I saw the news Monday morning that there was a jumper on the Williamsburg Bridge. In a city of eight million people it’s not uncommon news. The report said: black male in his early 30s, no name, a note was found in his briefcase.
They emphasized how he had snarled early-morning traffic.
A person commented on one news site: “This city will chew you up and spit you out.”
Four days later I would learn that man was my long-time friend Don. He had stopped traffic. What may have appeared to be an inconvenient commute was actually a lot of joy and light leaving the world.
No one was sure of what had happened, many of my friends hadn’t spoken to him in months, if not years. But it wasn’t by choice — he was just so adept at losing touch with people.
I met Don when I was 15. He was instantly the most interesting man I had ever met. A conversation with Don meant talking about what we had for breakfast and somehow ending up on the topic of upholstery in 19th century Bulgaria, how shoelaces were invented or how long Beluga calves stay with their mothers.
As a socially anxious teen, I was always glad to see him in a room full of people. He was like a beacon. Seeing him meant the gathering would be interesting and funny, and I’d never be swallowed in that uncomfortable silence that I so feared.
He was capable of taking my mind off anything. Whatever I might have been stressed about before I spoke to him would fade away, a distant memory.
I admired Don. I wished I could be so whimsical, so spontaneous. I’ve suffered from generalized anxiety disorder for so long I can’t even begin to imagine what spontaneity looks like.
I loved his ability to refocus and change the subject, as if his mind was just a kite on a clear day. I’ve been trying to learn to distract myself from worrying about the small stuff my whole life.
But there was a glimmer of angst beneath all that personality. He would get moody sometimes and disappear for a few days. For some reason I always imagined he was just with other friends; I never thought he was at home alone going through something.
If we were out at a bar, he might become withdrawn. He’d even leave without telling anyone goodbye. When I’d see him again, I wouldn’t bring it up. I worried that if I did, I’d bring down the mood and maybe he’d leave early again.
Above all else, he was incredible at losing touch with people. He would stop coming around, stop calling or texting. He’d lose his phone or get a new number. Some people believed he would lie about losing phones so he could cut ties with people.
Looking back it’s easier to see it for what it really was: Isolation. His depression was highly skilled at getting him alone and having its way with him. I knew firsthand what that could be like, but I had no idea he was struggling.
So many others were similarly baffled. Don was beloved. He was enigmatic, an electric personality with friends throughout the country. He would give a random stranger the shirt off his back or start a dance party in the middle of the street.
His smile and his laugh lit up a room. I am blessed to still be able to hear his laugh in my head, to hear his voice clear as day, the way he spoke with that slight Southern lilt.
Suicide is like a bomb going off. It sends sadness flying everywhere and it gets all over everyone. But we can’t make sense of it because it’s not ours. We know it’s irrational. We know that person deserves joy and happiness. We know that melancholy has no business here.
All of us contributed donations for his funeral. His mother, who many of his friends never met, said she was shocked at how many people sent their condolences. So many hearts filled with love for him and nowhere to put it.
I wrote about it in my journal, trying to hold my happy memories as close as I could. Suddenly I found myself writing to Don:
Don, we sent flowers and money to your mother. We did what we could to help. Because we can’t help you. Because you’re gone.
Not a day goes by when I don’t miss him. For those of us who have to live under the shadow of that bridge, our hearts ache. But I try to make him a positive influence in my life. I try to laugh more, smile more, and keep myself connected to the people who love me.