Last Tuesday I was working on a complicated graphic in Adobe Illustrator when a co-worker, who is a friend of mine, came into the office. I acknowledged him distantly, not wanting to divide my attention from the work I was doing, but I could tell that he was troubled. “You okay?” I asked; my friend is often troubled.
“Yeah,” he said. “Listen, give it five minutes, and then read this,” he said, indicating a folded page that he put on my desk.
“Sure, okay,” I said, assuming it was a copy of something he’d written to a girl he’s deeply in love with. Occasionally he’ll do this– ask me to go over one of these private messages with an eye for grammar and an opinion as to whether or not it makes any sense.
“You outta here?” I asked, nudging my layers and layers of vector art around.
“Yeah, I’m not feeling so good,” he said, and turned to leave. “See ya later.”
“Alright, man,” I said, and he closed the door behind him.
Half an hour later I went out for a smoke and took my friend’s note with me. I opened it and found that it was a message he’d written directly to me; cryptic stuff about opened doors that can’t be shut, Satan, stress, worry, and needing to hear some more cowbell…
I pulled out my cel phone and gave him a call; it went straight to voicemail. We’ve both been bitching about our day jobs for many months now; we’ve both been complaining about various things in our lives for ages.
“Listen,” I said, “if you’re talking about making some changes, I’m right with you, man; there’s, like, a million things we can try… there’s just millions of choices here. You should’ve talked to me– we should’ve talked. Give me a call, man; I’m picking up some glasses at the mall tonight; give me a call, brother…”
When I was thirteen, a close friend of mine committed suicide. I hadn’t seen it coming at all, and even in retrospect, his darker moments never seemed to add up to that kind of finality, to me. What I found was that, if you have a friendship with somebody who makes that choice, it’s like you’ve swam out with them to the deepest part of the coldest, darkest river in the world, only to find that they’ve disappeared completely, leaving you to either sink down with them or start swimming back to shore on your own; it’s a long way back, and by the time you’ve made it, you’ve pretty much decided you don’t want to swim that distance again any time soon…
The Sheriff’s Department called me an hour later last Tuesday, telling me that my friend had phoned his wife at her day job and had said many of the same things he’d written in his note to me; where I’d assumed my friend was talking about quitting his job and making some changes in his home life, his wife had made more astute assumptions and had called the police. Sheriff’s deputies had arrived at his house to find that he’d swallowed half a bottle of whiskey and three Percocets; he’d been uncooperative with the police and so they’d tasered him; he was now in the hospital under a 72 hour “mental hold.” This is someone I’ve talked, laughed, and argued with for years; it’s as if the deputy on the phone is making all of this shit up on the spot…
In the days that followed, I’ve had lots of conversations with my friend in the form of text messages on our cel phones; conversations with his brother, his wife, and the girl with whom he’s in love.
Here’s the one thing I have learned about people, and the friendships you have with them:
The decisions you make about them when you’re by yourself are important, and valid, and deserve all the attention you give to them. But it’s the decisions you make about them when they’re in the same room with you that matter the most; they’re the decisions that actually define the friendship.
Whether my friend’s actions last Tuesday amount to a sincere attempt at ending his own life, or a dramatic performance calculated to emphasize his current despair for the edification of his family and friends– either way– in the coldest and most exhausted part of me, he just became a very bad risk; a lousy swimming companion out here where the water’s deep and treacherous.
But I have no doubt that once we’re in the same room with the opportunity to talk about all of this face to face, I’m going to be looking at a close friend of mine again, when maybe I should be keeping my eye on that disappearing shoreline way back there…
God grant that the life jackets we’ve cobbled together from art supplies and good intentions retain their warmth and buoyancy; God grant our friends those same attributes. And happy new year, anyway…
– Jan 20, 2008