May 8, 1995, was the date of a massive flood in New Orleans. I remember leaving for school in the rain. Once I got there, I realized a lot of kids had stayed home, which was all good and well because they were sending us home by 10 a.m. anyway.
The buildings in the back of campus were taking on water. Parents coming through the carpool for the second time that morning were angry the school had been open in the first place.
Cubbies and carpets were pulled out of inundated classrooms. Older desks were brought in. We walked around on sticky stripes of yellow carpet glue until the last day of school. I can still smell the mix of river sand and mud.
The flood went on for 40 hours and it shut down the city for two days. We call it “the May flood” and still talk about it 20 years later. Last year it stopped being the flood anniversary. It became the day I learned my friend had killed himself. Secretive and often aloof, I learned three days after his suicide that Don had died on New York City’s Williamsburg Bridge.
Don and I grew up in New Orleans. We made it through all the storms. Hurricane Andrew. Hurricane Georges. Water came up again and again. Walking through waist-deep water and getting bit by grass spiders.
In 2005, neither of us evacuated during Hurricane Katrina, although we didn’t even realize it then. Don ran out of food, evacuated to Texas and friends talked him into resettling in New York City because he loved fashion. So Katrina was a window for Don. It was an opportunity. New York City for him, and for most people, was a symbol of rebirth, reinvention, a fresh start.
A year after Don moved to Hell’s Kitchen, I moved to Brooklyn. I never told him how good it was to have an old friend there. I suffered culture shock for several years after moving, and Don was my constant. He was my window into happiness, belonging, and sanity. I don’t know how I would have made it in NYC without him.
Somewhere between 2011 and 2014, we lost touch and the next thing I knew he was deceased. He was in the news. This is from the Brooklyn Paper:
A man jumped to his death from the upper reaches of the Williamsburg Bridge early on Monday morning, snarling traffic and leaving a grisly scene where he landed on the bridge roadway below, police said.
At the bottom of the article, it says, “If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide, do not leave the person alone…”
Don was distant. He was always breaking his phone, changing numbers, and never returning phone calls. He was a hard man to keep in my life. But he wasn’t cold. He was fun-loving, eccentric, and larger than life. Sadness wasn’t on his sleeve, but I admit there was this untouchable part of him that he hid from everyone. The thing is, he was brilliant and creative. In that untouchable part of him I believe his genius lived, but his depression was hiding behind it.
Even Don’s mother called him a “very private person.” She said he dialed 911 just before his death. He hung up.
As someone who has struggled with depression for as long as I can remember, learning that my friend was depressed and suicidal and that I had no idea is a punch in the gut. I still feel it today, and I always will.
Days had passed and we didn’t know that his light and love had left this world. On May 8th, I felt all the remarkable splendors of life dulled: warmth, color, spice, music, laughter, hugs. I walked to the bridge. I didn’t know what else to do. I stood there crying, realizing that I couldn’t collect my friend there. There was nothing there.
Earlier this year I moved across the country, away from the shadow of that terrible bridge, which loomed ominously over my husband and me since Don’s death. We’re making a fresh start with open hearts.
How does it feel one year later? It still hurts. But that old Cajun spirit says that grief will ebb and flow. My old country relatives always spoke of loss as reliable and joy as everlasting.
A few things I know for sure is that the rain is going to come, water will rise, the earth will be washed and not everything will stand. On the other side we start anew, just like always.
The following is often attributed to Buddha:
What is the appropriate behavior for a man or a woman in the midst of this world, where each person is clinging to his piece of debris? What’s the proper salutation between people as they pass each other in this flood?
I think the answer to this question is, “How can I help you?”