The light of day

Robin has made me think about J.

Like most of America, if not the world, I was shocked and saddened by Robin Williams' suicide. The man responsible for some of my earliest memories of laughter, as the rainbow-suspendered Mork from Ork; the man who made me cry ugly, honking tears in a full theater as student after student stood atop his desk and declared "Oh Captain, my captain!"; the man who made my jaw drop (and my ears bleed just a little) when I first saw his rapid-fire, obscenity-laced, genius-riddled standup; the man who kicked me in my soul talking to an impossibly young Matt Damon on a park bench; this man, who had elicited so many emotions while living as a prisoner of his own, was gone.

I have been fortunate to not have been directly affected by the suicide of someone I love, but for a time around eight years ago, I did immerse myself in suicide's aftermath. A local high school running back, a star on the field and a promising mechanic off it - one of those kids who can take anything apart and put it back together again, just to see how it works - committed suicide. Not long after coming into the newspaper studio to have his portrait taken for an area all-star special section, he hanged himself. 

I was working the desk the night the police report came in. With a heart full of dread and shot through with shock, I checked our sports contacts list and found a phone number. 

Here, I need to stop for a second, because I know some are wondering why this was the automatic next step. How ghoulish, you might think. How typical of the prying, insensitive media.

Well, you'd be partially right. I knew this was going to be a story, possibly a big one, and it was my job to try to get as much information as I could. 

But there are other reasons reporters - well, I'll just speak for myself here, and some of the fine, dedicated, sensitive journalists I know - make that call. Public record is a powerful thing (more on that in a moment). I'm sure no family member wants to receive a call from a newspaper reporter while grappling with fresh, red grief. But it has been my experience that what he or she may end up feeling grateful for is the indelible proof, in permanent ink, that the person who's now gone was once here, was real and loved and cherished, and is remembered. I know this is true. I have heartbreaking letters, among my most prized possessions from a 20-year journalism career, that tell me so.

On this night, my call was answered. The woman on the other end identified herself as "J's second mother." This was not the time to press for clarification. I asked a few quick questions, which she answered politely, a torrent of something suppressed under her words. I got the simple quotes necessary to drive the immediate story, but I sensed more there.

I won't lie. I sensed a good story. But I also won't pull punches. It's not a story just anyone can try to tell. 

The obituary contained information about the viewing and the funeral service. With no idea what to expect, I dressed carefully for the former and drove across the Coleman Bridge to a simple, rural funeral home, packed with people. I was worried I'd stand out with my cumulative and incriminating otherness - my white face in a sea of darker ones, my age that fell uncomfortably between the crying youth and their stunned parents, the awkward unbelonging that I was sure clung to me like too-strong perfume. 

No one paid me much attention, though, as I wound my way through the crowd. It was a largely silent room. My eyes and ears were alert, but I did not carry a notebook or a tape recorder. I ended up in front of the open casket. J was dressed in a dark blue suit. I looked for a few moments at his smooth, line-free face, and then I left.

Later, the funeral was standing-room only. I squeezed into a spot by an upstairs church window. This time, my notebook was in my purse, and I occasionally edged it out to scribble a few impressions. I also made some notations in the program. I didn't want to be sneaky, but I also didn't want to call attention to myself. 

The service was wrenching. The sight of young men in football jerseys as pallbearers felt jarring and wrong. The woman I'd talked to on the phone spoke, eloquently. J's father sobbed as the casket rolled down the aisle.

As people lingered in the sun outside, I approached the woman, Ms. W. I introduced myself as Melinda from the paper, explaining we'd spoken on the phone. I handed her my business card, willing the action to not seem crass and opportunistic. I told her to please call me if she ever wanted to talk more about J.

She had a surprisingly firm grip, and she looked at the card for a few full beats, then at me. She said she would like to do that, and from the second she said it, I believed her.

She called a few days later, and so began my journey to try, much too late, to get to know J, to preserve something of his short life, to maybe do some good and, yes, to write a good story.

I talked to his friends, so many friends. Lots of girl and girl no space and girl no space once but space now friends. I talked to his father, a conversation of unimaginable pain at a fast-food restaurant. He told me how he fixed cars with J as an impenetrable sadness pooled in his eyes.

There was no doubt that J was loved. There was no doubt that he was troubled. Everything else was shrouded in shadow, colored by uncertainty and what-ifs. Ms. W's oldest son, who'd shared his room with J since the day his classmate came over one afternoon and just kind of never went home, didn't say much. He did say, "I know he didn't mean to leave us."

I thought that an achingly apt summation, and I wonder if it applies to Robin Williams, too. Whatever the intent, whatever the pain, maybe he didn't mean to leave, either. Maybe it just seemed for one terrible moment that he had no choice.

I don't know enough about the disease of depression and the psychology of suicide to attempt to pontificate about either subject. I am certain that the people I know who struggle with the darkness are loving, kind, generous people. I know they are not selfish.

In the days and weeks that followed my article's publication, reaction varied. Ms. W couldn't bring herself to buy a paper right away, but when she did, she called, crying, to thank me. Other family members wrote an angry letter, saying they hadn't been given a chance to talk (although an approach had been rebuffed). Later, the story, and its accompanying sidebar on suicide's warning signs, won a small regional award. I emailed Ms. W to tell her, not to brag but to let her know that she had helped people. She said she was convinced the story would save lives.

If nothing else, maybe I gave her, and those who loved J, something to hold on to.

Michael Brown's loved ones don't have that. They don't have anything concrete to look to for answers. They have no police report. They don't know how many times their son was shot in a Ferguson, Missouri street. They don't know how long his body lay in that street. They don't know what happened.

When people - media and others - rail against the abuse of power, when we say "It's public record," it's not always a trite mantra aimed at advancing our own purposes. Public record is a powerful thing.

It's been a difficult week, just from the fringes of all this sorrow. People seeking answers have been vilified and criminalized and trolled on Twitter and tear gassed. It's my hope that some of those answers will be forthcoming, for those who left questions behind, and for those who never got a chance to ask them.