Kevin Sampsell | Longreads | September 26, 2023 | 23 minutes (6,342 words)
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This essay deals with suicide and suicidal ideation. If you or someone you know is suicidal, please, contact your physician, go to your local ER, or call the suicide prevention hotline in your country. In the United States, call 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
In September 2019, I lost my close friend, Arthur, to suicide. In summer 2020, I began writing a book that centered our friendship. In May 2021, every folder and document vanished from my computer.
This mass disappearance included the unfinished book about my friend: all 39,548 words. The only evidence of it is a notebook where I tracked its growth.
I searched every nook and cyber cranny, and then spoke with Apple technicians for several hours, watching them take remote control of my cursor to dig into my hard drive, finder, cloud, trash bin, and something called the Wayback Machine. Like an amateur, I had not saved a backup of the book or even emailed it to myself. I hadn’t shared it with anyone.
Until the document’s disappearance, the words had been flowing and I was excited about how much I was getting onto the page. Not just about Arthur and the times leading up to his death, but also about my own depression and my mother’s Alzheimer’s. I was also using the book to explore bisexuality, polyamory, aging, and a 1991 book about assisted suicide called Final Exit by Derek Humphry.
I’d put it all in there—uncomfortable truths that I called autofiction in case I needed to hide from my own reality. Writing “fiction” often gave me that out. If someone said they felt seen by a novel or short story I’d written, I would confess to its real-life truth, but if someone was bothered by a detail in my “fiction,” I could just say it was invented, whether it was or not.
Other documents disappeared too. A Word doc of essays. Two hundred pages of short stories. Another novel I’d finished recently after eight years of work. But those were things I could piece together from other files and sent emails. It was the loss of the suicide-Alzheimer’s-bisexuality novel-in-progress that felt insurmountable. Something I couldn’t recreate.
The experience made writing feel futile. You could call it writer’s block, but writer’s depression is probably more accurate. In sports, they might call it “the yips,” which is when an athlete cannot perform a simple task they’ve performed thousands of times. I couldn’t open a blank document without the fear it would disappear when I closed it.
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The advice I’ve sometimes given to people about getting out of a writing rut is to write an I Remember list. It’s easy to do and sometimes helps you locate a lifeline into something bigger than one simple memory. Poet Joe Brainard famously published a beautiful book full of them in 1975.
I remember meeting Arthur in New Orleans at an art festival in 2018 and discovering that we both lived in Portland.
I remember Arthur dancing in the streets of the French Quarter and saying he found his people.
I remember a woman grinding on Arthur and how much he enjoyed the attention even though he was into men.
I remember flying back to Portland with Arthur and waiting at the baggage claim for the suitcase full of clothes he bought in New Orleans and were probably too flashy for everyday wear in Portland.
I remember seeing Arthur’s band, Milk Bandits, play a bunch of times, and his sexy voice and stage presence.
I remember spending days collaging together and taking turns playing records and music videos for each other.
I remember watching Alex Cameron videos with Arthur and how he was so into it we bought tickets to Cameron’s show at the Doug Fir in Portland on Valentine’s Day in 2019.
I remember walking to dinner with Arthur one night and he asked to borrow my coat because he was always cold. He called it my old man coat and it was too small for him, but he wore it anyway. He was four inches taller than me. I looked at him as we waited for a crosswalk light and chuckled at how scrunched over and comically awkward he looked, but he didn’t care, as long as he was warm.
I remember when we watched The Fits and how we tried to figure out the meaning of the movie. I remember my mother’s quilt over us, his head on my shoulder.
I remember telling Arthur once that I wanted a boyfriend to do manly things with and he laughed and held my hand.
I remember how he rarely called me by my first name and I wondered if it was a way for him to distance himself or a funny endearment. His messages always started, “Hey, Sampsell.”
I remember how excited he was by the way I described his band’s music. He wanted me to write it down so they could use it in their press packet. But then the band broke up.
I remember his text messages to me, explaining why he seemed gloomy one night: “I just realized, my melancholy was the mourning of my old life, before I infused joy into my passion of creating and performing and songs.” “I was sad getting used to being happy.”
This list of memories is an attempt to figure out something about my friendship with Arthur, and why it still has the lingering mystery of a failed romance. I’m also searching for clues to his depression.
I found out about his death several days after his suicide. I was at the bookstore where I work, in the breakroom, when I glanced at the newspaper and saw Arthur’s face. He was smiling, exuding the warm and eager kindness he regularly wore like a halo. My first thought was, “Oh, hey, Arthur.” But instead of a headline about his band or something else he might have done, there was just his name and under it, “1983-2019.”
I missed my bus after the bookstore closed that night and walked home, in the dark, in a daze. I looked at our last exchanges. I had asked him to go out a couple of times that month, but he said he had other plans. I realized that I didn’t know Arthur’s other friends very well. I had met some of them at his shows but didn’t have any way to get in touch with them. The last sentence of the obituary implied suicide: “Arthur struggled throughout his life with depression, which lead to his early death.” I called Arthur’s phone number to hear his voice. I left him a message. Something like, I wish you would have talked to me. How come you didn’t tell me?
The next day I looked for more about Arthur. I thought about what could have been weighing on him. He’d had a couple of boyfriends while I knew him and though he seemed disappointed after a breakup, he never seemed crushed. He’d be on dating apps shortly after, messaging new guys. Even when I first met him in New Orleans, he was excited about all the men he could meet in a new city and would show me some of the messages. He didn’t seem to lack attention. He was not only tall, fit, and perfectly cheekboned, he was also kind, smart, and open.
I wondered if being black and gay in a predominantly white city like Portland made him feel isolated. There were times when he told me stories about feeling othered in his circle of gay friends. One time, maybe four months before his death, he told me that he had been drugged and possibly assaulted by a man he knew. The man was in a circle of his friends that sometimes partied together. It seemed like the man had a lot of money, a nice house, and a lot of power in this friend group. Arthur talked to other people in this group, but they were dismissive and didn’t want to believe him. I could hear the pain in his voice, and I wasn’t sure what to say except the usual rote responses: I’m sorry that happened to you. Thanks for telling me. Do you feel the need to tell others, or maybe even go after the guy somehow? You can talk to me about this any time.
He quickly stopped talking about it, wary of feeling like a victim, though it sounded like he was deeply hurt, in many ways, by the experience. There was a sting of sadness in our silence for a few minutes, and then I sensed that he was angry—not at me, but at the fact that he had this pain inside his body, maybe stuck there for life.
The only other time I saw him angry was after his band broke up. He felt like the only one with real ambition. He was constantly setting up shows, looking to meet other musicians, and hoping to record an album. When one of his bandmates wanted to do fewer shows because of back problems, Arthur felt betrayed. I can’t remember what he said exactly, but there were a few F-bombs.
Arthur would sometimes post videos of himself on the Milk Bandits’ Instagram page. He called them the “PINK ROBE” videos. In them, he’s sitting in a room in front of a blank white wall, wearing a fluffy pink bathrobe and holding an acoustic guitar. As if recording a demo tape, he strums and slaps the guitar while singing in his memorable falsetto. His register blended the vulnerable quaver of Thom Yorke, the sexy confidence of Prince, and the growling despair of Robert Johnson. I always wondered if he recorded these at night in his bedroom, perhaps working out some ideas just before bed, maybe restraining himself a little, so he didn’t wake up his roommates.
In one of the videos, he sings “I ain’t never known my daddy, I ain’t never known that man.” The words Happy Belated Father’s Day floating over his left shoulder. In another video, a month later, the words An ode to my family’s unrequited love are on the screen, and then: It’s a daily struggle.
One thing I learned after Arthur’s death was that he grew up using the name Bobby. That was the name his mother and sister called him until they became estranged. All his friends in Portland knew him as Arthur, which was his father’s name.
Arthur had not spoken with his father in years, but he mentioned him once to me, that summer before he died. He had just lost his job as a security guard and was telling me that he might go work for his dad in California and then “disappear to France and write poetry.” I wasn’t sure what to make of these ideas. I wasn’t sure what kind of work he’d be doing with his dad. Arthur did not seem like the kind of person who came from money (or had a secret stash somewhere), but maybe his dad would help him. The France thing sounded more like a fantasy than anything else. I knew he spoke French, so maybe it was a real plan. I probably should have encouraged him more. Instead, I remember feeling puzzled and I probably asked him questions about the logistics of it. My demeanor probably discouraged him.
But now I like to imagine him in Paris, sitting at a café, drinking an espresso, his notebook open, full of notes and poetry. It’s easy to picture in my mind. He’d look perfect there.
Maybe France was just his code word for the afterlife.
In Donald Antrim’s 2021 memoir, One Friday in April: A Story of Suicide and Survival, he attempts to show a difference between depression and suicide, describing depression as “a concavity, a sloping down and a return.” He believes suicide is “a natural history, a disease process . . . an illness with origins in trauma and isolation, in deprivation of touch, in violence and neglect, in the loss of home and belonging.”
The way Antrim disconnects depression and suicide felt confusing to me at first. He even states, “I will refer to suicide, not depression.” But the more I read into Antrim’s story, the easier it seemed to comprehend. Depression is an emotional state. Suicide is in the blood.
Though I had battled depression for nearly two decades, I did not feel it was serious enough to acknowledge or talk about with others. In my worst emotional states, I’d feel uninspired and think fleetingly about suicide. But instead of suicidal ideation, it was more like intrusive suicidal daydreaming. This kind of depression might last a few days, but it always went away before I asked for help or reached a breaking point. I never felt like I was depressed enough. Besides that, I felt a foolish pride in that I was one of the few people I knew who did not take any kind of daily medication.
After getting divorced in 2016, my depression became compounded by anxiety attacks and crying jags. By summer 2019, I knew I needed help. I spoke to one of my friends, who recommended that I talk to my doctor honestly about my emotional state. I was wary of the effects an antidepressant would have on my body but decided that Wellbutrin sounded like the best option.
A few days later, on August 7, 2019, one of my favorite songwriters, David Berman, ended his life. He was the same age as me. The new band he’d started, Purple Mountains, had just put out their first album and I had tickets to their Portland concert the following month. Of course, the show did not happen.
If you listen to the Purple Mountains album, it’s painfully apparent, in hindsight, that Berman was suffering. The lyrics, though sometimes spiked with sardonic wit, are like suicide notes: The dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind. Berman sings later, Nights that won’t happen / Time we won’t spend / Time we won’t spend / With each other again / With each other again.
Wellbutrin proved to be extremely effective for me. Instead of lying in bed for as long as possible, putting off projects, and not feeling excited for anything, I would wake up and start my day quickly, surprisingly focused on chores. I moved through my days with quicker, happier intentions. My energy felt so amped that I would sometimes start to freestyle rap or belt out made-up songs while driving in my car.
I remember telling Arthur that I had started taking it, but I never had the chance to really talk about the positive influence it had on me. I know he had been on other antidepressants, but I don’t think he was taking anything when he died.
The day after I found out about Arthur’s death, I called his mother. Her phone number was listed in his obituary. I knew that Arthur had not talked to her in a long time, so I didn’t know what she’d be like. When she answered the phone, her voice warmed with gratitude. “Thank you for calling and thank you for being a friend to him,” she said.
She lived a couple of hours north, in Olympia, Washington. I asked her if I could come visit. She said I could, and I might be able to visit Arthur at the funeral home before he was cremated if I came right away. I took the next day off work and drove up.
I went to the funeral home first, where a soft-speaking man in a suit was expecting me. They had Arthur’s body on a gurney waiting for me in a private room.
I stood over my friend silently after the man left, admiring his quiet beauty, even in death. He was dressed in a sweater and dark slacks. He had penny loafers on his feet and the newsboy-style cap that he sometimes wore. I watched his chest for movement, for breath. My silence felt like a dumb dare. Who would make the first sound, the first move?
I touched Arthur’s leg. It was cold. I touched Arthur’s chest. It was cold. I stayed with him for 20 minutes and then walked out. I did not see anyone in the lobby when I left. I wondered if the man in the suit was watching me on camera. I sat in my car, in the empty parking lot, and imagined the man going back into the room with Arthur. I pictured him pushing Arthur on some wheeled contraption into an elevator and down to another room, into a refrigerated slot in a wall.
I went to Arthur’s mom’s house after that. I brought grocery store flowers and a condolence card. She welcomed me into her small house and started showing me old photos and things that Arthur had made when he was a teenager. We sat down in the living room and talked, with flowers, cards, and gifts looming all around us. I found out it had been about 10 years since Arthur and his mom had seen each other or spoken. She had met a few of Arthur’s friends in the days before my visit, so she was caught up on what was happening with his life, but she obviously wasn’t able to fill in the gaps of their disconnected years.
Arthur’s sister came over soon after I arrived and said that she too had been estranged from Arthur. She told me she used to visit him in Portland and they would spend a day or two together, going to movies, museums, or restaurants. Then, in fall 2011, as she was driving back to Olympia, Arthur texted her and said he didn’t want her to visit anymore, and not to text him. Baffled by the message, his sister pulled off the freeway and tried to call him to see what was wrong. Her calls went unanswered, and she never heard from him again. With no memory of any kind of argument or tension that weekend, she is still confused by this sudden end to their sibling relationship.
Arthur’s mom listened sadly to her daughter’s story and then blamed herself, suggesting that she was “probably abusive” to both of her children. She said her military career may have influenced her parenting style. Arthur’s sister shut down that line of thinking though, saying to her mom, “You were tough, but not that bad.”
I asked Arthur’s mom if he left any kind of note, and she said his phone was nearby, as well as a backpack with some clothes and his computer. She said there was one other thing and pointed to a book sitting under a magazine on the table between us.
It was a copy of Derek Humphry’s Final Exit, which became the first New York Times bestseller about suicide. At the time of its release, it stirred controversy and was considered, by detractors, as merely a manual on how to end your life. Despite (or because of) this, it has sold two million copies worldwide. It felt more familiar to me in that moment than at any time before.
Subtitled The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying, Final Exit has been controversial in the Right-to-Die movement for a long time. Many saw Humphry’s early organization, The National Hemlock Society, as being cult-like, while others point out the painful methods of dying specifically described in the chapter, “Bizarre Ways to Die,” which include freezing, rattlesnake bites, and ingesting household chemicals. To be fair, the author prefaces these methods as “unnecessary for the serious reader” and “truly weird.”
But reading and considering the entirety of Final Exit and watching films like 2011’s How to Die in Oregon have made me better understand why someone in an incurable predicament would want to end their life on their own terms. There is a sense of beauty, dignity, and closure to it, not to mention control.
A newer book about assisted suicide is Anita Hannig’s The Day I Die: The Untold Story of Assisted Dying in America, published in 2022. It’s a much more empathetic and humane glimpse into the personal stories of suffering people who have led otherwise satisfying lives. Hannig’s book demonstrates the evolving language around its subject matter. The word suicide is rarely used and the “assisted” aspect is sometimes referred to as “hastened,” as in to hasten someone to an ending sooner and more peacefully, than one that would be prolonged and painful.
I’m not sure what to think of depression as a reason for ending your life. Though this was Arthur’s decision, the Right-to-Die community has mixed views. It’s much harder to gain assistance for those people unless a doctor can prove that their depression or mental illness cannot be cured and is causing suffering. One Amazon customer comment about Final Exit, which could be extended to legalized assisted dying, says, “I disagree with (the) premise that only people with incurable physical diseases are allowed to end their lives. Perpetuates the notion that psychiatric disorders and mood disorders are easily treatable.”
I’m not sure if I believe in ghosts but I sometimes wonder if Arthur didn’t want me to write that book about him. I wonder if he haunted my computer so I wouldn’t publish it. Was he a ghost in the machine? Can I blame him if he took his own story back?
I think everyone who has ever walked across a high bridge has thought about what it would be like to jump from there. Even if you don’t want to think about it, you will. Look over the rail and see how far down it is, to the water, or the ground, or the traffic. The thoughts just come. The frank reality of the moment is you could end your life in seconds.
One friend of mine, an author, told me, at their lowest low, they edited their own Wikipedia page to say they were dead. They put a date in there. They didn’t engage with the world for a couple of days after that. No one noticed their Wikipedia death. They wanted to see what it felt like to be dead to the world. The following week they took the death date off their Wikipedia page and came back alive.
There is a place in Seoul, South Korea, that holds mock funerals for people suffering or close to death. Participants are led into a dim room where they sit beside a casket and write their final testaments. Then they put on burial shrouds and lie down in the coffins. The coffins are nailed shut, and the person stays for ten minutes in darkness. Then, finally, they are let out of their casket. Many of the participants say they feel a renewed appreciation for life after this.
I admit that I have ghoulish tendencies. When I hear a celebrity has died, I almost can’t wait to tell someone. But first, I need to find out how they died.
Once, when a cat that an ex and I owned died a horrible death, my ex told me that she didn’t want anyone to know how the cat died. I said, “What do we say when people ask?” She said, “People won’t ask.” I didn’t believe her at first, but she was right. No one asked. But I could tell that the question was there, whispered among friends. How did the cat die?
Now, when I talk to someone whose pet has died, I remember not to ask how, but a part of me is anxious to know. There are so many things that can kill a human or animal. I want to know what to fear.
In Miriam Toews’ 2014 novel, All My Puny Sorrows, the narrator’s sister dies by suicide. The mother later states that “the pain of letting go of grief is just as painful or even more painful than the grief itself. It means goodbye.” Toews, who is one of my very favorite writers, has said the book is autobiographical, a way to better understand the real-life grief of her sister’s suicide. Another one of Toews’s most moving books is her 2000 memoir Swing Low: A Life, which she wrote in the voice of her father, who died by suicide in 1998. It’s a remarkable feat, with Toews fully embodying her father’s depression.
As much as I hate to say it, I was the one who sold Arthur his copy of Final Exit, about three months before his death. I was working at the bookstore when I spotted him near the health section. It felt odd to see him unannounced since he usually texted me when he was coming in. I snuck up and tried to surprise him. He seemed a little annoyed, like he was in a hurry, so I offered to help him find what he was looking for. We didn’t have it in stock, and it was unusually expensive online. I saw in the description that it was something about the ethics of suicide. Arthur said it was something he wanted to read for a class, so I didn’t question its subject matter. I thought of Final Exit and asked him if he knew about it. He did not. I found a used copy of it for him on the shelf. He went to the cashier and paid less than $10 for it. I think I gave him a discount coupon. It was, at the time, probably the most forgettable 10 minutes of our friendship. His hug was quick before he went into the night.
Earlier, I mentioned the friend who edited their Wikipedia page to say they died. But I lied about that. It was me who did that.
My Wikipedia page, my death, my resurrection.
I keep in touch with Arthur’s mom. We haven’t seen each other in person the last three years, partly because of COVID, but we text each other every couple of months. I send her photos of my cat and ask how she’s doing. She routinely responds in a positive fashion, with an abundance of exclamation points and emojis, usually flowers, cats, hearts, rainbows, stars, and black praying hands and a thumbs up. She adores my cat and loves all things cute and joyful.
I tell her that I’m writing about Arthur. In my head though, I’m worried about what she might think.
I also wonder what Arthur would think of me being friends with his mom. I would like to think that if he were still alive, they would have ended their estrangement and patched things up. I like to imagine all of us having dinner together. I wish that his mom and I could sit in theater seats somewhere and watch Arthur on a stage, singing with his band. Arthur would do some kind of ridiculously slinky dance move, and his mom and I would look at each other and laugh.
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Two of my favorite albums since Arthur died have been Sarah Mary Chadwick’s Me and Ennui Are Friends, Baby and Sharon Van Etten’s Remind Me Tomorrow. On the title track of Chadwick’s album, she sings about suicidal thoughts. She even gives the exact date of her last attempt: August 11, 2019. Midway through the song, singing with pain in her voice, over a stark piano refrain, she sings, And maybe I should chill / Out on blaming my parents / Forgivable at 25, it’s not cute at 37.
Van Etten’s album opens with the song “I Told You Everything.” The first lyrics:
Sitting at the bar, I told you everything / You said, “Holy shit, / You almost died.”
One of the first times I heard about suicide was the 1980 Queen song, “Don’t Try Suicide,” which is highlighted by a casual bassline and a catchy vocal style that almost sounds like doo-wop. Freddie Mercury sings the lines:
Don’t try suicide nobody’s worth it / Don’t try suicide / Nobody cares
Don’t try suicide / You’re just gonna hate it / Don’t try suicide / Nobody gives a damn.
Arthur’s mom once told me that she’d been listening to 528 Hz. It’s a frequency in the range of a high C note that induces testosterone production in the brain. Frequency of 528 Hz, according to various videos and claims, also has the power to transform your entire DNA, heal sore body parts, help you sleep, and treat cancer. I found a YouTube video called “528 Hz | DREAMSCAPE for POSITIVE TRANSFORMATION.” It’s over nine hours long. I’ve listened to it while working on parts of this essay.
The computer and phone Arthur left behind do not reveal his state of mind. His sister told me they found poems, songs, and other writings on the computer, but nothing like a suicide note, or journal. They never figured out a way to get into the phone. His sister says it’s locked by a pattern password. She has ten attempts to unlock it and has tried to do so seven times. She tells me she’s afraid to attempt those last chances because the phone might lock up permanently if she gets it wrong. But she still has the phone in case she ever figures out the way into it. Or as she says, “In case of a miracle.”
I try to imagine Arthur’s thoughts on his last day. Though he had obviously been planning his death for at least six months, I wonder if he fluctuated with his decision. Don’t try suicide. Nobody’s worth it . . .
He started the day riding a bus from Portland to the coast.
I envision him looking out the bus window, the roads on Highway 26 to the coast lined with forests, then hills and cliffs, and more forests. It’s a movie only I can imagine. His face in the window, reflecting like a mirror. Was he looking for something out there? Maybe he wasn’t looking out the window at all. Maybe he was watching someone else across the aisle and wondering what their life was like. I wonder if he already felt like a ghost, like someone passing through, knowing he would wake up the next day and get in a warm shower and wash his body with the magic of soap, dry his skin, put on clean clothes, and walk somewhere to spend $10 on a coffee and pastry. Maybe he thought he was escaping, no longer in need of warm water on his body, suds in his hair and on his chest, clothes to button up around him, and the comfort of food and drink.
Maybe there is something unburdening about knowing these things are the last in your life. The last walk on the beach, the last rock you throw in the water, the last splash, the last sunset, the last stranger you see, the last song you hear, the last words you say to someone.
Arthur had checked himself into a room at the Sunset Surf Motel in Manzanita, Oregon. He said something to the front desk person about meeting friends later, but he was probably just trying to distract them, in case he was acting nervous or peculiar.
At some point that night, he took the nitrous tank that he had brought with him and sat in the bed with it. This method, using inert gases, is described in Final Exit. I would like to believe the book when it says that it’s one of the most “effective” and “painless” methods for “self-deliverance.” I would like to think that it was as simple as falling asleep. I would like to think that he was so at peace that he could possibly even dream as he was dying. Maybe dreaming of France.
I always wondered how hard it would be to make yourself disappear. You would have to shed your traceable belongings. Throw your phone away or smash it. Burn your credit cards. Ditch your car. Never commit a crime. Pray that nobody has your fingerprints.
I can’t imagine how damaged a person must become to want to disappear. Not just without a trace, but without a mark on anything or anyone.
No past for anyone to remember.
There are around 600,000 people who go missing in the United States every year. According to National Missing and Unidentified Persons statistics, 4,400 unidentified bodies are found each year. Those numbers mean that only 0.7333% of people who go missing are found and unable to be identified.
Outside of his motel room, Arthur taped a note to the door. It said: if you don’t want to see a dead body, don’t go in.
I spoke with Arthur’s mother and sister on separate phone calls as I was finishing this essay. They still have very few clues as to why he did what he did. They both expressed lingering pain and sadness.
His mom tells me that when she attended the memorial for Arthur in Portland in November 2019, hearing his friends speak about him felt comforting. She was happy and relieved to hear that his friends loved him so much. I can imagine that talking to his friends and listening to their stories that day was bittersweet and nourishing. I was there as well, in the living room of the house of one of Arthur’s closest friends, and I remember how hard it was to speak when it was my turn. How I could barely make it through the sobbing.
Although my sadness has started to abate the past almost-four years, writing this has triggered an odd sense of frustration and even a sort of anger. There are times, sifting through the memories of our friendship, that I have wanted to throw something or scream. If you know me, you know that I am not prone to anger. I am quicker to break down in sadness than to lose my temper. The only time I ever scream is when I’m having a nightmare. Maybe I’m falling through the air, without a parachute, and I start to scream. Because the sound is coming from a dream dimension, it is usually shrill and hoarse, like a Chewbacca cry. It usually wakes me up and then I can’t help but laugh about the sound. And then I laugh at the quiet dark because I’m still alive.
Arthur’s mom and sister both go to suicide support groups. Arthur’s mom tells me that she suffers from depression and anxiety and that her own mother was schizophrenic. She tells me, more recently, that reading Mark Wolynn’s It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle has been helpful to her.
While genes and behaviors sometimes pass down in families, suicide is, in fact, not hereditary. People can, and should, and do seek help every day.
A depressed person often finds comfort in being down. I felt that in my depression. I would feel it weighing me down to a point where I basked in the gloom. I’d become a stubborn grump. It could almost become a dark perversion if I let it.
But I also knew what it felt like to be happy and satisfied and to strive for those kinds of feelings. I could seek out the dopamine like a freaking dopamine hunter! If I could simply trick myself into thinking positively and to see the pleasures in living, maybe I could find (and hold) happiness. Maybe my happiness would make others happy. Can happiness spread? Will it catch on?
At the performance that never happened, Arthur’s mom and I are seated there in the crowd, close to the front. It’s an outdoor show somewhere, with a river breeze cutting through the warm summer air. We’re watching the show, smiling, bopping our heads to the beat. Arthur’s band is not breaking up. They are writing more songs and getting ready to record an album. Arthur and I have even made a collage for the front cover.
The band are on their fourth song now, and as always happens at their shows, those in the audience that are not familiar with them are starting to pay close attention. It’s a raw, infectious funk. There’s a snarl to it, like the songs are somehow primitive. People are nudging each other and nodding to the stage, at Arthur, like, Holy shit, he’s good.
Arthur commands the stage, on the front lip of it like a balance beam. His long arms swim upward like he’s about to fly away, and when he sings, his face defines every word of his emotional lyrics. I turn my camera on and try to capture the moment. He quickly turns his head and sort of blocks his face dramatically, as if he’s suddenly shy. I can tell he knows it’s me trying to take the photos though, and I can see him trying not to laugh. It feels like both a flirt and a challenge and I take a few more photos. His impish behavior catches up with him by the end of the song and he’s cracking himself up. The band has to wait for him to stop laughing, but the crowd loves it. The audience already loves Arthur.
They start their next song and I look at the photos on my camera, expecting the blurry worst. And that’s what I get—smudges of fabric, skin, and glaring stage lights. But there is one stunning one. It looks crystal clear and perfect. I can see his sharp cheekbones and dark eyes angled upward as if watching his lean, muscular arm and outstretched hand trying to snatch a star out of the sky.
Kevin Sampsell is a writer, editor, collage artist, small press book publisher and bookseller living in Portland, Oregon. His books include I Made an Accident: Collages and Poems, the novel, This Is Between Us, and the memoir, A Common Pornography.
Editor: Krista Stevens
Copyeditor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands