Livermore Stories

“An invisible red thread connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of home, place, or circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle, but never break. “ Chinese Proverb

Keep a Fire Burning

Barbara Jessing

“Keep a fire burning in your eye
Pay attention to the open sky
You never know what will be coming down
I don’t remember losing track of you
You were always dancing in and out of view
I must have thought you’d always be around
Always keeping things real by playing the clown
Now you’re nowhere to be found”

Jackson Browne, “For a Dancer”

What draws us back — what strong pull of the tide —  to reconnect with the people we were young with, long ago? It’s irresistible to wonder “what if?” What if I knew then what I know now? Most intriguing of all, what if I could do it over? Would the course of life be different? I am drawn back to Livermore at all the turning points in life.

For those of us born at the midpoint of the twentieth century – 1950 – the year 2000 had a mystical quality to it, an axis around which our lives would orbit. How far away it seemed; how terribly strange it would be to be fifty years old.  There was a constant process of recalculation as the years ticked by.   As I approached my 50th birthday, I could see Livermore in the rear view mirror.

Not everyone would arrive at that milestone. There was a boy in our high school class, seventeen, who drove his motorcycle into the path of a truck in 1967. Life was too hard at seventeen, he couldn’t face turning eighteen, much less turning fifty. He didn’t marry, he had no career, there were no children; he left parents without a son to turn to in later life. What could have been so tough on that day in 1967? What pain was unbearable? A failing test grade, a fight with a girlfriend, a draft notice, a bad day at home, family crisis, a misdemeanor offense, sexual confusion? Was the end a matter of impulsivity, an intolerable moment that might otherwise have passed, leaving the future to unfold? I recently learned that brain research shows that adolescents experience emotional events with twice the intensity of mature adults. So his pain, whatever the source, was shattering.

I remember kids who knew him, the girl he was dating, devastated. I remember her pure sorrow. I had not had at that time, the experience of knowing the aftermath of suicide, the complex grief, anger and betrayal that can be left for someone else, family and friends, to sort out. I know it now.

I browsed the internet for news of other classmates of that year, the year of the boy who died at seventeen. On message boards I learn in glimpses, who changed, who grew, who stopped, who remained the same.

  • Are you alive? Do you remember me? I was going with Chris and he didn’t allow me to talk to any guys. I dropped out senior year to marry him. Dumb thing to do, just want to say Hi.
  • High school was . . . educational. And I’m not talking classes.
  • Looking for a friend of my youth
  • Just call me “Married with Fish”.
  • Does anyone remember me? My nick name was Outlaw, I rode around on a Honda during 63-64?? Friend of mine was a guy who played good football Johnny Stone, he died in 1967 – does any of this ring any bells– if so post something
  • I am searching for two of my best friends that, through all the years, I can’t forget. Please help me find ’em!
  • I spoke with Sharon years ago. I thought she married Bill, that tall and very handsome guy who’s friends were Jim Parker and Richard Vierdon. As for me, I ran away and married Prince Charming in the 70’s.
  • Remember that trip to the lake with Jerry and your sisters, we got high and started that tractor? The times we went to the Fillmore,and Winterland to see Ten Years After?
  • Mariposa, on the Merced River. Very Very Clear, like yesterday, believe me. The Gold Rush Inn, room 212 An image burned into my mind, that will be there until the day I die. When we went into the room, I shut the door, turned around and looked at you. It was the look you gave me. that every man in life would die for.
  • “I thought I was going to change the world. Now I live in Tracy and I have to pay a mortgage.”

I searched for the name of the boy who died at seventeen. In the vast cyberspace, there was nothing. He did not survive into that world, where it seems almost everyone leaves a trace – white pages, pool tournament victories, public records of marriage, divorce, cimes, promotions, obscure mention in newspapers. For him, nothing.

In the year 2000, it seemed particularly important to go back to Livermore; to reconnect with a circle of friends who hold the continuous thread of identity for one another. We sat at a table together on a sunny fall afternoon. We have known one another as children, as girls, as young women, as adults now fifty years old. We have children in early adulthood, careers established and productive; parents aging or dead; marriages that either grew and held, or didn’t; feeling the first twinges of aging in the body. I notice in their faces, as others surely notice in mine, what subtle changes come with age: texture, color, and light. Who are we, who have not shattered, now that we are in midlife? We are made harder, we are more enduring, by the fires we have passed through; we have experience to moderate the glorious and terrible intensity of youth.

“Into a dancer you have grown
From a seed somebody else has thrown
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own
And somewhere between the time you arrive
And the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive
But you’ll never know”

JACKSON BROWNE — For A Dancer”

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One thought on “Keep a Fire Burning

  1. Several comments were made regarding this post, but they were on the Facebook link rather than on this site. I found the comments quite moving, so I will summarize them here.

    I’d written the story with the thought that this young man had disappeared. I speculated about what would bring him to such a point of despair; I’d wondered if it was planned, or spontaneous, thinking I would never know. What I did not expect is that the story would reach people who had known him and who had not forgotten. Such memories are not easily dismissed; maybe they never are.

    In the days before his death, he had stopped to visit a family I knew:

    “He dropped by our house to say “goodbye” a day or two before his tragic end; my siblings and I were too astonished to know how to respond, we were in shock. I also think we didn’t believe he would really carry out his plan. It was all very, very sad….”

    Another commenter said:

    “I remember my brother being someone who took him seriously and tried to talk him out of it “

    His sister commented,

    “Yes, I remember him well and still have the postcard he sent to me before committing suicide. It was definitely premeditated and awful.”

    Though I’d chosen not to use his name, the commenters did. The young man had in fact revealed the reason, or reasons, for his state of despair in those last few days, but the commenters, respecting his privacy, agreed that it should not be publically posted. Would that have solved the mystery that has stayed with me? Most certainly not.

    I’ve worked in the mental health field for more than thirty years. We are taught to be vigilant for signs of suicide. Our professional and ethical obligation is, if not to prevent, to reduce risk; to intervene. It is a serious burden. I have been involved in the training and supervision of many new practitioners, and even with the best and newest professional learning about depression and suicide intervention, they feel the full weight of that responsibility. In the aftermath of my first experience with a client completing suicide, I was haunted by what had happened, and in the year following, wrote an account that of my professional reflection on the incident. It was titled “Back to Square One” in the anthology “The Arduous Touch” edited by Amy Haddad and Kate Brown (1999)

    It’s said that suicide is a long term solution to a short term problem. Usually I think that holds, and it is certainly the way I think about adolescent suicide. Our profession has yet to come to terms with a position on the suicide that should be left as a matter of personal choice; when hope is gone; at the end of life; when faced with incurable illness and unrelenting pain.

    When I think of these young people – children on the edge of adulthood, so unprepared when faced in that moment, so many years ago, with such an awesome responsibility — never laid down after all these years – my heart feels it.

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