Essay

John, Next Door

By July 27, 2018 2 Comments
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School was less than a block away when I was a kid, so I walked, every day, sometimes out the front door, sometimes the back. I went home every noon for lunch. 

That’s when I saw what I did. I was walking back to school after lunch when two men lugged a body out of John’s house. On a stretcher–that’s what I remember, the body covered with a sheet. Completely. I was maybe a fourth or fifth grade kid, something like that, a few summers away from what the church used to call “the age of discretion.”

An old couple lived there, just a man and his wife, right across the alley. I don’t remember him as jovial or even all that friendly. We knew the old folks in the  neighborhood who could–which is to say couldn’t–be teased. Step anywhere close to Mrs. Lensink’s garden, and she’d be out that back door and all over you. John and his wife were only rarely visible.

John worked for the city, for a man–a relative, my mom used to say–named “Hard.” That’s all I knew. I was a kid.

But that afternoon I knew either John or his wife was dead. The body was covered on that stretcher.

My parents didn’t try to keep me from the truth. They talked about it that night at supper, in a hushed distress that made me fearful because I wasn’t accustomed to seeing my parents so distracted. Neighbor John had hung himself in the basement of his house, the house right across the alley.

Suicide. 

I don’t think I’d ever heard the word suicide in a context in which the victim was someone I knew, but his being lugged out of the back door of the house and calmly carried into an ambulance, no whirling lights, has stayed with me for sixty years. That picture came with another, one I never witnessed but still see: an old man hanging from a ceiling rafter of the house just across the alley. On summer Saturdays John mowed his lawn right there on the other side of our white picket fence. I barely remember him, his personality, his character; but I’ll always see him down there where his life ended. 

There are more such stories after all these years.  A man, once a friend, but a guy I hadn’t seen for years, someone who will always be a smart kid with a sharp sense of humor, good-looking, Beatle haircut. He hung himself in his garage, I heard. 

Years ago, I wrote a story about a young woman flirting with taking her own life.  Just to get there in my imagination was really tough because it was very difficult to attain the depth of despair she would have had to reach to consider leaving life behind. I don’t remember the story or the title, and I’m sure I never finished it. But just trying to go there in my imagination darkened my soul in a way that I’ve not forgotten. 

A while ago chairs and desks and tables in the recreation center at the college were strewn with cards like the one up there at the top of the page, a sweet little image/message designed to speak kindly to the students just returned to school. I picked one up.

“We keep going and we go together,” that card says on its backside, and more. “Above all else, we choose to stay. We choose to fight the darkness and the sadness, to fight the questions and the lies and the myth of all that’s missing.” Life is worth living is the simple sermon on that simple card that announces World Suicide Prevention Day. 

Almost 45,000 Americans died by their own hands last year; seven of ten of them were white males. 

There’s no story I’m not telling you. I didn’t lose a brother, a daughter, a relative, a really close friend, a mom or a dad. In any very close sense, I’m not a victim of suicide. But in the close-knit world around me, two men I didn’t know and never met just quit on life in the last month or so. They weren’t friends, in all likelihood didn’t know each other; but they both took their own life. For once, the little country church not so far from where we live overflowed with people, one woman told me–it was just full of mourners.

Me? I won’t forget the time two men carried John’s covered body out the back door of the house across the alley. It’s not something I choose to remember. I just do. 

We’ll see you tomorrow.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

2 Comments

  • Lou Roossien says:

    James, Thank you. So many people live alone, even with others around. A friend used to quip, “The mind is a dangerous place, don’t go there alone.” I believe it’s so important to “be known”, by even one or two people with whom we share a healthy level of accountability, who might even be people who remind us of the One who has known us from before we were born, “who knows our thoughts before they enter our minds,” and who is always “with us.”

  • Tom Eggebeen says:

    Thank you … a great mystery to a young boy … and in spite of our years, still a mystery … deserving only our sympathy.

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