No one really knows why Lee Lavinson may have killed himself. We only heard when, where, what and how.
Some of the details may be a little sketchy. But what I heard is that he macramé a Windsor knot in a new Hermes silk tie, looped it over a hook on the bedroom door, and swung into eternity.
As the muses pray: May the knotted pain of his private war finally unravel to untangle the knotted web of his unanswered prayers.
A couple of his co-workers, Anthony and Rocco, located him still dangling the next day when he mysteriously hadn’t shown up for his regular 11-hour shift. He was assistant manager at the celebrated Holt’s Cigars store in Philadelphia.
For the 38-year old ‘Iron Man’ Lee not to show up to fervently serve his adoring aficionados was tantamount to something unimaginable. You know, something as unthinkable as baseball’s ‘Iron Man’, Cal Ripkin, possibly not showing up in the batter’s box during his Hall of Fame march to most consecutive games ever played.
When word began seeping out I first heard the news from my friend all the way in Puerto Rico. Jose practically lives in one of the deep leather chairs in Holt’s back smoking room when he’s visiting town for a few months. That is, when he’s not getting examined, poked and prodded at the Veteran’s Hospital from his lingering Vietnam rewinds.
Jose, who looks like Papa Hemingway, knows all too well why the celebrated writer stipulated long before composing his own suicide: Once you see war, you never stop seeing it.
So when Jose gravely filled me in, all I could reply, in my own emotionally challenged way, was: “Gee, I always wanted a Hermes tie. Since Lee’s not going to be needing it anymore, do you think I could…”
Over the distant telephone connect Jose offered a mocking chuckle: “Like me, you have seen too much life and death, my friend. We all deal with it in the way we can each deal with it.”
Now Lee doesn’t have to deal with anything. The worries that ate him alive are now the worms that eat him dead as he lies in a quiet New Jersey cemetery plot.
He wasn’t buried with his black-framed eyeglasses. So he probably can’t see what he’s done to us. He’s no longer suffering. That is, unlike the rest of us ‘cowards’ who ‘die a thousand deaths,’ in serving out our life sentences.
And that pretty much sums up the cacophony of metaphysical posturing and postulations we cigar friends all pose in his aftermath.
It simply comes down to the inexorable fact that the moment we are born is, paradoxically, the very moment we also begin to die. Piece by piece. We all live and die in bits and pieces that, at times anxiously, vacillate to coexist in the world between high optimism and low desperation.
It is our home theaters of tragedy and comedy.
There is no finale, no finish line. There is merely a finish.
In retrospect, we can now recognize the bits of Lee that began slipping away from us. We didn’t take notice then – his withdrawal from socializing with friends after work; his weight loss; reportedly giving away some possessions, the whispers of a career bump in the road…
No one is to blame. We don’t readily detect the nicks and wounds – the demons and despair — in others. We are usually too puzzled by our own private miseries to peek behind the Halloween masks of public personae.
Some suggested the obvious possibility of the demon of depression. I wish I had been paying better attention. For, about that, I can speak prudently.
The descent into hell is in tiny steps. And so does the chemical imbalance of depression strike. It can result from Post Traumatic Stress as with Jose. It can be stitched into your heart with traumatic surgery. It can be born with the congenital and persistently life threatening illness of your child.
It creeps upon you. But it inevitably arrives to bang your bell from many universal ordeals — as the many and more traumas did with me.
And there I finally was, for hours, in that late August afternoon sun, perched on the edge of my apartment building’s 14th story roof top. My resolve to live was being desiccated by a bloody past that tattered my bulwark.
At the same time, my resolve to jump was being decimated by the love, both for my struggling sick child and the slippery bond with my older boy.
And also, I have to admit, there was my cowardice. Was 14 stories high enough? Would I only cripple myself?…Would-of, could-of, should-of.
What the hell… What the heck. “Shit or get off the pot,” as my 92-year-old Mother still barks.
And so I got help, until I didn’t need help any more. But in return, I still give help. And it’s a helping hand that often saves another man.
It’s the little human kindnesses that make life worthwhile. We all need help – even from a simple hug — from time to time. And that’s why we, who knew Lee, are exasperated, if not downright angry.
We are annoyed at ourselves. And we are incensed at Lee. He didn’t reach out into the sea of our love. Instead, he was lost, punching the fog of hopeless misery. He was obviously so deeply gone, out into the ocean blues, he didn’t know which way to swim — back to us.
And even more maddening we heard that one of Lee’s final acts of reflection was to reach out to his cat. Lee reportedly left him bountiful bowls of food and water.
Obviously, there was still something there in Lee reaching out. That is, if he was only willing to overcome that first step in the long journey back.
Although it takes a braver man than moi to ‘pull the trigger,’ it is, nevertheless, a selfish, distasteful act. It deprives us all. The dead are no longer knotted in pain. They have escaped. It’s the living who must endure to persist – often without some of the vital pieces that fulfill life’s jigsaw puzzle.
What further engulfs my festering lesion is that Lee was Jewish. Suicide is a sin in most religions. But for a Jew, like me, it seems worse. It’s letting the bastards grind you down. And they don’t need no damn help.
As my dear ol’ bourbon sippin’ Pappy once poignantly jabbed at me between those omnipotent puffs on his omniscient corn cob pipe: Why the hell would a Jew commit suicide in a world so fraught with vile vultures, keen at jumping on every opportunity to gamely excise whatever wasn’t already circumcised?
I think I must not be as inured to all this as my friend Jose may suggest. Like Shakespeare, we are pestered by Hamlet’s quandary. For cowards like me the thought of killing myself may have been the only absurdity that once kept me going.
For three days after my gloomy waters were roiled by Lee, I did what so many of us do — flee. I escaped into the bottles that only forced me to recall what I was trying to forget.
And when I was done vomiting my last scream of anguish, I bid my farewells. For life is for the living. There are no guarantees stamped on our government documents that tomorrow will definitely be another day. We only live once. Some only live once in a while. I, however, plan on living every day.
But shit happens. Every day the bell tolls. Today it tolled for Lee. From G-d’s dust he came, to dust he returns, so the Earth will become his throne.
Lee’s days are done. Ours are still beginning.
That’s life. And death.
And dats yDrewIS on DIS penal colony…