The other day I had this idea for a blog. The next day, it wrote itself.
You see, every year around this time, I try and write something about living with suicide, my Father’s suicide, 16 years ago on April 27.
I was thinking the other day about who I am (versus who I might appear to be) every year on that day (reflecting on tragedy and loss). And, then who I am on the following day, the 28th, which was his birthday (celebrating life and love and missing that). And, then again who I am the day after on the 29th, the anniversary of the day that my life was forced to begin reconstituting, redefining, re-framing with part of its core missing (recognizing healing is a process).
Despite 16 years, I am rarely who I seem on these days. I am at work, but I am distracted. I am laughing but I’m hurting. I’m smiling and engaged but, as soon as I turn away and am back by myself, I am often bleary-eyed and exhausted. You may never see this. Those who know me well will sense it. I am not particularly good at hiding it.
As I reflected on my experience on these three days in particular, I was also mindful of a close friend and colleague who has shared his own experiences with me, those certain days of the year – the birthday, the death anniversary, the times around family holidays – when life is hardly endurable. You may never see this. Those who know him will sense it.
These days, regardless of the passage of time, are often too tender to talk about, especially at work. There is an emotional recovery period that often just isn’t practical and some work relationships you’re just not sure are ready for the transparency.
But, sometimes it’s helpful just to know that other people know that my random Wednesday in April is not the same as theirs. My Wednesday can be brutal even if the sun is shining and everything else seems normal. I don't have to think about it. Somehow it is imprinted on me now. My body knows.
Then, one day last week as I was thinking through my own experiences, remarkably and tragically, I was teaching a virtual leadership session and one of the leaders of the group stopped me before I got started to share that the team had lost a colleague the previous night to suicide. I read the faces in the little Zoom boxes as quickly as I could. I could see a couple who I knew were struggling. Many had their cameras turned off. Some turned them off at that moment. Today was not what it seemed.
I could have taught that session without ever knowing this information. I could have delivered what I wanted to deliver and felt like it was a success. And yet, without this information, without having the chance at least to acknowledge it, to pause in recognition of where people are, the session would not have been what it seemed. And, given the news of the death, without the opportunity and willingness to empathize by briefly sharing my own experience with suicide, the session again would not have been what it seemed. Not for any of us.
Every day, people are mourning, dealing with stuff, and sometimes just getting through the day without ever feeling that they can share where they are. Settle the ground. Stop hiding. Stop pretending. Ease the white-knuckling. Ask for help. Ask for space. Ask for silence. Ask for some acknowledgment. Ask simply for a little empathy.
Until we open ourselves and allow others to do the same in a safe and supportive way at work or anywhere, until we stop trying to hide our struggles and pretend they don’t exist, until we neutralize the presumed judgment of our vulnerabilities, tragedies, and very lives themselves, today will rarely be what it seems.
It’s April. The month of my Father’s birthday. The day after his death. Suicide. It’s kind of a shitty month. Thank god for Spring - and friends.
I write something every year around this time out of a commitment to talking openly about suicide, Depression, and sexual abuse – no fear, no shame, no judgment. But, this year, I’m feeling reflective in ways I am not ready to express despite the 16 years that have passed. I am good, but I have thoughts that haven’t yet coalesced as to my own Fatherhood unfolding and the conversations I’ll be having before long with my daughters.
So, here I am instead writing something that has been on my mind for all of those 16 years since Dad died. Long overdue. Finally ready to be written.
It’s a story about a friend, a term redefined in this experience. Not an action story. Perhaps an inaction story. A story about something deeper. Silent. Eternal. Strengthening.
When my Dad committed suicide, in celebration of his life, we welcomed hundreds of people into our house. They were literally lined around the block. People who loved my Dad. Loved my family. People who were seeking solace themselves. People who didn’t know what else to do but show up. And, for hours, the line continued. Hugs. Tears. Confusion. Sympathy. Incoherent thoughts and reflections.
I ebbed and flowed as I greeted people. Strength coming as I consoled the old classmate or previous neighbor who never knew Dad suffered from Depression. The long hugs from those who whispered quietly in my ear that they too had been sexually abused as a child or suffered from Depression. The moments of despair when I collapsed in someone’s arms, not knowing the specific trigger, but unable to take any more in that moment. This was a community of people, of love, of trying to come to grips with suicide, with loss, with the contradiction of a powerful and confidant and formidable external persona and the person who couldn’t find himself worthy to live.
I don’t remember a lot of details of that day, or really that time for that matter - months - but I do remember this general scene as if I had watched it from the ceiling. And, I do remember my friend, vividly, the friend I met when I was 10, playing All-Star baseball at Shelby Park (the picture is a few years later, I still look 10 and he looks 17), the friend with whom my connection had been immediate, grown deep and personal over time (20 years then, 36 now), intuitive, and yet at times distant as our lives followed divergent paths, a friend who stood there in the front room of our house, hands clasped in front of him, button-down shirt, for untold hours, right there beside me.
He stood there seeming only to move when he knew I had the strength to be still, and being still when he knew I might collapse under the weight of the moment. An exoskeleton.
For hours, I never saw him leave. I never saw him eat. I never saw him go to the bathroom. He didn’t muster much conversation with anyone. He just stood there, steps from me, never leaving his post. Still. Upright. Guarding me. Protecting me. Sustaining me. I can see him today as I could see him 16 years ago.
I know he was a wreck too. I know how much he loved my Dad. And, yet.
I have no idea what I said to him that day. I have no idea if I thanked him for being one of the first to arrive and last to leave. He couldn’t know what his presence looked like, felt like, to me as I found myself looking to him - as he only looked forward - to find my strength, to find my backbone, to know that something was solid in this moment of loss and world-shifting fluidity.
For 16 years, I have held this image of Andre standing there, by me, with me, for me, as me, when I just didn’t know how I might do it myself. Not doing anything. Not needing anything. Not knowing that you were doing anything other than what you should be doing. This is the gift. This is the offering of healing from a friend when healing was yet to begin.
I have never had the courage to write this. The gratitude is easy. The writing is difficult. But, the time is finally here to say thank you. I don’t know what else to say. It feels insufficient, out-of-date, and yet as deep and profound as I can offer from one human being to another.
And, 16 years later, unsure of my words for today, April bringing a new season, a new year without my Dad, it is in long-overdue gratitude that I find my voice and continued healing.
Thank you, Uncle Dre. I’m sorry it has taken so long.