Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well."
Lady Lazarus By Sylvia Plath
"The only emperor, is the emperor of Ice Cream."
- The Emperor of Ice Cream by Wallace Stevens
I came into work one day and as I was standing at the photocopy machine, a co-worker who trained me for my job walked up to me.
"Hey remember when VonDrain never came back to class?" she asked.
"Yeah" I replied.
"He committed suicide. Just realized from the military. Ain't that something, never showed any signs or anything."
"When?" I asked, slightly confused.
"Sometime after the Savage Garden concert."
I was taken slightly aback. I had been at that concert, VonDrain was scheduled to work the concert for the military. I searched my mind frantically for his face. I saw him sitting there, two seats down from me in the training class, his face slightly blurred. I saw him standing there, two feet from me as we took instructions from our team lead. It was the first time I'd ever known someone who died.
I went on about my business that day. I walked to my cubicle and dropped my stuff on the desk claiming it to be mine. I wasn't due to clock in until 5; I was an hour early. Walking out into the lobby I sat down in one of the chairs and began to think. I thought long and hard about VonDrain. I knew he was in his twenties, married, part time for the military, and he has two kids.
I felt this deep, hollow, emptiness inside of me. In all of my nineteen years, I haven't known a soul to die, when I'd only seen them a few weeks prior. My grandfather died when I was six, but I never took much solace in it. I was only six and I barely remember the funeral. When my uncle died of lung cancer, I cried a bit but wasn't especially moved by it. I saw him around Thanksgiving but we never saw each other in between.
But as I sat in that rigid but soft waiting room chair, I thought back to when I'd last seen VonDrain. Bolting from my seat I walked to the training room and searched for Mr. C, the guy that looks like Morpheus from the Matrix and the main job trainer. I couldn't find him. Almost running into Joe, another trainer, I asked him where Mr. C was.
"Oh I don't know, he might be in his office, did you check?" I said yes. "He might be outside teaching a class, is something wrong?"
"Yeah, all's well, just wanted to ask him about VonDrain, when the funeral was and all...." Joe didn't miss a beat.
"Oh that happened weeks ago. He just saw something in The Signal [the military newspaper] and found his obituary in the paper."
"Oh..." was all I could mumble. VonDrain had died weeks ago yet the world seemed to have gone on. I mumbled a few more words and walked back to my chair in the lobby. I thought about VonDrain, but I also thought about myself. What would happen when I died? What was happening to VonDrain? I didn't know the man, I barely spoke to him, he was just another face that I saw on a daily basis. But his death struck some deep, untouched emotion in me. Sitting there, I became very aware of my own death, the question of if I would make it to the other side, or would I just die as some animal and never exists again. Joe appeared around the corner and walked over to me.
"Here yea go, got this off the net." He handed me a still warm paper hot of the printer. I read across the top:
Sgt. VonDrain Smith
Then some link for the sales people, "send flowers to this funeral", no conscience, no thought for the dead, just making that last buck.
"Fort Gordon- Sgt. VonDrain Lamont Smith, 25, died Monday, July 17th, 2000, in Augusta"
I read the obituary once, then again, and again and again. I read it a dozen times, each time picturing his face in my head. It didn't say anything about a suicide. The local newspaper never would if it was military. He'd been buried the following Saturday in Hampton South Carolina. Today was August the 8th. It'd been almost a month and life had just rolled on as usual.
Front doors open, show your badge, giggle. My friend Tina came in and walked over to me. "You all right? Your pale as hell" she said. She sat next to VonDrain in training, beside me. I lifted the paper to her she took it. "What the hell!" she said aloud.
"He committed suicide, right after the Savage Garden concert." Her eyes began to well up and she shook her head slightly. Her friend who'd come in with her took her into arms and she began to weep. I watched as her fingers let go of the paper and it began to fall to the floor. I caught it. The two of them walked away, her sobs slowly being blurred out by the other circulation of the day. I read his obituary again.
My Operations Manager came in and she looked at me funny. "Y'all right?" she asked.
"Yeah! I'm fine, just a question." I asked her about clocking in early. She told me something about it having to be prearranged.
"What's that?" she asked, seeing the word Obituary.
"Guy I was in training and on AOL with, killed himself right after the Savage Garden concert." I handed her the paper. She scanned it and handed it back to me; I was partly reaching for it. "I'd never know anyone to die before." I felt my emotions loose control and I began to walk away, tears beginning to stream down my face. I heard her say something but that was when I saw Tina.
Her eyes were red and puffy and walked straight to me and began to cry. I buried my head to her shoulder and cried. How could someone I barely knew rise such emotion in me? We stood in that hall crying for a few minutes. "I need a cigarette," she said. I walked her outside to the break area and to a table. I stood against the wall and watched the people mill about. My body was numb. I was trying to remember his face. A woman sat down and gave Tina a cigarette, they began to talk about the Obituary, now in front of Tina.
"Damnedest thing, just up and died. Jeeez, I can't even remember his face." And I felt the tears well up inside of me again. I broke down crying and slid to the ground. Tina and another girl rushed to my side and held me. Of all the things I could remember in my life, my fifth birthday, my grandfathers funeral, getting my bike.... I couldn't remember a face I'd seen a few weeks ago.
My day went very shitty. I was still numb and hollow inside but I forced myself to work. It was the only way I could take my mind off things and heal myself. My operations manager said I could go home and should, but I refused. If I went home then I knew I'd be alone, the lights would be out, and my emotions would only get the better of me. Everyone who asked why I was pale and my eyes red, I told. I told them of a good man, twenty five years old, with two kids that died. I told them that I barely knew him but felt a deep remorse. They just nodded numbly and offered some words of condolence.
Seven hours later I drove home in silence. Its only 10 miles from work to my house, but what a long ten miles they were. I thought about my life, the sins I'd committed in my life. I thought about being Gay, about what it meant to me, to my parents, to God. I believe in God. I believe that nothing happens without a reason. But I didn't understand why a man would kill himself. Life will always go on...right?
Since VonDrain's death, I've been questioning myself. When I lay in bed with my boyfriend, smoking a cigarette, his musical voice playing on about something, I think about what will happen. When I die will we be separated and sent off to some purgatory where I'll never see him again. If I died, will I ever get to see or experience the things I cherish most?
Over and over it played in my head, even as my boyfriend fell asleep. If I died, I would miss those mornings sitting at my desk, the smell of French Roast coffee thick in the air, as I pecked out a story or two on the computer. I would miss picking up a book and falling into it. I would miss my friends, my family, the greater things of course. But it was those little things that really got me. The coffee, the writing, my cat, the feel of a plastic chess piece in my hand as I played with my friend Mike. It's funny how life gets to going and flying along, until something stops it dead.
I'm gay and I don't know what will happen to me some day. I don't know if I will die tomorrow or if I will live until I'm a hundred. I'm scared to question God and ask him where I should be. I read the Bible and it's like reading a speeding ticket. There are no arguments, there is no consideration, just pay the fine and be thankful the office didn't give you two.
Up until now I'd had a simple solution to God, being gay, and what laid beyond:
As long as I loved God, and believed in him, and I was happy, everything would be all right. That was my slogan as I held my flag up high. But I don't think that way anymore. As I drove home on that long highway, so dark and hot outside, I thought of the things I needed to do. I thought of things I should do to earn a place in heaven. I'm still confused and I don't quite understand where to go. I'll read Sylvia Plath and Wallace Stevens and wonder about death.
Is death a point when life just ceases to exists? Or does it have an end, a final resting place for the soul. I can't answer these questions and I doubt anyone else could. For now we're left to sit and wait. We'll all push death from our minds and forget about it. We'll forget about being Gay, about sins that we've committed, weather we've been saved or if we turned off the coffee pot this morning.
But fifty years from now, if I'm still living, I will remember VonDrain and that day when I cried over someone I barely knew. And all over again the thoughts of death and my final resting place will come back to me......