On a much-needed outing to a National Park, as we sat on boulders by a seasonal stream sunning ourselves like lizards after a week of rain, the subject of suicide arose. Having experienced the suicide of my previous husband, Donald Dean Powell, I woke out of a happy doze and sat up to participate in our friend’s intimate sharing of his inner life. The suicide of a close friend who had just walked off the pier in Northern California had him thinking about self-destruction again as a way out from the terrible isolation he feels in his inability to maintain a relationship with a woman, and in the context of his children’s neglect.
Suicide, the extreme step a human can take, is an infectious thing. There is even a name for it: suicide contagion. Studies have revealed that in the wake of celebrity suicides, suicides spike. A study released in February 2019 by researchers at Columbia University, of instance, said there were 18,690 suicides in the four months after the death of Robin Williams in August 2014, suggesting an excess of 1,841 cases — nearly a 10% increase, based on previous monthly suicide data from 1999 to 2015.
My father once told me that when he found a friend in the army with a knife in his own belly during the Partition of India, he had thought, almost unconsciously, of taking the knife and plunging it into himself. This was also my thought when I found Donald’s body in our secret spot in the oak and cottonwood forest by a seasonal stream where he had taken his own life.
When Donald had driven out of our home with a bag slung over his shoulder, the bag I now know had the gun that I didn’t even know he owned, I knew in my gut something serious was about to happen though my reasoning tried to shrug it off. There are many circumstances surrounding the event that I am omitting for the moment. The phrase ‘the devil’s in the details,’ has a new meaning for me. As a writer I know details take too much energy. As a suicide survivor I know that even after almost 26 years they are too painful to recall. Perhaps in the process of writing these reflections on suicide I will be able to express and exorcise some of them. Perhaps. And then, perhaps never till judgement day.
Shortly after Donald left the house in a fit of rage, after a fatal lapse of time — I do not recall how long, but long enough for him to have reached our spot and done the deed — I jumped into my car and knew the first place to look for him. Our spot was a place we picnicked, spoke our hearts, and sometimes sang. And there he was, or what remained of him after he had sat on a low-lying limb of an oak tree and shot himself through the mouth. There was no doubt at first sight that he was dead. My first, instinctive thought was to take the pistol where it lay in the pool of his blood and use it on myself.
But I didn’t. Nor did I reach for it or even touch it. Mercifully.
Perhaps I screamed. I know I bush whacked out of the spot — we didn’t have cell phones back then — saw a man on the trail, and said, ‘please help me. My husband has committed suicide.’ And immediately after that — or was it the first question I asked — is all of this real? I think the man was confused at my question. He wasn’t experiencing the dream-like, nightmarish quality of my experience. He went off to make a call and I returned to Donald’s body in a daze that blurred the distinction between dream and reality.
I don’t know whether it was the first thing I did on finding his body or when I returned from my encounter with the stranger on the trail: I lifted his left hand — or did I? — to see if he was still wearing his wedding ring. He was. I was deeply relieved. We were married still. Our fight had not severed the thread, one end of which he had taken into eternity. Yes, we had fought before he left the house with the gun. And I had initiated the fight. This is one of the devilish details.
How long did I sit by his body, my first ever experience of death at the age of 45, of a corpse from which life has flown? Was it ten minutes or an hour? Time died in the presence of death. To date I have no idea how long I sat by his body.
I used the word mercifully earlier for several reasons, the first of which is I am glad to have returned to tell; glad to be alive twenty-six years later. And more. I value what I have become from that moment on. I can divide my life and my personality into a gradually evolving and distinct before and after. This was the event that made me embark on a much-needed path of self-questioning and reflection. I follow Socrates’ injunction to examine my life to whichever extent I can. The difference now is an increasingly conscious and compassionate relating to people and myself. Not always. The die-hard, hold-fast ego that makes itself the center of all life, persists. Even now when Earth in her gyrations confronts me with the cruelty of life and I find myself ruing it, I have to admit that I myself have, in a way, killed a man I loved. This humbling is one of the desirable spin-offs of this tragedy.
The other more pragmatic reason for giving gratitude is that if I had touched the pistol I would probably have served a term in prison. My first words to the emergency crew that arrived were I have killed him. I heard one man in a bright orange vest say something to another, some code number for murder, I would imagine, and felt the cold clamp of handcuffs on my wrists. I was taken away and locked up at the back of a police car. An armed policeman stood by the window. I was very thirsty, extremely so, and begged the guard to give me some water. He ignored me till I managed to catch his eye and stared into it for the longest time. It wasn’t just a ploy to satisfy my thirst. I needed desperately to connect with another human being. I don’t think I have ever looked so nakedly, with so much raw emotion and revelation into another’s eye, ever again. And yes, he gave me water. I thanked him over and over for his kindness. It meant everything to me at my time of crises.
They kept me hand-cuffed and locked up, first in the police car, and then at the police station for hours, fingerprinting me, checking for gunpowder residue on my fingers. I couldn’t even pee without the presence of a female guard who pulled down my pants. I was so distraught they may have feared I would kill myself. They kept me till I made a factual instead of emotional statement about everything that had preceded his death. They let me go, and even, kindly dropped me off at a friend’s house.
Though I had not pulled the trigger there was no question in my mind then, and sometimes even now, that I had in fact killed Donald by the fight we had before he left the house with the gun.
He had been drinking when I arrived home from teaching — it was his day off; he was an adjunct at many community colleges including the one in which I was tenured. He had worked hard all summer and applied for a full-time teaching position at my college but didn’t get it. He had been depressed and nothing I could do by way of asking what is wrong either cheered him up or made him answer my queries. All he said was “I’m just tired,” or, “old and in the way,” the latter, he told me, was a phrase from a lyric by The Grateful Dead. I assured him over and over that it was just a question of time before he landed the job. He was an excellent teacher, far better than me. He gave so much of himself to his students who adored him in a way mine never did.
I had been singing aloud driving on my way back home from college. I was going to open the door, and instead of our usual “I am home,” sing “Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it, let’s do it, let’s fall in love.” It was the sort of thing he did often, walk into the house singing.
But when I opened the door and saw he had been drinking, I forgot all about singing. His drinking always pissed me off. Perhaps because I was brought up in a household where excessive drinking was looked down upon. Donald’s background was similar to mine but his experiences of life were different. He had been abused in childhood. He did not go into details. Nor did he speak about his experiences in Vietnam where he had been a medic.
I met Donald in graduate school, and our rocky, passionate relationship spanned three decades off and on, from 1972 to 74, and then from 1988 to 1993, the year he killed himself. Somewhere along the way my subconscious instincts picked up on Donald’s destiny of suicide. Not wanting any part of it, I ran away from it, had other relationships and marriages, but Sophocles was right when he made Oedipus run away from his destiny only to run smack into it. When other divorces and abandonments left me without an emotional anchor in life, the time was right for Donald’s return. Our reunion was both conflicted and joyous, dark and terribly high. I fell into Donald’s cyclothymic rhythms of bright shining highs and dismal lows. He had been diagnosed with the disease, I found from his papers after his death. And throughout our 4-and-a-half-year reunion, though I hoped things would change, Donald kept binge drinking. He was loving and sweet when he was drunk, but it still pissed me off.
Cycling back to where I left off — entering the house and finding him drunk. I said and thought things I remember very well but can’t as yet confess. Suffice it to say that I know mine was the fatal blow that finally made Donald, after half a life of suicide ideation and several attempts, pull the trigger.
I discovered later from his many journals that Donald had attempted suicide several times before. After one time with an overdose of pills, he had written: next time, a gun. No mistakes. This discovery went a long way in assuaging my guilt, though I still feel my responsibility in being made an instrument of his destiny, a destiny intimately intertwined with my own. He had to die. And I had to learn my lessons.
A neighbors’ adult son, spastic, almost speechless, severely life- challenged, would stand on my sidewalk frequently during those days after Donald’s death, and shout in a deep, hoarse, guttural voice, like an animal’s, Whaa ay? Whaaa ay? It sounded very much like the voice of my own wounded soul querying the universe.
Suicide is a baffle to those of us left behind. We try to patch up an answer with fragments of causes none of which quite amount to the whole. And none of which ultimately satisfies. Though I try, I must admit I cannot wrap my head around the complexity and mystery of suicide. And yet I am compelled to musings, questions, attempts to parse the topic that yields no simple answers, if any at all. It is complex beyond my comprehension.
I consider myself a survivor.
~Kamla K. Kapur