"Hopefully, we're in that privileged position of having no bias, speaking for everyone."
Like a Song: One Tree Hill
October 22, 2010
[Ed. note: This is the 49th in a series of personal essays by the @U2 staff about songs and/or albums that have had great meaning or impact in our lives. Real names are not used in this essay.]
While on a daylong roadtrip with some of the @U2 staffers last year, we listened to The Joshua Tree. For Matt, it brought up memories of his niece. For me, "One Tree Hill" made me think of a family member, and I tried not to tear up during that song.
In the early 1990s, when I was living in my first apartment, my cousin Gary used to bring his acoustic guitar over and I would sing while he played. The songs I remember singing mainly to were from The Joshua Tree: "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," "Running to Stand Still" and "One Tree Hill." I recall once trying to do Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues," which left me laughing but Gary thought it was great.
Growing up, I've primarily spent time with my mother's side of the family, and during holidays at my grandparents, I and my cousins (all boys) always had a blast playing together. Gary was a couple of years younger than me, and his brother Brett and I were the same age.
I don't have a very clear picture of what his life was like growing up, but I know it involved a lot of transition. It seems like he and his brother lived with their mother for only a short time, and I had never spent enough time with her to think of her as an aunt. I recall a wonderful moment during this time when Gary and I worked up a whole routine one day acting out a Bill Cosby story of a sibling fight while the record played, and we later performed it for the adults.
He also lived with his father and a stepmother at one point. After that marriage ended, he and his brother lived with their father in a converted bus, moving from place to place.
We turn away to face the cold, enduring chillAs the day begs the night for mercy
My uncle didn't have the best judgment and let his two sons get high with him at an early age. While I was visiting them one day in 1975, my uncle was smoking with them and also getting the 12-year-old neighbor girl high. Gary was 10 and Brett was 12. When I turned down the offer, my uncle said, "What are you? Square?" My mother, although very bohemian herself, knew what was appropriate age-wise and was upset with him when I told her later.
I don't know how much of that had to do with Gary's chronic addiction problems, which I wasn't aware of until he was an adult. While I don't think pot is a gateway drug, it certainly could have had a very negative impact on a kid.
A few days before Christmas in 1984, when Brett and I were both 21, he was riding his motorcycle home from work when he was killed by a hit-and-run driver. Brett was a very sweet, intelligent and motivated man, who didn't seem to have as much difficulty working through emotional problems as his brother did. I was really touched when he was there for me during a personal crisis. Both he and Gary were very sensitive, caring and creative young men.
The loss of Brett had a pretty substantial impact on Gary. As they got older, he really looked up to his brother, and I think Brett's example of overcoming the difficulties they’d had and making a productive life for himself sort of got Gary steered in the right direction.
Your sun so bright it leaves no shadow, only scarsCarved into stone on the face of earth
Gary started drinking not long after that and even drove while inebriated, which seemed particularly hard to understand given the circumstances of his brother's death.
It wasn't until the early 1990s that I became more aware of what was going on in Gary's life, when he moved closer to me. We started spending a bit more time together, and his visits with the guitar happened during that time.
More and more, Gary began exhibiting the signs of depression during that decade, as well as substance abuse problems. He'd ask me for advice on how to cope with depression (something I've dealt with most of my adult life), but he was never really motivated or proactive enough to deal with it like I was. He went on antidepressants for a time but found them very unsettling and quit taking them. I knew what it was like not to be depressed for long stretches, but I hadn't realized he had been so depressed most of his life that feeling good and being happy were incredibly disconcerting for him.
He also talked about suicide on and off over the years, and his drinking got heavier. He'd get clean and sober from time to time, but it never lasted very long. He was going to AA, but that was the only thing I ever saw him being very proactive about.
Eventually, he moved into a tiny travel trailer on my grandmother’s five-acre property in the country, about 20 minutes from me. He was completely unmotivated and had difficulty finding and keeping jobs. He once told me that he didn't need any money other than just a tiny bit for food and cigarettes. While he was never kind to himself, he would go out of his way to help others in need and was a source of friendship and support, particularly to a young woman in a bad situation. He had occasional girlfriends but with the exception of one, they were all very dysfunctional women.
The moon is up and over One Tree HillWe see the sun go down in your eyes
After a long battle with alcoholism and drug addiction (he had told me once that he was doing meth), he was clean and sober for about four years. I don't think the depression completely went away, but he was doing better, albeit still not motivated about improving the rest of his life.
In 2002, he met a woman with whom he finally felt true love, and she moved into the tiny trailer with him. My grandmother's physical health started to deteriorate, and his girlfriend began providing daily care for her.
In November 2003, my grandmother passed away. This was the catalyst for Gary's major backslide. His girlfriend was grieving as well and dealt with it by starting to do drugs again and left him to go back to an old boyfriend. Suffering from grief and heartbreak, he began drinking very heavily again and driving while inebriated. Talk of suicide began again. He told me one time that he was cutting himself.
And in our world a heart of darkness, a firezoneWhere poets speak their hearts, then bleed for it
After my grandmother's place was sold the following summer, he had to leave his peaceful spot overlooking the river. He moved to a dumpy, noisy RV park for a while, and continued to fall deeper and deeper into self-destruction. His mother lived nearby and finally got him to move in with her as he was unable to take care of himself at all. He was in his late 30s by then. He continued drinking, although he tried to stop from time to time.
In December 2005, his father was killed. He spent winters down in Baja, Mexico, with my other uncle, who hadn't gone on that particular trip. He was on a motorcycle and had run off the road and into a tree. Unlike Brett, who had been wearing a helmet, my uncle did not. If he had, it might have saved his life.
Gary planned to go to Baja with a couple of family members to take care of his father's body and attend the funeral down there, but changed his mind. He just was not able to deal with it. He told me some months later that he still hadn’t come to terms with it and wasn't able to accept that his father was gone.
In October 2007, my mother called to ask if I'd heard from him. His mother and stepfather had returned from a trip and he wasn't at the house. After not hearing from him for three days, she was very worried, given his mental state.
About a week later, my mom called to tell me he'd been found. He was in his pickup truck in a remote area of forest, and had killed himself with a hose hooked up to the tailpipe. He'd been there for about three days before being found.
Jara sang his song a weapon, in the hands of loveYou know his blood still cries from the ground
Gary was cremated but there was no funeral. His mother decided a memorial would be too difficult for her. (Along with having lost both sons, Brett and Gary, her stepson had killed himself several years before.) Later, however, a friend of Gary's organized one. When I came in the door, I was surprised to see that about 40 people there. I felt bad for initially thinking I was in the wrong place. So many people got up to talk about how wonderful Gary was and what he'd done for them. I hadn't realized how many people he’d touched, even if he was unable to make things better for himself.
When my mother and I were talking recently, the subject of Gary came up. She told me that he had confided in her once about being abused by his stepmother when he was young, and Mom said it made her cry. She said that as horrible as killing himself was, she couldn't ignore the fact that he'd been in so much pain his whole life. She understood why he chose that option and said that he was finally at peace and his suffering was over.
I still can't help thinking of him out in the woods all alone for those three days. Intellectually, I know it was just his body at that point, but it makes me so sad. Although I'm not a particularly religious person, I read a theology-themed novel last year about the main character experiencing the building of a very personal and informal relationship with the Holy Trinity. In it, the Holy Spirit tells a father that when his young daughter was murdered out in the forest, she was not alone. They were there with her, holding her in their arms and giving comfort. Fiction aside, that really resonated with me, and I sobbed from both a mixture of sadness and hope that Gary really wasn't alone. I need to believe that.
I’ll see you again when the stars fall from the skyAnd the moon has turned red over One Tree Hill
© @U2/Weber, 2010.