–LGBT civil rights lawyer and environmental activist David Buckel engaged in self-immolation to protest using fossil fuels for their destruction of global welfare.
I dream of sounds: a body burning in the middle of Brooklyn Park, gasoline dousing the body of a man, the light, the flame, the drop of a plastic Ziploc bag on grass. Yes, in my dreams, I can hear that tiny of a sound.
I don’t know if I should hear those things. I doubt that I have the right to write about you. At the same time, you wanted witnesses. I was not there. Can you be a witness even if you’re not present?
You are the kind of gay man that I aspired to be, but was too lazy to ever become. You wore nice fitting suits, sported a nice buzzed haircut, and always looked like you had an idea spinning in your brain. There’s something about a man who knows his next thought could be his best. It gives you good posture. Smart ideas refuse to slouch.
At least that’s what it looks like in the photos I’ve seen. As you know, we’ve never met. I didn’t even hear of your name until the newspaper headlines announced your death. I’ve found that most people, even my gay friends, have never heard of you either.
That’s why I’m writing this letter. I’m telling you I see you even though you’re gone. Of course, there are other reasons that I won’t realize until I’ve finished this essay. You never truly understand what you said until after you’ve said it.
More dreams: you spinning around the courtroom. Me, on a jury. I’m always hoping you land in front of me. Desire of any sort makes me dizzy. It always has. At the end of the proceedings, the jury and I go into the backroom and debate your claims. We talk about you like a father that we cannot disappoint. You’re a moral man. Morality likes to believe it will always win. You can hear it clear its throat when a jury makes the wrong decision.
You fought for justice. You fought for murdered queers, raped trans men and women, suicidal gay elders, homosexuals wanting to secure their love. Their cases turned out to be some of your victories. For the ones who died, who never saw your grace, I hear them. They salute you. I want to touch faces of the dead. Their bodies bang against a wall like a gavel.
This essay is not an elegy. Is it wrong to try to create a body with words? To me, you are all ideas and hidden light.
I can’t bring myself to say the clumsy word: self-immolation. Before you, I thought only of Buddhist monks in their gowns, speedy army officers, lonely student heroes, brave women and sad nuns. History offers you a future, an affirmation, a path.
I disagree with those who said you had a death wish. You choose life. You choose life for us all.
I imagine myself as the yellow police tape stretched around your burning, encompassing as much as I can of your spirit. I imagine myself as the anguished trees, their branches still glowing from the heat, scared they, too, could be lit on fire. I imagine myself as a park bench, bitter someone may take me up on my offer and ask if I could offer them a place to rest. I imagine myself as bitter, burdened grass. I imagine myself as wind, taking what is not mine, and spreading it to those who don’t know of their need. I imagine myself as the filthy stars, the ash-ridden, nasty half-moon.
I make you a promise: I will never imagine myself as you.
For the past few months, I have had even more dreams. The Ziploc bag contained a note from you. Among other things it said: “Sorry about the mess.” I dream of myself as a member of the sanitation crew assigned to the remains of your charred body. What does one wear for such a job? Should not one dress up for such an occasion? What do you do with the ashes?
I ask such stupid questions.
I dream of stealing the plastic bag with your remains.
How would I say to my beloved husband, I encountered Death today. I wiped it off my hands. I washed it all away. I think of my husband watching me hunched over the bathroom sink, scrubbing and scrubbing, looking at me only to say: You’ll never be clean. You never were. Cleanliness has chapped my hands.
An essay is by its nature unclean. My husband asks if I should write this. It has nothing to do with you. He doesn’t want me to be sad.
Let me tell you why he’s scared of a burning. Your burning. He knows I wanted to die.
Not as a political statement. But out of sadness, chemical despair.
In school, I was hit and slapped and kicked. Like so many gay men are. You know our story. To some, we are dirty. To others, we are clean. God never washes His hands of us. Sometimes we wish He did. Before my high school graduation, I said to my teacher: they will mock me when you say my name. He said, we’ll be presenting you with an award. I said, they will boo me. He said: then they will.
They didn’t. They gave me an applause. I can still hear it.
Graduate school gave me a husband. During one argument, he said, You are crazy and insincere. That’s the first time I knew he loved me.
Someone understands me, I thought.
I found a teaching job. He moved with me. That is all love does: It takes you from one place to another. You don’t even know it until you’ve arrived. I liked my job. I thanked God for the labor, His love, my husband. I swore I would never defy my friends, colleagues. Labor is more than time and money. It is a way of claiming space in the world. I thought no one will ever want to take that space from me.
School is not the real world, they say. This is not true. It works the same way: There is an argument between two people. And then worse: an accusation. Accusations do not lead to conversation. They lead to more accusations. My labor turned out to be in peril.
I became ill. I didn’t know the name of the sickness. No one did. But I could feel the pain. Once I went into my school office and plotted my death. I asked for help. God arrived instead. And then the doctors. Doctor after doctor. More pain. They hid me in a room with no doors, no windows. Doctors came and went. One said, You’re a writer. Write your story. Here are some pills. Go.
My husband reminds me you died for a story you wanted to tell. The story of the earth. You died for the trees, the sky, the birds, the water, the clouds.
I lived in libraries, the empty aisles, the bathrooms. Once when I was young, I went there to be touched. Knowledge has never been enough. I needed to feel. Pick up enough books and you forget about trees, skies, birds, rivers. Hush. You can hear the waterfall. You can hear the morning bird songs. Hush. You can hear God slashing the sky to see us.
I am a petty person. I think dumb things. I think of your suicide note.
I picture you using a fountain pen, the kind one uses for special invitations, as yours was. I can hear the pauses between the curves and the lines. Each dot and curl matters. God kisses them.
And then there’s the folding of the paper. We press. God presses. God kisses the creases. What falls inside the creases is prayer. What falls inside is the smoke. Look, David. Look, Lord. Touch the flames. Caress them. Breath them in. Allow your lungs to blacken and rot.
David, I shut my eyes and allow the fire to singe my breath. I am nothing like a fire. I am not one who will burn. But I thank the Lord for you, my dear, dead David.