It was Sunday evening, September 28, 1997, and my family had just gotten back in town after a vacation. I was in the kitchen preparing to dig in to some pizza we’d picked up on our way. That someone was already at our door just minutes after we arrived home struck me as unusual.
Then I heard the voices of my mom and a lady who lived across the street.
I realized our neighbor had come bearing bad news.
I sat in the kitchen, trying to make sense of the words that were swirling through their tears.
Robbie’s son… dead… the middle one.
I immediately knew it was John.
I don’t remember who told me all the details, if it was dad or mom, or if I just pieced it together on my own. The rest of that evening was a blur.
Everything turned gray. The pizza lost all appeal. I was in a daze. Confused, hurt, angry, unbelieving.
John, my next door neighbor who for many years I’d considered my best friend, was dead. At his own hand.
We were sixteen, born just four days apart. Over the years, we played in our backyards, creating imaginary worlds in which we built forts and sailed down the creek. We camped out in his backyard on summer nights, eating popcorn he’d salted beyond edibility, exploring with flashlights, and telling ghost stories designed to spook each other. We fought like brothers and then put aside our differences so we could have more fun. We recorded radio shows on cassette tapes, sitcoms that came in “seasons,” more than a hundred episodes spanning our preteen years.
But now all those events would be tainted.
Those silly Trevin and John Shows would have the pall of death over them. My childhood memories of friendship, fun, and fantasy would roll up into tragedy.
A friendship severed, a life thrown away, a family in shock, and grief that never goes away.
Part of my childhood died with John.
People say time heals all wounds. The people who say that must not be familiar with this wound.
I staggered upstairs to my room that night, and John was everywhere. It was like he was a ghost, moving back and forth from different places, conjuring up old memories of fun times, memories now freighted with burdens too large for a kid to carry.
John’s last year had not been a good one. Prone to depression as a teenager, he entered a darkness he never left. I didn’t know it at the time, but he’d been prescribed medication for depression and he had exhibited suicidal tendencies before. But his family had seen his mood lift in recent months. He was doing better. He seemed to be coming out of the darkness, but only enough to muster the strength to do the unthinkable.
The what if’s were never-ending.
John was about to get his driver’s license, and he’d been out driving with his dad. The night before he took his life, he drove down our street and slowed at our house.
What if we’d been home? What if I’d been there? What if we’d spent more time as friends during that last year? What kind of friend am I? What if I could have done something, anything to change the outcome?
Guilt is the constant companion of grief.
It’s September again. Every year, when the seasons begin to change, my mind races back to that moment when time stopped.
The statistics about teenage suicides are startling, but seeing the numbers seems almost like an out-of-body experience to me. Like I have to wall off a part of my soul in order to take in the stories and statistics.
Sometimes, though, I can’t help myself.
When I hear of another child bullied to death, or another depression that ends in despair, I am right back in that flowery funeral home, standing over my best friend’s casket, the smell of flowers that cannot overcome the stench of death. I’m there again looking at his pale face, angry with him, angry with myself, angry at the evil one, and filled with grief. Part of me wants to cry. Part of me wants to scream: This isn’t right. Someone do something!
It’s been 17 years. It was yesterday.
I still don’t understand.
If there is anything I have learned over the years, it is that despite what we project, we humans are incredibly frail. The mind is a fragile thing, and the heart more fragile still.
Oh, and that God is always good, but not according to the trite and easy answers we offer up with good intentions to people in pain. His goodness has an unshakeable quality to it that is fully equipped to handle our questions, our tears, our rage, our doubts and griefs.
Faith, after all, is best suited for the dark.