My youngest first cousin — let’s call him Bert — committed suicide recently. I was shocked, but shouldn’t have been.
Bert was the product of a contentious marriage between my Aunt Venom and a clothing store owner who, she learned on their wedding night, was gay but willing (for a while) to try straight sex. Bert emerged a twitchy, impulsive kid, quick but graceless in movement and manner. He didn’t like to be touched. He refused to eat with others, hiding in his room during meals. He seldom spoke, even when spoken to, and when he did it was in rapid bursts. Had he been born now, I suspect he’d be diagnosed on the mild to moderate side of the autism spectrum. The difficulties he presented made a bad marriage worse, and eventually Aunt Venom became the first in my family to divorce.
The adult Bert was bright but utterly incapable of building relationships. He developed a temper, punching a hole in Aunt Venom’s wall over a disappointing ophthalmological visit and smashing a mirror when rejected for a high school teaching job. He became persistently depressed, and after moving far from the rest of the family in the early 1990s, informed Aunt Venom he was sorry he didn’t end his life when he first wanted to at age 17. That was one of several hints at suicide that prompted Aunt Venom to call Bert’s local police force and beg the cops to check on him.
But that was thirty years ago, shortly before Aunt Venom died. Once she was gone, Bert stopped mentioning suicide. He found work as a beer vendor at entertainment venues and made a decent living. He worked out constantly and reduced his body fat to some ridiculously low number. And he set up his life to keep other people at a distance. I last saw him in 1985. The last any cousin saw him was 1992. Over his final few years I was the only cousin in touch with him — via email roughly once a month. He never gave me his phone number or address.
Last summer his emails darkened. He was having physical problems. None were life-threatening, but they wore at his well-being. And the pandemic wore at his job, first because the entertainment venues he worked at closed for more than a year, then because work resumed under conditions that cut his earnings by two-thirds. Plagued by insomnia and deeply depressed, he wrote, “I keep hoping that when I do fall asleep, I’ll never wake up. When I wake up, I’m pissed and wish to hell there was a place I could go to get euthanized.”
I flashed back to those phone calls and letters with Aunt Venom before she died. The police did check up on Bert — and found him fine. Bert tartly warned Aunt Venom that if she did that again, he’d ask the NYPD to do a wellness check on her. He also rejected her entreaties to seek therapy, pronouncing the entire psychotherapeutic profession a hoax. So even though Bert’s email suggested he would welcome death, I didn’t infer that he planned to bring it on himself. I figured he was being a drama king, as he’d been with Aunt Venom, and the depression would diminish as it always had before.
Hence the shock.
It’s hard to know what to make of Bert’s death. Was it foreordained by his genetics and childhood? Was it the result of a foolish bet that the coping strategies he devised after Aunt Venom’s death would last a lifetime? Was it another instance of a middle-aged white man succumbing to despair? All the above? More important, could anything have prevented it, perhaps something I could have done?
I’m not sure any of that matters now. I’m left feeling terribly sad that, however much it was self-imposed, he died so isolated and unhappy. But I am glad of one thing. For all his pain, loneliness, and anger, Bert took only himself. He found other humans repellent, but he didn’t buy a gun, go to a supermarket or school, and slaughter innocents, as happens too often these days. He forbore others to the end. I wish he’d shown the same forbearance toward himself.