Memories of a Backyard Hanging: A True Story

  It was a late spring day, like any other.

In finding some forgiveness of loneliness, and with a strange acceptance of suffering, I can now look back on it all with a dim understanding. It happened at a time when creativity existed within me at an exhausting level. There was a maddening frenzy in the way things came out of me, pouring with sympathy, yet offering nothing.

     It was a late spring day, like any other. The afternoon sun hung in the sky, low and domineering, and the confused aromas of the season were in full force. Spring, a season with a natural thickness of rebirth in the air that creates its own swelter, is a season I’ve come to both love and hate.

     I could sense the onset of the stifling evening, and the heat wasn’t even a factor. There was something else in the air contributing to my restless unease. Little did I know that day would be the end of an innocence I can now only barely remember.

***

     We lived on a hill just below the county hospital, with a deep jungle of ditch lines in our backyard. On the other side of the ditch lived another family: a woman named Vanessa, her son, Allen, and her boyfriend Mike. As time passed my family formed some sort of relationship with “our neighbors to the south,” as they jokingly became known.  We would have cookouts and pool parties. We’d all even go fishing from time to time. So we became friends. At the very least we were friendly.

     Although our families had become rather close, no one noticed the shift in Mike’s behavior in the beginning.

     That may have been because there wasn’t much of a difference in his behavior; it was more of a slight, unexplainable change in his attitude. He had always been a naturally happy-go-lucky kind of guy who, out of nowhere it seemed, started acting like a totally different person, like a mean drunk.

     When the “change” in Mike did become somewhat noticeable, the people around him chalked it up to being nothing but a man going through a hard time, probably because of his job. Mike was a professional tree trimmer, and in that profession, it seems like you’re either raking it in or getting raked over.

     Mike wasn’t just your average tree trimmer, though. This man would tackle a tree, be hundreds of feet in the air, and be anything and everything but scared or nervous. He had these great big spikes that he would attach to the bottom of his boots, allowing him to scale any size of tree with nothing but a few ropes and his chainsaw. I had the chance to see him work a few times and would watch, sometimes in awe and others in fear. I had respect for him for that reason alone; he was one of the bests at what he did, no doubt about that.

     Little did anyone know, however, Mike was struggling with more than just a lack of work or with problems at home. Mike, along with my father, was a big drinker, mostly beer but an occasional bottle got passed around. My father and Mike both could become rambunctious, even hard to handle at times, but it was mostly innocent.

     There’s that word again.

     But then the occasional bottle turned into a steady supply. Still, though, no one was quite sure what caused this change in Mike. And no one asked. I think my family really believed it was troubles at work or home. I didn’t have any real opinion.

     All I can say now is that it was much more serious than work troubles.

***

     So as the stifling afternoon turned into an even more suffocating evening, I was eating dinner with my parents when the familiar red and blue flashes of police lights became noticeable through our dining room window. Usually none of us would have cared, let alone moved, but my dad jumped up when he realized which house the cops had gone to.

Mike’s.

     We all ran outside to try to find out what was going on. But before we could cross the ditch line, I saw a light even brighter than the cops’ lights (there were several squad cars at the house by this time). I got across the ditch and discovered the bright light I was seeing was a spotlight, pointed up and shining into one of the tallest trees in Mike’s yard.

     And what I saw next turned my full-on sprint into a disoriented jog. The light the police were using was shining on Mike, who had climbed as high as he could in the tree behind his house and appeared to be wearing a homemade noose around his neck.

     At first, I couldn’t be sure if what I was seeing was real. This had all happened so fast. There was just too much going on. Too many people shuffling around and talking. Too many voices coming from first responders, unsure of what to do.

     Too many lights.

     And Mike…

      The sight of Mike in that tree, standing on a branch with a noose around his neck…

     I was in shock.

     Mike started shouting down from the branch he was standing on. He wanted “everyone to leave and to just be left alone.” He was crying, yet somehow remained stoic as he continued his demands. My dad tried to talk to him, and Mike stopped yelling long enough to listen and say something I’ll never forget.

     “Just get out of here. It’s too late.”

     Before my dad could respond, a fire truck pulled into the yard. Immediately, Mike threatened to jump if it didn’t leave. 

     As this scary scene continued to unfold I noticed the big spike boots I had seen him wear before. Wow, I remember thinking, he’s serious. He’s beyond serious.

     He was so high in that tree I wasn’t sure if the ladder on the fire truck could even reach him. If it even came to that.

     No one seemed to be in any big hurry. I didn’t understand then, but I do now. Any sudden or dramatic actions could, and most likely would have, provoked Mike to jump.

     No question about that.

As the fire truck pulled in and parked in the yard as close to the tree as necessary, a “crisis team” from an area counseling center showed up. My backyard had become some sort of neon nightmare with all the lights flashing across the sky, across the night throughout the neighborhood.

     I wasn’t sure how this was going to play out by this point and honestly had become beyond fearful. It was an emotion I didn’t recognize at first, but yes, fear was what it was.

     This was real.

     By this time, of course, there was already a crowd of onlookers outside, steadily growing. I could hear police talking about the “tactics” they were undoubtedly trained for in these “types of situations.”

     I may not have been alone in my concern for this man, but it sure was starting to feel like it.

     The noise continued but through it all, through all the yelling and commotion, what I could hear most clearly was Mike, crying.

     An officer approached my dad and I, apparently noticing the only person Mike would carry some sort of rapport with was my dad. They talked in voices I couldn’t hear, frankly not wanting to. But I didn’t want to leave either, which is what happened next. A desk-type cop barked at me to go back to my house and my dad made sure I did just that.

     My dad rushed me across the ditch line and told me to go inside. I wasn’t happy with his demand, but I didn’t argue; this wasn’t the time or place. Before I could comply, though, my dad was gone, across the ditch and back over in Mike’s backyard.

     But by the time he got back, it was too late.

     By the time he got back Mike’s patience and belligerence had run its course, which were the only things keeping his feet on that tree branch he had climbed up to.

     What was keeping his neck inside that homemade noose before he jumped I’m afraid we’ll never know.

     But in one last bout of gusto, it was all over. Mike shouted something I couldn’t make out and jumped off of the tree branch.

     And I wish there was something more to say.

***

     Mike’s body hung in that tree for more than six hours after he killed himself. I’m sure the police and investigators would have some sort of explanation about “proper procedures and protocol.” But it didn’t make much sense to me, not then or now.

     I remember as I woke up for school the next day (if I had even slept at all) there were still police in Mike’s backyard. Mike’s body had just been cut and lowered from the tree after dangling all night.

     I stood in my backyard as Mike’s sheeted body was being loaded up. Seeing that made me realize I hadn’t yet processed any of this. There had been no tears, no time for tears. Tears were not part of the “proper procedures and protocol,” not for these “types of situations,” anyway.

     My dad was outside, too, and came up to me. We looked at each other, the silence between us almost comforting. Exhaustion had become him, and I could tell that he hadn’t had any time for tears either.

     I could see the morning sun shining through the trees, perched up in the sky as if being held up by the wood line and nothing else. It was as if the sun was even sad.

     My dad wiped a single tear from his left eye and stood up. All of the police and emergency vehicles were gone at this point.

     “They left the rope,” my dad said, pointing up to the tree. 

     And they had. I didn’t see it at first, but they had. Most of the thick, blue rope Mike had used to hang himself with was still up in the tree.

     “Can you believe that? They left the rope.”

     No time for tears, no time for questions. 

     We stood there in the backyard in silence for a long time. My dad finally spoke, telling me it was time for him to get ready for work for me to get ready for school.

     School? How could I go to school just hours after seeing a man hang himself in my backyard practically?

     My apprehension must’ve been on display on my face because my dad began one of his familiar speeches.

     When my dad finished, he hugged me and sent me back into the house, and again told me it was time to get ready for school.

     It was a late spring day, just like any other.

 

2 thoughts on “Memories of a Backyard Hanging: A True Story

  1. Oof, what an awful experience for a young person, and an awful loss of Mike. My sympathies. The writing in this was phenomenal; I especially liked the sun being “low and domineering.” Thank you for sharing!

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