You Can’t Catch Death
Death preoccupies the news these days thanks to world-wide angst about an invisible deadly bug. It’s sort of a surprise when cause of death is ascribed in a news story to fentanyl or some other dangerous drug, let alone “natural causes.” As if the only significant fatalities are viral. The opioid pandemic was going on long before kung flu, will likely go on long after. One also wonders at “natural causes” when used to distinguish from viral deaths: are heart attacks and strokes more “natural” than a fatal virus?
None of us is immortal; people these days don’t like to confront that fact. This visceral unease underlies our discomfort with death news. When I was a kid my grandmother’s existential mantra was the old must die and the young do die. Death was just part of life. Hasn’t been that way for at least fifty years.
So when the Grim Reaper comes to call, panic ensues, whether he wields his scythe individually on a loved one, or on thousands of strangers. Death is death, period. An eastern philosopher might say death is inevitable; suffering is not. But horrid suffering precedes the final curtain so often it seems inevitable. A post I read posed the question: when every day we wake to fresh horror…might we contemplate skipping the pain and choosing death?
Or, as Albert Camus supposedly put it, first question each morning is whether to kill oneself — or have a cup of coffee. I pour myself a cup of Seattle’s Best Portside Blend and remember one of my favorite authors’ final answer to Camus’ question. Before that, upon death of a friend, he had assured his nervous daughter: You can’t catch death. Which was the title she gave a memoir about her cherished dad. My story, from Mean Grey Old Morning.
Brautigan’s Unlucky .44
It came to pass that I spent most of the first decade of the twenty-first century in the company of a little red-headed girl. She was one of the smartest people I ever knew, with catholic, small “c,” tastes in literature. Though she had spent years studying the most obfuscatory philosophical texts, and affected an annoying superiority about them, she had an instant response for me the day I told her my chocolate Labrador retriever’s name was McGee. “For Travis McGee,” she said promptly. “The Busted Flush, Slip F-18, Bahia Mar. Fort Lauderdamndale.”
We had a complex and complicated relationship that was never boring, and sometimes she exhibited insights so swift and deep they left me stunned. One day I was ruminating over the suicides of two writers for whom I always had a particular affinity: Ernest Hemingway and Richard Brautigan. I once had made a pilgrimage to Hemingway’s Idaho grave site in search of insights of my own. I well remembered a phrase of his about his own father’s suicide: that he had “misused” the gun.
Being me, I wondered why Hemingway had chosen the particular shotgun he had that fateful morning. It had been variously reported as his favorite, and identified at least once as a Boss. If the latter, the contemporary iterations of the brand were breathtakingly expensive; you could buy a lot of houses for less. If the Boss, had there been any unconscious economic message in the selection, born of his years of fiscal struggles? According to one of his Idaho hunting buddies of the happy days there, his favorite duck gun had been a Browning Superposed he won at a shoot overseas. Had some final fondness for that piece kept him from selecting it for his own misuse? Unknowable, and who but me would even wonder?
The only time I could remember seriously considering such misuse of a firearm, the one that came most readily to hand was a scaled-down Colt single-action revolver, a .22. It was the only pistol I owned then. My police-reporting days had taught that a .22 slug will often rattle around inside the brain pan and do every bit as much lethal damage as a larger round. Such an image was, ultimately, disgusting and off-putting, and I put away such thoughts.
Which led me, the way my mind works, to the .44 Magnum revolver Richard Brautigan had borrowed to finish his existence. I set aside the selfishness such an act implied: the guilt he would lay on the loaning friend. Suicide after all is the utmost act of selfishness, however warranted it may seem to the doer.
I was reading a much-folded newspaper clipping about how Brautigan died, and pondering. My little red-headed girl noticed my brown study and inquired. “Richard Brautigan,” I said. “Why a .44 Magnum? It seems so out of character with the gentleness of his writing.”
“Brautigan is so intimately linked to San Francisco,” she said immediately. “He wasn’t feeling lucky that day.”
“The other San Francisco icon is Dirty Harry,” she said, with just a trace of impatience.
“Oh,” I said.