After my friend moved away I was forced to move on and grow up. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, from being around him, I was changed. I had developed a new openness toward accepting others, and my sense of humor had been tinged with his particular brand of sarcasm that people were drawn to.
I became more confident in myself, made new friends (including my best friend and co-founder of this group Lori,) stayed out too late as teenagers do, and even started hanging out with a boy, (that boy I was pining for way back at the beginning of this story) that I had always been afraid to talk to.
Lori is my best friend and closest confidante to this day. I eventually married the boy I was afraid to talk to.And my friend from the beginning of the story took his own life.
The same afternoon I tossed my high-school memories into the sky with my graduation cap, I heard the words that have never stopped resonating.
“He’s gone. They think it was suicide.”
I remember that second, in hearing those words, I didn’t know how to speak. I had to think how to keep breathing past the pain swelling up in my throat. The why and how and where of what happened were details unknown, things that I grasped at for any possible explanation. I didn’t find them.
What I did find were ghosts disguised as memories, shadows of conversations between my friend and I. When I thought about the things we talked about when we were together, I could think of maybe a thousand times he’d spoke of this very thing, and my thinking surely he hadn’t meant that. Or he had meant it, and I had chosen not to hear. Those ghosts of words ripped at me like claws shredding through a silk sheet.
I cried through my entire graduation, on through the graduation party in the gym and everyone thought it was because I was sad and sentimental over my high-school years. I never told anyone the real reason for my tears that day until I typed this sentence just now.
In the weeks following a trickle of information made its way back to me. I learned that my friend had lost his scholarship and moved to northern California, where he became involved with a group of squatters, gay drifters who were synonymous with break-ins and drug abuse. A few weeks later I heard that my friend had overdosed on a combination of cocaine and barbiturates. When they found him he was so unrecognizable it took them three days to figure out who he was. He died strung out, alone and unknown.
It felt like a bad dream. It wasn’t possible. The person I knew was loved and beloved, he was light and confident and intelligent and funny and happy. I tried to imagine the events that had led him to his end, and I found I just didn’t want to.
I hated myself for not forgiving him, for not answering his letter. I hated him for taking his own life. I hated a world full of judgement that forces people into hiding from their true selves and God for knowing and allowing it all to happen.
My friend lived and died in a time and place where tolerance for different lifestyles was virtually non-existent. I listened quietly as people’s words floated around me about his choices, about it being inevitable because he was left to his own devices. My stomach churned as they shook their heads, condescending thoughts dripping out of their mouths. He should have never… His parents should have…It’s really no surprise…
I hated those words and those people with my whole, young heart. And yet, outwardly I agreed with them. I clung to the beliefs of the people inside my very narrow world who were piously confident and shrewd about what happened. In my heart I wanted to scream out that no-one had the right to judge someone they had never even considered worthy of knowing. But instead I forced myself into believing the lies. It was the only coping mechanism I knew, and it was the virtual turning out of a light.
Not long after I turned out that light, I closed a door. I tossed the notebook with the book I had half-written into the trash.
Yes, it is possible to forget another person. You can force someone out of human consciousness. But they are never actually gone.
For nearly twenty-five years I was living with shattered pieces, shards of him and love and hate inside my heart. I did forget my friend. I thought it was the only way for me to exist. But he wasn’t really gone. He just showed up in other ways, other places I couldn’t see.
When I came together with this little group of friends to start writing again, all the things he gave me, all the things I couldn’t see before came trickling slowly into awareness. Around my 36th birthday, I started writing fiction for the first time in over 20 years. It was a revelation. It felt like truth, reincarnated. I, for the life of me couldn’t figure out why I had ever stopped doing it.
One day I wrote something off the cuff and it was about him, only I didn’t know it. It was completely random and unintentional, so much so that I didn’t even recognize it was anything other than a piece of fiction. It took someone who knew nothing about me or him or anything that had happened in the past to see a distinct pain between the lines.
A light turned on.Once it was brought to my attention, the realization that it was him and why I wrote it came to me in small, quiet happenings, like a series of opening doors. I found traces of him in the most random of places:
In my odd, eclectic taste in music.
In the nicknames I’ve given the people I adore the most.
In my ability to use sarcasm as a healing device, to mask disappointment and pain.
In my innate desire to reject anything that the majority considers quality, trustable, popular, or truth.
In passages I’ve written that seem to have come from a voice inside my own head that wasn’t my own.
In the way that new ideas spill out into my dreams, urging me to use them for some Greater Purpose.
To be perfectly honest, once the memory came back into my peripheral, once I realized I had never actually moved on, it hurt like hell. I had uncovered a well of love and hate and guilt and regret so deep, I felt haunted by it. I felt consumed.
Last summer I ripped out my heart time and again as I relived and tried to capture all the memories of him- good and bad- in writing. I typed out scenes with my eyes closed and then deleted them. I slammed my laptop closed. I laughed and I smiled and I sighed and I cried.
I started to question everything, all my likes and dislikes, all the decisions I’d made, everything I thought I was defined by before. It’s a funny thing, bringing up a repressed memory. It forces you to question things you had never considered about yourself, to evaluate your worth.
I had never let myself experience that kind of pain, and something I couldn’t fully explain. It was searing and deep and it ached in my heart even as I went on about my normal life. But at the same time it brought a quiet clarity; the slow demolition of ancient brick walls. One, solid brick at a time, I pushed the old beliefs away, and slowly I began to see the truth.
What happened between us, the hate and the pain and the love that caused me to force him out of my heart had nothing to do with the way he chose to live his life. Not when he was alive and we were friends, not the day I hated him for leaving, not the day I found out about his death. I was young and sensitive and naïve, and I pushed him out of my heart for nothing but self-preservation.
Nothing that happened between us, love or hate or pain or regret, would ever be more important than the gifts he gave me.
It was obvious I had lived with a half-closed-heart for way too long.
I had no choice but to forgive both of us.
At the point I started writing this post, though I knew I wanted to put it out into the blogosphere as a sort of virtual release, I was unsure how to conclude it. This morning I was talking with Lori via text. She was telling me about a physical therapy appointment for the back pain she’d been enduring for months. I said:
“I’m praying it works for you. Being in constant pain can definitely siphon one’s ability to stay in the light.”
I read my own words and the realization hit me like a brick. Pain has its place, it has merit in the way we move through our lives, it brings understanding and sympathy. It even empowers us to act with new motivation. But at some point we have to let it go and move into the light.
Today I’m officially letting go.
This has been a long road, and this post has been a long story, and for that I both apologize and thank you for staying with me. Every word written here is for one purpose: To urge you (and me) to take all the chances we’re afraid to take.
Please, if you are reading now and there is something on your mind and your heart that you know, you KNOW you need to do, to change, or to start, or to stop, or forgive, or to say:
Stop reading now, this second, walk away and go do it.
Life is too short to live confined by pain and regret.
Today, start being the you the world has asked you to be.
Till Next Time,
To My Wonderwall,
I am grateful every single day for the light you helped me to find, and the way it continues to shine.
I’m sorry I never said goodbye the way you deserved. I accepted you for you, always and completely. I’m sorry I never said those words out loud. I’m sorry with every ounce of my being for the way I tried to forget you.
I forgive you for leaving the way you did. And I forgive myself for all the things I couldn’t see.