by Caroline Horwitz
Unexpected Fact: If you have dinner with your uncle on Saturday, and he jokes, eats heartily, and makes future plans with you and your relatives, it doesn’t mean he won’t be dead by his own hand on Tuesday.
The body in the coffin didn’t look any different from the man I had known.
I hadn’t felt that way at his wife’s calling hours five months before, or at either of my grandparents’ a decade ago. Those bodies looked fake and heavily coated with makeup—wax figures of those people I knew so well. But their deaths had been caused by cancer, emphysema, and congestive heart failure. They hadn’t looked like themselves for some time, their appearances ravaged by their gradual expirations. My uncle’s suicide lasted only as long it took a 9mm Glock to send a bullet from one side of his head to the other.
I was shocked to learn his calling hours would feature an open casket given the nature of the death, but the funeral home director assured my family that a closed casket wouldn’t be necessary.
“Of course, we’ll have to turn it the opposite way against the wall,” he said, “to show the left side of his face instead of the right.”
To hide the entry wound.
My mother and I were the first ones at the funeral home. I’d never seen the body of a gunshot victim and expected serious damage. The movies seemed to indicate that huge portions of the skull would be blown off. But there was Jim, handsome as ever, perhaps just resting on those blinding-white pillows.
If I looked a little closer at his face, though, I could make out the edges of gauzy bandages on either side of his head and a hint of puckered, dried scabs peeking from beneath them.
He started drinking again right after his wife Amy died. He promised her on her literal deathbed that he wouldn’t. She endured over twenty years of his drunken episodes, and the emotional and sometimes physical abuse that came with them, only to be cancer-stricken a year after he finally got clean and started therapy.
A shadow of the perky, glamorous woman she used to be, she begged him to maintain sobriety.
“You can’t go back to drinking when I’m gone, no matter how sad you are,” Amy said. “Promise me.”
“I won’t,” he said. “I’m done with that.”
But he did, and he didn’t try to hide it either. Just weeks after her funeral, his refrigerator was stocked with twenty-four-can packs of Coors Light. Some of his siblings wanted to confront him about it. Others wanted to leave it alone, feeling they weren’t in the position to tell a grieving widower not to have a few beers if it made him feel better. My mother was livid at them more than at him.
“When he drinks in front of us, he’s pleading for us to say something!” I heard her cry to one of my aunts or uncles over the phone. “He wants to know that we care enough about him to stop it.”
He was nonchalant when she addressed it. “I’m being careful,” he said.
It was easy to tell when he had been drinking. He was loud and red and giddy and said nonsensical things, often concerning dead celebrities. T.S. Eliot and Johnny Weissmuller were particular favorites. Countless times we heard him claim that Eliot was almost illiterate and his wife was the writer behind most of his work, and that Weissmuller was closely related to our family.
“We could trace it, I bet!” he’d say, voice booming. “If we really wanted to.” Eyes unblinking shards of blue so bloodshot they might be terrifying, if not for that irrepressible glee.
The Glock 17 is one of the best-selling handguns in the world. Jim only owned his a few years, seemingly purchasing it for work-related purposes. As a security guard, he earned more per hour any time he wore it.
That gun disturbed my mother as soon as she learned of Amy’s diagnosis with advanced skin cancer.
“She’s everything to him,” she told me. “I’m worried what he’ll do.”
I don’t know how many days passed after Amy’s funeral before my mom attempted to convince Jim to give up the gun. Not many.
“Please let me take it for a little while,” she implored him. “You can have it back later, but I just don’t think it should be in your house right now.”
He refused. “I’m not going to do anything stupid,” he said.
It wasn’t an explicit promise not to kill himself, I suppose.
He was the seventh of twelve children, my mother the eighth. Though a year apart in age, they were in the same class throughout school since Jim was held back in first grade.
“He was always self-conscious about that, I think,” my mom said.
She had great affection for him despite having little in common. She was well-behaved and studious, reading the newspaper every day by fourth grade. He had little use for rules and little fear of authority, crumpling notes from teachers and swiping his parents’ cigarettes.
Shortly after Jim was born, my grandmother suffered a nervous breakdown. It was so severe that she became catatonic, remaining in the hospital for months while my infant uncle was cared for by a nursemaid. Could this have been the catalyst for his tragic life, my mom wondered?
“A newborn baby needs to be around its mother,” she said. “Mother always said he noticed everything.”
Jim earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing but opted for manual labor after working an office job for less than a year. Working in factories and operating cranes guaranteed he wouldn’t have to wear business attire forty hours a week.
“I’m not taking another job that makes me wear a monkey suit,” he said.
He met his wife in one of these factories. She was a seventeen-year-old small-town beauty queen. He was thirty-one. When he picked her up for their first date, her father sat on the front porch of their rural home, a shotgun in his lap.
“He didn’t understand,” my uncle said years later. “Dying was the last thing I was afraid of.”
When I was a child, he was my favorite uncle of the six. He was the fun one, the charming one, the leather jacket-wearing, motorcycle-riding black sheep. By the time I was eighteen months old, I’d shout his name upon hearing the rev of any motorcycle engine. Perhaps there was some draw besides his cool-guy persona. He was the only uncle to never have children, and I had no father.
He was hardly a substitute, though. As I grew older, his visits with everyone grew more sporadic. He was hard to contact, sometimes avoiding family functions for almost a year despite living less than an hour away.
He had somehow managed, despite his best efforts, to be the fittest of the twelve siblings. He drank, smoked tobacco and marijuana, ate greasy food on a regular basis, and hardly exercised. But he was trim, muscular, and healthy, unlike many of my more-disciplined aunts and uncles who still struggled with their weight and a myriad of health problems.
A month after Amy’s death, my mom asked how he was feeling.
“I’m cursed with good health,” he told her, with no trace of humor.
Jim spent a summer of college in the seventies working at a cattle slaughterhouse. He hated it.
“They could smell the blood,” he said. “They knew they were next.”
I never knew what position he worked. I didn’t want to ask. He didn’t kill them; that much I knew. He was farther down the line. Close enough to hear the cows’ panicked lowing, though, before each was silenced with a shot to the head from a captive bolt pistol.
Was there any pain?
At dinner three nights prior, I sat across from him at my aunt’s dining room table. I faced a man who, that night at least, was cheerful and sober and knew he was seeing us for the last time.
I combed through my memory hunting for any possible foreshadowing comment, but there was none. He fooled us all.
Most suicides seem to be accompanied by a resounding survivors’ cry of Why? Not so with our family. You want reasons? Take your pick: lost his wife; flawed husband to her; no children; alcoholic; history of depression. The query that prickled beneath our skins was far more uncomfortable: Why now?
Five months. It seemed an odd amount of time. Too late to be an immediate reaction to losing Amy and too soon to have fully sampled life without her and decided against it. There was no significance in the date he chose—no anniversaries or birthdays or milestones of any sort. The reason was a simple and surprising one.
Dependent upon a variety of factors, headstones require different amounts of time to produce, inscribe, deliver, and affix upon a grave. Amy’s took five months.
It arrived the week before he killed himself. The last piece of the puzzle, as it were. The last task he wanted to see to completion for her.
His body and gun were found in the woods adjacent to the cemetery. A pink rose, Amy’s favorite, lay on the new headstone.
The police found no note of any kind when they searched Jim’s house—my childhood home. He and Amy had planned to buy it from my mother after she moved out of town. Almost right after they moved in, though, Amy received her diagnosis. They couldn’t afford the purchase anymore, so the title remained under my mother’s name and she let them live there for free.
The house was immaculate. His two small dogs, like children to him, were in their crates as they always were when he was out. He knew it wouldn’t take the family long to find them. I imagine they were the only ones to receive a goodbye.
The coroner’s report found no alcohol in his bloodstream. Why would it? He didn’t need to be drunk for this.
Every step of the bullet’s journey is measured and chronicled in the report as the “hemorrhagic pathway.” It’s a trail, really. A trail that passes through tissue and muscle and bone and lobe, leaving rhyming verbs in its wake: Lacerate. Macerate. Perforate.
“I should have gotten that gun,” my mother said after the funeral.
“You tried,” I said. “It wouldn’t have mattered. It’s what he had, so it’s what he used.”
“Jimmy,” she whispered.
I hung my long-sleeved black dress back in the closet. I’d only worn it once before, five months ago.
“He just didn’t want to be here anymore,” I said.
It was all I could think to tell her. And it occurred to me that it could very well be the truth.
Caroline Horwitz’s essays have appeared in publications such as Animal, Forge Journal, Lowestoft Chronicle, Mothers Always Write, and The Summerset Review, among others. Her work has been nominated for the 2015 Best of the Net Anthology and listed as a notable entry in The Best American Essays 2014. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Chatham University and lives in Las Vegas with her husband and son.