elegy for my brother

My brother Roger, died a few years ago. Though he is gone, his death and his life continues to reverberate in me and the lives of those he touched.

I originally wrote these words for his funeral service in Perth, where his body finally came rest alongside that of our father, and then later for a remembrance event at his work place, Scribe Publishing, with his Melbourne friends and colleagues. From time to time I revisit them, and on occasions make a few small changes, for it is not the matter of his life and death, but the manner of my remembering that matter now…

On Monday January 28th, 2013, my brother, Roger Horton took his own life. He didn’t commit suicide. There was no crime, only a victim. He died alone in body and in mind, overwhelmed by the anxieties and despair that had long taken residence in his being.

This is the Roger that most did not know. Of the few that did, even fewer understood. Of course, we celebrate the other side of Roger. Roger, the affable, erudite, urbane, thoughtful and kind son, brother, uncle, friend, and colleague.

But honoring his life is incomplete without recognising his suffering. Without doing so, his decision to take his own life can have little meaning.

Roger’s suicide was just an event that brought his life and his pain to an end. He knew what he was doing. When reached for the ziplock bag, with its long prepared contents, and washed it down with a beer, he knew there would be no coming back.

I can only imagine how many times he might have reached for that ziplock bag, only to put it back…

Secret to much of world was a terrible inner struggle. That he endured it for most of his life makes all the more remarkable the life he presented to us all. Roger carried himself with a dogged and cheerful nobility even in the presence of great mental pain.

The great tragedy is that despite his efforts over the years to seek solace through friends, doctors, books, medications and alcohol, he was not able to come to terms with the root of his condition. It was not for want of trying, and the books that line his bookshelves bear a sad testament to this.

Worse still, he felt crippled by his inability to reach out and seek the comfort of those closest to him. It was if he were trying to piece together an enormous jigsaw that only he could fathom, but of which others might only glimpse but a piece.

In the days that have passed since Roger’s death, so many touching stories have arisen. They tell of a loyal and thoughtful friend, a patient listener, a deep thinker and of his dry and, at times, dark humour. It is as if death revealed him in a way he so longed for in life.

Of the boy down the street, they tell of fun times, books, driveway cricket, skateboards, gazing at stars and great conversation.

Of the army, they tell of committed soldier, of meticulous attention to detail and pride in his work, of unwavering loyalty to and great camaraderie with his mates. Of always having a book to read, and great conversation. His army experience deeply etched Roger for better and for worse.

The unconditional and spontaneous support extended, by his former brothers in arms from 2/4 RAR has been surprising, overwhelming and heartfelt. They are hurt, and angry, not just for Roger, but for so many of their comrades that have taken their own lives over the years and continue to live in unrecognised pain.

Of his work family at Scribe, they tell of a wonderful colleague, always reliable, always smiling, passionate about the business (and reading) of books. And of course, always interesting conversation. I believe it was his passion for his work and his work family that in so many ways kept his inner demons at bay for so long.

Of local friends and family, they tell of an understanding and compassionate human being. Never one to arrive empty handed, Roger would invariably arrive with a bottle of wine, cheese and some choice books.

I expect the bookshelves of most friends and family contain Roger’s books. For him books were a currency of love. The books he gave he knew (not just read, knew), and there was always some thought behind the giving… even if we weren’t quite sure at the time.

Sadly, we now can only look longingly upon them.

To conclude it would only seem appropriate to honour Roger with a couple of short passages.

Firstly, some words from Roger, untitled, undated from a few years ago. This speaks to his inner struggles and what he might want to say to us now if he could…

“I’m sorry but somewhere I lost the road, and in my struggle to find it again, I just got further and further away.
There should be little sadness, and no searching for who is at fault. No one is at fault, but me.
I wanted to be too many things and it was a hopeless task. I never managed to learn to really love another person — only to make the sounds of it. I never could believe what society taught me to believe, and yet I could never manage to quite find the truth.
Perhaps that is the problem — by continually searching for, and following the trail of truth too far I have lost the directing compass of my mind. Having arrived at the desert of the interior the compass only points at barrenness and the needle respects all points of the horizon with complete indifference.”

Roger’s note ends with a paraphrased quote from Herman Meville’s “Pierre” that references the futility of the search for truth…

“Stuck in the desert and in great distress I see a pyramid and try to mine it. Horrible gropings begin and I come to the central room. In this room lays a sarcophagus; I lift the lid — and no body is there! It is appallingly vacant and as vast as my empty soul.”

Finally, some words from Seneca, the great Roman philosopher. A copy of Seneca’s rather weighty book, “Letters from a Stoic” lay in arms reach of his bed. I have little doubt Roger reached for it often.

Roger was indeed a stoic, and this passage speaks of death as I am sure he would have viewed it and would want us accept for him.

In The Presence Of Death

In the presence of death, we must continue to sing the song of life.
We must be able to accept death and go from it’s presence better able to bear our burdens and to lighten the load of others.
Out of our sorrows should come understanding.
Through our sorrows, we join with all of those before who have had to suffer and all of those who will yet have to do so.
Let us not be gripped by the fear of death. If another day be added to our lives, let us joyfully receive it, but let us not anxiously depend on our tomorrows.
Though we grieve the deaths of our loved ones, we accept them and hold on to our memories as precious gifts. Let us make the best of our loved ones while they are with us, and let us not bury our love with death.
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