To My Friend From Eighth Grade Who Died by Suicide
Your photo appeared on my Instagram feed today, posted by a mutual friend. Blurred feelings hit me hard — something more than shock, than sadness, than guilt. I don’t have a word for it, and I don’t think I ever will. It’s your birthday. You would’ve been 20 years old.
We were in the same eighth grade drama class. I still have a cast photo from our production of “Lord of the Flies.” We are a bedraggled bunch, all 23 of us grinning widely with charcoal-smudged cheeks, decked out in homemade costumes, clothes torn and tattered and stained with fake blood. You are at the very edge of the photo, a few inches apart from the group. I wonder if I would have noticed that minuscule gap of black, empty space if you were still here.
Our characters in the play were paired, so we spent every rehearsal together. During breaks between our scenes, we would sit backstage, whispering to pass time. I remember you telling me one day that your stomach had growled so loud in History class that the teacher stopped mid-sentence and everyone had turned to look at you. We burst into muffled giggles, hands covering our mouths, and got scolded for being disruptive, which made us laugh even harder.
There was a scene in the play where I was supposed to shriek in terror before I said my line, but I was too embarrassed to scream. You offered to do it for me. We practiced: you’d scream, I’d speak. I hope that I thanked you for that. During the most dramatic scene in the play, when all of the kids are stabbing a boy to death, the two of us had the job of sneaking into the center of the circle to cover the boy in fake blood. We loved the thrill of rushing through the motions in the midst of a savage mob. We thought it was hilarious.
You switched schools after eighth grade. I saw you a couple times after that, at volleyball games and school dances, visiting old friends. I never talked to you, though. Maybe I said hi or waved. I don’t remember. I wish I remembered.
I missed a month of school in 11th grade. My depression had gotten out of control. I didn’t want to live anymore. My family caught me before I did anything, and I spent three weeks in a hospital. After hours of therapy, medication adjustments, and 200 pages of journal entries, I returned home. I didn’t want to die anymore.
I started back at school after Thanksgiving break. I hadn’t expected people to care about my absence, but they had been worried when I disappeared with no explanation and kept saying how glad they were that I had come back, that I was OK.
It happened in early December, exactly two weeks after I was released from the hospital. The news spread swiftly through my small school, and the silent hallways were filled with pale, scared faces. We had all known you.
It turned out that you hadn’t wanted to live anymore, either. And no one had been there, at that final moment, to save you. I’m sorry.
I watched your two best friends hugging each other tightly in the hallway, their eyes puffy, faces shining with tears. I ran outside, body shaking. We had been in the same place, had unknowingly ached with the same kind of hurting. But now I was alive and you weren’t. I felt the guilt wash over me, salty droplets cascading down my cheeks. It wasn’t fair. You deserved life just as much as me. So easily, our fates could have been switched. So easily, you could have been the one passing an empty school parking spot covered in candles, flowers, photos, realizing that it was so close to being you. So easily, you could have been the one who was saved, just in time.
In the weeks after that day in December, people kept saying, in shock and disbelief, but she seemed so happy. They didn’t understand like I do, like you do, that sometimes, when we are at our absolute saddest, it is the easiest time to put on a smile, to mask our hurt with upturned lips as we try to block out that voice in our head that is trying so hard to trick us into giving in, giving up, giving away our life to push away the pain. I wish it were easier to see through that smile, to know when someone needs saving.
I keep remembering all of the times in eighth grade when we burst into laughter backstage. I hope the laughter was real, back then. I hope you hadn’t been suffering for that long, in that place where the hurt feels so thick around you that you can’t breathe, that you will try anything to escape, desperate to find air.
I wish I could remember your laugh, how it sounded.
I wish you could be here, now, laughing.
Getty image via a-wrangler