This past March, on of my closest friends, Jonathan Wheby, took his own life. The effect he had on me and many of his friends in life was so deep that my wife, Courtney, and I considered him to be blood. Family. As did many of his friends. He shared his love, learning, emotions and angst with all of us in a way that made the people close to him acutely aware of their own need to grow. His constant questioning of societal standards gave him an ability to justify breaking rules while holding others accountable to what he believed to be an acceptable standard.
And now, in death, his influence on my life is still as strong, or perhaps even stronger than it was when he was a part of my living family. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about Wheby; where he is, what he did or why he did it.
The following paragraphs are a eulogy of sorts that I wrote for the celebration of Jonathan’s life that his custom built family held for him last March. I have deemed the “thank you for coming” part unnecessary, and therefore omitted the opening paragraphs. Skip the eulogy if you just want to find out what my hopes are for the trust.
Celebration of the Life of Jonathan Wheby
Jonathan left us all with a palpable amount of uncertainty. We are all questioning why he would leave us as he did, and whether or not there was anything we could do to help. Whenever anyone we love leaves this world, we want to hold ourselves responsible for not saying the right thing at the right time; not doing enough to help; not diagnosing a problem correctly or quickly enough or a host of other feelings we wish we could have projected or communicated to that person. And when a friend, a friend with so much love as Jonathan, makes a conscious decision to depart from the physical world, these feelings are even stronger.
I address this foremost today because we all need to share our love together and know in our hearts that though Jonathan believed he was no longer necessary in our lives, we all did all we could to let him know that we loved him, needed him and wanted him in our worlds. We are human in our selfish need for answers to the question why, and our strange need for closure, though we can become selfless in sharing this need with each other, and combining our intellectual power to overcome these feelings of guilt. It is love that makes us human, and misguided love that drove Jonathan to his belief that he was a burden instead of a blessing.
Wheby truly was a blessing. As infuriating as he could be in his stubbornness, no person here can say that he didn’t do more with his huge smile as he would defiantly bounce forward and push the big, red INDEPENDENT THINKING button repeatedly than anyone who followed the rules with a blank stare.
Wheby, in fact, had such a unique way of working, loving and sharing, that the name Wheby became a verb with a more than a few definitions.
To Wheby while building something meant to overbuild it to the point that it either had to be totally destroyed to be rebuilt, or the plan completely altered to accommodate the Whebyed design. The Wheby Construction plan was to measure once, cut twice, begin swearing, buy a new piece of wood, measure again, cut again, smile, swear some more, glue it, nail it, then screw it together. Repeat until bomb-proof.
To Wheby in love, meant something different to each one of us. Sometimes To Wheby love hurt so much that forgiveness seemed unobtainable. Yet, somehow he would Wheby his way back into the broken heart using the glue, nail, screw method to leave a permanent scar, but mended beautifully. To me, Wheby Love meant that I never had to ask for help, never had to ask for understanding and never had to wonder, until now, if he would be there. In fact, many of us know that when Wheby adopted you as family, knocking on the door or ringing the doorbell became unnecessary. And why should he knock, he was a part of the family, right?
The negative definition of To Wheby is the one that even Jonathan had to use more than once, and one that endured him to our hearts through proof of his human faults. He understood it as we all understand it. His cabin in the desert was the perfect example of Whebying something the wrong way. It stands today as a thing of beauty. Glued, screwed and nailed to perfection… 50 feet off the wrong side of the property line. To Wheby was to do something so well, so beautifully, so lasting and so… 50 feet off, that even he couldn’t help but laugh at the Whebyness of it.
The last paragraph of the eulogy is the beginning of the plan for my idea. This is still in the planning stages, and there is plenty of room to alter or enhance the plan, so please respond if you have ideas or wish to help.
A little background in necessary first. Wheby purchased just under 50 acres in the desert outside Masadona, Colorado in the early 2000s. The land is in a valley called Skull Creek and lies about 20 miles east of Dinosaur National Monument. He constructed a cabin (on his neighbor’s property) as a sanctuary for him and his friends. He intended it as a communal cabin for inspiration, health, exploration and a getaway from the daily grind. One of the driving forces behind Wheby’s suicide was that he constructed his getaway on someone else’s property; someone who became unwilling to work with him in correcting this problem. He lost his sanctuary shortly after losing much more than he had been willing to lose. That is another story altogether, and I will write that story in book form in the very near future.
Before Wheby walked off into the desert to take his own life, he signed his property over to me. I have been trying to come up with a way to honor Wheby through this gift ever since Courtney and I received the quit claim deed in the mail last March. A plan has surfaced this week and now the process of making it a reality begins.
I would like to create an artist retreat in Wheby’s name on Wheby’s property that benefits suicide prevention and the families and friends who have lost loved ones to suicide. I would then like to put this land and structure in a trust for future generations to enjoy.
I choose to believe that Wheby left me the land because he knew I would fulfill his vision of a community asset, and I believe this to be the very best way to provide a testament to Jonathan’s love of art and life. And he did have a zest for life that was ever apparent to all whose lives he touched, and this is just one of the things that makes suicide so unpredictable and painful to those of us who have either attempted, thought seriously about, or survived someone who followed through with the act.
Please enjoy this poem, The Spiral, which Jonathan loved, and even quoted in his suicide note. I wrote it in a time when I was feeling a little suicidal but had a great group of friends and family to help me through the rough spots.