“To run away from trouble is a form of cowardice and, while it is true that the suicide braves death, he does it not for some noble object but to escape some ill.” –Aristotle
“I think suicide is sort of like cancer was 50 years ago. People don’t want to talk about it, they don’t want to know about it. People are frightened of it, and they don’t understand, when actually these issues are medically treatable.” –Judy Collins
The fall of 2007 wasn’t so long ago; maybe you can remember where you were clearly for yourself. For me, I had recently finished graduate school, had even more recently met my then-partner (and now-wife) Jamie, and in June of that year, we moved across the country to Tucson, Arizona, where I had just started working as a postdoctoral research associate. I also had a new favorite song for-the-moment about growing up,
by Storyhill. I was 29 years old. And one early morning, on my way to work, I got a phone call from my old office-mate in graduate school. I hadn’t heard from him in a while, and he sounded more upset than I’d ever heard him before. My best friend from graduate school, the night before, had committed suicide.
I remember meeting him back in 2001, when I was starting out as a grad student in Florida. He was finishing up a masters in electrical engineering, and was taking a couple of the physics graduate courses to see how serious his love for it was. We had a lot of things in common: we were loud, we were brash, we were ambitious, and each had big personalities. We also had a lot of hard work ahead of us to achieve what we wanted and learn what we desired to know, and became good friends right away.
We’d spend hours and hours together late into the night, figuring out what thousands of students before and after us struggled to figure out: how to make accurate sense of the physical phenomena in our Universe. We’d teach each other how to solve the problems the other one didn’t know, share math tricks, and generally made each other stronger.
We also became good friends outside of grad school. We ran and worked out together, I introduced him to ultimate frisbee, he taught me to play hockey. We introduced one another to better and better alcohol. We drank too much together. One time he got into a fight at a bar and I leapt to defend him. That was the definition of a good friend to him, and in a way it cemented our friendship. (We wrestled once to see who would win, and I lasted all of a shameful 90 seconds against him. I didn’t know it at the time, but he had studied Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and was impressed I’d given him the challenge I did.) We spurred each other on to go on adventures: we learned to rock climb and snowboard together, we went mountain biking in the sketchiest, most flooded places despite not even knowing what we were doing.
And all the while, we helped each other succeed in the most difficult graduate courses offered in theoretical physics, even as we went down our own paths: me in astrophysics, him in mathematical physics. We went to some of the same physics conferences and supported each other, and shared our hopes and dreams for our individual careers and lives. What we wanted to study, what problems we wanted to solve, what professors we aspired to work with, and what we wanted as people.
Wayne was married the entire time I knew him, and was as supportive as a married friend could ever be to a single person. I met his little sister, whom he loved and worried about tremendously. I met his mom and stepdad, who he was proud had found happiness with each other. I met his wife and his in-laws, who were always kind and generous to me, and even hosted me for Christmas one year. He introduced me to his towering Great Dane of a dog, Mortimer, who successfully converted me from a cat person into a dog-and-cat person. And he was always supportive of my misadventures in dating, no matter where they brought me. He never judged me for it. He was a good friend, and knowing him was a great part of being alive.
By time the beginning of 2006 came around, I was getting close to graduating. I had three publications under my belt and was working on another one (and my dissertation); Wayne had maybe another year to go but was starting to get close, too. But his life had hit a snag; his relationship with his wife had hit the rocks, and he was having a hard time coping with it. In the midst of that, while playing ultimate frisbee, he ruptured his Achilles tendon, and had to walk in a boot.
You never know what kind of darkness someone wrestles with in their own internal world. By mid-2007, I knew that Wayne was having a hard time. His wife had split up with him, and he was having a hard time accepting it. He talked a lot about how he’d wanted kids, and how it was so important to him to have one, stable marriage his whole life through, like his parents never did. He was always so strong in so many ways, I never expected that suicide would even be an option in his mind. On the night of September 20th, 2007, he called me and left me a voicemail. It sounded very cryptic, like he was going away somewhere. It didn’t quite sit right with me, so I called him back, and we talked for a while. I asked him what was going on, and he told me about a girl he had started seeing. He told me he was at the bottom of a bottle of whiskey, some vicodin and some other drugs.
Maybe I should have known. Maybe if I had, there was something I could’ve done, or something I could’ve told him. Maybe I would have told him about PostSecret or Hopeline. Maybe I would have yelled at him for thinking about throwing away 40 or 50 awesome years because he couldn’t face one or two that promised to be very difficult. Maybe I would have reminded him of how strong he was, and told him all the things I knew that he was proud of in himself. Maybe I would have invited him out to Arizona, to take some time and get away from his stresses. Maybe I would have talked to his other friends and been aware of his prior suicide attempts, the ones he never told me about. Maybe I could have been a better listener, or been a better friend at the end.
But I was what I was, no less, no more. I was never one to judge, and I thought the girls, the whiskey, and the drugs were just his ways of dealing with his difficulties. I told him I loved him and I wanted him to be happy, and that’s all anyone should ever want for him. I said goodbye, never knowing that I was saying goodbye forever. The next morning, he was found having hung himself.
Once he was gone, there was nothing to do except grieve. I flew back to Florida for the memorial service, and got very drunk with his family and friends, telling stories about Wayne and how we best remembered him. When I got back home, I took something of mine that reminded me of him and burned it, doused it in water, and buried it in my backyard. I built a rock cairn on top of it with a big “W” in front of it. For many weeks, I couldn’t let go of my friend who was gone. Finally, one night I had a dream about him, and he told me that nothing could hurt him anymore. We all have our own ways of making sense of our grief, I suppose.
I still stay in touch with his mom (above, right), who’s started a scholarship at Florida in Wayne’s name, and with his sister, who I do my best to be as close to an adoptive brother as I can.
It’s more than five years later, and sometimes I still can’t believe that he’s gone. There’s so much to life that he’ll never get to have, and whenever I think about him I think about how much he’s missed, and how many things have happened that he would have loved to experience and share in. But most of all, I still just miss my friend.
I’ll never know the depths of pain that he was feeling or why he thought that suicide was the only way to end it, but I know he wasn’t the only one who’s ever felt that way. If you or anyone you know has suicidal thoughts or other symptoms of depression, there is help. There are people to talk to, there’s counseling, there’s treatment, and there’s hope. Please don’t wait until it’s too late, and know that the National Suicide Prevention Hotline — 1-800-273-TALK (8255) — is always open.
They say that suicide touches us all, and I have chosen to no longer remain silent about how it’s touched me. Thank you for letting me share this very personal story with you. The Universe misses you, Wayne, but mine is all the more bright for having known you, even if you left it far too soon.