He just walked out of his skin. When his wife was away for the evening and his 11 year old son was at camp, he left a quick note, swallowed enough stashed prescription morphine to take out a herd of wild horses, and laid down on the bed in his son’s room. So patiently did he wait for death that when his wife checked in on him that night, she let him snooze. But when she saw him in the exact same position the following morning, on his back with his hands still folded over his belly, she knew something was not right. And when she touched him, he was cold.
Ten years later, the chill remains.
Dexter. We became fast friends the day we met in our fifth grade classroom. I had three sisters, but Dexter was essentially my brother. Crazy, impetuous Dexter. We went roaring through adolescence together. Through the endless cycle of new girlfriends, deep romances and broken hearts, the one tie that never broke was the brotherhood we shared. It never even frayed.
He was the crazy man that drove 80 miles west to my dorm in a snow storm, knocked on the door and suggested we drive 200 miles east to see a Grateful Dead concert. Somehow, his little Fiat plowed its way through across a snowy New York State from Buffalo to Utica. Spinning out into a ditch off the Thruway on the way back home only added to our adventure.
He was a big, hairy guy with a big hairy smile, so full of exuberance that he needed little reason to literally jump with joy, and the only reality that tethered him was Earth’s gravity. He never managed to launch himself more than a few inches before returning on his feet with a thud. But his soul went stratospheric, and mine couldn’t help but join every chance it got.
He was my magic man, luminescent, colorful and completely unpredictable. But a bad back working as a stock boy at 17 lead him down a fateful road of doctors and prescriptions and narcotic pain relief. Then the recreational drugs came in. He’d go from doctor to doctor, piling up prescriptions. And the darkness just crept in so insidiously over the years neither of us really noticed. Until one day when he casually talked to me about suicide.
“Gee, I don’t want to die,” he said. I remember how strange it sounded—as if he didn’t have a choice in the matter. But I talked to him as if he did. I told him to think about his wife and son, his mom, his siblings, his friends. Me. I told him to think about the heartbreak he would leave in the wake of such departure, as if that would be enough to sway his decision.
But I knew nothing of suicide. I told him why he should not, but never really believed he would. Two weeks after we spoke, he did exactly what he told me he didn’t want to do, with stunning intent. He took no half measures.
To say that my own journey after he died was tough would be an understatement. He uprooted himself from my world, like a huge oak tree whose roots you never see until it is gone, roots that traveled so deeply into my soul that his loss was more an amputation than a departure. A huge, aching void was left and begged to be filled. I cried so hard I actually wondered how the human head could hold so many tears. I even contemplated following him before he got too far ahead of me on his journey, as if my decision was under a time constraint beyond which I’d never catch up with him.
One night I came close. I was driving and my partner once again was dealing with my tears, which always poured out at the hint of anything that reminded me of Dexter. We argued. I got irate and stopped the car on a quiet country road, stormed out onto the pavement and started screaming and stomping like a madman. I’m an even-tempered person—I just never lose it. But I suddenly felt I was watching myself from a disembodied perspective, and wondering who that guy was.
Suddenly, from out of nowhere, we were surrounded by police. There must have been six or seven squad cars, cops with ready hands on black leather holsters, telling me to freeze. And that was my ticket. I didn’t freeze. I just started walking directly toward the most threatening officer, the one with his hand on his gun. But I didn’t rush him—I just walked deliberately, knowing every step was a step toward joining Dexter in what I hoped would be a quick and painless journey.
But while Dexter’s suicide was a decision, mine was just a wish. I did not die on the road that night. The officer whom I unfairly put into the position of executing my suicide did not stop me with a bullet, but with a gentle hand. He pulled me aside. He listened to my anguish, and told me his own best friend killed himself, too. We talked. Finally someone was able to connect with me and put into words what I was feeling.
I never thanked that officer, and never apologized for putting him in such a position. But if he reads this and recognizes himself, I hope he can smile knowing that I am still here ten years later. That night, I took a turn off the sad road I was on, and headed back towards life. Dexter chose his own path. And I followed him right to the threshold. But I just couldn’t step through it. And I think that was the night I realized I would truly never see him again.
In the months that followed, I have come to understand that suicide is not a wish to die, but an inability to continue living. It may sound like semantics, but distinction is significant. “I don’t want to die,” he said to me—like he was pleading for his life. Because he didn’t want to die. And he was pleading. But of the two choices in front of him—life and death—it was the expanse of endless despair that was worse. He saw no light at the end of the dark tunnel he was in. And I learned all too late that I should have been helping him find reasons to live, instead of reasons not to die.
Making peace with him was tough. There is death, and then there is suicide. The physiological results may be equal. But the emotional dynamics left behind for the survivors don’t even come close. The mixture of grief, shock, anger and guilt are incredibly powerful emotional toxins. Dexter was a victim, but he was also the man who murdered my best friend. He was the man who took his son’s father away at a time he needed a father the most. He was the man who left behind a grieving widow. And he was the friend who traveled to a place I could not follow him to—even though I tried that one dark night. As much as I grieved for my best friend Dexter, I was furious at Dexter the murderer. Many who knew and loved Dexter carried even more anger than I did. Some I suspect have still not forgiven him. But I eventually came to terms with it by accepting the fact that he made the best choice he could make at the time. It was his to make—no one else lived in his darkness. I learned to at least respect that. And in that respect, I was able to find the grace to accept the decision he embraced.
And a decade later, as I write this, I think about how lucky I am to be alive. How lucky I am to have the memories of a friendship so deep and so sweet that my tears can still flow. But when they finally dry, I am left with a smile in my heart.
Are you dealing with thoughts of suicide? Help is available. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is available anytime: 800-273-TALK .