Craig Reinbold's essay "It Is This" appears in Issue No. 46: A Way Through.
IT IS THIS
I’m lunching in the breezeway of a local museum with my mom, my two toddler boys, and their six-year-old cousin, when my mom gets a text, frowns, motions to me that she needs to make a call, and then disappears long enough that the six-year-old suggests going to look for her. When she makes it back to our picnic she turns her phone to me so I can read the text she’d received, from a long-time family friend—
Steven shot himself last night. I found his body this morning.
My eighteen-month-old is on my lap, hands caked with hummus, trying to pull my glasses off. No shit is all I can think to say. No shit.
We grew up together, if not exactly alongside each other. Somewhere between family and friend. Neighbor? Cousin? All the obvious labels seem a little off. Forty years ago our fathers volunteered with the local fire department. That’s how everyone met, I think. Two families, six kids: we hung out, camped together, holidayed together, sold cars back and forth, helped each other move, celebrated weddings, jobs, the next generation of kids.
After we finished at the museum my mom went home and invited Steven’s brother and his family over. They stayed until ten thirty, playing board games, the kids falling asleep on the couch with Cars 2 burning up the Blu-Ray in the background. My parents: steadfast, welcoming. I wasn’t there, but my mom tells me: We didn’t talk about it. At his brother’s request. He just wanted a night of normal.
Of the six of us kids, Steven was the youngest. He’d just turned thirty.
Years ago someone handed me a photocopy of Marguerite Duras’ “Leek Soup,” at 415 words a pebble of an essay.
It’s a recipe: It should cook anywhere from fifteen to twenty minutes, not two hours . . . better to put the leeks on while the potatoes are boiling . . . two average-sized leeks will do nicely . . . you can serve it either straight or with butter or crème fraîche . . . you can add croutons when the soup is served . . . .
And it’s commentary: You have to make it deliberately and carefully . . . it takes time, years, to discover the flavor of this soup . . . nothing in French cooking can match the simplicity or necessity of leek soup . . . it could only have been invented by a still young woman of the local bourgeoisie, who on that particular night simply couldn’t face the thought of another heavy sauce—and possibly of many other things as well, if only she knew. You can want to do nothing and then decide instead to do this: make leek soup, I mean.
And there’s a slaying last line that—rumor has it—wasn’t included when the piece debuted in some long-defunct, forgotten food mag: Between the will to do something and the will to do nothing is a thin, unchanging line: suicide.
There are plenty of angles from which to interpret Duras: the personal, poetical, political, physical, the psychoanalytical, and there’s been a lot said about this particular essay—but I still never got it. I’d been thinking about it for years, and, nothing. . . . That juxtaposition—wtf?
Steven shot himself last night. He’d been living with his parents and I hear the house is for sale. He’d shot himself in the backyard and where the blood—correction: where his blood—had pooled, the green had gone gold, and his mother was worried prospective buyers would wonder why that spot of grass had died. What if she lied and the truth was outed later? Was she obligated to disclose all the facts? Even if they never asked? My own mother was telling me this and I suggested, Just leave it to the realtor. A non-answer for a non-question. Talking around the issue. Steven shot himself last night.
How little can I say and still say something?
Growing up beyond the bus route, I drove myself to school every day from sixteen on, a twenty-minute commute on County Road DE. Curves and hills hemmed by farm fields and beauty strips and at one particular turn a stand of oaks, with one centurion tree edging the road, arms branching out to keep the phalanx behind in check. I would charge that tree at sixty miles per hour, the following curve rated for thirty-five. Headed home after school, in the after-practice gloam, in the dark after work—to turn, or not to turn? That was the question.
It was an option. Something to consider.
I suspect most of us don’t think of this as a decision, per se, but it is. Every day, we decide, even if for most of us the answer has become reflex.
How little can I say about this and still say something?
Steven shot himself—a week to the day later I see his brother at the annual camping trip my mother organizes every year. I don’t see him much, but we’re both married and have two kids and own houses and we’re both back in school, mid-life, trying to step up—so it’s always nice when our paths converge.
He pulls me aside and tells me he’d dragged his brother out fishing a couple of weeks earlier and Steven had really opened up, talking about where he was in life, where the two of them had been, where they’d come from. He tells me Steven had gone on and on about the time he and I had taken a canoe out on the backwaters of the Mississippi, years earlier, on another camping trip. We’d spent hours chasing bullheads and catfish, staying out well past dark.
Myself, I have no memory of this, which is no surprise. I’m a creature of the present tense. My mother, consulting the “camping journal” she’s kept since we were babies, tells me it was 1999. I would have been seventeen, Steven thirteen, like a little brother.
When I was thirteen, I saw the ocean for the first time. I stood on some rocks along the coast and took my shirt off, and when the waves struck, the sea spray hit my skin and that was it for me. I come from the land of lakes and forests and suddenly there was a real horizon far enough away for the world to seem infinite in a way it hadn’t before. I wrote a little middle-schooler poem about this and carried that poem around with me for years.
My mom was with me that day and I ask if she remembers but of course she doesn’t. Sometimes those moments you don’t even notice are the moments that define the person next to you.
Think about this: Steven wrote a note before he shot himself. A plan was in place. He’d been out fishing with his brother, giving him that rare gift of openness, and he’d known all along. Imagine that. Imagine all the things we don’t know. The things we don’t know about the people around us. The things you don’t know right now.
You can want to do nothing and then decide instead to do this // between the will to do something and the will to do nothing // a thin, unchanging line // suicide.
Sometimes I’ve felt I understood this, but only instinctually, without being able to articulate anything. Does that sort of understanding count? The kind you feel but can’t prove? The kind that pushes you to act one way or another, but you struggle to explain why?
This was the last time we really hung out, camping in western Wisconsin: That’s my wife in the water. I’m rocking the jean shorts. Steven, sitting on the dock. It was the kind of humid evening when the air is like a glove exactly the shape of your body.
He was working at a gym then, bodybuilding in his time off. Trading one addiction for another, I said. Exactly, he said. And I don’t know what he thought, but I thought, He gets it. He understands. Really, there are few people who do.
My wife and I crashed early, after dinner, as we tend to. He dropped twenty bucks and rented a rowboat, spent the late hours on the lake, fishing, and who knows. He’d asked if I would join him, but I took a pass. Why? Habit, maybe: tuck in next to my wife, read a bit, sleep, morning coffee. That was my routine, where I found my joy. That’s where I was in life.
Now I wish I’d gone out with him, of course, but, fuck. Who knew this would happen?
That photo is all I have left.
Fuck, man. Just, fuck.
At the memorial service his brother jokes that most of the guests will be my family, or friends my family has brought into their lives, but this turns out to be only half true—the other half are hockey players. Steven had been playing in a league, and a number of his teammates came out.
That aspect of his life remains a mystery to me, as does, I realize, most of his adult life.
I gravitate to a pin board with photos of him as a kid, one photo in particular: middle school, that classic soccer pose, taking a knee with a ball in hand. Full head of blond hair sculpted into that mushroom cut popular mid-nineties. Such a familiar face. Familiar everything.
Another photo: He’s just a baby and his dad, in sweats and a t-shirt, is holding him against a shoulder. It’s early morning, sunlight sneaking past the drapes to silhouette them. I catch his dad and bring him over and say, This is a beautiful photo. I don’t say, Like looking in a mirror. I hug him, this man I’ve known my entire life, and we both cry.
I was thinking about that old tree marking that turn on County Road DE, the one I used to face down every day—You can want to do nothing and then decide instead to do this: make leek soup, I mean—and suddenly BOOM the Duras made sense to me.
Between the will to do something and the will to do nothing is a thin, unchanging line: suicide. It’s a recipe for soup, obviously. And it’s a recipe for living.
You can want to do nothing and decide instead to do something, anything: buy a kayak, or a plane ticket; head to California, or Peru, or Japan; kiss that friend like you’ve been wanting to; quit that joyless job; go back to school; or keep it simple: do the dishes, mop the kitchen, cut the grass—that’s fine, too; make lunch, maybe a kale salad with cranberries and candied walnuts, or, fuck kale, head to the donut shop for coffee and a cruller; or, whatever. The smallest of actions is fine, a gesture really: just turn the wheel.
In every moment: everything and nothing. In every action, too.
Tap the brake, and turn the wheel.
Now it’s Thanksgiving and we’re at my parents. They’re behind on their winterizing, but that’s fine because Fall has stuck around late this year and it’s crazy beautiful outside—forty degrees, sunny with clear skies. My three-year-old and I shovel a yard of fill from the back of my dad’s pickup—rocks and dirt left over from some postholes I dug for a porch last weekend. We wheelbarrow it bit by bit to the tree-line where it will live, maybe, forever. His little plastic shovel breaks. I find him another. That one breaks, too. I get him a metal trowel. Everyone else cleans out the garage, then the shed in the backyard. Run the gas out of the lawnmowers. Put the deck furniture away. When we’re done I join the kids playing tag.
A little poem I’ve been carrying around lately:
If there is a heaven
And it is a moment
It is this.
On the drive back to the city, where we live, I tell my wife I wish he’d hung on, just for days like today, so he could have been there—for myself as much as for him, so I could’ve shared that moment with him. She reminds me days like this were probably rare for him.
I maintain there’s always something, some small joy that makes it all worthwhile. There’s always that morning coffee, I like to say. But of course, jokes aside, I live for my boys, my family—and I know for all the family surrounding him, he was alone.
I just wish we could have shared one more beautiful day before he had to go. Before he had to go. Before he went, I mean.
Buy a kayak, or a plane ticket. . . . What happens when those little deaths, those small escapes, don’t work? Head to the donut shop for coffee and a cruller. . . . When those everyday joys aren’t enough? We turn the wheel, most of us, everyday—but choosing life doesn’t make living any easier. Surely Duras knew this. What would she say? Surely Steven knew this—but I really have no idea what he knew.
The easy answer—Do something, anything! Just keep moving!—isn’t always so easy. And that centurion tree, marking that turn on County Road DE, that tree will outlive me.
. . . a thin unchanging line . . .
This has all been on my mind a lot lately, obviously. The other night, a dream:
I was in someone’s living room, post-Sunday dinner, packing up the boys and giving goodbyes. Bye Steven, I said, because he was standing there with everyone else. I turned to go but his brother caught my arm. Do you see him? Is he here? I nodded, but didn’t say anything. Didn’t want to ruin it, like when you’re dreaming and you acknowledge you’re dreaming and then it fades away. I turned and left the two of them standing there together.
At times this death seems unbelievably sad to me. The best I can say is at least it’s over for him, the particular pain and suffering that led him to this.
Good, I say. And just awful.
Craig Reinbold’s writing has appeared in many journals and magazines, and won Ruminate’s own VanderMey Nonfiction Prize back in 2013, thank you, as always & forever, Brian Doyle. He also recently co-edited, with Ander Monson, How We Speak to One Another: An Essay Daily Reader (Coffee House Press), and currently curates Essay Daily’s series featuring international essayists. Mostly though, he hangs out with his two young boys and works in the ER of a Milwaukee-area hospital.
Want more? This essay and a whole lot more goodness appear in Issue No. 46: A Way Through.
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At the moment, the assumption to question is that we humans have a right to be on earth and that it will indefinitely support us. When the very ground is taken from beneath our feet, where can we stand? What is left to us, when the familiar forms of our physical existence are taken away? Nothing, perhaps—yet I wonder.