Stephen Huneck | Here In New England
“I was surprised after he committed suicide when I talked to some people and they were totally shocked,” she says. “People who knew him very well, I thought. He just never shared that with anybody.”
Stephen had suffered from depression most of his life, although he’d grown adept at hiding it. Behind his jovial exterior was a man who could grow despondent at times, Gwen says. Like many artists, he had trouble internalizing the praise he received for his work, she feels, and he harbored a low self-image.
Gwen thinks it’s possible that some people just saw what they wanted to see in Stephen: a self-made man living his dream in the beautiful Vermont countryside. “People would say to us, ‘You’re so lucky. You have the perfect life,'” Gwen recalls. “And we were thinking, Are we going to make payroll this week?”
Certainly Stephen’s art didn’t provide any clues to his depression. Gwen jokes that maybe if he’d painted morbid things, people wouldn’t have been so surprised. Even through tears, she finds her laugh easily. Gwen has small, bright eyes and round cheeks that dominate her face when she smiles. Sadness doesn’t suit her, and it’s easy to see what she and Stephen saw in each other.
As the recession grew worse, Stephen began working less. He would close himself into the media room and watch cable news obsessively. “It was probably a bad business move, but we tried to keep people on as long as we could,” Gwen says. “It just sucked all the money, basically. And then we came to a point where we couldn’t anymore, and that was the breaking point for him.” On January 5th, they let go 10 of their 12 employees at the workshop and gallery on Dog Mountain, many of whom they’d known for years. They thought of them as family, and Stephen felt personally responsible. “He was all alone,” Gwen says, “watching CNN in the morning and thinking he was a failure.”
Later that day, Stephen talked to Gwen about suicide. “He said, ‘It will be better off without me,’ and he meant financially,” Gwen recalls. “I pooh-poohed that. I said, ‘That’s not true. Don’t even think that.'” Gwen’s voice fails her for a moment, and she wipes the tears from her eyes. “What he said to me basically was ‘I’ll talk to my psychiatrist on Thursday,’ which was two days away. I realize now he’d already made up his mind about what he was going to do.”
In the wake of Stephen’s suicide, Gwen had no idea what would happen next. But as news of his death spread, Web orders came pouring in from around the world. Longtime admirers and speculators scrambled to buy up his art. It saved the business, leaving Gwen to deal with a bittersweet reality. “Even though it was very sad and it didn’t make up for it, he was right in that it did help me,” she says.
Gwen cries now, her voice resonating off the chapel’s high ceiling: “You know, that’s why I’m still here. It’s not what I would have wanted to happen, but it allows me to …” Her voice trails off for a second. Then, resolutely, with only a slight tremor in her speech, she says, “I don’t feel any anger. I just feel love, and I feel sadness that he took that choice. But I think he did it out of love, really. Rather than see us lose our home or lose Dog Mountain, he did the only thing he could think of that might save it.”
In every suicide, no matter the circumstances, that person takes with him a whole universe of possible futures that include him. When survivors look to tomorrow, all they can do is choose the best of what’s left. Gwen would have gladly lost everything if it meant keeping her husband, but she didn’t get to make that choice. When Stephen died, he left her with a beautiful chapel on a beautiful mountain and the horrible question of what to do next.
On a sunny day in May 2010, a herd of dogs bound off a shuttle bus at the foot of Dog Mountain, their owners following behind them. It was important to Gwen that Stephen’s memorial service be pet-friendly.
It’s an informal affair. A hundred or so people sit in chairs set up by the dog pond. One by one, they get up to share their memories. Some knew Stephen for his art and others through his advocacy for dogs. Some are old friends, and a few are complete strangers who were inspired by his life. It’s a mixture of tears and laughter. Seemingly every time things get too heavy, the speaker is interrupted by the splash of another dog flinging itself into the pond. Everyone agrees that Stephen would have wanted it this way.
The group reconvenes at an overlook at the top of Dog Mountain for a final goodbye. They gather around a statue of a dog angel Stephen erected there years ago. A local minister begins reading from Stephen’s final children’s book, which he’d written just weeks before his death. It’s called Sally Goes to Heaven.
At the beginning of the story, Sally wakes up in heaven and is surprised that she’s no longer in pain. “‘She never felt so good,'” the minister reads. “‘The next thing Sally notices is a window. It was all that she could have hoped for. It was a window into her old house through which she could look anytime.'” He chokes up, and Gwen comes out of the crowd and gives him a hug. “‘Looking through the window,'” he continues, “‘Sally sees that everyone is crying. Sally starts to cry too. Sally’s tears are for her family. She wishes she could comfort them and explain to them about her pain being all gone. Sally is not too sad because she knows that they will all be together again in Heaven one day.'”
No one would have faulted Gwen if she’d decided to close Dog Mountain–if she’d found it just too sad to be around. But Gwen says the thought never crossed her mind. Dog Mountain was too important. “I think what Stephen did was really, really profound,” Gwen says. “It’s more than just nice art. It affected people. He intentionally tried to put healing energy into things. That’s what he wanted to give people.”
Stephen dealt with his depression by trying to make it into something positive. His art transformed his demons into laughter. And even if that wasn’t enough for him–even if his life ended in sadness–it doesn’t cheapen the gift he gave to other people or the gifts he gave to Gwen.