I was fourteen when my mother told me during summer vacation that Joe Debich was very sick and that I should visit him. She gave me no more details, probably a practice of not talking about diseases like leukemia to “those too young to understand.” So, without any understanding of a disease that was taking the life of my friend, I went to the newsstand, bought some comic books for him with money I had earned selling newspapers, and went to see Joe. He was in bed, and we talked about when we could play basketball, and he simply said that at night the pain in his legs was a problem. I don’t remember his exact words, and I don’t remember his giving any indication that he understood the dire nature of his circumstance. He looked as he had looked during school to me.
The first days of school that fall were happy times of seeing friends who shared the frivolity of youth. So much going on in the new school year, I didn’t even notice Joe’s absence. And then, one of my classmates came to me and said, “Did you know that Joe Debich died yesterday?”
“What! I just saw him this summer. He just said he had some pain in his legs.” As with so many of us, the initial news of death is shock but shallow emotion, an abstraction of sorts, especially for one unaccustomed to death while at the same time being one too immature to reconcile what I saw in the summer with what I had just learned. I think I remember saying, “We were going to play basketball when he got better.”
I went to the funeral home with a friend that night, walked through a crowd of my classmates to the viewing room, and approached the open casket. There was Joe, but he wasn’t the Joe I knew. He was half his size, maybe sixty or sixty-five pounds that the disease had left untouched. My reaction was instantaneous. I cried uncontrollably, walked through the crowd of seemingly less bothered teenagers, and exited with my friend to walk the streets of our small town. I could not stop crying. Three hours. Death had come uninvited into Joe’s life—and into mine. The sense of frivolity was gone.
I had seen only one other dead person, an aunt. But I was little, maybe six years old. Yes, I understood death as all of us somehow do as children, maybe in a nightmare or fear of a lion under the bed, but not on the emotional level of that evening in front of Joe’s open casket. Of course, since that time I have, as you probably have, gone to funeral homes and to funerals, and I have been saddened by the experiences, even to the point of sobbing. Never, however, did a death affect me as much as Joe’s. In most instances after that year Death came uninvited: A car or other accident, a long or short disease, a stroke or heart attack.
But I became aware that some people invite Death: Teenagers who commit suicide, the very elderly whose contemporaries have left them worn down by time and lonely by their many losses, and those who act by war, crime, and anger to write Death’s invitation. In each instance, I always ask, “Did he or she not realize that even at boring parties, we make our own fun? Who invites that one character that will quash the happiness? Even if a particular party isn’t filled with frivolity, won’t there be other parties?” Having mourned Joe’s uninvited death, I have difficulty understanding reasons for extending an invitation.
I think of Thomas Dylan’s last line in “A Refusal To Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London.” He ends the poem, “After the first death, there is no other.” One death is all death. The first loss is all subsequent losses. We come to accept that uninvited Death will someday show up, and as always in the context of that day, It will come into midst of frivolity, and interrupt life’s party. Parties can be fun, and as children we don’t want them to end, and I don’t think we differ much in that as adults. That’s why I have written a number of these little essays on suicide. I can’t see, especially having experienced Joe’s death those many years ago, anyone inviting Death into life’s party. Uninvited Death comes soon enough.
I think of Death as a party crasher, an unwelcome intruder whose intention is to spoil the fun of life. I always argue against sending an invitation to the one guest who without question will shut out the lights and take down the decorations. I prefer—even in my knowledge of the contrary—to think that we’ll be able to party, to play basketball, that every “Joe” will rise from his bed of leg pain, join the frivolity of youth, and celebrate life.