Every time I listen to “Center Aisle” by Caedmon’s Call, I weep.
It’s been fifteen years since I received one of the worst phone calls of my life. I was only nineteen at the time, living in an apartment in Lynchburg with my youngest brother. When the phone rang that day, I picked it up, my dad on the other end. And you just know when things are not okay. There wasn’t time for pleasantries. I still remember the words very clearly:
“Beverly, someone in your class has died.”
I knew he meant my high school class. The class of 2000. My class. The class of only 14 other students. My family.
My mind raced through a list of the most likely to get in a car accident, because it had to be an accident. There could be no other explanation.
And then he dropped the name, followed by, “He took his own life.”
It didn’t make sense. He was our class salutatorian. He was an incredible musician. He was athletic. He was attractive. He was witty. He was the guy that you went to when you didn’t know how to do something. I still remember sitting in front of a computer in the basement of his house because I had less than 8 hours to finish my research paper, and I was struggling with formatting issues. He never turned down helping anyone. I didn’t know anyone who didn’t like him.
I didn’t see this coming. You can’t breathe in that moment. Your brain struggles to comprehend what you’re told. I was left with why?
Several of us finished up our midterms just in time to travel back to Asheville for the funeral. One of his closest friends, Michael, invited all of us back to his house afterwards. We spent time sharing with each other, recalling and laughing and crying and asking and wondering. Michael had gone over to his house after it happened and helped his mom go through some of his stuff. He found a paper he had written for one of his college courses, and in it, he explained some of the demons he was fighting. Some of them since he was a kid. It was his journey, the dissection of his worldview in fourteen pages. Michael made copies. I still have mine. I read it every year. I can hear him through the pages.
You go back and relive moments in your mind, wondering if there was something you said or did that helped contribute to his ultimate decision. Everyone in our class was a friend. When there are only 15 of you, you become family. We were over at each other’s houses. Many of us grew up together from a young age. But that also means you fight sometimes like siblings. You tease each other because that’s what high school friends do.
One of my last memories with him is when I was home visiting from college. He and my best friend, Becca, went with me to get my first tattoo (sorry, mom). We also spent time with a handful of other kids from our class at Becca’s house later on. I had a video camera with me and recorded some of our night together. I love going back to watch Michael and him being silly as they played the guitar.
I have a file where I keep his college paper, a few pictures of us, his funeral program, his obituary. My 19-year-old friend shouldn’t be sandwiched between two 79 year olds with health problems. I pulled it out today like I always do every year and forgot that I had also printed out an email Michael sent to us following the funeral. It was folded up at the bottom. It reads:
It’s about 10:30 on Tuesday everyone just left my house and I finally got a second by myself. I wanted to let you all know how much it meant to me to see all of you there at the funeral. Not only because you were there but just the way we have all stuck together is so amazing to me. It’s such a shame that something like this sometimes has to put everything back in perspective and you begin to see what life is all about- relationships- I hope you guys will keep me in prayers and I will try and do the same for you. Time will help heal a lot of the pain, but it will always remain. I will try and keep in contact with all of you the best I can. I love you guys.
I often wonder if any of us had completely understood what he was dealing with, if we could have somehow prevented what happened. We’ll never know the answer to that question. We can’t go back and change the past. But we can choose to live intentionally. To remember what Michael said: that “life is all about relationships.”
It’s been fifteen years, and this is the first time I’ve sat down to write about it. I thought after all this time I wouldn’t cry, but I was wrong. Today, it still feels raw. I would give anything to have just one more conversation with him. To feel like I had answers. To offer him hope.
He’s the reason I’ve always been open with my students about my struggle with depression. When I was growing up, nobody talked about it. People who were “feeling down” were just said to be “moody.” He’s the reason I’ve always left my classroom door open for students to have a safe space to talk about the dark twisties going on in their lives, free from judgment. To talk to an adult whom they feel has no agenda except to listen and empathize. Because I get it. I know what it is to win that battle. But, I also know what it is to lose. I want them to know they are not alone, and there is strength in numbers.
In the black hole of it all, sometimes you just need a little hope. I wish I could have given that to him, had I known his struggles. But I can offer hope to other young people who struggle. If they can make it just one more day. Put one foot in front of the other. Hope. Hold on. It will all be okay.