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Post Road Magazine #32

James Dean Posters on the Wall

Michael J. Hess


Don't follow the sparrow too closely. I heard someone say that once. I don't remember who said it or where it was said or if it was said directly to me or if I heard it second hand or just overheard it. I do know I never took the advice. Just the other day, I followed a sparrow as it made its way down the Toronto shoreline. After it disappeared—sparrows always do—I discovered at my feet several pages that had been ripped from a book. The pages were damp and a dark slime created a Rorschach pattern on one side and there were even tiny bugs running up and down the edge, so I knew they had been lying on or near this spot for quite some time. I carefully picked up the pages between my finger and thumb like a diaper, shook them out (bye-bye bugs), and assessed my find. Turns out the pages were from Final Exit by Derek Humphry and they were from a chapter that was entitled "The Will To Die and Miracle Cures." Because adolescent boys and girls gather at this spot to smoke and drink and fuck, I thought this text might have been assigned as a project at their school. The boys and girls either did or did not do the assignment and then tore up at least a portion of the book. The sight of some pages flapping in the wind can bring smiles to the faces of all those rebels with or without causes. Who needs preachy books, anyway?

I made a trip to the Toronto Reference Library so I could peruse this book and this chapter. Curiosity. I'd never before heard of Final Exit. This particular book is stored in the stacks at the Toronto Reference Library and not on the shelves on one of the six floors, where anyone might retrieve and read it. One has to put in a stack request and wait—and wait and wait and wait—usually fifteen to thirty minutes, for a librarian to set it out on a metal cart or a shelf with your name on it. Hess, Michael. Handwritten in a fat pencil. Could it be a number one? Do people still use number one pencils?

The topic and content of the book is the reason that not just anyone can put their hands on it. The topic of the book is, generally, euthanasia. Many people buy this book, not because of the general topic, but because of the specific content: it instructs people on how to prepare and perform a successful suicide. I don't even like writing that last word. It too quickly plunges us into images and thoughts of isolates, the old and young alike, in contemplation and action. There are flashes of black there. The darkening of the frame.

So—Final Exit was probably not an assigned text in a high school classroom, which means that the book may have been used for its intended purpose, by someone interested in its advice on achieving an appropriate death through euthanasia.

"You ever heard of this book?" I asked my partner, Andrew. I produced the dirty pages from the shore.

He had come into contact with this book in a curious and morbid way in his younger years. An old boyfriend of his, Jim, had killed himself (is there a more subtle way to say it, and should I be more subtle?) using a modified technique from this book. Andrew knew he had followed the book's advice because he found a copy of it hidden among his belongings, the pages dog-eared and highlighted, studied. In the book Humphry advises a person who is ready to end his life to ingest a specified quantity of sleeping pills and alcohol, enough to make him fall asleep, but not so much that he will overdose. (There is an entire appendix of suggested drugs or drug combinations and doses in the back of the book.) After he takes the concoction titrated to the proper dose, the subject is told to wrap a plastic bag around his head and place a rubber band around the neck over the bag. The narcotics and the alcohol force the person to sleep and he peacefully suffocates. My partner said that Humphry used to suggest the subject sit with his fingers between the neck and the rubber-band-plastic-bag device until they would naturally fall away, but there was no mention of this step in the edition I read.

"You really know this book," I said.

"I do," he said.

My partner's boyfriend was a bit more dramatic in his approach: he used a rope on a cemetery tree instead of a rubber band in an easy chair to achieve his end, but the effect of the plastic bag and the sedatives was the same. He even tied the rope on the tree in such a way that he was forced to stand on his tippy toes, so that if he didn't suffocate by plastic bag—if Humphry's technique somehow failed—he would have hanged, and died by strangulation.

Andrew read through the book, Jim's book, which was technically now Andrew's—possessions shift hands after exits—shortly after the suicide. Andrew never saw that book in Jim's grip while he was alive. If he had, he might have considered there was something really "going on" with Jim—a clue. You see, Andrew was still looking for some sign or red flag that he might have missed, still wondering if there was something he could have said or done to have prevented the final act that occurred on that cold November day. Journals with plots, email correspondence, notes in the margins of Final Exit: it was all there once he knew to look for it. Dark things, angry things. Andrew read through all this material, read through enough of it anyway, and then he deleted the emails and threw all the hard items into the fireplace, incinerated them. No one needed to read the words of a young man who had followed instructions so closely, who had so abruptly taken flight from this mortal plane.


Immortality, it might be said, is not so easy to earn. A young person who loses his life at the height of his youth—of his "powers"—might be said to attain some form of immortality. The catch here (the one fly in the ointment, the reason more aren't lulled into the dying-young narrative) is that you had to have done something or represented something, or both, in order to achieve this reverence, preferably in our culture attained cult status as a singer or an actor or a poet. James Dean was a boy who did just that. He was a boy from a small farm town in Indiana who moved to California and then New York and then California again, a boy who drank milk and raced cars, a boy who liked speed, a boy who might or might not have had a death wish, who might or might not have been conscious of that death wish if he in fact had one, and who became famous as a method actor and as a symbol of tormented youth and who, at the height of his fame (there were only three movies, East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant), crashed his Porsche Spyder into a Ford Sedan on Route 466 in Cholame on September 30, 1955. This car crash was or was not a suicide, but after the release of Rebel Without a Cause four days later, it was read as one in certain circles.

There is no way to know what, if anything, was going on in the head of James Dean when he crashed his car on that California highway, just as there is no way to know what was going on in the head of Jim when he walked into that cemetery with the plastic bag and the rope. How do we get into the mind, or headspace, of a young man who has just committed or potentially committed a final act? Short answer: we don't. What we try to do is go into our own heads, search through that vast and mysterious labyrinth: imagine (or re-imagine, as the case may be) ourselves wanting to end our own lives. This is tricky business because it is based on the assumption, always wrong, that we could actually project in our mind's eye what is looping in the mind of another. Even when we live with someone, share a bed and dreams and dares, endure bad habits, bad breath, we cannot crawl into that other's sacred headspace. We just can't do it, no matter how hard we may try. This means, flatly, that we have to be prepared for our nearest and dearest turning into rogue agents ready to pull off hara-kiri—at any moment—without our knowledge.

In James Dean: Mutant King, a tabloid biography by Dan Dalton, there is a picture on page 338 that shows Dean jumping off the roof of a building. The picture looks like it might be a film still from Rebel or East of Eden or Giant. The book lacks captions or a picture index and I'm too lazy to scour these films in search of the particular frame for proof. Whatever the context, James Dean has inscribed this picture with the words: "Try to catch me. You think I have to come down from up here, don't you. I hate all earthlings. Love, Jimmy." The address, earthlings—did Dean see himself in certain ways above the human fray? In some sort of rarified air? Others certainly saw him this way. The words are written on that picture, where he's jumping. Suicides sometimes jump. Did he have a wish to end his life, conscious or not? Did he know he'd be taking his final flight so soon?


Humphry distinguishes between passive or active euthanasia. Passive euthanasia is when the doctor can legally "pull the plug" to stop providing life giving services so the patient might die. Active euthanasia is the deliberate plan, or plot, to end one's life because one is in severe pain, or otherwise deteriorating (Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, certain cancers), or about to deteriorate. It is this active suicide that is the focus and controversy of Final Exit. Humphry implores his readers who might one day want or need to implement this type of final release: "Why not have a trial run? So long as you are fit and alert, you can take the bag off easily." But when Humphry points out that Don Shaw from Chicago tested out this method by himself, and when he points out that Shaw then demonstrated the method to a local Hemlock group, then points out that Shaw said, "Everyone was both amused and impressed," and "I urged them to go home and try it on for themselves in order to get more comfortable with the whole concept," I had to question whether any person should become comfortable with such a serious act. Demonstration too easily blurs into theatre, and should individual initiated suicide ever move into that arena?

When Jim died, this was the theatre. There were police officers and newspaper reporters at the cemetery who all needed to get the facts of the story down. Imagine red flashing lights and open reporting pads and "take all the time you need." There were statements—"easy, easy"—that were provided by my partner and the people who knew Jim who had gathered there. And people had gathered there: word of suicide, especially of a young man in a public cemetery—which brings up the sensational topics of cult sacrifice and Satanism—spreads as fast as brushfires out West. There were some people who could not talk that night, but who would talk later. There were people who would never speak. "Take me to the electric chair if you have to!" No one who did speak that night remembers exactly what he said. Can they really use the testimony of witnesses who've just experienced a cosmic shock? These are people who would be imagining Jim's death by imagining their own. They are people who would be too close to the precious coil to provide any lucid remarks.

After the car crash in Cholame, California, that took James Dean's life, another type of theatre commenced—the cult worship of a revered, and now deceased, star. The James Dean Death Club and the James Dean Memory Ring and the James Dean Foundation in Indiana, among others, were quickly established to handle the public's appetite for the lost star, real places to send correspondence, buy memorabilia, engage in community discussion and mourning. This was before the Internet, remember—before digital networking, before we could easily connect and share our thoughts and feelings with a group of like-minded others all at once. Letters, some fifty thousand, were written by fans and addressed to Warner Brothers Studios from places all over the globe, so the studio "had to hire two independent companies just to handle the deluge." People needed Jimmy. Fans paid fifty cents to sit behind the wheel of the crashed Spyder, to sit in the seat he sat in, "impregnate them with his essence." There were national and local James Dean look-alike contests: "In 1956, a Pennsylvania high school student received some twenty-thousand letters acknowledging him as the Official James Dean Look-Alike." At one point every young person in every high school in America was trying to look like Dean—red jackets everywhere, like poppies in an open field.

There were public and personal ceremonies. Jim Bridges, a director and screenwriter, would recount, "…we all went to a place called the Polaram and bought lots of booze and got really plastered. We just couldn't stand it. We went down to the river and built a fire and had our own wake. Then we had a mud fight and started chanting, 'Give us a sign, give us a sign,' and we all had our shirts off. A dog barked on the side of the hill, so then we knew he was there…." Many thought his body was gone, but his spirit very much alive, more than alive—he was a ghost walking among the crowds interacting in invisible ways. One magazine played to this magical idea, James Dean Returns! Read his own words from beyond the grave. His words from beyond the grave told of "How I found a new life beyond death through one girl's love…." The grave, it seems, is not a fine place for a man who would be (mutant) king.


Jim worked full-time as an employee for the telephone company and he was someone who lived with chronic pain. His pain centered around his jaw line, a facial ache that radiated throughout his head, neck and upper body. He couldn't sleep or eat or kiss on certain nights, which made him look tired, run down. Sex, especially oral, was unpleasant. A cock in the mouth was like a knife in the back of the throat on certain nights. But the pain wasn't always peaked—a ten plus, say. There were times when the sensation was more of a dull throb, meddling, a fine agitation to the nerves, like that of an impacted and irritated tooth in the dead of night.

I project what his pain was like here. I do, dear readers. When we talk about another's pain (or even our own), this is always the way it has to be. There's really no way to know. We ask the sufferer to register the pain on a scale of one to ten, but there's an inherent gap in our understanding: we don't know if your ten is the sufferer's ten. There are other tests that help us more closely approximate the severity of the pain—the Visual Analogue Scale, the Brief Pain Inventory—but even with those tools we still only attempt to approximate a sensation. To this point, there very well may be pain that is too acute for some people to endure, and if you haven't experienced it (although there would be no way to verify if you had experienced it or not) you just don't know. So fuck off.

These patients can be considered "difficult" and difficult to treat. Many doctors prescribe them drugs, mainly opiates, because it quickly reduces at least some of the symptoms of the pain, and importantly, shuts them up. Unfortunately, the effects of the opiates soon wear off and the dosages need to be increased to provide even a modicum of relief. This leaves the individual hooked on the prescription drug, even though it is losing and will continue to lose its effectiveness through time. Jim was a person who was prescribed drugs for his jaw pain that were losing their effectiveness through time. Jim was frustrated. He wanted relief from the symptoms.

"Jim was never properly diagnosed," Andrew would offer.

Andrew would know, too. Andrew was a young neurologist. Jim turned to him in his time of need (all times were his time of need, according to Andrew) to help him sort through his jaw-pain issues. There must be some sort of relief. Can't I get down to a one or two, at least? Andrew spoke to him about what might be going on, printed out the relevant medical literature, booked him in to see a specialist or two. But Andrew could take a hard line in his involvement in the treatment of a loved one. That's the way he was trained and wired.

"I'm not your doctor," I can hear Andrew saying.

"So you can't help me?" I can hear Jim saying.

I know this conversation because I've had similar ones with Andrew many times over the years. Like walking up to a window at a the social security administration and being denied a benefit because you forgot to sign your name on a line, a partner of Andrew's can feel a real bureaucratic edge. Andrew doesn't like to mix up his medical practice with his personal relationships. Even when he speaks to his elderly parents, who are having health issues:

"Go talk to your doctor," Andrew says.

"But I'm talking to you," his parents say.

"Only your doctor can—"

Even when Andrew is talking to his younger brother about his parents.

"We just wanted you to translate some of the Latin," his brother says.

"Have them ask the doctor to clarify. Go to other health care professionals, the library." Don't ask me.

Andrew's brother was finding out what Andrew's parents were finding out, what Jim had certainly found out, what I knew: Andrew can be a real prick when asked to come to the family table with his professional toolkit. Should we speak to Andrew as if he is not a doctor? Should he abandon his skills, pretend he doesn't have information that might be helpful? Of course not. We, the family members, just have to learn not to push too hard for medical advice, and when Andrew grows agitated dispensing his wisdom, to pull back. We further have to learn to not always turn to him during those times when we might most need his reassurance and support. The question is: How did this dynamic play out in this early relationship with Jim?

Andrew thought that Jim's pain—like most pain—was both physical and psychological. As I've alluded to, there was some sort of repetitive sexual abuse at the hands of his older brother—a forced blow-job every now and then from the bloodline. This would help explain why the pain in the jaw was so severe and would flare up during highly emotional and stressful situations. Jim was also brought up by a mother who adhered to a rigid interpretation of the Bible. She seemed certain that God hated homosexuals based on some whacked-out line in Leviticus. She believed the homosexual was destined to burn in hell for all eternity, and if Jim was really a homosexual, her reasoning went, he, too, would burn in that fiery pit. She needed him not to burn. She was a woman who could get her mind around the red tape involved in obtaining an everlasting life.

James Dean was a rumored bisexual or homosexual. Did he repent at any point before the crash? Or is he consumed in eternal flames right now? Or, is scripture as a mouthpiece for eternity a bit more elastic that its interpreters would have us believe?


Rubber bands can stretch and rubber bands can snap. That day Don Shaw demonstrated affixing a plastic bag with a rubber band to his head to the local Hemlock group, he would discover the rubber band was much easier to put on the bag before it went over the head "like a hat," and that "two average rubber bands were adequate." I have to question the findings of Mr. Shaw, documented by Humphry, here: could an average rubber band really "easily" fit around someone's head? I use rubber bands fairly regularly to hold together stacks of papers or groupings of pens or hair, and they have a tendency to snap. The rubber loses its elasticity almost from the start. Age tends to harden it. Add to this the fact that human heads can be large in size or deformed or even macrocephalic and finding a durable elastic product for active euthanasia could be quite a challenge. Perhaps when Mr. Shaw mentions two rubber bands, he is thinking of them tied together in knots to make a super rubber band for a super release? Why do I focus on a little piece of rubber with no beginning or end?

When I was a child, my brother wrapped a rubber band around his wrist very tightly to see what would happen. He wrapped the rubber band so tightly that he was unable to take it off and his hand quickly turned purple. He had to run inside and have my mother cut it off with a pair of orange sewing scissors. Rubber bands can stop the flow of blood to those parts of the body that are most distal. They can be difficult to get off on your own. Should we be warning our children of the dangers of rubber bands? They can even be lethal, when they work.

I had to imagine what would have happened if my mother had not been around on that day. Two kids: would we have found the orange sewing scissors in the junk drawer? If not, would I have, in survivalist fashion, placed my teeth on the band near the bulge of his hand, and severed it with my central incisors? Or would we have let the hand go?

I think about that hand quite a bit. I see it disembodied from my brother. I see it as a lifeless extension sitting under a piece of museum glass. People come by to view it, gawk, to see what comes to those who play with those simple bands of rubber. I see it the color of a bruise. I see it more at certain times than others. I see it and am always reminded of how quickly the supply can be cut off.


Andrew would describe a night a month before they found Jim hanging from a tree in the cemetery. It was a cold October night in Volunteer Park in Seattle. This was a popular cruising ground for gay men of all ages. Andrew stopped by after a grueling day of work, around 7:30 pm. He would have been a resident at the University of Washington, a pediatric neurologist on call five nights a week. Jim was there, too, hunting for something that might dull or explain the pain. The relationship between Andrew and Jim was moving toward separation, so certain freedoms had been granted, if not fully acknowledged. Andrew passed by Jim that night in the park. They passed each other near a street lamp so the faces of each were fully exposed. Andrew said that Jim looked pale and white. White white. Andrew would refer to that night often, to the ghost who passed before him and then vanished into the mist, only to be self-delivered into history one month later.

I remember when Andrew told this story that he said that he was being followed for sexual purposes and that Jim was not. The idea was this: if he stopped and talked to Jim, he was going to lose this chance. Yes, there were millions like this, but it was cold and he didn't want to stay out there all night, didn't want to troll, and Jesus Christ, we aren't really together anymore, and this chance was important right now because it conferred on the subject the one thing he wanted more than anything else in the whole world—to feel his animated self mashed up with another so he could feel really alive, or just imagine himself so.

There was a good chance that Jim didn't go out there that night to participate in playground shenanigans, but to wander around like a ghost in a Dickens's tale, in order to receive a message or lesson or clue that might confirm or refute the sentence handed him by the strange agencies within and without. How many of us have had confrontations with those others who were on that strange border between this life and the next? Those stark encounters that forgo all forms of communication, save the basest of them all, the one we used even before we knew we were using it: the ability to gaze on the face before us in wonder. Maybe this is why we love the movies—life-sized faces that subsume us in those darkened rooms. James Dean, according to Dalton, had "a face of American bedrock, as pure and strong as a block of Carrara marble, and from this matrix he shaped himself." And us.

The idea that there was some sexual competition that night, that Andrew was getting more than Jim was getting, is something to explore. I bring it up because there was a motive for Andrew not to really speak to Jim on that night, a motive "not to get into it." A person who has lost a loved one to suicide often beats himself up for the past behaviors and actions that may be perceived to have pushed the other over the edge. In Andrew's head, is this the story he tells himself, that I didn't want to talk to Jim that night because it was more important to turn a trick? And if he hadn't turned the trick or tricks, would Jim not have taken the pills and tied the rope and stood on his tippy toes? The stories we tell ourselves in order to live are the stories we tell ourselves about others—and frequently, about that one other who spins our life into butter with their crazy, and sometimes loving, antics. This certainly is not Andrew's fault. But is it any wonder that after leaving the medical profession and then re-entering it that he would change his focus from that of a child neurologist to that of a specialist in pain and addiction? Do we all think of ourselves as the puppet master who is able to resurrect the lost souls wandering around in our kingdoms?


Pinocchio is the story of a puppet master named Geppetto who eventually turns a wooden boy into a real one. I used a shot from the animatedPinocchio by Disney for a video exercise for Sight and Sound I during my first summer at film school at New York University. At nineteen, I was a very centered student, one who got his work done on time, performed well enough on the outside, achieved remarkably high grade points (points which really had no point), but one who had not resolved, or even really understood, his family past, or himself. The video piece I composed was basically a bare monologue of myself revealing all the gory emotional details of my family life. Throughout the exercise, I slowly and dramatically moved out from a wide shot and into an extreme close-up. No subtleties here.

I remember herding my classmates into a small room to watch this piece, the Beta machine ticking away the frames of this amateur one-man confessional, while I stood outside, alone. There was toward the end of this piece, if I recall correctly, the idea of transformation—of understanding and then rising above my past. To rise above it, I believed back then, it was necessary to separate myself from my family, the tribe, to implement a radical cut. That meant I needed to stop talking to my mother and father, my grandmother and grandfather, my aunt. I needed to spend holidays with friends or other families or eating Chinese and Japanese on Canal Street. I needed to stop mentioning my past in conversations, needed to focus only on the always promising or fraught future. Futures are always thought of in drastic terms. This was a dangerous point in my life. I was not suicidal, far from it, but my view of myself and the world around me became distorted and heavy, myopic. I had cut the strings that had, however poorly, held me up, severing the life source and force that had been feeding me my best moves and lines. What was guiding me now?

Things can go terribly wrong for certain individuals here. They cannot negotiate the choppy mental waters as they try to sort through the people and ideas of the past and the promises and predations of the present. Not every person comes through this. Even those of us who do come through don't come through Downy clean. We're absolutely marked and wrecked, chicks taken from the nest too soon, forced to mature before we are really ready to do so. Becoming ourselves—our true ungodly selves—is the most tortuous process of all, and the most important. The shot of the Pinocchio film I used to represent this transformation was the moment when Geppetto brings Pinocchio to life, when the animation of the animation—the miracle—occurs and the puppet becomes a real boy.

There may be no miracles in life, but there are real actions that can produce cosmic effects. The video instructor for that Sight and Sound I class wrote me a letter a month or two after that class. A few lines pop out: "Feeling alienated from oneself is very unpleasant. And sometimes it takes a long time to set that aright. I hope you won't be too impatient about that." These are good words. Every lost boy should hear them at a particular point. That some boys may not be able to hear these words even if they are spoken or written is a conundrum that I can hardly confront. Why can some fold these messages into the interior and move on, while others remain trapped in an uncompromising loop? Why Jim? Why Jimmy? Why them all?


"I think there's only one true form of greatness for man. If a man can bridge the gap between life and death. I mean if he can live on after he's died, then maybe he was a great man…to me the only success, the only greatness, is immortality." James Dean supposedly said that. I went to the library to check the accuracy of my quote. The Internet is dangerous with facts. I opened James Dean: The Mutant King only to discover in the upper left-hand corner on the inside cover a small sticker. Black lines of varying widths: a barcode. I realized that every library book now comes with one of these stickers. Books used to come with an index card that slipped into a pocket in the back of the book. A library user would hand write her name on a line on the card and the librarian would stamp it with a date. The user would have two weeks from the checkout to return the book, one renewal if necessary.

I bring up the cards because they allowed any person who picked up the book the ability to see who checked out the book in the past. All one had to do was pull out the card and read the list of names. I could not see who read Final Exit at the Toronto Reference Library. Cards in the backs of library books are a thing of the past. All information is now stored on a central computer server. Our names are there.


Andrew said that Jim hanged himself in the cemetery where Bruce Lee is buried on the day of his own death, which he related as a suicide. Andrew got his facts wrong. The official story is that Lee did not try to kill himself. This was rumor. (James Dean's suicide is rumor, too.) Lee died of cerebral edema at the age of thirty-two, possibly from a drug interaction (analgesics, muscle relaxants, and marijuana were implicated but never proven; "death by misadventure" was the line the doctors took) on his way to Queen Elizabeth Hospital on July 20, 1973. Further, Jim's suicide coincided with Lee's birth, not his death. The mix up of the facts gives one a clue as to the headspace that Andrew was in after the event, and perhaps still is.

Andrew was certain that Jim would have been aware of the details of the events of Lee's life. He would have planned his self-deliverance to coincide with dates and locations that were significant in that regard. And isn't it in the details where we all give ourselves away? I then thought of how popular culture anoints its Gods. You had to have done something or represented something—be a famous singer or actor or poet. This is the requirement of our age, of our ages. This is probably why Jim performed the act on the same day that Bruce Lee was born in the cemetery where he was buried. History won't remember a person who was not famous, won't remember an employee from the phone company who felt indescribable facial pain and the effects of abuse and God's judgment and a ruptured family line. But he might be remembered by association, by a terrifying self-deliverance that coincided with someone else's deliverance. Be immortal. Catch me if you can.


Under a glass case, in a distant corner of my mind, a purple hand twitches.


Andrew and I drove out West last summer and I finally had a chance to walk through the cemetery in Seattle where Bruce Lee is buried and where Jim ended his life. It was a hot day with a flat sky that was somewhere between blue and gray—hazy and bright at the same time, all wrong. The grasses were scorched because the city hadn't been getting enough rain and the grounds keepers must not have seen the point in setting out sprinklers to keep the grasses green. The brown grass made the red, white, and blue flags and the carnations and roses and windmills stand out, colorful relief in a land of repose. There were no birds out that day, no song.

The cemetery was surrounded on all sides by a cyclone fence. It was tall but could be easily mounted and climbed over, if one wanted to get in when the gates were locked. Jim must have climbed over the fence on that night in late November, the tips of his shoes poking into the diamond links. Every person who is reading this has climbed over a cyclone fence at least once. We all know how to do it. It's easy enough.

Andrew and I walked up the main path for a bit and then veered into a row, walked between some graves of varying shapes and sizes. We came to a couple of trees, elms. They grow well out here. Andrew told me so. Andrew circled around them, studied them, like a bug expert assessing a beetle infestation. All he needed was a brimmed hat with netting and a notebook.

"This is it," he said. He put his hand on the trunk of the tree he was in front of.

We walked around some more.

"I'm pretty sure it was that one," Andrew said.

We came to another tree. Andrew again walked around it, looked up at its long heavy branches. His hand touched the rough bark.

"Maybe this one," he said.

There were a couple more trees that it could have been.


A friend stayed with Andrew the night after the morning they found Jim. Andrew tells me that the friend brought over a bottle of bourbon and they drank heavily. It was a cold November night in Seattle, just after Thanksgiving. The bourbon warmed the body the way a fire warms a room. Andrew would repeat to me how cold it was that night. Cold, cold. Andrew doesn't remember much more about that night. He remembers the call to his own parents and he remembers the call to Jim's parents, but he doesn't remember what was said, the content of the conversation lost like a warm mitten on an icy trail. He doesn't remember if he ate or not, probably not, but he can't be sure. His friend slept on the pullout couch. Andrew slept in their bed.

"Was that hard?" I asked.

No answer.


I am reminded in the Toronto Reference Library that day thinking it absurd that Final Exit was stored in the stacks. I thought that with the revolution of the Internet that the content of this book could easily be gleaned from a Google search or posting on a blog or individual websites. Surely, there is information here that is more incendiary, more provocative, and perhaps less accurate in its instructions. But the event that Andrew endured did give me pause and made me consider how we pass along or restrict information. There may be people who are just one sentence or paragraph or chapter away from committing to a final act.

One other thing I remember from that day at the Toronto Reference Library. A sparrow was inside the library. It was flying around and landing on various surfaces. The bird did not land on the tables where individuals and groups were studying, but on the floor, in the potted plants, the windowsills, and on the tops of the bookcases. I remember no one paid the sparrow any mind, but I tracked its movements. I always do.

The sparrow that day brought to mind the gospel song, "His Eye Is on the Sparrow." I have an album by Della Reese who provides a rendering of this song that is, according to the back cover, "a gasser." I also have a VHS tape somewhere in our basement of a young black boy singing this song. He spontaneously stood up one day in one of my classes and asked if he could. Why not? When he opened his mouth, out came this beautiful spiritual. He sang it a cappella. Everyone was very moved by his interpretation and performance and gave him a standing ovation from their little desks. I must have recorded it for some point in the future. This moment is that point in the future. And, still, I don't know why I recorded it, or for whom. I do know there are no lyrics to the sparrow's song, but its music is remarkably sweet.

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