of work for a long time before he died.
Paul was arranged in his casket with two Old Style tall boys, a pack of Pall Malls, a Sox hat, and a Powerball ticket. The last choice seemed strange to me, until I thought of the pharaohs, trying to take their gold with them into the afterlife. Potential gold was all Paul could afford.
We got the coffin out of the hearse fine. My father and I were at the back, and I could feel all eyes on us, as if we were a pitcher and catcher who’d blown last year’s World Series and now, somehow, to everyone’s disappointment, were back on the field.
I was determined to nail it. For Uncle Pauly.
At the top of the steps we had to work the coffin through a set of three doorways. The coffin went through the middle door, and the pallbearers went through the doors on either side. My father’s uncle Rob was first to reach the doors, take one hand off the coffin rail, pass the hand through the door frame, and then grasp the rail again on the other side. But the coffin was moving a little fast. Perhaps Dad and I at the rear were rushing a bit, due to my nervousness. Who’s to say, really? Impossible to know. Anyway, the result was that Rob’s hand got pinched between the door frame and the coffin. He let out a yelp of pain that turned every head in the church. At least the coffin didn’t hit the floor.
At the funeral lunch I was on vodka and tonic number who-knows-how-many when my great-aunt Eve tapped me on the shoulder. Eve’s ill-fitting dentures caused her lower jaw to jut forward unnaturally, and she wore a Jackie-O pillbox hat atop a shoddy wig.
Steadying herself, Eve moved her lips against one another while appearing to ponder just what she wanted to say to me. Finally she pointed a bony finger at my face, so I would know exactly who she was talking about, and said, “They should not let you carry the caskets.”
I wanted to tell her I agreed and that she should complain to Frank Nowak and set him straight, but instead I looked over her shoulder at my uncle Francis, who was talking fishing with his son. They were from the sunny-dispositioned, Blue Island arm of the family. I wanted to talk fishing, so I asked Eve to excuse me, telling her I didn’t feel well. She looked at me suspiciously. Being sure no one else was watching, I stared back with all the shame and hate I had in my heart. Her expression went slack, and I left to go hear whether the fat bass were biting up at the lake.
Two years later Uncle Paul’s daughter Bonnie died. She was forty-one.
In my memory there are two Bonnies: One was deeply kind and caring, interested in everything, and would look you right in the eye and smile slowly, as if she were discovering smiling for the first time because of you. The other once gave a fake winning lottery ticket to the most down-on-her-luck person she knew, then waited until after the woman had listed all of the things she would do with the money before dropping the hammer about its being fake.
“I know it’s cruel,” she said. “That’s why I did it.”
Bonnie had a story no one outside of her immediate family knew: There was a man. He was close to her family, and what he’d done to her had somehow been allowed to dissipate with the passage of time, as if it were outweighed by all the days in which he hadn’t done it. Strange the way these things get laundered. Anyway, Bonnie’s mother knew. Her sisters knew. I believe the only person who didn’t know was her father, Uncle Paul. As an adult Bonnie had a long don’t-ask-don’t-tell relationship with an edgy female police officer who told horrific stories about prison at every opportunity. But, through it all, Bonnie was mostly a bright light in a family with no small share of trouble.
Her three sisters all married abusive men named Larry. It was sort of a joke, as if these men had been dispatched from some dark back room where God keeps spare assholes to whom he doesn’t bother giving unique names.
Bonnie’s health declined in her thirties. She gained weight and was diagnosed with diabetes. She drank too much. She held down a job at a small printing company, where she was promoted to supervisor over her peers, who retaliated by making her work life hell. Bonnie focused her anger on her youngest sister’s husband, Larry, who had recently taken their two dogs to the forest preserve and shot them.
“If he lays a finger on my sister, he’s dead,” Bonnie said.
There was great concern about Bonnie.
When I was just out of college, I found myself at a low point, with little social life and bouts of depression. I wouldn’t leave the basement couch for days. Sometimes I’d call Bonnie on a Friday night, and we’d drink vodka and talk for hours, our conversations always following the same arc: giddiness, then drunken despair, then promises to be there for one another.
Bonnie provided a much-needed listening ear when I wanted to talk about my problems with mental health. I’d been hospitalized briefly after being prescribed so many medications I could not function. I’d been diagnosed with bipolar II, narcissistic personality disorder, and “psychotic not otherwise specified.” New psych meds were getting FDA approval every day in the 1990s, and the amount of things a person (like me) could have wrong mentally seemed to grow right along with them.
“Were you hearing voices?” Bonnie asked.
In my dad’s family this was the sole diagnostic inquiry of any importance. My father, who himself had been hospitalized for months at a time, would also ask me this. If I replied no, that meant all was well.
“No,” I said. “Not really.”
“Oh, good,” Bonnie said. “It’s depression, then.”
Later, during the last call I’d have with her, she made me promise to reach out if I was ever going to kill myself. I hadn’t brought the subject up. At the time I didn’t assign any significance to her request. We were two depressed, drunk people crawling out of a pit like rock climbers, making sure each other’s ropes were tied tight.
One Sunday morning Bonnie fell out of bed onto the wooden floor and died. The cause of death was never investigated.
I raised the possibility of an autopsy with my mother and my father, who both told me to stand down. There would be no autopsy, no looking into it. It was a tragedy, that’s all — one that would not be made better by uncovering more details.
At Bonnie’s funeral I was called upon, yet again, to carry. I wanted to this time, but I took Frank Nowak aside and said, “I’m not sure I have the best track record.”
Frank placed his hand on my shoulder and gave me a look of care and concern. “You’ll be fine.”
I realized he probably had no idea who I was or what I was talking about.
Bonnie’s coffin was heavy, and we were instructed to move slowly. My father, now struggling with back pain, had given his spot to a younger member of the family, of which there were few. The newly appointed bearer was a distant cousin of mine who has my exact name — a younger, taller, more handsome John Frank.
We carried Bonnie from the hearse and through the tricky doorway without a hitch, then placed her upon a sturdy, rolling gurney for the trip to the front of the church. All was well.
Now, I’d always assumed that casket lids were shut with some hermetic-sealing process unique to the industry. It turns out they just close them. The other pallbearers and I were standing beside Bonnie’s, hands folded. For the record, no one was touching the casket or the platform it rested on when the lid flew open, as if spring-loaded, and we all saw Bonnie one last time. Then Frank Nowak stepped forward and closed it. Luckily most everyone had gone into the sanctuary by then, but a few gasps could be heard from the small group at the top of the front steps. Bonnie’s face was closer to me than when I’d knelt in front of her at the wake.
I acted as if nothing had happened.
Drinks flowed at the funeral lunch. I drank vodka and tonics, one after another, elbowing my way to the bar through a crowd of elder relatives. Thankfully no one seemed to be of a mind to accuse me of anything regarding the open-lid incident. Amid the din of conversation and the rapidly increasing fog of the vodka, I did what the young and self-possessed do: I imagined my own funeral. My wish at the time was to have my naked corpse dropped on the White House lawn from a helicopter.
I looked around the room at everyone. “Survivors,” my grandmother called them. People who’d never been afforded as much time and space for self-adulation as I had. People who’d never thought themselves important enough to imagine having their bodies dumped from an aircraft in a half-assed political protest.
My great-aunt Maria, Bonnie’s mother, tapped me on the shoulder. She smelled of whiskey and perfume, and her eyes were wet.
“Thank you,” she said.
I stiffened involuntarily. I wanted to tell her about my late-night conversations with Bonnie. I wanted her to know that I had tried to help; that we, this younger generation of the family, were still intertwined. But I just nodded and swallowed hard.
She reached her arms out, and I hunched over to embrace her. Her voice was a whisper on my shoulder: “Thank you for carrying my baby.”
I have lost several people in my life to suicide. Over the years I have often thought of them and the joy they brought to my life. Without much success, I’ve tried to comprehend the decision they made. John Frank’s essay “Bearing Pall” [March 2022] cut through my confusion. He writes, “Grandpa got misty, then nodded and said, ‘He’d had enough.’ ” It’s a simple and healing understanding of a loved one’s death by suicide.