05 June 2015

The Mystery of Fenwick's Suicide

My neighbor Fenwick blew his brains out yesterday. I can’t figure this one out and am not sure anyone else can.

His name was Myron Fenwick but everyone called him by his last name, he preferred it that way. Fenwick was 80 years old. He neither looked nor acted his age. He was the most active person I ever met. Even at the end of a long, busy day when he sat on his porch sipping a lemonade or a hot cup of tea -- depending on the weather -- he seemed in perpetual motion. Standing and gesticulating to make a point, shifting positions to get comfortable, remonstrating about this or that, why you could just tell his mind was going a mile a minute pondering this or that.

Mostly Fenwick was on his feet. He had a garden to tend to and was never satisfied with it. In the front yard there were his prize roses and in the backyard he grew vegetables. Fenwick and his pruning shears seemed damn near inseparable except when he had a hoe or some other instrument in his hand. If it wasn’t his garden he was fixing something in or on the outside of his house. If nothing needed fixing than you could be damn sure he was cleaning.

Of course Fenwick wasn’t always at home. He took long hearty walks in the morning. He’d get up with the sun and be off.  I once saw him a good two miles along striding purposefully as if he had important business to get to. Then after dinner he’d take an evening walk — rain on shine. “I’ve got a goddmaned umbrella!” he’d say when someone questioned the wisdom of Fenwick walking in the rain.

Fenwick didn’t have a car but he did own a truck which he’d only ever use to go the grocery or hardware store and almost without exception he only went to the store on Tuesdays. I never thought to ask him why.

Fenwick was a reader too. Boy was he ever. He’d read every American, British, French, German and Spanish writer I could ever think of. “Took up the habit of reading when I was eight and haven’t stopped since,” he once told me. The man devoured books and held strong opinions on every one of them and on every author too. He also read the newspaper front to back and could hold forth on topics of the day as if he’d been briefed by the White House.

“My daddy was a New Deal Democrat who voted for FDR all four times and I’m following in his footsteps,” Fenwick would say. We guessed the footsteps were his dad’s and not FDR’s but who knows.

Fenwick was born on the first day of the calendar year in 1925 in Buffalo, New York. He settled here in California after World War II with his wife Gloria. Fenwick fought in the Battle of the Bulge but only spoke vaguely about his experiences. He also didn’t speak much of Gloria who died in 1967 in a car accident. Fenwick never remarried. He once said, “Gloria was all I ever wanted in a woman and I couldn’t ever replace her and it would be foolish to try. I had my great love and that’s that.”

Fenwick had one son named Albert — always called Allie — who was 17 when his mother died. He went to Harvard  and ultimately earned a Phd and became a History Professor at Dartmouth — a fact which Fenwick was quite humble about. Allie faithfully visited his dad every Christmas, wife and children (there were three) in tow. Fenwick in turn visited every Spring for a week and occasionally in the Summer.

Money was never a problem for Fenwick. He’d been a building contractor during the post war construction boom. He also made some shrewd real estate investments and was able to comfortably retire at the age of 58. Over the years he’d made a lot of friends ranging from those who worked for him like carpetenters and electricians and plumbers, to those he built houses for to those he got to know through his many charitable activities and from his work for the local Democratic Party. He was forever being invited to dinner here or meeting for lunch there. Plus everyone in the neighborhood knew and liked him. It seemed he didn’t have an enemy in the world.

Fenwick was, as you may have gathered, a hale and healthy man who never seemed to have so much as a cold. Once he complained about a sore ankle and another time about a bruised knee (both as a consequence of his labors around the house) but that was the extent of his complaints that I ever heard. Most other people never heard that much.

All this gets us back to the mystery of why the man would have shot himself in the head. I saw Fenwick two days ago and he seemed fine, just like always. Of course he was still complaining about “that idiot Bush” being re-elected even though that was six months ago. Fenwick said he’d seen some crazy things in politics but to his mind nothing matched the lunacy of Bush’s being given a second term. “The clown blundered us into a stupid, senseless, illegal war and keeps his job. Is there no justice?” he asked. But that was what a few of us called “standard Fenwick.” He seemed to half enjoy bitching about the Republicans, although he was much more comfortable discussing political issues of the day in a sober, rational manner which revealed a mind that understood the intricacies and nuances of politics. Bush just got under his skin. “How could someone so obviously dumb be the president of this country?” he wondered aloud. It genuinely vexed him. Be that as it may Fenwick’s ranting about Bush the last time I saw him was fully in character. And there was no sign of dementia. I was asked that but I, like those who knew him best, never saw a hint that his mind was any less sharp than it ever was. And I had been his next door neighbor for 31 years. (Fenwick had already lived there for 20 years when I moved into the neighborhood.)

It was around 6:30 in the morning. I was getting dressed, I’m a semi-retired lawyer and was due in court in a couple of hours and wanted to get to the office to check some files I’d left there. The loud sound was unmistakably a gunshot. I couldn’t tell for the life of me where it came from and didn’t initially guess it originated from Fenwick's. I hastily finished dressing and went outside. There was — it seemed — not a sound to be heard. The quiet was eery. Then Mrs. Wallace who lives on the other side of Fenwick emerged. “You hear that?” she asked “What was it?”

“I sure did and it sure sounded like a gunshot,” I told her.

“Well I thought so too and I called the police,” said Bill Holloway who lived across the street. I hadn’t noticed him making his way across the street. I asked if he had any idea where it came from.

“I think from Fenwick’s,” he said.

“Oh god,” I thought and suddenly had an inexplicable sense that something terrible had happened in Fenwick’s.

“Oh god,” said Mrs. Wallace.

“What should we do?” Mr. Holloway wanted to know.

I suggested we wait for the police to show up. We did and they arrived a few minutes later. We told the officer of our suspicion that a gunshot may have come from Mr. Fenwick’s house and we were particularly suspicious because he hadn’t emerged.

“Could be on his morning walk,” Mr. Holloway than suggested.

“Let’s hope,” someone said, for by now half the block was out in the street.

The officer knocked on Fenwick’s door. There was no answer. Then I noticed the morning paper was still on his porch. Fenwick always tossed it inside before going on his walk. I told the officer this. After knocking even louder and announcing who he was the policeman tried the door. It was unlocked. He went in.

I felt my shoulders sag. I knew this was bad. Fenwick always looked the door. Less than a minute later the officer emerged ashen faced. “I’m afraid this is bad,” he announced. “I’ll need you all to back away.” We’d crowded around Fenwick’s front yard, careful not to step on any plants. The cop went to his patrol car and made a call.

“What is it?” someone asked pleadingly.

The officer shook his head sadly and all doubt was removed.

We were all stunned when it was revealed that Fenwick took his own life. It just didn’t make sense.

It’s almost exactly ten years to the day since Fenwick’s suicide. I’m 100% retired from my law practice and spend my days in much the same manner that Fenwick did. Difference is my wife Emma is still alive and kicking and she’s a big part of every day for me.

Anyway the mystery of why Fenwick blew his brains out occupied a lot of conversation for a surprisingly long time and never seemed to stop coming up in conversations. No one had a clue why he did it. You never saw a person so full of life as Fenwick.

Allie, of course, flew out here straight away to take care of matters and he was as baffled by his dad’s suicide as the rest of us. He just went around in a fog while he was here, hardly saying anything just a grim look on his face. Poor guy. Eventually he rented the house to a young couple with a baby. Allie sold some of his dad’s stuff, took a few things and stored a bunch in the basement of the house to deal with another time.

Well that other time came last week. The couple had two more kids and the husband got a promotion and they bought their own house in the swanky part of town. So Allie, who just retired, came out to go through all that stuff of his dad’s in the basement with a mind to putting the house up for sale.  I volunteered to help Allie go through the things in the basement him having a bum leg from a bike accident, he gladly accepted. It was then that we maybe solved the mystery of Fenwick’s suicide. Maybe.

There was a lot that was going to go straight to the trash but there was also a lot that Allie wanted to hang on to and even pass on to his kids. This was stuff like medals, letters, mementoes, photos and the like. Allie even found stuff from when he was a kid. But the biggest find was a big box of journals. It seemed that Fenwick had kept a journal from at least the time Allie was born right up until he took his life.

Each journal was in a bound binder with the year written on the front and was preserved in plastic. Each one covered exactly one year. The first was from 1952. “I can’t bear to read these,” Allie said wiping a tear. “I guess I’ll take them, though, leaving them for my kids.”

Then Allie just started at them for a bit, like he just couldn’t believe they existed. Finally he looked at me and I mean he really seriously looked into my eyes and held his gaze, then asked: “would you mind looking through the last one, the one from 2005, see if there’s any hint of why….” He didn’t need to finish the sentence.

Well I’ll tell you, never have I been so conflicted. On the hand I was extremely curious and on the other it felt like a violation to read the private thoughts of someone I’d known so well. But the fact was that Allie really wanted me to. I could tell just by the way he stared at me. This was serious to him.

“Sure I’ll do it, Allie, just let me take it upstairs.”

“If you find anything, no matter what, don’t hesitate, tell me.”

I promised I would and took the 2005 journal upstairs where there was good light and comfortable chairs.

Fenwick never missed a day. It seemed like he wrote just before bed because each entry detailed the whole day. He wrote about what he ate, conversations he had, the news, what he was reading and memories of everything from his childhood, through the war, through courting Gloria, Allie’s childhood and work. Some of his reminiscences were really interesting stuff and I thought to suggest to Allie, him having been a historian and all, that a book could be written about Fenwick’s life. His journals alone would be a great source.

Eventually I skipped to the last few weeks of his life. I was simultaneously hoping to find a clue and dreading that I would find a clue. But I did.

Two weeks before his suicide Fenwick included the following at the beginning of his daily entry. “Woke up suddenly from sleep about 3:00 am. Had a dream where I saw Pinky O’Brien get his head blown off. It was awful and it really happened during the Battle of the Bulge. We had taken some Nazi shelling for a good few minutes and waited it out cowering in a foxhole. Finally it got quiet and we stood up and then another shell came flying and I don’t know what all that happened I just remember looking over at Pinky and watching the moment his head was blew clean off his head. One second he was a 20 year old kid as healthy as could be the next his head was gone and he actually took one step forward before dying. The dream was just like it actually happened and I’d managed not to think of it or even remember it happened for 60 years or since right after the war when a hypnotist worked on me. I remember that but had never remembered that the hypnotist helped me forget something, until now. So it’s all back.”

In every subsequent entry from that point on Fenwick wrote about being unable to get the vision of his friend being killed out of his mind. He actually managed well enough during the day but each night he had more and more trouble sleeping. The last few days he didn’t sleep at all. Fenwick was haunted. Was that he why he blew his brains out? Was it enough to drive a person to suicide?

I told Allie what I’d found. He agreed that it was possible that his father had killed himself because a horrible vision had returned after 60 years.

“What’s his very last entry?”

It was from the day before and it was his shortest. “Not a wink of sleep last night. I manage to put on a good face for neighbors and friends but I need sleep bad. All I see when I close my eyes is Pinky. I see him smiling, that big stupid grin of his but I also see him without his head taking a step forward before….And why him? Could have been me just as easily. I had forgot Pinky totally, not just what happened to him now he’s all I think of. Might try a hot bath before bed tonight and a few drinks of brandy. Something, gee anything. I just don’t know.”

And that was it.

Allie just shook his head and stared at the floor. “Poor guy. One big jolt of survivor’s guilt stored up over six decades. Plus seeing a pal’s head…And that was after 60 years. Maybe that and the lack of sleep was enough to push him over the edge.”

The next day Allie shipped the diaries along with everything else he meant to keep back east. He had everything else hauled to the dumps. Before catching his flight, Allie paid me a call. He thanked me profusely for the help and especially for reading the diary. I told him I wouldn’t tell a sole what I’d read. “That’s okay. I’m going to start working on a book about Dad. I’ve got too much time on my hands anyway. I’ll have plenty of material to work with what with the diaries. I’ll have a grad assistant help me. Maybe two. I’m sure I’ll be back to talk to people around here about dad for the book, including you, if it’s okay.”

“It’d be a pleasure, Allie. Your dad was a great a man.”

“I don’t know what makes a person great but I do know that dad led a good life and touched a lot of people. It’s a damn shame the way it ended, but like Vonnegut sad: ‘so it goes.’”

That was a couple of days ago. I got an email from Allie this morning thanking me again and telling me he was getting straight to work on the book and only regretted it took all this time to think to do it.

Poor Fenwick. What a thing not to live with all those years. I wonder if he’d have been better off without the hypnotist, dealing with what he had seen and experienced. Maybe burying the truth, no matter how awful, is the worst thing you can do. I don’t know.

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