“Death by suicide has teeth, and when it bites, it will not let you loose.” [Truth.]
39 minutes (7,820 words)
“We are only lightly covered with buttoned cloth; and beneath these pavements are shells, bones and silence.” —Virginia Woolf, The Waves
We had just celebrated my father’s eighty-fifth birthday. Louis Gakumba and I were driving back up to Jackson Hole. My husband Brooke texted me, “I love you. Pull over to the side of the road. Call me.” I knew it was Dan. I had been thinking of him as I was mesmerized by the immense cumulus clouds building in the west.
“Is Dan dead?”
“How?” But I already knew.
Dan had told me in April that he purchased the rope, that he was exhausted, that he couldn’t bear it anymore, “it” being life, that he saw no end or purpose to his suffering.
“I’m done, Ter.”
And I believed he was telling the truth.
“I am proud of him,” I said. Brooke was not prepared for my response; neither was I.
* * *
Dan Dixon Tempest hung himself on July 27, 2018, in the stairwell of his apartment building. He was found on his knees. The police never notified our family.
A close family friend, Darol Wagstaff, Dan’s landlord and mentor, called my father.
“John, I’m so sorry about Dan,” he said.
“What’s wrong with Dan?” my father asked.
“He hung himself this morning.”
My father had left his card on Dan’s door: “We are gathering at Callie’s house. You are welcome. Love, John.”
Dan never came.
“What is the alternative?” Dan wrote in a notebook I found after his death.
He was a philosopher who wrote his master’s thesis on Wittgenstein and the eloquence of logic and language. He also laid pipe for the family business for decades, until he moved to California with his wife, took a job in logistics, and then was laid off after the economic downturn in 2008. He had a long history of depression, which led to isolation, which led to drinking to numb the pain, which led to opioids, which led to several runs of rehab. He took a job at HawkWatch International, banding and releasing raptors in the wildlands of Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico. He loved the hawks and eagles, especially the red-tails. One day in the desert, we sat on our front porch and he told me it took three men to bring in a golden eagle, how magnificent they were, the range and reach of their vision, but the red-tailed hawks were his favorite because they yielded. They seemed to understand what was happening to them, that their lives were not in danger. The birds became his passion and his metaphor, but they weren’t enough.
Not long before his death, he texted me: “I’m at my limit, sis — haven’t slept in 3 weeks . . . no sleep . . . no sleep . . . I am eroding.”
A few days passed.
“. . . to understand something is to be liberated from it”
“. . . and I can’t get pass’d bein’ liberated . . . where did I go wrong sister . . .”
My reply was this: “You haven’t gone wrong, Dan. You are a brilliant man. You just need to keep going and find your creative groove that will pull you to your destiny — This I believe.”
He sent me an image of a bound mummy on a bound horse.
‘What is the alternative?’ Dan wrote in a notebook I found after his death.
Later, Dan sent me the talk by Malcolm Gladwell on David and Goliath. He texted this quote: “As the playwright George Bernard Shaw once put it: ‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.’”
And then this: “You can’t concentrate on doing anything if you are thinking, ‘What’s gonna happen if it doesn’t go right.’”
“I’m winding down on the whole existence thing . . . I want to be free . . .
stardust . . .”
I responded, “These are hard and lonely times. I don’t have much hope and then . . . There are these moments of beauty, a million people marching for justice, Dan. Stars in the night sky in the desert, your caring voice. I love you.”
“. . . just make sure you get me in the air . . . been buried too long . . . xoxo”
“Dan, I want to know what you know, please write. This is what I listened to this morning in my own Dark Side of the Moon: On Being — The Soul in Depression.”
“I have 2day . . . no point anymore . . . pretty much need to see things in these last days.”
“I love you.”
“. . . just put me in the air . . . all I ask . . .”
“I hope you will bury me first, Dear Heart. In the desert.”
“. . . won’t be around then Sis . . .”
“I need you to be, Dan.”
“We all do — you, me, Hank.”
“. . . Ter . . . I’m not fuckin’ around . . . mental illness is taking me out.”
“I believe you can get help, Dan. I hear you — and I am listening to what you are saying. There are medications that really can help, but you need a doctor and to take them on a schedule. You know this—”
“. . . evolve . . . I can deal with that.”
“I know you suffer — God knows, you are one of the strongest people I know, and most tender and smart. You are a beautiful soul, Dan.”
“. . . my brother said the same thing this afternoon . . .”
“Do you believe us?”
“. . . si . . .”
“I believe the three of us are evolving together — each in our own ways. Did you listen to that podcast I sent you? It’s powerful.”
“. . . agree . . . I just need a back door . . .”
“What do you mean?”
“. . . w/u and hank to deal w/it”
“Deal with what? Forgive me, I just need to understand what you are saying — a back door?”
“. . . come on . . . i’m not spelling it out.”
“. . . i don’t want to be here anymore . . . pretty simple . . . you understand that . . . i hope anyway.”
“Dan, I trust you and honor who you are and where you are. And I will forever believe in your greatness of spirit, as you continue to face and embody the vitality and courage of staying with the struggle. I understand. But it breaks my heart. I think there are roads not yet taken for you, Dan. And medication could help you return to yourself. I will just be honest, but you have to want that — and I know you are tired. But life is life. And creativity is in you to express. This I believe.”
“. . . my legacy was being addicted . . . I could never beat it . . . but I was a sensitive/intelligent soul . . .”
“You still could beat it. That is not your legacy. Your illness has been part of your addiction, but that is not your legacy. You ARE a sensitive/intelligent soul. I love you, Dan.”
“. . . ditto . . . just need to find some air for a spell . . . xxx”
“Dan, would you want to see Jonah Yellowman, a Navajo healer, this summer? He lives in Monument Valley, he’s the spiritual adviser for Bears Ears.”
“. . . sure . . .”
A few weeks pass. He sends me the song “Simple Man.”
“. . . so much right and wrong in my life . . . bipolar”
“Thank you for the music, Dan. How are you today?”
“. . . i’m ok. . . .”
“. . . good day 2day . . .”
Weeks pass, no word, and then, this:
“For the Love of God — Listen to this song, Ter”
“I love you. How are you?”
“. . . I think I have victory over dirt . . . finally . . .”
“What do you mean?”
“. . . i’ve done it all . . . nothing else to prove . . . open a new chapter . . . xxx”
* * *
He sends me a link of Kim Kardashian addressing Congress and meeting with Trump.
“. . . is this really where we’re at . . . ? . . . time to exit . . . i’m cracking the sky right now . . . luv ya . . .”
“I love you, my beautiful brother. Paint. Write. Dream. For me. Xxx T”
“. . . can you call me . . . it’s real important.”
I called Dan. He told me he had bought a rope. That he was going to go out “gently.
I said I would never let him go, nor would I ever give up on the Earth.
Please write that addicts are good people, sis. And then he said something that haunts me still: “Why can’t you see it, Ter. We’re fucked. You keep hoping things will change. I’m fucked. The planet is fucked. It’s time to exit. Face it, sis. It’s time to let me go, time to let it all go.”
There was a long pause. Neither of us spoke.
Let me go.
I said I would never let him go, nor would I ever give up on the Earth.
After our call, he texted me: “Let go. Repeat: I bought the rope, Ter. I’m going out gently. No guns. I would not do that to my brain. I will not disappear in the desert. You will not have to worry.”
I texted him again:
“Please. I will never give up on you or your joy, Dan. You are alive, a testament to your strength and will for Beauty even in suffering. I love you.”
“. . . I’m goin’ offline tomorrow for my sanity . . . knock if need be.”
A month later, May 9, 2018:
“. . . Ter . . . I’m suffering big time right now from deep loneliness . . . my question . . . ? . . . Do I reach outward to institutions or go inward to art . . .”
“Both, my dear heart, each supports the other . . . Paint, write, photograph. Seek the insight and help of an institution to steady your mind and then create out of what you are seeing, feeling, and learning once again. Please believe in your own creation born out of suffering and live. I love you, my beautiful brave brother.”
June 7, 2018:
“Tempest Family Name Meaning . . . English (Yorkshire): nickname for someone with a blustery temperament, from Middle English, Old French tempest(e) ‘storm’ (Latin tempestas ‘weather,’ ‘season,’ a derivative of tempus ‘time’).”
“It’s in our name, Sis . . . the weather is changing . . .”
The last text I received from my brother was on June 8, the same day Anthony Bourdain hung himself.
“. . . r u okay?”
I was out of range, traveling. I had been bitten a few days before by a brown recluse spider. Dad had told him. What I should have asked was “R u okay?” But I didn’t. Instead, I wrote this:
“I am okay. Skin didn’t go necrotic. Lucky. But it was scary. I see you have tried to call several times. We are in a remote place where phone service is slight. Thank you. I love you. T”
No one heard from Dan after June 8. He hung himself forty-nine days later. Who did he talk to? Where was he during those long summer days? Alone — holed up in his apartment? Downtown, mingling with the homeless? In the end, this was where he found his community, these were his peers with whom he found comfort and was comfortable. Were there moments of insight and peace, having made a decision to end his life, or was it only darkness? What do you do with all that darkness? Our brother Hank asked, “Where does darkness go?” Why that day? That moment? Where were we? He had a family. We were not there. My brother died of isolation — knock if need be.
I never did.
“Doesn’t the blood of every suicide splash back on our faces?” David Sedaris wrote about his sister’s death by suicide.
My brother hung himself.
They found him on his knees.
I am on my knees.
I cannot breathe.
When you lose a sibling, you lose yourself.
We were a tribe of four: three boys and a girl. Steve, Dan, and Hank. I was the oldest. Steve died from lymphoma in 2005. He was forty-seven years old. Dan died by his own hand. He was fifty-six years old. Hank and I are survivors. We know our DNA is a perfect match after being tested to see if we were a match for our brother Steve, who needed a bone marrow transplant in 2004. We were not a match for our brother and could not give him our cells. We struggled then. We are struggling now. But this death is different from the others. Death by suicide has teeth, and when it bites, it will not let you loose.
A noose. My brother’s suicide is a noose around my neck and it is tightening. The questions left will never be answered.
Grief is a physical landscape where no place feels safe. It is a state of being where sorrow holds the eyes steady. I stare. I stare out the window. Hours pass without moving. I stare at people who talk to me and hear nothing they say. I stare at burning candles. I stare at the sea. I stare into darkness unable to sleep. And when I do sleep, it offers the comfort of forgetting until I wake up and pain is there to greet me. The next day, flares of anger erupt unexpectedly. When I am able to function out of necessity, showing up to work, going to the grocery store, I get ambushed: a piece of music, a sentence, a memory, a person. The tears stream down my cheeks. No one can help me. Grief is my brother, my sibling. When I embrace grief, I am embracing him. This is how I feel him near. I ache. My heart hurts. We loved each other. Grief is my companion now. Everyone and everything else is a distraction. Sometimes appreciated. Sometimes resented. People don’t know what to say. I want them to say something. Alone in an empty parking lot, I scribbled a note on a piece of paper and pinned it on my jacket that said, “My brother committed suicide — Please talk to me.” I walked in circles for more than an hour, but there was nobody there. I didn’t really want to talk. I needed someone to notice what couldn’t be seen; I wanted another chance at loving Dan better.
Grief is a physical landscape where no place feels safe.
In my private moments I believed I could help save a piece of land or save a species, a prairie dog or grizzly bear, but now I know I couldn’t even save my brother. Grief burns through the bullshit. Death by suicide. Dan warned me. I chose not to see it, I chose denial instead of action. I heard his words, but I failed to hear the pain. In the end, it’s rarely the large gestures that count, it’s the small ones. I knew my brother was suffering. I knew he was in pain. I knew he was alone. I could have knocked on his door and held him.
But I didn’t. I just kept living my life as though everything was fine.
That’s one side of the story. Here’s the other side. Dan was an alcoholic, an addict. He lied. He lied for decades. He told me stories in which, against all odds, he was always the hero, the strong one, the one who fought for justice, the one who watched, the one who outsmarted everyone and survived. He told me these stories so many times, I believed him. A mythology grew around him, part cowboy with two-toned boots worn out through hard living, part Seneca the wise, brilliant one, steeped in philosophical puzzles and truths. The six-foot- three armed outlaw and sage. On a good day, he could outwork anyone in the trenches with his strength and stamina. He read and understood the texts of Nietzsche and Husserl and Heidegger and Wittgenstein as thoughtfully as any scholar I knew, because he had lived the questions of what it means to be human and embody existential angst. I loved our conversations for all he saw that I missed. He painted wild nature and his own inner nature in bold colors and strokes. He lived in a ruthless duality like the black-and-white pastel that hangs in my study. And in moments of levity, we laughed, we laughed and gossiped and teased each other. He told me whatever story he knew would lure me in, and it did. I believed he was sober. I believed he was no longer using. I believed the red rash on his body was bed bugs, not scabies. When he asked for money, I gave it to him. And when things got bad, when he was barely bones from not eating, when he was on the streets of Salt Lake City or passed out in a motel room drunk from apricot brandy or beer, I was there to rescue him. I was always there by his side, both of us with our cowboy boots kicking up the dirt in the big moments between life and death, but rarely was I there in the small ones, the everyday moments of darkness and depression that he bore alone.
I heard his words, but I failed to hear the pain. In the end, it’s rarely the large gestures that count, it’s the small ones. I knew my brother was suffering. I knew he was in pain. I knew he was alone. I could have knocked on his door and held him.
Santa Sabina Center, California, with Terry Tempest Williams:
Do you know what I noticed the other day? The light on the speedometer is dimming…
Driving home from the protest to protect Mueller, to remind anyone who would listen that no one is above the law.
The light on the speedometer is dimming.
“Oh no.” I gently pat the dashboard.
D’s truck…’94 Ford Ranger…black…24 years old now. My son is 24.
The ‘Bitter End’ still pinned to the visor…right where you left it.
‘I walk through the world because I love it.’ -Mary Oliver
What I read walking the walls of the cloister, thinking of you.
I think you loved it.
And it broke your heart.
And it breaks mine.
Fr. Richard Rohr:
‘There is a light in us that only darkness itself can illuminate. It is the glowing calm that comes over us when we finally surrender to the ultimate truth of creation: that there is a God and we are not it. . . . Then the clarity of it all is startling. Life is not about us; we are about the project of finding Life. At that moment, spiritual vision illuminates all the rest of life. And it is that light that shines in darkness.’ And here’s the podcast that TTW’s brother urged her to listen to in his final days.
The Soul In Depression
We’re fluent in the languages of psychology and medication, but the word “depression” does not do justice to this human experience. Depression is also spiritual territory. It is a shadow side of human vitality and as such teaches us about vitality. And what if depression is possible for the same reason that love is possible?