I have said for many, many years that April is a hard month for me.
Marvelously, this year it actually has been a very good month. Perhaps the first I can recall in a very long time. Much good going on in my life
But, I do need to pause on this day because this day is always the hardest day in what is my hardest month.
Eighteen years ago, April 21, 1988, I went downstairs from my room in my dorm to the cafeteria. I didn’t have classes that day (it was a Thursday) so it was around 9:30 AM. I got my cereal as usual (that being the only thing edible really) and sat down to eat. The cafeteria was pretty empty, it being late for breakfast and 9 AM classes well under way. I can’t remember exactly now but I think I was sitting with a couple of friends.
My friend Nick came and sat down. Nick was from France and so spoke with a fairly thick French accent. He said to us at the table “Did you hear about Kathy?” We all looked at each other for a moment, puzzled. Seeing that we had no idea what he was talking about, Nick proceeded to tell us. I can’t remember now if he told us simply that she had died or that she had killed herself. Too many years have passed and those first moments simply blur.
Somehow, I found my way back upstairs to the lounge, noticing now that people were walking around in a quiet stupor or were crying. I didn’t have many close friends there then. Somehow as I was shuffling around the lobby my foot caught a chair and I kicked it away lightly. Then I kicked it harder, then harder yet. And then something let loose and I started kicking at it until I fell. At some point, I started shouting as I was kicking, somehow finding my way in true late adolescent existential fashion to yelling “fuck you God, why don’t you just kill us all now”.
I suppose I should be proud that I managed to make the school newspaper for that one, though I hang my head in shame now at the melodrama in retrospect. But, it was sincerely felt at the time. It had been a hard first year for all of us already. I’d already that year lost my great aunt who had partially raised me as a child. And, a friend of mine from 8th grade (one of really only two) had died at the start of the school year in a car accident at University of Virginia. And so then, losing Kathy like that just sucked all the air out of the universe. I felt myself thinking to myself that I simply couldn’t see how I could get through it. The minutes of the day felt like weeks and the hours like months. I took my walkman and went walking in the arboretum. For some reason, at the point in time, I had been listening to Jesus Christ Superstar which a dear friend in high school had given me (very long story there) and so the song Gethsemane was playing on it, which I still, to this day, associate with that time.
Kathy, was a first year student like me. She came from Massachusetts. She was starting to look at a psychology major (perhaps a sign, given that those of us who are or have been dangerously depressed find psychology of interest in an attempt to understand what’s going on with ourselves). She was raised Catholic but had a serious attitude problem about such things (one time drawing in her psych text book a crucifix with Satan in green highlighter). She always wore a black bowler-like hat with a broad brim. She wore a black skirt every time I saw her but once, claiming she didn’t like pants because they made her look fat. Most of all, though, she was funny. Truly wickedly sarcastic and gloriously dark. She had a batch of sticky notes with a stick figure hanged man holding up a pair of scissors above his head at the rope with the caption “Sometimes I get the urge to keep on living”.
In short, I thought she was quite compelling indeed. Looking back a couple of years after she died, I realized that I was in love with her at the time. But, I was still too much the good Catholic boy, too worried about failing at college, and too much not part of her circle of immediate friends for us to have had more than very casual interactions. And so the strength with which her dying hit me was shocking to me and, likely to others too.
The last time I ever saw her alive was two nights before. She and another friend, Matt, and I were sitting up late in that same lounge complaining about things generally. We were, all of us, feeling quite depressed that night and so mutual bitching was therapeutic. Within two weeks or so of that night all three of us would be try our hand with suicide. Kathy dead from an overdose of her antidepressants. A few days after she died, I made my own half-assed attempt at an overdose, taking all the cold medicine and aspirin I had and methodically grinding it all up, mixing it all into water and drinking it. While waiting for it to take effect, I walked around a bit, oddly and finally changed my mind after talking with a friend of mine (who didn’t know what I’d done). I went and tried to spit it up but I knew I didn’t get it all. So, for two hours I went and laid in my bed, again listening to Jesus Christ Superstar, wondering if I would live or die. Some days after that, Matt came to see me one morning at 4 AM saying that he was going to go up to the roof and throw himself off but decided to come and talk to me first. And so, for two hours I went through the bargaining and cajoling that I had done so very often with my girlfriend (at least that what I considered her to be) in 10th grade. I succeeded in talking him out of it and we both finished the year, though he never returned to our school.
A couple of days after she died they held the memorial service. I remember it was a cold, Ohio spring rain. I listened to Samuel Barber’s Adagio on the way to and from the chapel, it seeming appropriate. As they held the service, I (like nearly everyone there) cried. I remember wondering to myself why there was so much death in my life as I thought of Andy and my aunt as well as Kathy. At some point, her father got up and started to speak. He was older: I remember he had a full head of white hair, probably in his early 60’s. I can’t remember what he said exactly now, but I remember he started talking about someone, maybe a friend, who had died and as he talked about that his voice cracked and he lost his composure entirely, clearly seeing his lost daughter in his tale of his lost friend. They helped him away from the podium and he didn’t speak again at the service.
The service was the official closure. She never left a note so it was always somewhat ambiguous if it was an accident or not. I myself tend to think that it wasn’t. Accidents like that don’t just happen. In theory, everyone got on with their lives, returned to classes and so on. In practice, many of us were deeply wounded and the return to normal had more than a little of a robotic quality to it. They had the obligatory psychological services resources available and in good school fashion, they were useless. At one point I tried making an appointment and was having trouble with them on scheduling and the woman on the other end of the phone said to me in a snippy fashion something like “well, you have to decide if you want to do this or not”. Fuck them: I never made the appointment. Typical school bureaucrats.
At some point, they decided to plant a tree for Kathy in front of the dorm. They never put a marker in place but for the rest of my time there I would remember her when I would see it. I was last there in 1996 for my 5 year reunion and I looked in on it: it was still there.
But, beyond that, when we returned for the following year, we never spoke of it really. Those of us who came back seemed to have healed, at least enough to not be obviously wounded. And, with a new batch of first year students in the dorm (I lived in the same dorm the following year, by choice, in fact) even though it was the same location, everything was different. Kathy was lost to the silence of time and memory. Seeing how she disappeared over those years drove home to me how ephemeral our presences really are. Once dead, all that really remains are those parts of us that others carry.
And so, over the years, I’ve always tried to pause and mark the day, remembering its importance in my own history and trying to keep some element of Kathy on this world still. Perhaps it is odd that I carry her still like I do but I long ago reached a point where I don’t really care about what others might think in this regard. At least one person is keeping her on this world. And, as I’ve never really taken down the whole story, this year I mark the day by trying to record the story before I lose any more of it to fading memory.
So, may the gods and goddesses bless your memory, my friend. May you have peace and happiness that were so clearly denied you when I knew you.