Do you have a memory that has stayed with you over the years?
You know the kind – it’s sort of like an unanswered question that lives in the back of your mind – and every now and then, maybe every month or two – or even every year or two – it resurfaces. It comes back because it’s a puzzle you haven’t solved yet. And if there’s anything that makes us uncomfortable, it’s an unanswered question. Well I’ve got one of those – and I’ve had it since 1989.
It won’t go away because it concerns the death of a man.
His name was Leo Bisceglia and he was my college English professor. On the first day of class I could see that he was a very animated man. I could also tell that he loved what he did. That was back in the days before I’d been a teacher myself and I tended to be in awe of teachers anyway, especially college professors – but this guy was different, he was exceptional.
There are people – we meet them every day – who have a deep passion for what they do. Mr. Bisceglia was one of those people. Every question that was asked of him he treated as though it was the most important and well thought out query he’d ever heard. First he’d make sure that he fully understood what it was the student was after, then he’d compose a reply that not only answered the question – which was often basic – but that also imparted a solid measure of wisdom.
For example, if the question asked by the student was about a character in a work of literature we were reading, Bisceglia would not only explain who the character was, but what she or he represented in the book. He’d then usually go on to draw a parallel between the point of the book and everyday modern life.
He wasn’t just a professor – he was a story teller.
I had his class mid-morning on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and I always looked forward to it. I was working pretty much full time to put myself through school at that point and so my schedule was full. But I always made sure to get to Bisceglia’s class early – so that I didn’t miss a word. But on one Friday morning I walked in and found he wasn’t there. At first I thought I was too early, but that wasn’t it. Then I wondered if maybe I’d strayed into the wrong room, but that wasn’t it either. After a couple moments an administrator came in to tell the students that not only would there be no class today, but that class was cancelled for the semester.
When one of the students asked why, the administrator, with a lost look on his face, told us Mr. Bisceglia was dead.
I recall now sitting there for quite some time before I got up. I guess I was trying to wrap my head around what I’d just heard in the way you do when what you just heard was dumbfounding. I couldn’t believe it. The guy seemed so alive – and yet here was someone I’d never seen before telling me he was dead. I couldn’t let it go and asked the man at the front of the room what had happened but he didn’t know – or if he did he wasn’t saying.
It wasn’t until the following week that I found out old Bisceglia had killed himself. And wow was that weird to hear. It made even less sense than the being dead part. How could this guy, who I almost idolized, have committed suicide? And the way in which he did it didn’t make much sense either; he had drowned himself. Apparently he penned a note, and then walked into the surf and swam out as far as he could and then slipped under the water.
That was weird, as was the rest of the semester. Every time I walked by that classroom I not only thought about Mr. Bisceglia, but also about what possible reason he had to take his own life. I wondered things like: Was there something about himself he was unable to tell anyone? Did he have a terminal illness that he no longer wanted to live with? Or had life just become, for some reason, unbearable to him?
The truth is that I will never know.
And you know what else? At this point, even if I were somehow to find out, I think the question would still haunt me. If for no other reason than it’s haunted me for so long already. The question is part of me now, it’s part of who I am. And that’s a difficult thing.
Just after it happened, the school sold off Bisceglia’s books – the ones he kept in his class room. I dropped by class on the day of the sale and bought his copy of Plato’s Republic. It even had his name, that he’d scribbled, inside the cover. I tried over the years to read it, but was never able to get through it – it wasn’t really a book to me, but a reminder. A reminder I think that some questions don’t have answers – and maybe never will.
If you’ve read this column before you know that I often explore topics in order to divine their meanings – to answers the questions that they pose. And I do that because, by nature, I am an explainer. I try to tell people, through my writing, why things are. But some things are, well, just because they just are.
Sometimes the answer is that there isn’t an answer.