August 4, 2018

I remember a story from when I was young, it was a slice of time in the life of a wounded miner in rural Alaska and how he was perceiving life in that moment. The only backdrop was that there had been a scuffle with a bear, the miner had been mauled and the bear was dead. In that winter moment, with a snow storm brewing, the miner had killed the bear what was unknown was whether or not the bear had also killed the miner.

That story bothered me and though I cannot recall the author it stuck with me like a festering splinter which begged further attention. So, I filled in the background details because something about that story compelled doing so.

The miner was a young man likely in his early to mid-twenties with the timeline happening in/around/during the turn of the century Alaska gold rush. He was from a non-descript town in mid-west America or somewhere thereabouts. He had first heard of the gold-rush a little over a year before and the lure had compelled him to go. He had spent the prior winter working hard to prepare and early that spring he had boarded a north bound ship leaving from Seattle.

The trail he took to stake his claim could have been any of a thousand, or more. He may have hiked the Chilkoot like so many but I am pretty sure he opted for the more expensive passage into Valdez and less perilous journey over Thompson pass. Either way he had made it to and staked his claim, built his cabin and put up his food cache of flour and beans with a tub of lard and a little sugar and coffee with just enough time left to collect a respectable pile of firewood, even as the heavy winter snows began to fall.

It had been a long and burdensome summer and especially fall for the young miner but then it was time to get his winter supply of meat put up as well. Early on the morning of his wounding he had set out to harvest a moose and he had taken a young bull. While he was cleaning it though a bear snuck up behind him intent on claiming the moose. During the initial mauling, which caught him unaware, he was able to get to his rifle and put three rounds in the bear’s chest at point blank range yet the mauling continued while the life ran out of the bear.

And so it was that the miner found himself on the trail that morning bleeding out with his only hope for survival (his cabin) several miles away and the unanswered question of would he make it or had the bear actually killed him with that reality yet to catch up.

I think I related with that miner more than I realized for in that season (of digesting that story) I too became a wounded Alaska minor (albeit with an o) and our predicaments seemed to resonate. I choose not to recap the events as they are painful and it is time for my wound to heal but those events (which I experienced with my friend, and vice-versa) led up to his decision to terminate his life on Thanksgiving Day 1974. It was very painful but not the hammer striking the thumb kind of pain this was different, deeper a kind of pain that could acknowledge no hope for healing.

At his memorial and before his lifeless body I made two vows, sacred above all others, which placed me firmly on the miner’s path. Outwardly and before my friends in attendance I vowed to never take my own life while inwardly and to the lifeless body of my friend (and all I hold sacred) I vowed to tell his story, to make people understand. The second vow was most sacred and most troubling as all I knew was that I knew I did not know how I would do that. I pinned all hope on finding resolution along the way and grew confidant I would find a way. I was wrong.

Suicide is not an easy thing to explain and I no longer believe I want to attempt any further understanding as it is the abyss which claims so many. I perceived myself caught in a trap having taken the most sacred of vows to explain (my friend’s) suicide without having the ability to complete the act myself. I have been to the abyss and back there are no answers there.

But that was not my story, I was the wounded minor on the trail. That was 44 years ago. Since then I have viewed my life through the lens of my dead friend’s eyes. That was my wound and to explain what defies explanation my trap. On the lighter side my friend has been my constant companion. Just the other day he came to explain it was time for me to release him and I did. In that parting we recalled a few memories and he left a gift.

We were just a couple of kids who made a childhood out of staying one step ahead of whatever authority figure was fool enough to give pursuit. God it was fun, at least while it lasted. But then my friend got caught and moving forward with the social stigma that would entail was more than he could endure so he found a different way, that is all.

While we were yet gathered before my friend’s lifeless body it happened for the first time. The mortician approached us and wanted our insight as to why he had chosen the route he had. My mind screamed from seemingly a thousand or more responses all at once but they were all gibberish and despite my best effort there was no intelligent response to be had. The words to do so simply did not exist, nor could they, while I viewed myself through the lens of my friend. I have experienced that sensation over and over again in a myriad of situations and events with each one of them indelibly etched upon the very essence of my being. Etched in a language I had to heal to decipher.

In that season of my becoming wounded there were a number of events I found challenging taking place. Or perhaps I was becoming aware of the challenges I would face in life and they were in addition to the wound that was most grievous. Those things would re-stimulate (trigger) or take me back to the season of my wounding but the words to explain to others, which I very much desired to utter, simply had not been invented yet. My mind would scream a thousand or more responses but the best my tongue could do by way of interpretation was incoherent gibberish to others. It was a horrible trap that drove my wound deeper while obscuring my path to healing.


It started with my family and those closest to me and emanated outward from there. My close friend had wounded me deeper than I knew to be possible and he was no more. I could not accept his choice of action as anything including his choice or coming from within him so I blamed the world. More specifically I blamed the world I perceived in existence that day as seen through the eyes (perception) of my no longer in existence, or, deceased, friend. I was a child attempting to perceive the thoughts of another child, believing my perceived perceptions and acting out accordingly. I could not see that.

Basing actions (like the decision to wound) on what one perceives another to be perceiving is very tricky business. In the eyes of my dead friend my wounds were valid and plain for all to see, justified. I became oblivious to the wounds I was inflicting in order to survive the further wounds I was experiencing. The world just could not understand the depth of my first wound. I was already on the trail and I had no means of communicating my predicament. It was maddening.

When we were chatting the other day my friend asked me to tell him how old he was. It was an odd question as he is fourteen, that’s where he stopped being. I saw his dead body! That led to a conversation on perception and the inherent foolishness of any attempt to perceive what another is perceiving. It also brought me to the realization of just how far off course a minor navigational miscalculation could carry a person over time. I had made a grievous error and spent my life wounding others, those who were closest to me and those I loved the most. In that moment I was the monster, the villain, the thief and all my fears were realized in a single instance.

Time could have ended there for me as it had done for my deceased fourteen-year-old friend so many years ago and I fully expected it to do just that with my memory recorded for eternity as the hideous wretch of a monster I then knew myself to be.
Except it didn’t and my friend started speaking slowly to me as if to punctuate that fact. He said we needed to speak of the trail I had been on, of my journey through life. A flood of memories came into our presence as he asked me all about that next friend I met on the trail after him and then he asked about the next. As we set into that pattern I reminded him how long the trail was and that there must have been a thousand or more such encounters and every one of them a friend tried and true. He insisted we walk that path of memories explaining there was something at the end of it he needed to show me and that was the only way we could get there.

I experienced every emotion imaginable and one or two others on that path with my friend gently guiding my feet and thereby the procession of memories. At the end of the path I came to realize my friend had been with me all the way and that it was time to let him go. Without me speaking the words my friend understood and asked me to look around and realize we had returned to the cabin which had long haunted my dreams. And we had. He explained it was time I step into the provision I had laid aside so many years ago and accept my healing while releasing my imaginary friend to whatever was next for him.

I stepped into the cabin and turned to say goodbye to my friend and I learned what it meant to be a friend to be a friend is to leave a gift and so it was with my friend that he had a gift to leave. But then he asked me to tell him why he did it and my mind exploded into a thousand or more different responses only they were meant for me and they were not gibberish. It was a thousand or more individual voices all saying the same thing in their own ways and words. As we had strolled that final path together my friend had brought back each one of those friends to my remembrance, so I could recognize not just their voices but also what they had been trying so hard to say.

I remembered the mortician and all the times after that when my head had exploded into the same thousand or more responses to make only they were not responses to make but rather a reality to accept spoken by a thousand or more friends. It turns out I am loved, wounds and all. Now it is time to heal.

I responded to my friend that I really did not know why he had chosen to take his life even though I had long felt it my burden to answer. He confessed he did not fully understand why he had done it either, that he was caught up in the moment believing he was able to perceive the perceptions of others and it was a horrible trap. He started to apologize for wounding me, but I had to correct his memory and remind him just whose front porch he was standing on. I also reminded him how much I love him as well.

I closed the door and my fourteen-year-old deceased friend is no more. Come spring he will be back though, and I am confident of that. Only he won’t be fourteen nor will he be deceased, and I will know him simply as the person who calls me friend. I am fine with that. Today I heal.

Roger Branson ​