Spirits

November 1, 1986

Scott didn't leave a suicide note. A note would have been too precise, too limited, too trivial for the poet, songwriter, and artist he was. Scott's style was global. He communicated, not merely in words, but in feelings, sounds, and images. So he spoke to us in spirits. And each spirit message he sent was unique, designed to tell each of us of his love, his courage, his anguish.

My son died three days ago from massive brain damage he sustained when he jumped from a truck onto the San Diego Freeway. Evidently, he had planned his suicide for several months, but he had kept his secret well: Only after he died did we begin to perceive his spirit messages. Only then did we realize the full extent of his love for us. And only then did we feel the misery he had kept private, not wanting to burden us.

My wife, Betty, Scott's step-mom the last half of his life, was the first to be visited by a spirit. She had been puzzled and hurt because, during the previous few weeks, Scott had withdrawn from her, avoiding eye contact. After his secret was out, however, the reason for his peculiar detachment from her became clear: Though he could always finesse me, he had never been able to deceive her. Their's had been a special love: a wholly candid, mutual acceptance. Had he looked into her eyes, his secret plan would have escaped.

As it turned out, Betty was the first to know that Scott's plan was successful: Before his still-viable remains returned from surgery, and before we were told of the neurosurgeon's findings, she and I were standing on the hospital patio under a clear, starry sky. While looking up toward Orion, she told me, "Scott is up there, playing his guitar and singing to us. He is happy, and he wants us to be happy for him."

Scott sent a more tangible spirit to his sister, Heather. The two of them had always shared a special closeness, a relationship that had helped them through the bad times and enriched them during the good ones. The last day she visited him, he told her of a dress he had seen in a store window: "That dress looked just like you. I wished I could buy it for you." Later that day, as the sun set and the air chilled, he gave her his leather jacket for warmth. After he died, he gave her the jacket again.

On his last day with us, before he climbed into the bed of the truck, he had handed it to his friend to keep safe. After the jacket found its way to Heather a few days later, she wept. "It smells just like it did when Scott lent it to me. This is better than any dress." Heather realized that Scott had envisioned her wearing the dress, not for its style, but for its color. Black.

Scott also sent a spirit to help his half-sister, Debbie, with a dilemma she had been facing. She had been yearning for children, but after Scott became ill, she began to worry that the family's bipolar illness might afflict her children. She didn't know whether to bear children who might suffer as Scott did. But Scott showed Debbie that it is better to live a brief life than none at all. In his 21 years, Scott had enriched our lives and fulfilled his own far more than most people could if they lived for a hundred years.

It was not easy for Scott to find a spirit I could hear. He had spoken urgently to me about spirits the week before he died, saying he had seen them. I knew he was desperately trying to convince me of their existence. But Scott knew I could understand his spirits only as symptoms of the mental illness that had condensed his life. So he humored me: He invoked a messenger I could believe in.

Three months before his death, I gave him a watch I had worn when I was his age, a watch I had saved all those years without knowing why--until I gave it to him. He told me he would treasure it and that he would never remove it--"except in the shower, of course." He told his sister during their last visit, "I think of Dad every time I look at my watch. I feel him near me when I wear it." I learned that Scott's watch would carry a message to me soon after I arrived at the hospital on that worst day of my life.

Earlier in the day, a hospital staff member had called Betty at home, telling her that Scott was in critical condition from head injuries he sustained in a car accident. Betty, barely able to talk, called me at the office and told me what she knew. "Damn!" I swore. "No! Head injury! Critical! Damn! No!" I cancelled my remaining appointments and rushed home.

We set out on a two-and-a-half-hour pilgrimage through late afternoon Los Angeles traffic. In the car, we remembered Scott's sense of humor, and we laughed; his songs, and we marveled; his tormenting delusions, and we swore; his worries, and we wept. By the time we reached the hospital, we realized we were speaking of Scott in the past tense.

In the emergency room, the trauma surgeon gave us the clinical details of Scott's condition. He metered them out carefully, gauging our reaction to each bit of news:

"He's in surgery now. . .

"He was bleeding from both ears and his nose . . .

"The CAT-scan showed extensive damage to his brain. . .

"He suffered a massive occipital skull fracture . . .

We kept listening, hearing, absorbing. And the information kept coming.

"A paramedic intubated him at the scene."

"Did he breathe spontaneously at all?" I asked.

"I doubt it. There was severe brain stem damage." Evidently sensing by then that we wanted to hear everything at once, he concluded: "It was an open fracture. Brain tissue was extruded."

The official pronouncement of death would not arrive for another 25 hours, but we knew we would never again hug Scott. Or talk with him. Or laugh or cry with him. Scott's organs and tissues, still vital and strong, were upstairs on an operating table. His heart, kidneys, and corneas would live on, transplanted. Scott, however, was gone.

We asked the doctor, "How did this happen?"

"I'm not sure," the doctor told us, tentatively.

"Does anyone know what happened?" Betty persisted.

"One witness said that he deliberately jumped, that it was suicide." He waited for our reaction, and seemed surprised by it. We were, too.

"Thank God!" I said. "He did it his way. He finally took control of his life." Betty and I looked at each other intimately, understanding without words. Suicide made sense. Anything else would have seemed unbearable: An accident. An impulse. A hostile gesture. An act of despair. A joke gone wrong. Neither logic nor wishes, however, can prove that Scott committed suicide. We couldn't know unless Scott could tell us.

Scott's watch began to speak to me after a nurse brought us a plastic bag containing the things brought to the hospital with Scott: His jeans, underwear, tennis shoes, keys, wallet, two lighters, and a crumpled cigarette pack with a single mashed cigarette in it. But no watch.

"Where's his watch?" I asked.

"He wasn't wearing one," the nurse replied.

"We must find his watch," I told Betty. "It's important." We couldn't believe it lay crushed at the side of the freeway. That wouldn't have been like Scott. No. His watch had a story to tell. We would find it sometime, somehow.

We felt the need to talk with Scott's friend, Vic, who had been with him. We knew he would need to be comforted, and that his information would comfort us. We met him yesterday, Halloween. Weeping, he told us what had happened that day.

Scott, Vic, and another friend had gone to the beach and had given themselves a wonderful time, singing, dancing, playing on the sand. When it was time to go home, Scott asked to ride in the bed of the truck. For most of the trip, he lay on his back looking at the sky as they drove along the freeway at 60 miles an hour. After a while, the traffic thinned and the lanes cleared. Scott stood up. Alarmed, his friends knocked on the rear window, got his attention, and shouted for him to sit down. Scott smiled and waved to them. Then he turned around and jumped over the tailgate.

We wept together. We told Vic it was natural for him to be angry because Scott had burdened him with such an awful experience. We also reminded him that Scott trusted him deeply to share his last hours with him.

After about a half-hour, Betty suddenly asked, "Do you know what happened to Scott's watch?"

Vic rose from his chair, took the watch from his pocket, and handed it to me. "He took it off before he jumped and left it in the bed of the pickup. He must have wanted you to have it."

The watch had spoken: Scott had orchestrated his suicide perfectly. He wanted to end his own torment, and he wanted us to learn to accept that. He had finished his life-song on a major chord.

Only the person who suffers anguish is able to assess its depth. Only the person who experiences the rewards of living can know the quality of that life. Only the person who lives a life can legitimately choose to end it.

I'm grateful that Scott kept his secret. If he hadn't, we would have ruined it for him. We would have insisted that he live for us--no matter how miserable he felt. Such is the paradox of love: Love is selfish; we love for our own benefits. But Scott resolved our dilemma. Through his spirit messages, he told us that love permits us to accept even the greatest of losses. Of course, we have just begun to accept the loss of Scott. It is difficult to imagine that our grief will end some day.