It was Thursday night when we found Dave’s body.
I say “we,” although to be precise it was not me but some other specific people, and those people will have had a very particular experience of the events from that moment onward that I cannot share in. But it feels like “we” all found Dave’s body at some point, all of us who are left walking this earth without him, the “we” who are left to feel the reverberations from that momentous decision Dave made to take his life.
The collectiveness of experience is witnessable. I just have to look here, here, here, and here to know that whatever separation any of us feels while living this human life is a fundamental delusion.
My own particular contribution to the collective experience of Dave’s death began with coming home late on Thursday night to find the medical examiner’s van parked out front and my fellow residents in the Buddha Hall chanting the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo Sutra. We followed his body out the door and, after the van took off, found our way through the beginning stages of unraveling what the heck had just happened. Some went to bed, some went off to be alone; a group began to cluster first in the small kitchen, then moved to the student lounge, coalescing into a larger group, and someone made toast to share, and we sat just to be with each other for a bit longer.
And then Friday morning I took off for a yoga retreat down at Tassajara, feeling ambivalent about leaving while everyone at City Center was still raw, but it turned out okay. People at Tassajara knew Dave too, and were also grieving. I did yoga and felt my body breathing in and out, and walked the paths under the blue skies and hugged a couple of people and talked about how fucked up it was that Dave was gone. I think that’s how death can be sometimes, everything all jumbled together. Maybe you don’t notice the blue skies, and maybe you find it odd that people somewhere are still laughing even though you don’t feel like there’s going to be much to laugh about, even though you yourself are soon laughing at some dumb thing.
While I was gone from City Center I missed the discussion Friday morning during the three-week intensive that Paul Haller is leading; I missed the community meeting on Friday night; I missed Paul’s public dharma talk on Saturday. All these opportunities to push through the experience with my home sangha, feel its texture, let it register, passed by without me. I came back to City Center last night ready to talk and find out how things were for everyone, and many people were ready to give it a rest for awhile. And then this morning in the Buddha Hall I began to melt a bit, seeing Dave’s photo on the altar. He’s gone and he’s not coming back. This one thing, it cannot be undone. The men I see walking down the street with the same haircut and the similar walk, they are never going to be Dave. We can talk to his door, sealed now by the medical examiner, and say it was all a mistake, please come back, we’ll try again, but it’s not going to do any good.
I’d known Dave for three years, and we weren’t close but we shared meals around the table, chatted in the student lounge, started up conversations occasionally when we found ourselves both heading downhill for the Muni station in the morning. Dave was immensely likable. The universal assessment of Dave is also my assessment — he was a gentle soul, self-deprecating, smart, and sharply funny. We also knew that he struggled with the darkness, and had been struggling for a long time. We were caught off-guard, but not completely surprised.
After the event people had a range of reactions, from the personal and visceral to the abstract and contemplative. Some people chunked up toward broader questions of how Zen practice and mental health relate to each other, or if they in fact are (or should be) related. Many tried to put the story together in such a way that it could make sense, stringing together what was known about the conditions of Dave’s life that might lead him to make that decision at that moment of time. We’re constantly trying to make sense of things. We hate not knowing.
At one point I was convinced that Dave’s decision was a noble and heroic act. Birth and death for most of us are events we experience like passengers in a car, hoping the driver will keep driving for as long as possible. The suicide act turns that on its head, taking death by the balls and saying fuck you, we’re going to do this thing RIGHT NOW, sucker. I have never been that close to it myself, though. Perhaps my story is just a romantic idea that helped me for a few moments to feel okay about what happened. I could construct an infinite variety of such stories. Stories of relentless defeat followed by a moment of surrender to mercy. Stories of confusion over the math of the situation, thinking that the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many. Stories about making the action outside be congruent once and for all with how he felt inside. Stories of waiting until he found a community that could hold his fragility, his hopelessness, the depth of his anguish without turning away from it, so he could lay down on that soft bed of support and give up all that he had struggled against into our loving arms. I particularly like that last story; it makes me want to be strong for Dave, with the combined strength of all Buddhas and Boddhisattvas. I don’t want to disappoint him.
Now I wander down the hallway to the altar that has been built in front of his room, a testimony to the undeniable love that people had for Dave, and the medical examiner’s tape sealing the door shut is just one loud scream. We live in such intimacy here, with only thin walls between us. And yet I don’t know if I believe a friend’s comment on one of my posts that “with intimacy, real intimacy, we do know each others inner experiences, because they are the stories we tell…” We do tell our stories all the time, with our voices and faces and the way we walk and the books we underline and the notes we leave and yet no, no, we did not know that Dave was going to do this unspeakable thing. The walls around our minds and hearts can be as effective at separating us as the walls around our bedrooms and sometimes we just don’t know whether to knock, because knocking can mean we want intimacy and connection but it can also mean intrusion and disrespect, so there is a conundrum there. We cannot escape our delusion. There seems to be no easy answer, only the middle way to constantly negotiate.
I am deeply sorry that Dave suffered so greatly, and I do not begrudge him the release. It seems unfair that some of us take on more than our share of the burden of our collective pain. Knowing Dave, I cannot believe that he would want all of us to be suffering over this now. But this thing cannot be undone, and everything else that happens next includes this event and this pain, forever.