My brother Bret started the next life at forty, when he departed from this world by suicide.
A chapter adapted from 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared (Trinity University Press, 2012). Writer Kim Stafford’s memoir, 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do, is about growing up as the son of Poet Laureate, William Stafford, and losing his brother to suicide.
My son Guthrie told me at about age six that he sees most adults “just running toward the next life . . . and as they get older, they run faster.” That stopped me in my tracks. My brother Bret had started the next life at forty, when he departed from this world by suicide. And I believe his death began the next life for me, in this world. I live now in a realm where everything has changed, and the old ways of hiding begin to fall away.
When I was a child, my grandmother gave me a book called Ishi in Two Worlds, about the “last wild Indian” of California who stumbled into the twentieth century in 1911, alone, and starving. He was the lone survivor of the Yahi people, and he was following the Feather River south to find that place in the Yahi creation story where people who have died go through a tunnel into the next world. This story itself was a kind of creation myth for my own childhood, and I spent many days imagining that I, too, was the last of my kind.
There is one incident in Ishi’s life that teaches me about my brother, and the next life. In the summer of 1915, the anthropologists took Ishi back to his native ground, on Deer Creek, in northern California. Ishi was very uneasy about the journey. He recognized the local guide, a man named Apperson, as someone who had harried his people toward the end. One night by the fire in camp, as Apperson was cleaning his gun, Ishi asked quietly, “Are you going to shoot me now?” He was in the terrain where he and his people had been hunted to extinction.
As the party went deeper into the canyon, Ishi became more wary. Finally, one night he left the camp in the dark. Again, he was alone in the place of ghosts, as he had been in the years after the last of his people were gone.
When he returned to camp in the morning, he told the young boy in the party, Saxton Pope, Jr., that in the dark he had learned that his people were all right. They had made it to the next world, he said, and all was well. For the balance of the expedition, Ishi was in good spirits, showing the anthropologists how he speared salmon in the creek, made a bow and arrows, hunted and dressed a deer, made fire, named his people’s places of hunting and hiding, and identified a hundred plants that had kept his people alive.
I think the comfort in that return to camp for Ishi combined a sense that his people were well, and also that the next world, when his own time came, would be ready to welcome him.
Shortly after my brother died, when I was in the darkest passage of my own survival, I had a letter from an old friend, in Texas, telling me that my brother had appeared to her in a dream and said to her: “Tell Kim I am okay. Will you let him know? I am doing what I need to do, and I am well.”
Where is he, then? When he went through that primordial tunnel at death, where did he come forth?
I believe this life had become a tunnel of suffering for my brother, with deep depression, and the only way he could come forth was through death. When Bret wrote his senior thesis in anthropology at the University of Oregon, in 1970, his scholarship became a parable for his life of struggle. His “Understanding Maori Taboo” begins with a kind of genesis statement about a world filled with danger. When I read his words now, his voice sounds distanced from the spirit of those times, the 1960s, that famous era of free love:
All men, upon birth, enter a world which is not of their own making. It is a world which existed before man and which constantly eludes his efforts to comprehend and control it. It can hardly be said, from man’s perspective, to be the epitome of order. . . .
But men seem to need order, to need a system of some kind, that they may feel secure. They cannot live with disorder. Thus, they build a system; they impose order upon the world. The source of the system of order they adopt is their culture. . . .
But the world is not completely amenable to the system of order men have imposed upon it. Plus, it is full of dangers. . . . And it is here that taboo comes in.
Taboo, “a ritual restriction or prohibition,” became my brother’s code.
It has taken me over twenty years to realize my brother came to a point where he could not live. He loved his family, and his life had many blessings. But he had to stop his pain, and did not have the skills to come to safety in some other way. I could run from my life—by divorce, by wandering, by writing a fierce new self-definition. My brother did not have these devious means.
Once, when weeping took me down, I could hardly breathe, thinking of him. “Why did you have to go?” This chain of words were like mountains that could not be moved, a wall blocking my path: Why-Did-You-Have-to-Go? But as I gasped, the mountain words were jolted to a new configuration in my mind, and I could breathe again: You-Have-Gone. The question that had choked me became a fact. My brother has gone.
Recently I found a long letter he wrote from Iowa—not to the family, as was his custom, but to me. It was November of 1966, and winter was closing down over the Grinnell campus. He had just been telling me about his efforts to be a good person, not selfish, or jealous. “I, as I think all of us do,” he wrote, “have a slight tendency to think a lot of myself. I try to get away from this.” But then he lets himself go, revealing in words the heart of his desire:
Way back in August, as the jet took off, I craned over (probably irritating the fellow next to me) to take a look at the Cascade range. Boy did it look good! I could see the mountains way up in Washington, and clear down, I think, to the Diamond Peak area. But the best part was looking down on Jefferson Park. I could see the ridge and the hidden, far-away valley. I wished I had a parachute.
The summer after my brother’s death, I was teaching a week-long writing class at the Oregon coast. My divorce had been finalized in June, I was living in a house on Custer Street in Portland, Oregon, where Bret had last visited me, and I was bouncing along from one short teaching stint to the next. But I wasn’t exactly teaching writing any more. That did not make sense. Instead, I was reaching for the deepest stories people had to offer. “What have you been carrying?” I began to say. “What secret are you ready to tell?” I could not teach a class, or have a conversation, without mentioning my brother, his pain, his suicide. I felt like the dancer with the red shoes, unable to stop public performance of pain.
In this class, one student in particular seemed alive to the darkness I was swimming through. She asked about my brother after class one day, and seemed ready to listen to anything I had to say.
On Friday afternoon, the last day, everyone shared something they had written, we savored what we had managed to bring to light, and then the writers got up to leave.
But this one lingered. When the others had left the room, she said to me, “Well, Kim Stafford, let’s go on an adventure.”
“Umm, like what?” I said.
“Oh . . . let’s go camping. Would you like that?”
“Okay,” I said. “Where? When?”
“Pick me up a week from today,” she said, “say 3 p.m., and we’ll decide about the where.” She put her hand on my shoulder. “And in the meantime,” she said, “be good to yourself.” Then she gave me her address, took up her notebook, and was gone.
Earlier that summer, I had gone to buy myself a new sleeping bag at REI. The clerk was an old friend, Gil, a crag rat from way back.
“You just became single,” he said, “didn’t you?”
“Well you don’t need a sleeping bag, then. You need two sleeping bags that zip together.”
The following Friday, I packed the two sleeping bags, my tent and stove, gathered food, took a map of the Mount Jefferson Wilderness, locked my house, and went to get her. She came skipping out of her apartment downtown with her backpack over her shoulder and climbed into the car, and we were off.
“East slope of Mount Jefferson okay with you?” I said, as we eased onto the freeway, heading south.
“Whatever you say,” she said. “Haven’t been there, and that’s always good. By the way, my boyfriend is really pissed about this.”
“Your boyfriend? I didn’t know you had a boyfriend.”
“Yeah, he says how come you’re going hiking with this other guy, and you won’t go with me?”
“What did you tell him?”
“I told him if I wuss out on the trail, he would make me feel bad about it. But you won’t.”
“Why would I?” I said.
At that moment, as we were climbing the grade out of town on I-5 South, I noticed a silver band on her ring finger.
“Say,” I said, “can you tell me about that ring? I hadn’t noticed it before.”
“That’s my promise to myself never to marry,” she said. We drove in silence for a time. I tried to make all this fit together—an adventure . . . a boyfriend . . . a vow.
By six, we were on the trail at Candle Creek, heading west toward Mount Jefferson through open stands of Douglas fir and ponderosa pine. Huckleberries were ripening, and we stopped now and then to gather a handful, readjust our packs, cut a couple of walking sticks from an alder stand at the periphery of the lava flow that paralleled the trail.
It was dusk by the time we left the trail and scrambled half a mile cross-country to a lake without a name, a blue dot on my map. We set up the tent. Clouds were gathering.
I held up the two sleeping bags I had taken from my pack. “Shall I zip these together?”
“I don’t plan on being cold,” she said. “Do you?”
So we had a quick dinner and climbed into the bag together. I had fit a candle stub to the toe of my boot with hot wax, and light flickered on the walls of the tent.
“I’m here to talk,” she said. “How about you?”
So that’s what we did, all that night and into the next day. She told me about her family, her journey from Idaho to Oregon, teaching unwed mothers, alternative education, dark family stories and scenes of illumination through friendship and self-discovery. I told her about my family, my brother’s childhood, making my living as a scholar gypsy, being a teacher all over. I told her how my father’s advice for writers seemed useful for my life: When it gets hard, lower your standards and keep going.
At one point, just before dawn, she said, “We’ve talked about your daughter, about writing, about our families, war, fear, hurt and sorrow—now let’s do God.” So we did God for awhile. She had been on the “God Squad” in college, and I, with my brother, co-moderator of the Presbyterian Youth. And then it was noon.
We packed the tent, the sleeping bags, what was left of our food, and started down the trail, walking much of the way in silence, stopping now and then to rest, and tasting again of the huckleberry. She took the lead, and I followed. No other hiker on that trail the whole six miles.
When we were maybe a mile from the road, she turned around, planted her walking stick, turned her head to the side, and said, “Well, Kim Stafford, what do you want?” In the momentum of our long conversation, I thought I had the answer.
“I want to be a good father,” I said, “to my daughter, Rosie.”
“We talked about family last night,” she said. “But now we’re talking about you. What do you want?” She was looking at me with a smile. She had all the time in the world.
“Well,” I said, “I want to be a good writer, then. After Rosie, that’s the most important thing.”
“You’re not hearing me,” she said. “We talked about writing last night, along with everything else. But I’m asking now about you. What do you want?”
“People are always asking me that,” I said. “And I don’t know.”
“You need to know,” she said. “I’m in no hurry.” She leaned back, but did not set her pack on the ground, and neither did I. It was not time to rest.
I realized, as she waited, that all my life I had set this question aside. In my family, the training was to see what others needed, and then to serve them. People were so reticent about what they wanted, eventually no one really knew what they wanted, and in the absence of this knowing, everyone served others. There was a silent language we used to direct our actions. After a time, this process was automatic: observe others, intuit need, then act to satisfy what you thought was wanted. As for resentment and confusion—and desire—you were pretty much on your own.
Then I thought of my brother. What did he want? What did he never say he wanted? Did he know what he wanted? Was not knowing this core thing a vacancy inside himself around which he faltered from this life?
And what did his death teach me I wanted? If he could be alive again, taste huckleberries on this trail, and stand together with a kind friend, what might he want?
A spiderweb tethered to a trunk of pine bellied and flickered in the breeze, a rainbow sheen flowing from one end to the other.
“I want to be honest,” I said. “I used to think it was easy. But I didn’t know the first thing. If I can be honest, I will be a father. I will be a writer. I want to try to know, to say, to witness what is real.”
“So,” she said, “you have chosen. Not an easy thing. But you have chosen.” She looked far down the trail for a moment. “I have five rules for you then. These last few miles, I’ve figured out five.”
“First, be a great single parent to your daughter. Someday, you may be with a new partner. But don’t wait for that. Be single and a father, and do it well.
“Second, live in a house you love. Don’t see your place as a temporary camping spot between your old life and some new life to come. Be who you are, and make your place be about who you are.
“Third, do things with your guy friends. This is a time for friendship. You lost a brother. Seek brotherhood. You know how important that can be.
“Fourth—and this will be a challenge: no significant romantic relationships for a year. You need to sit this out for awhile, let who you are get clearer. Who you are without a wife. Without a girlfriend. Without a brother. Just you.”
“Okay,” I said, “but what about insignificant romantic relationships?” She laughed.
“Well, yeah. Here we are, man and woman, yes? Two in one cocoon, yes? But you know what I mean. Don’t go into another’s life until you have your own.”
“Was there a fifth?”
“You said five.”
“Let me think about it,” she said, and turned to take the lead again for the last mile down the trail.
Image credit: paul bica/Flickr