As the words of the famous song goes from the movie M.A.S.H., “suicide is painless, it brings on many changes”. The second part of that is certainly true and the first part may be accurate in some cases for the individual driven to this final act but the collateral damage is extensive and lasting.
I have unfortunately been touched personally by suicide at a couple of points in my life. The first when I was in my mid-twenties, my brother Don was twenty years older than me and in many ways a bit of a hero to me. He had, in his life been a firefighter, a career that has been pursued by others in my family. His career aside he was an inspiration to me in other ways. Don brought light and life to the people around him. He was a lovable sort and I don’t recall him having a bad word to say about anyone.
It would be helpful at this point to make note of my other siblings since they will be integral to the story. Valerie (Val), some sixteen years older than me. Myrna about fourteen years older than me.
Don had one love in his life, Margret (Marg) and she had to run the gauntlet of my sisters that had estimated neither she nor to my knowledge any woman was worthy of their brother and they performed a litany of jokes and pranks on her that she mostly fell for and are for the most part lost from my memory but suffice it to say it was a rough row to hoe for her. In spite of all this Don and she were married and from all of my recollections they were happy, I can attest to the fact that Don was happy and proud of his wife.
Marg was a unique individual in many regards. She was by any standard a stunningly beautiful woman and I think Don always felt a little in awe of her and the fact she had consented to marrying him. It wasn’t unhealthy because that bit of disbelief kept him very appreciative of what he had in her. I it was a two way street in that regard. Don cared for her with love and attention that she appreciated.
Marg had no wifely skills that were expected of a wife in the fifties, she really wasn’t a housekeeper and lord knows she was completely without talent in the kitchen. All that aside they were happy, they never had children, whether by design or for other reasons and that was just fine. Marg had two talents, I guess you could call them. One, she loved to shop. She had more hats and shoes than anyone I’d ever known in my life. Secondly, she had an innate ability with office equipment. Set her in front of any office machine from a typewriter to a copy machine or whatever and she could figure it out in short order. This ability that she was keenly aware of gave her license to lie shamelessly in job interviews. Any device she was asked about, she could operate. She also had all the necessary skills in basic office operation such as shorthand and typing with a proficiency that made her a valuable asset to any office. Add to that the fact she was very good looking, a commodity in that time period where office workers were predominantly female and expected to be “well put together” as they said in that time.
Don loved his firefighter job but they lived in Saint John, Canada. (Not to be confused with Saint Johns Newfoundland.) They tired of the hard winters which were particularly hard for a firefighter operating in extreme cold. My father was in the restaurant business. He had picked up the trade strangely enough in the army during the second world war. He could cook and butcher and was quite good at it. This was a man with no formal education past third grade yet he persevered because he knew his trade and he worked incredibly hard. My mother and he married when they were both in their teens, not uncommon for the times. My mom had a grade school education and was good at reading and writing, my dad on the other hand couldn’t spell his way out of a paper bag and his handwriting was so unintelligible that hardly anyone could read it but me and even for me it was hit and miss. However he could adjust recipes in his head without pen or paper. At a point in the mid-fifties my mother became ill and it was recommended we move to a warmer climate to avoid the harsh winters. It seemed only logical that Florida was a place to be satisfying that requirement and since the winter tourist trade flocked there it wasn’t a bad option for my dad to find work.
I explain all this because when Don and Marg decided it was time to get out of the cold as well they came to Florida in part because we had been going there for a few years and knew the lay of the land. Marg got a job right away in an office and Don wanted very much to be on the fire department. He signed up and went through all the testing with flying colors, the parts of the test requiring ladder climbing and working in high precarious places that gave many recruits trouble he had no trouble with at all. One of the last parts of the testing was in a swimming pool and most of that was no problem for him either however the last requirement, recovering an object from the bottom of the pool was difficult for him. He was quite buoyant and he became discouraged. I remember the day clearly we were in the bleachers observing and he left discouraged but unbeknownst to him the tester kept moving the object into shallower and shallower depths until all the applicants had passed but he had already given up. I dwell on this because, at least in my mind, this was a pivotal point for him. It had to do with his self confidence, in my observation, from that day forward.
Don, due to his gregarious nature and easy disposition was able to find work of all sorts but I don’t believe I can say any of them were the passion that firefighting was. However, he worked at whatever was necessary to make the mortgage and between the two of them they were comfortable.
Eventually though it seemed Marg’s wanderlust kicked in and they were on the move again. We had relatives living in Boston so that is where they went. Marg gained employment again in an office and Don went to work as a salesman for a brass fitting company and by all indications was successful and well liked. They had a flat near Fenway Park as I remember because their street became impossible for parking when the baseball games were at home.
We use to talk in our family about the two Don’s. My “aunt” Lorna, not really sure of the relationship, my sister Val and her were quite close and seemed more like sisters than aunt and niece, however, Lorna had a son also named Don. There was Don Boys, her son and Don Ryan, my brother. Lorna loved my brother and treated him as much as a son to her she did her own son. I share this so the next part will make more sense.
Eventually, Lorna moved to Boston and bought a home. She was pretty well situated as her husband had passed away years before but he had been an engineer and designed boilers for atomic submarines, quite the specialty at that time. They had lived in Akron OH. and their stock broker lived a couple of doors down from them. They had bought Xerox before they made copiers and Polaroid before they made film/camera. That along with a diverse portfolio of blue chip stocks left her in a good place financially for the rest of her life.
The home she bought was a duplex unit and my brother and his wife moved into the next door unit. This is to explain not only the living arrangement but to give a sense of the closeness shared between my brother and Lorna.
In the late sixties or early seventies Marg took ill. It was cancer and I don’t know what type. The treatment options and recovery rate were not encouraging back then and inevitably Marg passed away. She was Don’s whole world. People throw that phrase around somewhat frivolously but I can’t overemphasize the weight of that statement in this case.
The next few years were difficult and I don’t have the details because I was in the military and married myself so I wasn’t as close in contact as perhaps I should have been but I believe Don was clinically depressed and was going through difficult times. He had apparently changed jobs a couple of times and at the time was working as a campus policeman at Cambridge University. Lorna did her best to keep him company and try to encourage him to get out and socialize to no avail. He was locked in his own world it seems. Unable to escape his grief and loneliness. I am speculating here because I really don’t know but I have to assume that was the case because the end result was him taking his own life at work with his service revolver.
At the time I was stationed overseas in Germany when I got the word. Fortunately, I was working at an Autovon site, meaning I had access to telephone lines through the military network and was able to talk to my father. I asked him if he wanted me to come home for the funeral but he said it wasn’t necessary and there was nothing I could do at this point. I offered to just come anyway and support him but he was going to Boston from his retirement home in Florida and Lorna would be there to support him.
Here is what I remember most vividly about that conversation, dad said, “What did I do wrong?” it was like a knife through my heart but it also made me immediately angry, angry with my brother for his selfishness in causing the people who loved him so much grief and sadness. I held my anger at bay and said to my father in the most steady voice I could muster, “Dad, he was a forty-seven year old man, he made this decision through no fault or failing on your part, don’t take this upon yourself, please.” I don’t know if that held any weight at that moment or not. I do know when I returned to the states in 1978 I found a much older man occupying my fathers body. This only served to foment my anger and to reinforce my opinion of the cowardice my brother had show in taking his own life. Sure his pain, whatever it was, was over but the pain he left in his wake had devastated both my father and aunt Lorna.
I carried this anger and resentment with me for many years. It took me a long time to soften my feelings on this matter and a relationship with a wonderful loving woman that was able to temper my feelings with the understanding that the demons that drove him to that act were far beyond anything I could comprehend. I still don’t understand fully, perhaps I never will.
But the story continues.