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I’m With Stupid – February 7, 2014

by Todd Hartley

Todd Hartley-smallMy wife has always believed that seeing a fox is good luck. I would argue, based on my encounters with the creatures, that foxes are not so much harbingers of good luck as they are signs that one has done something good or chosen the proper path. In any event, my wife and I both seem to agree that there’s something mystical about foxes, and I always consider it a treat to see one. Just keep that in mind as I proceed.

For you see, the real subject of this column, sadly, isn’t foxes; it’s the much heftier and serious topic of suicide.

Much has been written about the allegedly high rate of suicide here in our little valley, but it’s always existed in my mind as a bit of an abstraction; that is to say, I’ve been acquainted with some of the individuals involved, but they weren’t people I was particularly close with. And while I don’t mean to trivialize their deaths, they’ve just never weighed that heavily on me personally.

All that changed, however, on Sunday when my dear friend and former Aspen Times colleague Stewart Oksenhorn took his own life. That was the moment suicide opened the door, walked in and made itself right at home.

Like so many others in Aspen and beyond, I’m still reeling from Stewart’s death, and I’m not sure that I’ve got my head wrapped around it yet. I still can’t comprehend the fact that he’s gone or understand why, and I’m still struggling with the flood of emotions his passing has unleashed.

There’s anger, to be sure. I’m angry that Stewart could do something so selfish and deprive his daughter, his friends and the Aspen community of his talent, wit, intelligence and personality. He was a rare and wonderful human being. Aspen will forever be diminished by his absence, and for that I blame him.

There’s guilt, too. I realize it’s silly to think I or anyone else could have prevented this, but at the same time I can’t help but wonder. I spoke with Stewart on the phone a week and a half ago, and he seemed more subdued than usual. Could I have asked him if something was wrong and gotten him to open up about it? Probably not, but I’ll never know.

Mostly, though, there’s just a profound grief that a friend I loved and admired so much is gone. It seems impossible that someone so seemingly together and mentally strong could reach a point where he saw suicide as his only option, and it pains me to think of the depths of despair he must have been experiencing. It also scares the hell out of me. If this could happen to a guy like Stewart, how far are any of us from a similar fate?

When I was younger, a friend tried to set me up with his cousin and remarked that she and I shared a similar “joie de vivre.” At the time, I didn’t really understand what he meant, but as I’ve gotten older and the responsibilities and realities of adulthood have eroded much of life’s wonder, I’ve come to recognize that erstwhile joie de vivre by its comparative absence.

I was thinking about that long-ago conversation Tuesday as I skied Aspen Mountain. I’d been discussing Stewart’s death with a couple of people on the gondola, and I was determined to make something positive come of it. I decided that in Stewy’s honor I was going to dedicate myself to trying to recapture that sense of wonder, beginning with wringing as much joy as I could out of each and every turn.

The moment I made that decision, a fox appeared in the middle of the ski run just ahead of me. It was gorgeous, deep orange in color with an impressively thick winter coat, and I stopped to watch as it scampered off into the trees. I can’t say for sure that my decision had anything to do with the fox being there, but the timing seemed a little too coincidental to discount the notion completely.

Here’s what I think: I think that somewhere, Stewart is looking down on us, and he wants us all to learn lessons from his death. For me, the lesson is to take nothing for granted, savor every moment and accentuate the positive to keep all the negatives in life from getting me down. The way I see it, the fox was just Stewy’s way of letting me know I was on the right path.

Todd Hartley says, “Rest in peace, old friend. I hope you found what you were looking for.”

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