“Jonathan,” said the unfamiliar sounding voice on the other end of the phone, startling me at around 2 a.m. on a Thursday night. The man’s voice was shaky and hollow, muted in a way that sounded as if he was talking down the end of a hallway. Then I recognized it as my friend Damon.
“It’s Damon… What’s up, man?” he said, sounding as if he was drunk and probably a bit high. “I’m on a bender.” He laughed loudly, a hollow drunken laugh.
“Damon! How are you? I was just thinking of you,” I said, amazed at the timing of his call.
I had been thinking of him off and on the few weeks prior, because I recognized that he was in a bad state. But I hadn’t gotten in touch with him, though I should have. This was our last conversation, but I didn’t know it at the time.
Being caught up in my own life, planning on a wedding and trying to make a living as a freelancer, I didn’t find a lot of time to hang with Damon before he went out. And he went out the way he used to say he wanted to—on his own terms, in his own time.
One day a few years before, after he and his wife—his childhood sweetheart who he married the day after graduating from high school—had broken up, we were hanging out getting high at his apartment in Bellevue. We were listening to some fine recordings of the Grateful Dead, and Damon piped up with a segue to the song which was about to play, saying, “When I die, I want them to play this at my funeral.” He had a blissful smile on his face as he turned up the song so that it was deafeningly loud. “We Bid You Goodnight” played:
Lay down, my dear brother
Lay down and take your rest
Won’t you lay your head upon you savior’s breast
I love you, but Jesus loves you the best
And I bid you goodnight, goodnight, goodnight.
I ruined the quiet after the end of the song by scolding him for mentioning dying at such a young age. I mean the guy was all of 26 or something, for Pete’s sake. I knew he was going through a rough time, being divorced from his wife, but I felt, in my optimist’s way, that things would get better for him.
“I don’t know…” he said, shaking his head in that philosophical way that seemed too morose at the time. His light blue eyes seemed a deeper blue, and there was the hint of a grin on the corner of his full, Irish lips—like he knew the answer to a riddle I couldn’t comprehend. He looked me dead in the eyes. “I think it’s cool to be able to pick your time, to go out on your own terms, when you want,” he said.
I foolishly chalked it up to him needing to get himself a girl. I also argued angrily against suicide.
“You have to fight to the end, you can’t give up,” I said.
I knew nothing then of the upcoming personal hell that he would go through, chasing demons of addiction and suicide, staving off the bitter end ‘till he couldn’t anymore. The end for me might be a lot further down the road then his end, I realize now, but I didn’t know then. Being in love and lucky with a beautiful woman who inspired me and made me feel good about myself, it was easy for me to give glib advice. I was like a rich guy telling a poor guy all he has to do is invest well, and he’ll be comfortable for good. The problem is, when you have nothing emotionally to invest anymore, when you’re psychologically bankrupt, how do you rebound?
We all knew, or at least he’d told all of us who were lucky to call Damon friend, that he planned to kill himself some day. We just didn’t believe it, or wouldn’t allow ourselves to believe it. We would try to talk him out of the notion, halfheartedly joking our way out of the subject, or changing the conversation altogether. After Damon’s death, I called my Uncle Bob, who is a Lutheran minister. Uncle Bob said he’d done a number of funerals of young people who’d committed suicide. I told him that all of Damon’s friends had been told by him that he was considering suicide, but we didn’t listen, and we didn’t intervene and get Damon help before he did himself in.
“I think sometimes family and friends are in denial about the person’s condition,” Uncle Bob said.
Because Born Again Christian parents raised me, I have a strong Catholic sense of guilt. After his death, part of me was concerned that Damon would be denied entry through the Pearly Gates because he killed himself. Wasn’t grace removed from a Christian, if he killed himself, I’d asked Uncle Bob.
“Luther had a way of putting it,” Bob began. “He said, ‘We wouldn’t ask if a person was going to heaven if he was attacked and killed by robbers in the forest.’ It’s the same thing with your friend. The Devil just got a hold of your friend, and he couldn’t shake him loose.”
I know I was in denial about Damon’s mental decay, and also his drug use. We all grew up smoking pot and drinking underage in Bellevue, our little working class borough outside Pittsburgh. And many of us turned on to the Grateful Dead and tripped, while others coked themselves up and others became remorseless crackheads. But Damon was different. He had been cool, and he had quit doing drugs for most of the seven years of his marriage, until the last couple years, which his ex-wife says is what was their undoing.
“He was beating the shit out of me,” she said at his wake. I didn’t really believe her then and part of me still doesn’t. She went to the funeral and the wake, on the arm of her minor rock star boyfriend, whose music she had the audacity to send to Damon after they divorced. She wrongly allowed him to stay in touch with her after their breakup, and I think it kept some small flame of hope alive in him. Maybe I am still in denial, or maybe she is.
During that last phone call, Damon and I talked about nothing much, then it got heavy. He explained how he’d screwed up and wrecked his stepfather’s car. Then he told me about how he had gone to the Hill District and he’d been trying to hook with some dope, and he was waiting at this young guy’s house, and the kid got clipped by the cops while trying to get him some dope. When the kid’s brother found out, he beat the shit out of Damon with a few friends, robbed him, and told him to never come back around there if he wanted to live.
“So I was walking across this bridge, because of the car,” he said. “And I had this note.”
I didn’t take the clue, I guess I couldn’t handle it, and he didn’t really explain it and brushed it off soon after mentioning it. We talked a bit more, saying we had to get together soon. We’d definitely get together soon, we agreed.
Just a few days before his death, I had a disturbing premonition. I was in the kitchen, making phone calls, and I thought to myself, I should call Damon. Then I stopped and thought about one of the last times I’d seen him, when he was nodding off during much of his visit. I didn’t fully realize then that he was nodding off because he was on heroin, and I shuddered and shook my head. No, he’s too depressed, I said to myself.
But what if he kills himself, a voice inside me said.
I told myself: He’ll be fine, he’ll be O.K. God, please keep him safe.
He was like a brother to me. At 29, he was the same age as my youngest brother, Harvey, who he hung around with from a very young age. Damon always had his own fashion sense, and back when he and Harve were still sleeping out on the front porch and delivering papers in the morning, they were wearing Kangol hats, looking like a couple of fresh-faced young white wannabe homeys.
Damon was one of just a handful of guys who were so tight with my brothers that they were like surplus brothers in our huge family of 12 kids, eight of which were boys. He would sleep over Saturdays and go to church on Sunday mornings with the family. He went on outings with us and was included like kin while we were growing up. Half Italian, half Irish, and taking after his Irish-American mother with the fair skin and full lips, he could’ve passed for one of my brothers.
And as I think about him now, when I think of that fat puss of his, I think of him smiling. He loved to smile and he loved to laugh, and that’s partly why he did drugs. By the end, it was heroin he was binging on, spending his whole paycheck in a night or two, and going for the body-numbing stoned bliss of the junk. I didn’t know half of this when he was alive.
After the wake while we were partying at a friend’s, Dean, an old buddy of Damon and Harve, said he’d also received a call from Damon a week or so before his death.
“It was like he called all of us to check in, one last time,” Dean said, shaking his head. “He was deep. A lot deeper than we knew.”
Harry, a good friend of Damon, and Damon’s brother Joe, had found him after his death. He was hanging by a belt from a rafter in the attic of his second-floor apartment. Harry tried to keep Joe from seeing, closing the door to the attic quickly and telling him not to look in there. Damon was hanging there, barefoot, and his head was bright blue.
Like all of the kids in our neighborhood, Damon hadn’t been brought up to kill himself. And like most Bellevue kids, he had been raised Roman Catholic, which specifically forbade suicide, and inculcated guilt for even thinking about it. He had been an altar boy and he’d had his confirmation on time. And in the end, the priest who gave the homily at Damon’s funeral had been in the same Confirmation Class as him.
“I never thought that my first funeral would be for someone so young,” said the pink-faced, boyish-looking priest. “And I never thought it would be Damon.”
The priest went on to explain how Damon’s death was more than just the end of the life of a well-loved person here on earth. It could be a message to all of us to live right and well, the priest explained.
I started to feel a little better about his death, thinking that maybe some day I’d learn something from it and be able to do better because of it. Then I was stunned by the priest’s comment:
“He might’ve been a prophet,” the priest said.