Thursday, February 2, 2006

a death on the block

andy at the fairfax rod & gun club, may 1999

our friend and neighbor andy took his life this week. it's anybody's guess if somebody saw it coming but it couldn't have exactly taken anyone who knew him a little more than slightly by surprise. not so very long ago andy came close to doing the same thing in the same way. this time nothing got into the way.

andy, a former deputy sherrif and prosecutor, private investigator, sailor, world traveler, all-round lover of life, and, apparently, unrepentant alcoholic, committed suicide in a somewhat public way, by shooting himself in his backyard after, but certainly not because of, an argument with the woman in his life. five years ago he threatened to take his life in his backyard, gun in hand, pointed inward, after, but certainly not because of, an argument with his then wife.

so when a neighbor called us this past monday night to tell us what had happened down our cul-de-sac, where a few hour earlier i had noticed some emergency vehicles parked and idling with no particular sense of urgency, i cannot say that i was as shocked as i was saddened. i hadn't been home at the fatal moment but my wife was sure she had heard a gunshot as she stood by an open window.

this time andy was not spontaneous, as he had been in his earlier attempt, leaving a note, i am told. but he did not betray his intentions or torment to the world. over the previous weekend he had removed leaves from his property, filling what looked like two dozen 30-gallon bags for pickup. i saw him twice earlier in the day, as he zipped by our house in one of his two saabs, tooting his horn and waving as he always did.

i do not spend too much time in the front of our house but in our mayberry-like community someone with whom you are happy to exchange a few words always seems to be passing by with a dog or a child, and if driving stops in the middle of the road oblivious to any cars which may follow, and when another does come down the street it merely diverts with no honks because that's the way it's done around here, as you lean on an open passenger window chatting with the driver, engine running, like it was the back fence. andy was often coming or going in his car, but he never stopped. he always looked very much on a mission.

i had played a small roll in andy's earlier drama. that time, law enforcement officers toting shotguns walked down our quiet street, telling some residents to stay indoors for their own safety. by chance i called andy's house, thinking i could get an account from someone close to the action beyond my view. andy's then wife answered the phone and her trembling voice made clear she was not just a witness but a principal. i went to their house, found another neighbor already there, and he and i stayed for a few hours as police consoled and counseled her and as she made a difficult decision to commit andy for at least that evening and an easier one to insist that andy's guns be removed from the house, something the police, even under those circumstances, could not themselves see to.

in virginia, there is no restriction on gun ownership for anyone who has never been convicted of a crime, or has never been involuntarily committed to a mental institution, or has never been subject to a restraining order. residents can buy virtually any kind of non-automatic gun, rifle or shotgun every thirty days. in some counties there is no waiting period if you go to a dealer who can make an instant "brady" background check. it is also easy to qualify for a permit to carry a concealed gun in public by showing mininmal shooting proficiency, filling out some forms, wating at least 45 days and making two trips to court.

of course -- i do appreciate the irony -- no permit, training or registration is required to openly carry a handgun. in almost every corner of virginia it is perfectly legal for anyone who is at least 21 years old to strap iron on the hip. and there is also no restriction or accounting of what a homeowner can possess and keep in one's home. people don't exactly broadcast gun possession -- it makes one both a target and a threat -- but i know that, besides me, there were at least two other households on this small block where residents keep or kept handguns in their houses.

because part of my relationship with andy involved the fact that we both owned guns and went shooting at his exclusive outdoor range once, his then wife, adament that she would not live in a house with andy and guns anymore, gave him an ultimatum: i would "hold" his collection indefinitely, or she would leave. i think andy agreed because he did not want his marriage to dissolve, although it did end not long thereafter. and then he asked for them back.

nancy an i attended a memorial today at which, according to another friend, mourners were to talk about "crazy andy" -- crazy, in this context, being neither ironic, literal or pejorative. there were many friends and family and colleagues who had many touching memories. but i was mostly moved by the several grown children and young adults whom andy had mentored and loved and in some cases even taken in as their parents went through an ugly divorce, all of whom considered him a surrogate or second father and pivotal in their lives, and whom he has now abandoned.

andy's former wife and last girlfriend sat together and embraced often during the ceremony. they are friends and see each other regularly and that is how life should be for those who decide, even every day if necessary, that life is worth living. if andy blamed anyone but himself for his demons (i doubt it), i think he would have been wrong. he pulled the trigger, for better or for worse. he bailed, leaving others to feel pain and guilt, if they so choose, in addition to the sadness one might have for another person's despair or weakness or for the senseless waste. i hope no one feels it necessary to enable andy posthumously by accepting any culpability for his action.

i will remember andy as a curious, intense guy who seemed to like himself way too much to do what he did. but, there you go.