In a quiet cemetery on the outskirts of the town where I grew up, there's a cluster of headstones in a section near some trees. I think it's called the "Sundial Section," and I remember my grandmother talking about the plots with some pride--evidently they are prime real estate. I have visited those stones more times than I can count over the past four decades, but I can only find them after wandering around thinking I might be lost for a little while first. I feel like I should know where they are, and my impatience with myself rises until one or another landmark eventually catches my eye and gives me my bearings. Then I pick my way over other people's loved ones until I come to the dry patch of West Texas ground that holds so many pieces of my heart.
The oldest stone--which isn't old at all, really--belongs to my Uncle Ramsey. It's a standard-issue military headstone earned through his service in the Army in Vietnam. He didn't die in Vietnam, though, and the bullet that killed him wasn't fired in that kind of combat. He died by suicide in Dallas in 1981.
He left behind a broken widow, devastated parents, a distraught younger sister (my mother) and brother, and a bewildered little four-year-old niece. I'm sure my father was a wreck as well. My baby brother, Jonathan, was 13 months old and oblivious. My family had barely recovered from the chaos of Jonathan's premature birth the year before when Ramsey's premature death knocked the world off its axis again.
Ramsey lived with us for awhile when I was a baby. My mom said he was enthralled by me and treated me with wonder from the first time he held me. He was my godfather--he made the first exodus from the Baptist to the Episcopal Church, and my mother followed his lead--and we had one big party to celebrate my baptism and his engagement. I still have a white paper napkin with my name embossed on one side, Ramsey and his fiancé's name on the other.
One of my earliest memories is of his hands giving me pieces of bread to feed ducks at a pond near our house; I remember the green grass and murky water, his long fingers placing the white bread into my open palms like communion, and the sound of the quacking as the ducks' anticipation rose. I told my mom about the memory, and she said the three of us would feed the ducks and then walk to a Mexican restaurant for a slow, lingering lunch (or was it happy hour? she couldn't really remember) before rushing back in time to clean up the house before my dad came home from work.
Most of what I know about him I have patched together from scraps of memories and other people's stories. Ramsey had excellent taste and a knack for giving thoughtful gifts. He went to college at UT for some period of time, but he never got a degree. I have no idea what he studied. He floundered around after coming home from Vietnam, spent time in San Francisco, and came home to West Texas for my mother's wedding looking like the hippie he'd become. My grandmother told a story of begging him to cut his hair for the photos, and I think he did cut it some but not really enough for her taste. Somehow a fringed flannel vest that had belonged to him made its way into my closet when I was a teenager. I always said it would be perfect for a '70s costume, but I never wore it as one. I just wanted to have something that was his. He was the first person I loved and lost.
Ramsey was a photographer for the Army in Vietnam, and I can feel in my bones how horrible that would be, the lasting impact it would have. Certain images get seared into your brain and come back unbidden; if those happen to involve body bags that look an awful lot like the black plastic garbage bags people leave out on their curbs, well . . . it can be hard to walk down the street on trash day. I think of him trying to focus his lens and compose a shot of a scene from a living nightmare, and I can't help but shudder. He used drugs to cope, and of course, that turned into a living nightmare of its own. I don't know how he and my grandfather--who was an incredibly courageous (and lucky) veteran of World War II--related to each other's radically different wartime experiences.
Ramsey didn't kill himself on his first attempt, or the second one, either. I don't know how many times he tried before he succeeded. I know my grandparents paid a small fortune to get him help. I know he knew he was loved. But I also know that mental illness doesn't make sense to people who aren't in its grasp. Maybe it was depression or PTSD or addiction or a combination of factors; we will never get definitive answers or explanations for why he decided to end his life. So we try to make peace with it in whatever way we can. My grandmother had a dream that he landed a helicopter on her front lawn and told her not to worry, he was in heaven and would be waiting for her. My mom was in the bathtub crying after Ramsey died, and I came in and said, "Don't cry, Mommy. Remember the good times."
For much of my childhood, I worried anytime anyone I loved got really sad or went through a hard time that they might kill themselves, too. When my parents divorced, if my father was two minutes late for our Wednesday night phone calls, I would start pacing and praying and be on the verge of tears by the time the phone finally rang. To this day, my children and anyone close to me know better than to ever use the phrases "I wanted to kill myself" or "I'm going to shoot myself" like some people say when they're bored or frustrated with a situation. If they forget and say it where I can hear them, I visibly wince and start shaking my head. "No. No, you can't ever say that around me."
Ramsey's suicide gave everything an edge and intensity a young child couldn't possibly process, and combined with the memory of the touch-and-go days after Jonathan's birth, I got the message that if you love someone, tell them NOW. If you want to go somewhere, go NOW. For years life felt immediate and urgent and leaving anything for later seemed like taking a huge risk. When I watched Dead Poet's Society as a teenager, the sentiment behind "carpe diem" didn't come as a revelation to me the way it did to some; it was more a confirmation of what I already believed to be true (especially since the plot uses a suicide to underscore the point). Every minute on this earth is precious, and nothing we do or own can guarantee us a single moment with the people we love.
I think some of the most difficult work I've had to do--difficult because it's addressing such an early, foundational wound--is learning to relax and back away from that edge and intensity. Not to lose it entirely, mind you: it helps cut through all the junk the world tries to get me to care about on any given day. I will never make someone wait to hear "I love you," or "I was wrong; I'm sorry." If I died tomorrow, I believe I would leave this earth content that I did most of what I set out to do.
But there's part of my heart that is still broken, and my God, I wish I could go back and hold out my hands for bread to feed the ducks again. I wish I had known Ramsey as an adult; I wish he had known me as one. I wish we could sneak off to a Mexican restaurant for lunch and then hurry home in time to pick up the kids. I wish, I wish, I wish . . . .
Ramsey's funeral was in Dallas with the burial in Abilene, which meant traveling west on I-20 for several hours between the two cities. No one is sure how it happened exactly, but the motorcade must have broken up at some point and the hearse carrying the casket fell behind everyone else. Maybe they had to stop for gas, who knows? But for whatever reason, the hearse went blazing past the family car as we climbed Ranger Hill toward Abilene. Mom said everyone in the car fell silent and just watched it roar by, leaving us in the dust.
My grandmother told that story many times, usually with something like a sense of humor, presenting it as a "Did that really just happen?!" moment, trying to inject some light into one of the darkest days of her life. I don't know if it helped.
For the ones who are left behind, I don't know what would.
Click here for more information about Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.
Mother, photographer, writer. Expert in making things up as she goes and figuring things out along the way.