Last August, the world was stunned and horrified when it learned that actor and comedian Robin Williams had committed suicide. Any death is sad, and any celebrity death brings some amount of news coverage, but this one seemed to bring even more than usual because of the suddenness and shocking nature of his death. Regular programming was interrupted for breaking news and wall-to-wall coverage stretched into the next morning. His motive wasn’t immediately clear, and so speculation continued throughout the week on what might have caused Williams to take his own life. Makeshift memorials sprouted up all over the country at sites from his popular movies. Popular lines from his movies were quoted and repeated on social media, and people usually included an anecdote on how Williams or his movies affected them. But when I first heard the news, I didn’t think of his movies or his comedy. I thought of my uncle Jim.
My uncle Jim was my Mom’s only brother, and ten years her senior. In addition to being an uncle, he was a Christian, a father, a grandfather, a writer, a teacher, a golfer, a long-suffering Cleveland sports fan, among others. He lived in Texas for a while when I was born, but lived in northern Ohio for most of my childhood, so we got to see a lot of him. I suppose the first similarity you’d notice with Robin Williams was his eyes: they were deep blue, and they were always smiling. But there was more. Uncle Jim loved a good joke, especially if he was the punchline, and had a laugh that was infectious: not a deep-throated, full-belly laugh but more of a smirk, like he was trying to hold it in but just couldn’t, like he was getting away with something.
I get the feeling that uncle Jim made a strong, positive impression on everyone he met, because some of my earliest memories are with him. I think I’m about four years old in the picture above, but I remember having that picture taken: it was on Easter Sunday, and we were visiting my grandma’s house. (That cookie was amazing, but I don’t remember finishing it. I suspect foul play.)
Another early memory was a visit to his house over a weekend. My sister and I were about four and six years old, respectively, and usually when we arrived somewhere late on a Friday night for a weekend visit, we’d more or less say our hellos and promptly say our good nights. But at Uncle Jim’s, we arrived on Friday night, and instead of going right to bed, we stayed up for a while around the kitchen table, eating chips and salsa and chatting about life. My sister had a real taste for salty foods back then, and she was eating as many corn chips as was put in front of her. Finally, someone cut her off and she had only a few chips left. Trying to make things better, Uncle Jim made a fist and crunched one of the chips on the table, saying something to the effect of “See? Now you have lots of chips!” Katie didn’t see it that way at the time, but today she remembers the incident more fondly.
Uncle Jim taught me the fine art of stealing preview bites of the Thanksgiving turkey while evading the (jokingly) menacing carving knife of my dad. He taught me about the suicide squeeze, and why sometimes it was worth sacrificing a strikeout for a chance at a two-strike squeeze play. At a rainy, frigid March afternoon exhibition game at Jacobs Field, he taught me that there’s nothing better than baseball, even if it doesn’t count and even if the weather’s terrible. He loved to play runaround, a variant of ping pong that’s a tradition in our family, and although he wasn’t very good at it, he taught me that you don’t have to be winning to be trash talking. He also taught me some humility: in my freshman year of high school, I was on the JV tennis team and thought I was some pretty hot stuff. But the one time we played tennis, an afternoon in Norwalk, Ohio, he dominated, running me all over the court while barely having to move at all.
He moved to Phoenix to be closer to his son and granddaughter when I was in high school, but my sister and I still heard from him frequently through birthday cards, phone calls, and e-mails. I knew that when he moved back to Ohio, it’d be like he never left. But that never happened.
Seven years ago this month, uncle Jim passed away. Like Robin Williams, he was gone way too soon; he ended his own life and gave into his demons.
Uncle Jim wasn’t perfect, but rather than digging deep into the reasons why he did it, I’ll skip ahead to the after effects. I cannot possibly overstate this enough: by and large, committing suicide is an incredibly selfish decision. There are obviously exceptions, and usually those exceptions involve situations where the term “suicide” isn’t really appropriate. Uncle Jim’s wasn’t an exception; neither was the other suicide in our family, now almost 13 years ago. I’ve never been really close to suicide, but I’d have to imagine that at that moment, you have to be so self-absorbed that you’re literally blinded to the feelings of your loved ones. It takes only a shred of rational thought in that moment to realize how much you’re about to hurt everyone you love. Either you’re in that moment and you don’t think of your loved ones at all, or you think of them but ignore the hurt you’re about to cause them.
My favorite Christmas movie to watch every year is It’s a Wonderful Life. If you haven’t seen it, I’m about to spoil it for you, because, seriously, what the heck is wrong with you? In the third act of the movie, protagonist George Bailey, short $8,000 and considering suicide after a string of bad circumstances, is given the opportunity to see what the world would be like without him. After getting over his disbelief and then astonishment, George sees how much he’s influenced the people he loves, comes to his senses and wants to live again. The ending of the movie makes me tear up every time I watch it, because it turns out all he had to do was ask his friends for help.
Earlier in the movie, young George Bailey had jumped into a freezing river as a kid to save his little brother from drowning. Old George Bailey was on the brink of suicide before his guardian angel Clarence jumped in first, forcing George to act selflessly and save a stranger from drowning. Uncle Jim’s suicide came at a particularly trying time in my life. It was my third year of college and I had spent that entire fall semester in the throes of the worst breakup of my life. I said earlier I’ve never been close to suicide, and that’s true, but during that semester I had briefly wondered if it would be easier for everyone involved if I just wasn’t around. I got the call from my Dad while doing laundry a couple days before Thanksgiving break. For me, it was like a B12 shot. I came to my senses almost immediately, and while I wasn’t any less depressed then and I’ve certainly been down at times since, I’ve never even thought of ending my own life. In a way, and unintentionally, uncle Jim was like Clarence in my own life.
What bums me out most about uncle Jim being gone is that he didn’t have to go through what he was going through alone. Like George Bailey, all he had to do was ask his friends and family for help. As bad as things looked then, they were bound to be better with friends and family around (even my family). He would have liked seeing me and my sister graduate college; piling in my parents' car for their semi-annual trips to visit me in South Carolina; attending my sister’s wedding and getting to know her husband and his fantastic family. He would have liked card nights that my sister likes to throw together around the holidays, where a few family members come over and we play cards or board games. He would have enjoyed the influx of kids in our extended family again. He would have enjoyed watching his granddaughter grow up and graduate high school, then college, and eventually have a family of her own. All he had to do was ask; all he had to do was say to someone, “man, I just can’t take this anymore.” I wish he had asked me, because at the time we certainly had a lot more in common than he knew.
In the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, Clarence leaves George a copy of Tom Sawyer with the message:
And so I’d be remiss if I didn’t end this post by saying that if you’re a reader, I consider you a friend. And if you’re considering suicide, or any form of self-harm, or are just having a tough day, shoot me an e-mail or give me a call (send me an email if you don’t have my number). Whatever you’re going through, it will get better, and you’re most definitely not alone.
And seriously, watch It’s a Wonderful Life.