Just before Christmas we had a death in the family. The step-father of one of our daughters-in-law, a familiar presence at family gatherings over the years, a genial and clever man who had served in Tito’s Air Force as a young man, a machinist by trade, full of stories of his native Slovenia, a great fund of miscellaneous knowledge, proud of what his children had achieved in Canada, a doting grandfather.
I shall miss him at those gatherings.
Joe took his own life. There was no overt warning or sign. He was perhaps not in the best of health, he was faced with a mandatory retirement he did not want, but nothing presented itself as an immediate trigger for the decision, which was premeditated and carefully planned. Naturally, the family are in great shock, his widow and step-daughters full of puzzlement, alternating between anger and grief, wanting answers where there are none.
The memorial service took place at the Slovenian Roman Catholic church in Toronto. Joe’s daughter spoke movingly about her father. The church was filled with parishioners who knew him, and with fellow workers, whom Joe himself had liked to characterise as “United Nations,” who took the day off to be there, and were indeed an impressive assortment of ethnicities, skilled artisans who liked and respected Joe as one of their own.
The officiating priest, a man of great personal dignity and air of world-weariness, and who had known Joe throughout his time in Canada, gave a fine homily before administering the sacraments, in which without once mentioning suicide, in tones of undogmatic humility, gave an impression of holding, firstly, that the state of mind of a man at the moment of the final act is not anyway knowable and, secondly, who is to say that God does not have his own hidden pathways to redemption? He looked, as a priest should look, like a man with a quarrel, like a man daring God to do other than accept this sacrifice of the mass in Joe’s final reckoning.
I am inclined to think that questions of Why in such an instance are at best unhelpful and at worst officious and wounding. It is rather the How, or the What, that arrests—the Act, the Thing—and that mysterious tipping point where all the reasons—serious or trivial, long-standing or spontaneous—give way to plot, to considerations of method, timing, even of theatre. This must be the point of supreme danger, the point of no return, precisely because (I imagine) it is here that a great calm must descend, as questions of motive, of rationale, of justification are finally put aside. Far from rash impulse or bout of temporary insanity, this danger is the danger of the ultimate counterfeit of rationality, the path suddenly clear through the tangled wood. Such are the moods, perhaps, alike of the greatest imaginative successes and of the most reckless acts of self-destruction.
As we grieve with the widow and the orphaned, and share something of both their anger and their confusion, we are astounded by this mystery, and pick up again the threads of life with fear and trembling.