It’s only happened twice in my life. The call. The one that changes everything.
You answer, and the words that follow forever delineate life from that point forward into before … and after.
The first time, it was a high school teacher of mine. That may sound trivial, but it was the closest to death I had ever been before now. He had been my favorite teacher by far; the type of man who took misfits like me under his wing. And so when my best friend called and said the words, “He’s dead,” I didn’t believe him at first. It couldn’t be true. I thought he was joking.
Everything after was marred by that realization. The drop-to-my-knees-moment when it really hit me: this wasn’t a joke. Someone I cared about was gone forever.
That was nearly 15 years ago now. I’ve often had knock-on-wood moments in the years since when I’ve whispered to someone in conversation, “I don’t have much experience with death. Just a teacher I loved when I was in high school.”
I can’t say that anymore. Because there’s been another call.
This one was different, though. The words that forever changed everything weren’t just, “He’s dead.” Instead, the voice on the other end of the phone wept, “He killed himself last night.”
I can’t explain who he was to me without feeling self-conscious about my own grief. Because the reality is, there was no label to assign us. He was nothing more to me than a hope. A possibility. A promise for the future.
He was the potential for a new beginning; a start that we had only just begun exploring.
Realistically, we were only friends. But he was the first man in a very long time I had allowed myself to think “Maybe…” about.
I liked him. I really liked him in that, he-gives-me-butterflies-when-I-think-about-him kind of way. I just told my friends a few weeks ago that he was the first man to give me butterflies in nearly five years.
And now he’s gone. Forever. Because he chose to leave.
We’d known each other for a while, introduced by mutual friends who loved us both. Everyone knew he was having a hard time due a compilation of life’s challenges all piling up on him at once. It was part of why I was keeping him at arm’s length, despite how much I liked him. Part of why, when he tried to kiss me for the first time just a few weeks ago, I pulled back and said, “No. Not now. Someday, but not today.”
I told him we needed to be nothing more than friends for now, because I couldn’t be the one to help him put the pieces back together. I had my daughter to think about. I had my own heart to protect.
So I told him someday, but not today. Not until you have this hurt behind you. Not until you’re healthy and whole and can be the type of man who could give me what I could give you. I told him I didn’t want him to kiss me until he knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he wanted to be kissing me. Not just anyone to be a distraction from all the rest.
I said “no.” And now I can’t help but wonder, what would have happened if I had just let go and embraced the possibility?
Obviously, on a logical level, I know this had nothing to do with me. I was just a small part of his life, certainly an insignificant piece of the puzzle. He had so many people who loved him. So many people who were there far more regularly than I was. I know I couldn’t have saved him, even if I had realized just how bad it was. Nevertheless, I’ve poured over our text messages in the days leading up to his death. I’ve read and re-read each and every word looking for something I may have missed.
I can’t find it. He was struggling and we talked about that. But we were also joking. We were flirting.
We were laying the groundwork for something that had the potential to be so much more.
The last text message he sent me came just a few hours before it must have happened. And I didn’t know. I had no idea.
Even when the call came through the next morning, for half a beat I thought it was a joke.
In the aftermath, I’ve felt a bit stranded in the confusion of my own feelings. I’ve spent my time holding, comforting, and trying to be the rock he’s no longer here to be for the people who loved him most. I’ve fought to stay calm, to stifle my own tears in their presence, because who am I to cry in the face of what they’ve lost? I’ve worked to bury my sadness and anger that boils to the surface more than I care to admit. Instead, I’ve poured my whole being into acting as the voice of reason. The comforter. The person capable of running the errands and making the calls and doing what needs to be done.
Because when I sit for too long … when I think about what he’s done … what he’s taken away from so many people who loved him … I can’t breathe.
I’m so incredibly angry at him. I’ve hurled more curse words to the sky than could possibly be reasonable. When sent to his home — the scene of his final goodbye — to search for various items for his family, I found myself accosted by pictures everywhere that serve as reminders of all he walked away from. And all I could think was, “Why? How could he have done this? How could he have left the people who needed him most?”
I collapsed alone on his bedroom floor that day, choking on my own rage.
But then, in the quieter moments, my mind wanders to that vision of “maybe…” I had when it came to him. Into that belief that we had all the time in the world. That he would figure his stuff out. That we would have a chance.
Sometimes, in the darkest moments of night, my mind almost convinces me that there’s still time. That he’s still waiting for me to respond in the perfect way to the last text message he sent. That maybe, just maybe, there was something I could have said, something I could have done so that he could still be that hope. That possibility. That promise for the future.
But he’s not. He can’t be. Because he’s gone. He chose to leave.
Now there’s no hope. No possibility. No promise for the future. There’s nothing. And when I think about that, I just feel so … sad.
He was a good man. A great man. The type of man no one has anything bad to say about, even now. I liked him the first time I met him and I found myself thinking, “I’d like to find a man like that.” My crush having evolved only in recent weeks into, “Maybe that man could actually be him.” And now he’s gone.
I’m not entirely sure where my feelings fit in the mosaic of that. I don’t know where my grief belongs.
I only know that life has officially entered the after … and I just wish we could go back to before.