Meditation on a Friend's Suicide


Richard Phelan, my friend of 50 years, is dead.Early in the morning on March 18, he went to a field across from his apartment in McGregor and shot himself. He was 87.

Phelan grew up in McGregor, worked in the local Rexall drug store, went to the University of Texas at Austin, graduated Phi Beta Kappa, went to France on a Fulbright scholarship, and studied at the Sorbonne.

During World War II, he was a Navy medical corpsman in the Pacific. After the war, he returned to Texas, worked as a police reporter on the now defunct Houston Press and Houston Post, and moved to New York to become a staff writer for Sports Illustrated.

But the lure of the Southwest brought him home. He did freelance writing and published articles and reviews in The Texas Observer, as well as stories in The Yale Review and Saturday Evening Post. (One, “Birds, Clouds, Frogs,” was included in The Best American Short Stories 1963.)

In 1962 he read a piece of mine, wrote me about it, and our friendship began. (I have bundles of letters dating back to the ’60s, many of them written on yellow second-sheets. He liked the look of black typewriter letters on the yellow pages.)

Richard Phelan

He moved back to McGregor to take care of his ailing sister and remained there after her death. He walked daily along the back roads and the Middle Bosque bottoms outside Waco. In a piece written for Sports Illustrated, he described walking in the Bosque canyon through oaks and pecans 100 feet high, beneath cedar elms “as handsome as a private park in England,” past great blue herons: “the presiding spirits, and perhaps the real owners, of quiet American streams.”

Periodically he took off to roam Hill Country pastures and creek beds, the Rio Grande borderland, mountains and deserts in West Texas, the rolling prairies north of Abilene, the swampy woodlands of East Texas. In Texas Wild, published in 1976 by E.P. Dutton, Phelan surveyed the landforms, climates, plants and animals of the eight natural divisions of the state. He wrote in a lucid style free of scientific jargon, and his comparisons were graphic and memorable: scissortails looked like “flying orchids”; hill country cypresses seemed like “somber, clannish visitors … dignified strangers from another life zone”; strips of hillside vegetation looked as though “some insane and exacting gardener had laid them out with a string.” Texas Wild was a welcome addition to the short list of distinguished Southwest books by such writers as John Graves, Roy Bedichek, Edward Abbey and Joseph Wood Krutch.

In his 80s, arthritis and other aches forced him to give up the long walks. He began getting cortisone shots and spinal blocks at Scott & White Hospital in Temple. He was operated on for a blocked carotid artery. It became increasingly painful for him to stand, or sit, or lie down. He dreaded being “helpless.” He once wrote to me about a longtime friend who had been “knocked down by strokes” and was forced to sit at home with nurses “washing and feeding him 16 hours a day.” Phelan would not tolerate such a fate. One time in 1993 when I visited him, he told me he had bought an expensive little pistol. When nursing-home time came, he hoped he would be in shape to get to the pistol and use it.

He continued to read-and reread-authors he admired: Nabokov, Borges, Isak Dinesen, Evelyn Waugh, Loren Eiseley, Stephen J. Gould, Eudora Welty.

In his letters he continued to excoriate his Crawford neighbor, George W. Bush, as well as Dick Cheney, Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh (“the Bloated Blowhard”).

As a college student, I first came across the Albert Camus quote, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” I continued to think about it, persistently, over the years, but basically in the context of a philosophical abstraction.

In recent years I have been forced, suddenly, to deal with the reality of suicide in a personal way after my son and a brilliant friend of mine took their lives. I have tried, foolishly, to conceptualize what goes through a person’s mind during the last minutes of life. Can there be a lonelier moment for a human being: fully aware, knowing that in the next few seconds consciousness will be extinguished?

It is doubtful that Phelan’s friendship with me or his friendships with others was on his mind on the morning of March 18. He was finished with life. He had taped a note to his pants leg-a note giving explicit instructions about cremation and how his affairs were to be settled-and had shut his apartment door, then walked across the road to the nearby pasture. He was in the closed circle of his last moments-like a comet about to flame out in space. Perhaps he stood there a while, looking at his final sunrise, before he took out the .38 caliber pistol and pulled the trigger.

Police found his body and the note. He was cremated in Dallas. On March 28, several friends and relatives scattered his ashes across a field of bluebonnets near Waco, as was his wish.

John Donne wrote: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is … a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less … any man’s death diminishes me.”

After a half-century of friendship, I am diminished by the death of Richard Phelan.

Elroy Bode is a longtime Observer contributor and the author of, most recently, In A Special Light (Trinity University Press).