September 27, 2009



Anne, Joyce, and Gerry, summer of 1978


Gerry and Ellen watch as I hog the net and the rod. Circa 1966.

I really don't know how to process this news at all. My sister Anne called and asked if I was sitting down because she had some very bad news. Gerald Joseph Eckhart, 50 years old, my little brother, took his own life today.

Anyone wishing to moralize about the wrongness of suicide can keep their thoughts to themselves. They simply don't understand depression and the depth of the pain that can come unbidden into one's life. I have struggled with it myself, but managed to keep myself more or less intact long enough to move past it. Medications can help (and still do for me), but they take time to work and can be unpredictable long after you think you've gotten used to them and understand their effects. That Gerry's pain was too much for him to bear is almost impossible for me to grasp.

Gerry was always a stoic, and his ability to withstand pain seemed superhuman. As a child, he once rode his trike off the edge of the porch and cut his head open badly enough to need stitches, but he barely whimpered. In his "fights" with my sisters, I don't recall any of them getting so much as a scratch. But Gerry's arms were frequently a mass of long gouges from their fingernails. It didn't seem to deter him or even bother him much.

Gerry was a product of a very difficult childhood, as were all five of us. My father's undiagnosed mental disease was hard on all of us, but Gerry seemed to bear the brunt of his fury much of the time. My mother said that when my father first saw him as an infant, Gerry reminded him of a guy that he really didn't like. I'll never understand that. Even for my father, it was a loony thing to say.

My father teetered on the knife edge between sanity and madness for much of his life. The nearest I can come to an uneducated post-mortem analysis was that he was rapid-cycling bipolar. Two tours of duty flying bombers in World War II shattered his psyche in a way that I can never fully know. His extremely strict interpretation of Catholicism gave some order to his life, but he also spent a lot of energy trying to convince others of the rightness of that point of view. We, who were under his control, were his subjects. He taught us what he could, though we couldn't possibly live up to his standards or see the visions that he preached to us.

I think Gerry internalized a lot of the abuse, turned it inward against himself. When he was about 12, I remember that he'd put together a couple of models; big goofy cartoonish monster cars that he was very proud of. After a particularly vicious dressing-down from my dad, perhaps one where the models were used as an example of his childishness, Gerry stood at the trashcan outdoors next to our room, weeping and methodically breaking the models into pieces.

Gerry stood up to my father better than I did. Once, I remember how Gerry out-argued him in the middle of one my dad's long harangues where he usually delineated our failings point by point. My father was speechless and Gerry triumphant, but he was nearly throttled before my grandfather walked down the hall. Putting up a calm front for Grandpa saved Gerry's neck. My dad wasn't usually violent, but he sometimes crossed the line.

Driving could become a terror at any minute. Quarreling in the back seat could turn into a screaming lecture on the way to Sunday Mass, which could end with us careening down the road, thinking we were going to die at any second. I remember praying the "Our Father" out loud with Gerry in the shotgun seat of the family station wagon barreling toward certain death. Only to pile out of the wagon moments later and try to get ourselves together and pretend that everything was normal while we walked into to church with my mother and sisters daubing their red eyes. Fear of death morphed into fear that people were going to find out that Dad was nuts.

I haven't been in touch with Gerry much at all during the past 30 years. He found another path, another extreme vision of God and reality just as I was realizing that for me, the idea of Jesus made as much sense as Santa Claus or the Jolly Green Giant. I don't begrudge anyone their ideas, even if I think they are misguided. Many would think my ideas are loony, but so what? We all need to believe in something, and life can be harder on people than anyone can imagine possible. Anything that helps them survive the process is a good thing.

I can't properly describe the pain I've felt in depression. Metaphors can only scratch the surface of an understanding of it. That pain didn't even take me to the brink of death, but I don't know how much more or it I could have withstood.

I'll never know the horror that Gerry faced his last week, but I shudder to think how hard it must have been to face. Those of us left behind now have our pain to bear. I don't think Gerry disregarded that pain, but I don't think he could see it from where he was. The noise in your head can get so loud that you just can't hear anything else.

If you want to judge someone, then judge your own life. The rest of us don't need it. It's not easy to understand what leads someone to a place of such darkness. Understanding can come from experience, or from listening to the experience of others. I only ask that you take these words and know that they come from my heart.

Posted by Hal Eckhart at 09:08 PM | Comments (4)

February 19, 2006

A sad package

arrived at our house this week. Jan had thought about scattering the ashes in the hostas that he loved to hide in, but now isn't sure that she wants to part with them yet. When things slow down, I'll have to try to make an appropriate urn.

skippy's ashes
Posted by Hal Eckhart at 07:43 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 30, 2006

Farewell, little buddy

skippy small
May, 1990 - January 30, 2006

Succumbed to lymphoma after nearly sixteen years as the world's happiest cat.

Posted by Hal Eckhart at 03:51 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack