Editor’s Note: First Person is a series of personal essays exploring identity and personal points of view that shape who we are. May is Mental Health Awareness Month; here, Andrew Stern remembers an uncle whose life lessons influenced him and whose suicide came as a crushing blow.
Andrew Stern's uncle Keith opened up a world of music and literature to him
Keith's suicide came as a shock to Stern and his family
Stern writes that he chooses to remember his uncle's creativity and eccentricity above all
“Andrew, I have some really bad news.”
My mind races. I’ve never heard my father begin a conversation with those words. He wouldn’t have said that unless something was very wrong. Immediately, my thoughts fixate on my eldest family members; I imagine one of my grandparents had fallen and injured themselves or, worse, passed away.
“Uncle Keith killed himself last night.”
Wait … what?
Keith was, in many ways, the wacky uncle of the family. He had a penchant for stamp collecting – so much so that he ran his own stamp store for a time. He smoked exotic Dunhills from a gold cigarette wallet. His fashion was slightly disheveled, featuring many tucked-in shirts without belts, socks with sandals or the occasional fanny pack. He delighted in literature and music, especially when it came to writing and reciting his own poetry – something he did often. Poetry slams were one of his favorite pastimes, and I had attended multiple readings of his throughout the years.
In the times we spent together, which weren’t all that frequent, he would push me to read this book or that, read this poem or that, watch this movie or that. Many times, those suggestions were a little off the reservation for my tastes, but more often than not, he connected.
“Fahrenheit 451.” Frank Zappa. Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” Jethro Tull. Some were great pieces of literature or musical artists I would come to enjoy. Others were earth-shattering works of extraordinary genius that would change my life forever.
In junior high and high school, I didn’t fit in very well. I was an academically minded, sensitive, passionate kid who delighted in reading, watching movies, playing chess or studying. I played some sports but not particularly well. I liked the idea of girls but had no clue how to actually talk to or approach them. I had friends, sure, but always felt like I didn’t truly fit in.
With Keith, none of that mattered; he understood my plight as an adolescent out of his element. I think that connection helped cement our bond.
I’m visiting my girlfriend in Austin for a wedding when I get the call. The phone rings during the morning-after brunch, and I walk into the hallway so as not to be rude. After my father delivers the news, I stand in shock for a few moments as my pulse pounds in my ears, trying to wrap my head around what he just said. I walk back into the restaurant and sit down at the table in a haze. I ask my girlfriend if we can leave. She can tell something is wrong. We exit and begin the drive back to Dallas.
Keith and I spent most of our quality time together on family vacations. My maternal grandparents, generosity epitomized, took our nine-person family on collective trips every other year from the time I was 14 until recently. Keith and I did much of our bonding during these excursions.
When I was 16, we went to Walt Disney World for spring break. I remember discussing the intricacies of Jethro Tull’s “Thick as a Brick” and the nature of quality as it relates to “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” one of our favorite books. We stayed up until 3 or 4 in the morning in the throes of philosophical curiosity and discussion. We were outside on the back porch so we wouldn’t wake the rest of the family (and so he could smoke those Dunhills to his heart’s content). It was one of those nights in which you’re so excited to explore a deep, philosophical question with a like-minded person that you don’t want it to end.
When I get my father’s call, I’m about to complete my master’s degree in journalism. My thesis defense is meant to commence in four days. I start to worry about the possibility of having to postpone in order to attend the funeral, meaning I might not graduate on time. And now something I could have never predicted could derail everything.
The more I think about this, the guiltier I feel. What kind of monster thinks about himself when confronted with a death in the family? The entire line of thought makes me feel even worse than just the knowledge that Keith is gone.
Am I a bad person? Or is this response normal? I have no clue. How could I possibly know what’s normal in a situation like this? How could I ever predict or prepare for this possibility?
One of Keith’s chief eccentricities, his tendency to recite his poetry aloud, often to unsuspecting crowds, rubbed off on me. While it might have made my life in high school a little harder, I started to write my own poetry due largely to his influence.
I remember being in Scandinavia with him as he was looking for somewhere to slam poetry spontaneously. We stepped into a coffee shop and grabbed the table in the corner. The atmosphere was quiet but lively. People were working or chatting with their friends, but in hushed voices, respectful of the other patrons.
Keith stood and erupted in a torrent of words – loudly. He was entranced, passionately reciting one of his poems from memory. His eyes were closed as he shifted his weight from side to side or back to forward. He bended his knees to emphasize a line or a specific word. His hands were gesticulating, driving home the point.
He delivered the climax as everyone in the coffee shop sat ensorcelled, watching his every move.
The climax over, his voice softened. His intensity faded as the poem waned. He bowed his head as he delivered the final words. He opened his eyes, slowly panning his head up to see the crowd. Immediately, a few people began clapping. Quietly at first, but growing in vigor and volume. As more people realized that his recitation was finished, they began clapping, too. Within 30 seconds or so, everyone in the café was applauding him.
That moment is how I will always choose to remember Keith.
We get back to Dallas, and I call my parents. They have more information now. Apparently, Keith had called his daughter Emma to say he was leaving. She had no idea how he meant that word.
He left two letters: one to his wife, Karen, one to Emma. His wallet, keys and rings were in a pile when Karen came home. He owned a family heirloom pistol, and it was no longer there. She immediately filed a missing persons report, but the police were unable to find him that night.
Karen called her brother-in-law the next morning to find his brother. He did. Keith had trekked into the forest behind their house and shot himself.
The funeral was Tuesday afternoon.
Keith wasn’t the second coming of Walt Whitman, but he had moments of poetic greatness. His masterpiece, “I Steal Pencils,” is one of my favorite poems. It headlined his book published under the same name.
“… I steal pencils to help release the words that they contain
Every pencil ever made contains hundreds or
thousands of words
and those words deserve their freedom, the freedom
only paper can bring.
“I steal pencils because they contain the words
of every poem I will ever write
and to rescue them from becoming quadratic equations…
“… I steal pencils because I never have found anything
else in this world more valuable
For all the pain Keith has caused his friends and family, for all the heartache we have and will suffer, for all the anger and disbelief we’re feeling, Keith’s legacy will be forever linked with this amazing work of poetry.
How can I hate a man who wrote those words?
I fly into Little Rock early Tuesday morning, and my mom picks me up at the airport. The family assembles, and we begin the hour-long drive to my grandparents’.
I walk in the door and hug my grandfather. My grandmother hugs me next, and there’s something more in her gesture. She squeezes a little tighter, holds on a little longer. Even though she doesn’t say the words, I can tell she’s saying to me, “you know we love you, right? Don’t you ever do something like this; too many people love you.” I spot Aunt Karen at the kitchen table, standing up to come hug me, too. I’m walking toward her, and her eyes begin watering.
Seeing the sheer anguish in her eyes slams home like a sledgehammer on my chest. I’m using every bit of strength and grit I can muster not to break down.
Later, we’re sitting around the kitchen table making small talk. Her best friend, also called Karen, in an effort to fill the silence, makes a flippant remark: “This is so surreal.”
My aunt shoots back, “no, this is very real.”
Her friend didn’t mean it as a slight, but it still cut deep. This isn’t a movie; this isn’t someone else’s life; this is not a dream. … We won’t wake up from this tomorrow morning. This is us; this is our family; Keith did this thing, and now we have to live without him.
Through this traumatic experience, I’ve learned that life goes on. We cope in whatever way we can. For Karen and Emma, it might take months or years to come to terms with this loss. For me to fully process this, I needed to write about it, which Karen encouraged.
This is me coping.
I know some people are enraged by the choice Keith made, and they have that right. But for me, I’m just sad. It saddens me that he struggled with depression. It saddens me that I didn’t know about it. I’m not mad at him, though. Depression is a disease, and Keith lost his battle with that disease. I don’t see Keith as selfish; I see him as sick. His sickness just won out in the end.
When I was struggling to find myself as a young man, Keith helped me find my voice. He understood the isolation I felt while in high school because he too was different. As I tried to find my way in this world, Keith pushed me as a poet. And while I’ll never write poetry professionally, I credit him with planting the creative seed that would eventually lead me to journalism. Without his influence, I would not be where I am today. Without his words, I would not be who I am today.
That is how I choose to remember him. Keith Franklin: Poet. Uncle. Pencil thief. Friend.