When suicide has touched your life, there is only one answer to that question. No more thoughtful musings on how you would’ve minored in philosophy or not gone home from space camp early or had the courage to speak to that beautiful woman you saw waiting for the F train.
There’s only one thing you could do. You would go back before the suicide and make sure to tell that person how much you cared about them, what they meant to you.
I’ve even gone so far as to wish I was up on that bridge just before dawn on May 5, 2014. And in that moment I cannot imagine my friend Don seeing me up there and not smiling because he always smiled. He was always all smiles, and it masked a deeper pain that took him away from us that morning.
But even if I couldn’t change everything, I just wish I had said the whole truth. I’ll never have that closure. Instead my friend, a man I was so proud to know, is left back in time. As young as we are there’s easily another 50 years of history to write and it pains me to think Don is some footnote back here in my 30s.
Grief is a process. It can’t be done and over with in an instant. Meanwhile, suicide leaves so many unanswered questions. It seems like there is a huge hedge maze of guilt and sadness for my mind to go gallivanting around in.
I know that through this loss I can find purpose and learn to celebrate Don for how he lived his life, rather than how he died. He lived with laughter and energy. His imagination was unlike anything. As someone who has struggled with depression myself, I always marveled at how he could make a boring conversation into something that tapped into a childlike sense of wonder.
I could talk to him about a straw hat I bought and five minutes later we were both agreeing that we needed to visit Bolivia some time before we grew old. You see, out on the salt flats of Salar de Uyuni it floods and you can’t tell where the earth ends and the sky begins. Whether you want to walk in the clouds or bathe in the Milky Way, Salar de Uyuni is the place.
It takes a concerted effort to reorient every conversation to a positive, creative place and stay out of the muck that causes stress and anxiety. When someone asks about your weekend, you may go to a stressful place thinking about all the things you have to do on Monday. But Don was a mindful person. He lived in the present moment better than most people.
When he was speaking with someone he was engaged and thoughtful. He wasn’t checking his phone, thinking about other things, worrying about the future or the past. He gave every moment his attention — which is something we all strive to do in this technology age. He took in his experiences as they came, not on a screen or behind a camera, and he did his best to connect with other people and make them feel heard. If you had asked him the time machine question, I bet Don would have said he’d go back in time to make somebody laugh, whether it was Abe Lincoln or his great-great-great-grandma.
More than any book on mindfulness meditation, Don has been a great model for me to live in the present moment and make life interesting, spontaneous. I can honor him by trying to make that a bigger part of my life and I think everyone around me will similarly benefit. I want to be fully present for my friend, a man who now walks in the clouds.
Flickr image by Patrick Nouhailler.