The Hero Falls:
Remembering a young life lost to suicide
The first thing I remember when I try to picture him in my mind is that he wasn't terribly tall. He had a nice shock of sandy colored hair, bangs that tended to lean over one eyebrow in an appealingly lopsided fashion. His smile was enchanting. His hands moved with fluid grace as they translated the talks on the program from spoken words into American Sign Language. He was, to my sixteen year old mind, poetry in motion. Oh yeah, I was smitten. It wasn't as if I ever thought for a moment that I had a chance with him. No way. It wasn't about that, it was more akin to hero worship, I suppose. Dangerously close, perhaps, even to the forbidden "idolatry". He was a few years older than I, a full-time Pioneer. A shining example in his congregation. Girls buzzed around him like bees to honey and I figured that shy, awkward, self conscious me had no chance in the world of becoming a reoccurring character in his life. Still, he was a very good flirt. He made it plain that he noticed me. I believe now it was in terms of thinking that in a few years, I'd be pretty cute. It all began this way.
I had no clue that this would be different from any other convention, until he and a few friends swept into the cafeteria, where people were choking down their regulation Circuit Assembly runny scrambled eggs and burned toast. I remember his entrance distinctly because he was whistling. I tried in my mind to picture the song that it was, and finally, recognizing it, I laughed: It was the theme song from Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. I was eating pre-packaged chocolate pudding, which was the only thing on the Assembly Hall menu that I could tolerate. He approached with the excuse of speaking to my older sister, who knew his family well. He introduced himself, offered his hand and shook mine firmly, without hesitation. He sat in the empty seat beside me. "Hi neighbor." I said, referencing his whistled tune. He laughed. "Won't you be my neighbor?" he said with a grin.
I am thinking now that he thought, at first sight, that I was older than I actually was. That happened to me often. He noticed what I was eating right away and commented on it. I responded, "It's the real breakfast of Champions. Champion what, though, I have no idea." He laughed. He proceeded to eyebrow wiggle, wink, and otherwise charm me all through breakfast. He was so unlike any other Witness guys I knew, especially those born-in. From that moment on, he became a symbol to me of the kind of man I wanted to marry one day. Maybe someday, I'll have a prayer with someone like him, I thought. That original breakfast meeting was very early Saturday morning. Since he was translating most of the talks, I had the opportunity to watch him, unnoticed, over the edge of my notebook as I mindlessly recorded scripture chapter and verse but didn't hear a thing that the speaker was saying. His voice droned on like so much white noise as I watched my Hero sign. For those two days of that assembly I saw, nor heard, anything else. He held my rapt attention. He was the image of all I'd prayed to find. I'd asked God to show me one, just one, young man in the organization who wasn't either living a double life and on his way out, or too whipped as a mama's boy to ever get out on his own, let alone have a wife. I just wanted a normal future. To get married, to have kids maybe. I didn't want to be alone and I didn't want to imagine a future with any of the young men that I'd met so far in the organization. There had been so much marrying among the local congregations, what with the requirement of marrying 'only in the lord' that it was creepy to me. It started to feel like inbreeding somehow.
So here he was, from the other side of the state, a strange circuit, another world in many ways. And he seemed so...so...normal. So to me it seemed as if Jehovah Himself had heard my thoughts. That He was refuting my claim that there were no young men in the organization who hadn't had their emotions squashed out of them in the process of putting on the 'new personality'. I felt as He was saying to me, "here you go, little girl. Take a look at this!" Every time he passed by me, there was a spark in his eye. That wiggle of the brow, the wink when no one was looking. It made me feel as if the 'pretty girl' that others said that they saw in me, (but was impossible to see in my own mirror) was maybe in there after all. Just knowing that he was out there, and had even noticed me enough to favor me with a smile gave me hope. I saw Hero at other assemblies, other functions, and in the interim he always sent 'hello' messages to me through my sister Claire. He continued to symbolize for me all that I could dream of: charm, spirituality, goodness. The desire to help others. I put him so high up on a pedestal that I could only see his feet. But my God, how I worshipped those toes.
I spent less time on the east side and more around my home congregation. The following summer I worked extensively on the local Assembly Hall building project, and my romantic affections were turned to someone who seemed (at least) to be more accessible to me. That would ultimately end in heartbreak for me, but that is a story for another day.
Another year passed.
I had always kept tabs on Hero through friends, they way that many Witness teenagers do. I'll never forget the phone call. The phone rang one afternoon as I was preparing to go to work. Half dressed and almost ready to go, my mother called me to the phone. It was Claire. I had not heard her voice sound quite that way ever before. "I wanted to call you right away, so that you'd hear this from me and not anyone else. Are you sitting down?"
"Just do it."
"Hero committed suicide."
It took a moment to register.
"No, that can't be."
"It's true, Lily. I wanted to be the one to tell you, I know that this was going to be...very hard for you." I realized then that my adoration of Hero from afar had not been as well hidden as I'd thought.
He shot himself."
"Why? Did he leave..." Suddenly, why became very important to me.
"He left a note but it didn't make much sense to anyone. The therapist told them not to try to make too much sense of it, he was very distraught, obviously."
"They should have been able to help him." I said, my shoulders slumping. But I didn't cry.
"He was in therapy, but he just...did it."
I think that I thanked her for telling me, I don't honestly remember much of the rest of the conversation. I just remember that I got dressed and left the house in a hurry, headed straight to work. I worked in an environment where a smile was mandatory, not optional. I interacted with families and small children and the smile was considered part of my uniform. Most days I had no trouble. Today, I went there because it was the only place on Earth I thought I could go and be safe in my own company. I was known at work as someone who was cheerful, because I always put on a happy face to hide my serious depression beneath. All my co-workers knew that I was a JW and I used to think, if I'm depressed how does that reflect on my faith? I didn't want to bring any reproach. So I pasted on that smile and never let it slip. I hurried into the back room at work, and as my favorite assistant manager passed by, he stopped. He looked me in the eye, and I looked away because I knew if he kept that gaze on me, I'd fall apart.
"What happened?" He asked.
"James..." I said, and I stopped.
"Just tell me honey."
"Someone...I was very fond of just committed suicide."
"Oh honey." he said, and he hugged me. "Do you need to go home? Do you want to leave?"
"No, James, I think I'd better stay here. I can't go home."
"You know, I've lost a lot of friends to suicide. Too many." James whispered to me. We had talked many times before about how hard it had been for him, coming out of the closet and being rejected by his family. Apparently some of his friends had not been able to survive that struggle.
"You were fond of this guy?"
"It was sort of like...worshipped from afar. I adored him, James." I said. I bit my lip so hard that it throbbed. I stopped just short of piercing the skin with my teeth.
"I'll bring you something tomorrow, okay? In the meantime you stay if you need to, but if you have to go, its okay."
"No. I think this is the best place for me to be right now."
He nodded and then moved away, letting me gather myself for the workday ahead.
I combed my hair, pasted on my best Good Little Witness Girl smile, and stood tall with my shoulders back. The show went on.
I didn't sleep much that night. I went mechanically through the motions and the next day, as promised, James handed me an envelope. "This was taken at the Vietnam Veterans memorial in Washington by a friend of mine. It helped me, I hope it helps you." He hugged me again and then walked off, leaving me alone in the stockroom to open it. It was a photograph of a section of the wall, a home made sign. I have long since, in the years since this happened, lost track of the photo, but I will never forget the words.
"To those who despaired and committed suicide:
We will sing your songs
We will dream your dreams,
We will finish your work."
As time went on, more details about Hero's suicide began to come to me through my sister. She went to his funeral. It was a heartbreaking affair, made even more so by the fact that at the time the Society's stand on suicides was that they would not, most likely get a resurrection. There were, according to Claire (who had spoken with Hero's family) several details that were not being told to the general public. That there was speculation that Hero had possibly been molested by a man who had also molested other boys in the congregation, and as a result had 'issues' with his orientation. At the same time, they were confused because he had been dating sisters and all. He had been in therapy, but the overwhelming message of his suicide note was that he wouldn't be acceptable to God, or make it into the New System. I also learned that it had taken him some time to die. He shot himself through the heart. I cannot be sure which of these factors were sorted out with time, or if any of them were put to rest. All I can do is imagine how horrible it must have been for Hero to be suffering so much alone. I wished that he had had someone, anyone to turn to who he felt that he could trust. That he hadn't given up. How in the hell, I asked myself, can I ever survive living in this organization if someone who was as good and kind as Hero couldn't?
I doubt that any of us will ever really know what it was exactly that caused Hero to buckle. I do know that the man who molested in that congregation did go to jail, but he left a swath of destroyed young men, only boys at the time of his evil acts, behind him. No prison term will ever bring justice.
My illusions died along with my Hero, to this day I cannot believe that he isn't out there, somewhere. I only hope that he has found peace now, whether only in sleep and release from his pain or in whatever afterlife there may be.
I know that there is no such peace for those of us who loved him, and were left behind. I wrote this poem a short time after he died, and I end this tribute to him with the words I wish that I could have spoken to him.
"The walls may one day tumble down,
but the barriers will still remain.
Our castles sink and slowly drown,
and I am weary of this game
...and the world just goes on.
No one can give them what they need,
because no one can ever know
or understand the desperate lives they lead,
or see their hands slowly letting go,
...the world just goes on.
All the hoping and the wishing,
all the things you want to give,
all the ducking and the dodging
of the reasons you should live
...while the world just goes on.
Don't give in to the darkness,
and the noise that crowds your head
turn away from life's cold starkness,
and let me love you now instead
while the world just goes on.
Shimmer, sparkle, fade and die
the brilliant always fall so young
their laughter is lonely, and it lies
their breathing stops, we say goodbye
But the world always goes on.
After they are gone, what then?
What of those like me who can't forget?
Is it wrong of me to remember them,
because most can't understand them yet?
I won't forget...
...because the world will always go on."
Please, if you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, GET PROFESSIONAL HELP IMMEDIATELY. Each one of us is a precious piece of the Universe. Do not give in, keep fighting. I know from experience that life is worth fighting for.