Dear Mr. Z,
You seem, by all accounts, to be a very happy boy. You wake up in the morning, well before the sun, excited to start the day. You skip and jump and run (but never walk) to school, talking about the marvel of that ant, or the beauty of this fallen leaf. You wonder why hawks are so big. You ask when we will go to the library, and for how long, and can you get new books? You sing, when you feel like singing, and dance when the spirit moves you, and when you laugh (and you often laugh) it is loud, and uninhibited, and easy. In short, you approach the world with wonder and joy.
Hold that thought, for as long as you can. Maybe it will take you all the way. I hope so. But maybe it won’t. And if not, I have a story to tell.
Three years ago, on December 29, 2014, I woke up uncharacteristically early. It had been a long night of bad dreams and vague terrors. I logged onto Facebook. It was early, and the holidays, so there wasn’t much to see. My friend Matt had posted several hours prior. His post said, “I’m sorry.” His friends attempted levity. “Did you eat all the Elmer’s glue again?” said one. “I love you and forgive you. Now what’s for dinner?” said another.
I remember feeling uneasy. Matt’s ex-wife had cheated on him the year before. He wrestled with his suspicions, arising, he told me, from an inbox full of inappropriate emails to another man, and his wife’s assurances of fidelity. He finally learned the truth, he said, when the other guy’s aggrieved wife found out about the affair and threatened to call Matt, forcing Anna’s hand. I don’t know what the right thing is to say, when someone tells you their spouse cheated on them. I told him that I thought she was a horrible person, and that he deserved better. Matt told me that he felt his contribution to the dissolution of the marriage had been his depression. “There’s two sides to everything,” he said. “I was in therapy. It was hard on her.” Apparently he had been distant, insufficiently attentive to her needs.
When I checked my phone, I had multiple missed calls. I returned one of them. It was my co-director, and our mutual friend. I thought maybe something had come up with our January show, only a few weeks away, in which all three of us were performing. “Are you sitting down?” he said. “You need to sit down.” And then he said, “Matt passed away last night.” And then he said, “He killed himself.”
I didn’t ask how he did it. I didn’t need to. The guy I knew, who was loyal, and goofy, and introspective, was also impulsive and rash. He would not painstakingly horde pills, or slit his wrists, or asphyxiate in a garage. He would blow his brains out in a life-ending moment of anguish. Indeed, this turned out to be accurate. I later learned that after writing his Facebook post, Matt had climbed into his bathtub and shot himself in the head.
I guess I was most stunned to discover he owned a gun. I assume it was purchased with this intent in mind, something he kept in his closet, and in the back of his mind, waiting to go off, should the moment arise. Matt was a gentle soul wrapped in leather. He rode a motorcycle. He liked Tough Mudder competitions and mountain biking and triathlons. A lot of his Facebook posts were about beer, or his three kids. He was the last guy on earth who would need a gun to feel like a man.
Instead of a memorial service, they held a “celebration of life,” which is currently a thing. I’ve been to a celebration of life before. The event had been for someone who died after a long battle with breast cancer. People mingled and talked about what a great lady she had been. There had been a slideshow, and video, and wine, and subdued conversation.
This was not like that. It is hard, it turns out, to find the celebration in suicide. There were hundreds of people at Matt’s celebration, or memorial, or funeral, whatever you want to call it. I don’t think I even know that many people. There weren’t enough chairs. The ex-wife was there, sitting in the front. Pretty ballsy stuff, right there. Several of his friends spoke about what a great guy he was. There was a break, and people talked all around me. Did you know he was depressed, they asked their neighbors, I mean really depressed? Matt had helped this girl move, bought that guy lunch when his car died. “We were supposed to talk about him,” one guy said, “but the whole conversation ended up being about me. I feel so terrible.” But mostly people said, “I had no idea.” And then, I would think, but I did have an idea, and it did no good at all.
You are, perhaps, wondering, why I am telling you all of this.
Matt was the only child and only son to his mother. You are the only child and only son to your mother. Six months earlier, Nancy, Matt’s mom, had run up to me at our spring show and given me a big hug. I had begged Matt out of retirement to participate. She was incandescent, her hair brilliant under the lights of the lobby, her smile a high beam on a summer night. “It was so wonderful,” she had said. “Just so wonderful.” I told him about it later, about how it took me a minute to figure out who this friendly lady was, and he laughed and said, “That’s my mama,” in a tone that intermingled pride and amusement. In retrospect, I wonder if she saw this performance as turning a corner, a sign that Matt was emerging from his illness. She babysat his kids so he could come to rehearsal. She came to every show. I saw her again at Matt’s service. She wore jeans and a baggy T-shirt and looked like she could barely stand up. She shuffled by me at the break, hunched over as though she had been punched in the stomach. No parent should have to outlive their child.
You currently seem to be a happy sort. No doubt Matt, as a child, was a happy sort too. I find myself thinking, all the time, what I could say to you now that would keep you from doing something like this in twenty, thirty years, something that Matt’s mother didn’t think to say to him. You are loved, I could say. You have worth. You are wonderful to me. But I know Matt’s mother said all of these things to him. Or, more selfishly, I could say, think of your friends. Think of your family. Think of your mother. We were on the plane ride back from Florida a few weeks ago, and you announced, “I want to sit next to mommy because I love her.” Think of that. But Matt, who was a caring and giving and kind man, undoubtedly did think of his mother, inasmuch as he was able to think about anything that day; I know he loved her immensely. I am sure he thought about his kids. He told me once that the thought of his children being raised by Anna’s boyfriend, likely to become a stepfather, was almost more than he could bear. He told me, when they separated, that he was not going to be that guy who only saw his kids Tuesdays, Thursdays and alternate weekends. Whatever whispers the illness spoke that night, they must have been heady and invasive and irrefutable.
So perhaps the best I can say to you is to urge you to question your own mind, because sometimes it lies to you, as Matt’s lied to him that night it told him to shoot himself. If it suggests something with permanent consequences, even in the most beguiling tones, wait. It may try to tell you that immediate action is necessary. Ignore it. In 12 hours, and 24 hours, reassess. In 48 hours, reassess again. Always wait until the morning. Things look different in the dawn.
I have heard a lot of people say, in the intervening years, “I wish I could have spoken to him,” or “If I had known, and I would have said…” or “If only I had called him back the week before I could have…” I find I don’t have these thoughts. I know, perhaps better than most people know, that there is no one thing you can say, at that late date, to make a person want to live in defiance of a brain that doesn’t. They must find that want within themselves, and the hardship of it all is that they must find it at the most difficult, ugly moment; decades of friendships, and partnerships, and love affairs, and family, of happy-birthdays, and atta-boys, and lullabies, and I-love-you’s are engulfed by the bitter howl of the storm. Whether or not they find that want, whether they can hear those things, is deeply personal, and private, and sometimes, like any illness, beyond human control.
I do, irrationally, find myself wishing something different. I remember a day, almost twenty years ago, in our college gym.
It is a beautiful, antique place, with high, vaulted rafters and floor to ceiling windows and rows of double doors. We used to rehearse there all the time. On this day, at least in my memory, the sun was shining. In my memory, it feels like spring, but who knows? Memories are fickle things. I walked in one of the double doors and Matt bounded across the floor to me. We used to call him Tigger, because of the bounce in his step. “The wonderful thing about Tiggers,” he used to sing, “is Tiggers are wonderful things.” On this day, he ran up to me and said, “I’m dating a girl, and she’s great.” And he pointed to her across the room. Anna sat on the piano with a few other people, her hair more gold than brown in the sun. I almost couldn’t make out her features, the glow was so pronounced. “We used to date, and now we’re back together,” he said, and I could tell, that for Matt, this was it. This was the girl. I find myself thinking, all the time, about that day. Two roads were diverging in a wood, right in front of us, and we had no idea. I wish I could go back and say, “Not this girl, Matt.” I wish I could say, with the perfect clarity of hindsight, “You will shape your life around this woman, her dreams, her dramas, her dysfunctional family, you will subvert your career for hers, and when you need her, when you are sickest, and lowest, and neediest, she will devastatingly betray you. Find another girl.” But even as I write this, I know that Matt couldn’t have heard it and, who knows, maybe I couldn’t even have said it, because we were twenty-two and the sun was shining.
I similarly find myself wishing, irrationally, that I could speak to you twenty years from now, thirty years from now, or whenever your lowest moment may be. I wish I could hold a mirror before you, and in it you would see the reflection of the little boy you are today, all confidence, and happiness, and wonder, who makes up elaborate games with the dogs and imagines they reciprocate, who asks for hand huggers in the back seat, who can sit for an hour on the couch listening raptly to novels read aloud, and who makes faces at crying two-year-olds at the park, to try to make them feel better. I wish I could hold you, and tell you it will all be better, as I do now. This is the magic of the written word, I guess. I can tell you. Tomorrow, it gets better.