A year ago today I woke up to 5 or 6 missed calls from my mom, brother and sister with frantic voicemails in tears telling me that something's happened and that I needed to call them back and come home immediately. I remember calling my brother Bernard back first who was at home at the time and his voice was shaking and dire and he was telling me that he couldn't tell me what had happened over the phone. I had to hear it from him but I already knew in my heart what had happened. It took several tries of telling him that I won't come unless he tells me what had happened. Then it finally came out: "Doug died".
It might sound strange but we all saw this coming for a long time. The subject of suicide had always been a cornerstone in our humor as a family. We use humor as a way to help deal with life as many people do. Thing is that, in Doug's case, he tried several times before to end it but was unsuccessful. His methods were generally in a round-about way. Trying to overdose on drugs or something. Never anything more direct like using a crash, weapon or medical overdose of some kind.
He would "fall off the grid" as I called it. This happened in Korea when he was living and working there and it had happened in many places all over the world where he was suddenly unreachable by phone, email, Facebook and no one knew where he was. It's as though his signal would go dark for up to several days at a time. These were terrifying times for the family because we all knew in our hearts that he wanted to end it with some serious part of himself. Although we felt this to be his decision, we would all spring into action and begin to investigate, call all his friends, associates, coworkers, anybody we could think of to trace where he could be. Call local authorities, military or civilian and put the word out that he might be in personal danger. If he didn't want to be found, you would have a difficult time finding him. He knew many back alley people and establishments that most were not aware existed or, likely, didn't want to know existed. He prided himself on this. He sought out the truly damaged and lost as he found some curious kindred spirit and comfort in them. I think he secretly saw himself in them. Maybe even secretly to himself.
He would vanish but always resurface days later. Either the authorities would find him in some smoke filled room, on the floor of his apartment or he would just show up back on the grid of his own volition as though nothing happened. I remember one of the most terrifying instances of this was several years ago when he first truly vanished for days and he was in South Korea. My mother and I spearheaded the search and reached out to his commander (he was semi-military at the time) and even the Red Cross who might have had more authority to search farther than the military could. Nothing. No sign. No trace. Worry turned into panic. Where was he? What else could we do? Then, the call came from Mom that the Military Police found him back at his apartment. He was extremely drunk and had passed out but he was ok. Where he had been up until that point was anyone's guess. The sheer terror of the mystery of his whereabouts and the sharp flood of relief that he was ok was overwhelming. I began sobbing uncontrollably and collapsed in a ball on the kitchen floor. It was fear, happiness and sadness at the same time in a massive dose. I was so happy to know that he was ok and that he was alive. It was then that I realized that his playful death wish was, in fact, a terrifying reality I would have to accept. Maybe that's part of the reason, in retrospect, why I was so bulldozed by emotions. Maybe it was a dire telegraph to my brain that my heart wrote a long time ago that was finally received.
This "falling off the grid" happened many more times when he moved back to the US. It was never an easy time for us when that would happen but later down the line, I began to feel a resentment that he could do that to us. I guess my fear gave way to that feeling in that I would be fairly confident that he would always resurface. I began to resent that a lot. The last time he disappeared and came back I was, of course, relieved. I was also angry. I thought to myself that I wanted to help. I mean, I spent hours on the phone with him over the years trying to convince him of his value and to try to help him. Tell him how truly loved he was. We got him professional help too. Nothing seemed to stick. In turn, to balance my resentment and possibly help, I decided to go the tough love route. I felt that he was always rewarded in a way by nobody telling him how shitty it is to subject the family to that behavior and that, perhaps, that would be a source of motivation to keep his act together better. We would all be so relieved that he came back that we would sweep the resentment under the rug. I decided to not go that route and I didn't speak to him as much for several months after the last time he fell off the grid. This is and will always be the most profound regret of my life.
I remember for the first month or two after the last time not returning his phone calls that much. I was short with him and just plain didn't interact with him much. He knew why. I could tell and I could feel that he was sorry for it. I felt true resentment and I was starting to feel that this could be a good thing in a way since no other method had worked to date. Then came shaky times. His marriage was deteriorating and would soon result in a divorce. I wasn't around much for that. I didn't include myself. He had a tight group of friends he confided in more than me and I assumed that he was working it out. He got into a car accident and was briefly hospitalized as he broke his collar bone. Of course, I called and messaged him but then I felt a slight distance that had grown where once we talked a lot more. Not on his part, but on mine more. It's as though I felt that I was doing something good with the distance since no one else was taking this approach. Even as his birthday came, I messaged him to wish him a happy birthday but still we didn't talk much.
He was a couple of weeks out from moving as he got a new job in Virginia and we talked on the phone about that for a while and started talking more in general. Especially since I/we all thought that getting him out of El Paso, where he had lived for some time, would do him good. He would be around people he knew as we have a lot of friends in that area and he could start anew. It was his plan to drive from El Paso to Alexandria. He never made it to Virginia.
His car was packed up and he left El Paso. We were all filled with hope that this move would be a good thing in his life. Then came the news. He shot himself in a motel in Memphis where he stopped for the night. What happened? Why couldn't he have held on just a little longer?
We were all forwarded a text from his best friend Al that said that he loved us and he was sorry but it had to be this way. My heart broke into thousands of pieces that I have yet to retrieve. He was alone. He was alone and somewhere where we who loved him dearly couldn't stop him.
Not only that, but I would forever have the feeling that I squandered our last months together. That my methodology was true in my heart but that the timing would condemn and punish me for all time. What if one of those calls I didn't return was to announce a timid breakthrough that needed coaxing? What if it was to apologize? What if it was to confide something in me that could help him? What if he just needed to talk? What if he needed me? I didn't answer that call. I failed him. I failed him.
There were times where this consumed me. Where air would barely make it into my lungs. It will always occupy some part of me and it's not my decision when it will come to haunt me; but I feel in my heart and understand in my mind that this was a long term decision of his that was made a long time ago. If he knew that I carried that feeling, it would break his heart. He wouldn't want that. I fight it and I win. Eventually. I just miss my brother. We did what we could for him. I did what I could for him. It's just a savage shame that my heart wouldn't let me sink to tough love maybe one episode later. It had to be this one. It had to be his last one. I will always carry that with me and it will never completely go away.
So it's been a year now. His birthday came and went a few weeks ago. The anniversary of that dark, dark day is here. What happens now? Am I any farther along? Are we? There have been a lot of changes in our family landscape since it happened but for the most part, it's brought us closer together. My siblings and I have a very close relationship now. We always loved each other a lot but were shaky about keeping in touch. Not the case anymore. We don't waste any time with absence and we stay in touch a lot more. We just congregated in Colorado, where one of my sisters lives now, to run a race in his honor. A celebration of life. A commitment to improving ourselves and helping each other. It's always been there but now it's a vigilant constant. I feel that over the past weeks I have been recoiling as though bracing myself for a blow. Tightening up and wincing like an unprepared kid fighting a monster. Trying to be brave but aware of the imbalance of the situation. Not sure if the blow will be blocked very well or even sure if he'll survive. I did. We did. We did it together.
I have a small shrine in my home that is a picture of Doug and an ornate military show box that has his rank, name tag, a certificate and a folded american flag that was flown over the Pentagon for him. A dear family friend put that together and I have candles in front of that.
Now that it's come and gone, I am again convinced that I can and will survive. There are wounds that will never completely heal but there are lessons that I learned that will always guide me in the direction of my own happiness and priceless wisdom that comes with that. The most important one being that you should always treasure those you love and don't be shy about telling them. If you say you love them by telling them outright, then say it. If you say you love someone by doing something special for them, go do it. If you tell someone you love them by giving them a hard time, then go play a world class prank on them as soon as possible.
Life is precious and it is to be explored fearlessly and protected fiercely. In the end, it's my decision to bandage the wounds and keep moving forward just like it was Doug's to cut his life short as his darkness was too great for him to bare. For people who see the light in things naturally, we have to stick together and be a beacon for others who might see it. For people who have a harder time seeing it, try to help them or at least make sure that they can feel your light for as long as you can or for as long as they'll let you. It's like explaining a sunset to a blind man. He can't see it, but he can feel it through your love. There's a comfort in that. Maybe that's where life is at it's purest. And remember it's possible that at that moment it's the only time he's felt it in his life. Don't be afraid to share it and hold on to the fact that, at least at some time, you did.