The first time I was introduced to death, I was 16.
I was working the concession stand at my high school’s production of Cinderella. Normally, I was on stage, but it was a musical and no one wanted to hear me sing. It was opening night.
I was called into a side room by my principal and my English teacher, Mr. Harris. I was scared. I called on my acting skills, begging them to provide for me. I thought I was caught, that my teacher and principal knew where I’d been that morning, that they’d smelled pot on me and I was scared they wouldn’t believe me when I told them I didn’t smoke it, that it was David’s, that he smoked it that morning, not me, that he was mad that I didn’t, that truly it wasn’t my thing. I preferred a pilfered Mike’s Hard Lemonade or a grape juice-infused shot of everclear.
Instead, they told me David was dead.
When I think back to that room and those moments, the memories are hazy. I can’t remember it all, can’t remember the exact lines we all recited, the color of the crappy public school tissue box I clutched, the pattern of the floor tile or the skirt I was wearing.
“Maybe he slipped,” is what I remember hearing from the principal. She said it in a hopeful sort of way, suggesting that maybe the 16-year-old boy I’d sat next to in English class hadn’t launched himself headfirst off a northern Virginia overpass.
But he did. David did.
I skipped school the next day, showing up only in the middle of the day to hear jocks I didn’t know walking down the halls saying, “Terra, I think is her name – they were dating – it’s definitely her fault.”
I remember seeing Mr. Harris at the top of a staircase and giving him a hug and only then realizing how tall he was. He taught us both, me and David, and in the research I did later I learned that an average of seven people are profoundly impacted by a suicide. Mr. Harris and I were both in that count, both among the seven in the aftermath of David’s death.
There were grief counselors at the school, I think. I wasn’t there for it. The attendance policy in the days that follow David’s death was loose and I remember walking away from the school on April 7, 2000, two friends straggling along behind me, without incident.
We sat in a clearing, I think, smoking cigarettes and trying to piece it together, trying to make sense of a senseless thing. I’d been the messenger for both of them, calling from the road the night before, telling them what he did, that he had died, providing them an introduction to death.
That weekend, I went to the cast party. I felt like I needed to. The theater community was my community, a compendium of weird, misfitting kids all clumped together for lack of a better option.
People cried when they saw me. That happened a lot in the days after he jumped and died.
“He said he didn’t want to hurt you,” a girl at the party said. “He said, ‘I just don’t want to hurt Terra.'”
David and I had a multi-day fling that we ended the day before he died. He drove me home that day, the last day. We were almost neighbors.
More than any other thing, I remember him asking me if I needed a ride to school the next day. He said he’d be there after the bus and I, a good kid despite my chronic insanity, was worried about missing a ride and being late so I said no, it was fine, I’d just take the bus.
My grandmother timed it. He dropped me off and then went to die.
Yes, I blamed myself. I see his face in my dreams, still, and I wonder if he just wanted me to say yes to the ride, if I was his out, if I was the coin he’d flipped, if he thought if yes, I’ll live, if no, I’ll die.
I speculated on that for a decade, on the what if scenario. A fucking decade.
But the thing is, David did what David did. He made the choice. I didn’t make it for him.
Eighteen years later, I stood in my house, scotch in hand.
“Your ghost is old enough to vote,” I said, as I raised the glass in a toast.
That’s what it’s like after 18 years. David is still here, still a part of me, still with me, still protecting me. When I hurt, when I break, he’s there. I was afraid he would leave, but he hasn’t. He’s still here. He’s still got my back.
Last April, a newer old friend took his life. He was a friend I lost in the divorce, but he was a friend nonetheless.
The loss of him sent me on a spiral. I hadn’t seen him in a few years, but we had been close once. I went back to the statistics I learned when David died, about how hard spring is, about the seven people impacted.
If you’ve survived a loss like this, I want to say to you that it’s not your fault. You didn’t do the thing. Don’t spend a decade of your life thinking you could have done more or pondering what if scenarios. It’s done and they’re gone and now, you have to live, most especially because they didn’t. So do the things they didn’t get to do. Drink the scotch, get the tattoo, go to far away lands and, if you want, learn to stand of your head.
If you’re hurting or feeling alone or like you want to end your life, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. I know you probably don’t see it or feel it, but you are loved. Statistically speaking, there are seven people in your life who will be broken by your death. Maybe you can’t count them right now, but I promise you, as one of those seven, they’re there. You are beautiful and you matter, so don’t. Stay, if only for us, the seven people who love you more than you can even imagine.