Today I can’t help but be reminded of that awful chapter in my life…and in the lives of so many who were affected my my brother’s passing 15 years ago this very hour.
Part of me wants to believe that your death was preventable. That something someone said or did could have kept you from making that horribly irreversible decision to end your life six years ago today. Perhaps if circumstances had been different, you too would be poised to usher in the warmth and sweetness of springtime in a few short months and together we’d be putting winter’s chill behind us.
But another part of me realizes that it couldn’t be so. Too many hardships had come your way and the weight of your world had simply become unbearable. No, I’m not making excuses for what you did. I’m merely slipping into your shoes for a while so that I might come to grips with how ill-fitting they actually were—to shoulder your burden for a time, if only to acknowledge its oppressiveness.
I still long to understand and to “feel” the reality that was yours.
Don’t get me wrong—I don’t find the “what-if-ing” game pleasurable in the least. The pain and sadness I feel as a result of thinking things might be different if this or that had happened is inconceivable. Yet, I persist. And without question, the events immediately following your death led me even further down that path of certain uncertainty—because it revealed to me, for perhaps the very first time, the profoundness of your impact on this world. I just can’t stop wondering if all this could have been avoided if only you had known the true measure of your worth….
Nothing could be clearer in hindsight.
For starters, over the span of the two-day event, more than 1,000 people (YES, ONE-THOUSAND PEOPLE!!!) came to pay their respects, to say goodbye, to offer oceans of comfort—and to share with us how you had touched their lives forever. It soon became very apparent that you had done just that. The endless line of callers, both young and old, snaked its way through the door and all the way out to the street, continuously—for five full hours. That steady stream of mourners endured both the cold and eventually the darkness just to be near you and to deliver those all-important words—that you MATTERED to them. You had made a difference in their lives and would never be forgotten.
Of course, friends and family already knew you mattered. Or at least we thought we had a handle on how greatly you had influenced others. But I doubt anyone could have ever envisioned such an outpouring of love and support—such a tremendous tribute to you as a person. I think it stunned us all. Naturally, I felt proud of the man you had become; but at the same time, ashamed that I hadn’t recognized it myself. I regret not giving you the praise you surely deserved.
Your students were the toughest to console. It was pure agony to look into those sorrowful faces—so young, so innocent and so completely devastated by their loss—and ours. You were their guide, their inspiration and their rock in many cases. Some wore broad smiles and bore the gifts of tales that indelibly touched our hearts—of time you had spent…of lessons you had taught…of hope you had instilled. Others arrived teary-eyed and spent, with loads of baggage and intolerable grief at their sides. Still others carried anger and resentment in their hearts and truckloads of questions on their lips. Tell me, won’t you, how were we to explain the inexplicable? To assign meaning to that which seems completely senseless? To order their disordered worlds—along with our own? It was an impossible task to say the least.
Parents, counselors and staff members were there too—as much for the kids as for themselves. Together we tried to assure them that “things would be okay,” that you “would always be watching over them,” and that they “should continue to try and make you proud.” High schoolers are tough sells, however. No surprise there. They wanted you—not a bunch of words. And a rewind button—not the ugliness that had become reality. It killed me to see so much disappointment and so many broken spirits. I can only hope they’re faring better now.
Needless to say, hugs were plentiful that night as were the tears.
Still more profound…scores of individuals have visited your gravesite, now bursting with the scent of pine and new fallen snow. A multitude of lovely mementos have since joined the dozens upon dozens of sweet-smelling roses that dressed your casket in a blanket of red on the day of your burial.
More recently, I learned that many have driven to the canyon itself—to quietly lay bouquets at its very edge, the site where you willfully and tragically ended it all. No doubt, some felt it more fitting to toss their floral offerings into the cavernous abyss below, so that they might somehow reach what remains of your spirit, now mingling amidst the soft and silent snowflakes.
Some of your students not only left flowers but also carved initials and heartfelt messages into that infamous Grand Canyon railing you breached. Perhaps, to them, it will offer some comforting assurance that their words of farewell will never be forgotten. Nor will the bonds you shared be erased.
More evidence still of your apparent worth on this planet was the bizarre, yet moving turn of events on the morning of your funeral. Oddly enough, a bomb threat, rumored to be in your honor, was made that day. As a result, school was canceled and more people were able to attend your services. Standing room only, as I recall. I have to think this would have made you smile (despite the felony charges that could have been levied against someone who apparently ignored the risk that day).
I truly do wonder…that had you only known how many people would be affected by your absence (and how greatly those same individuals would suffer), you might have decided not to take your own life. But then again, perhaps it was inevitable.
Sadly, we’ll probably never know.
Copyright 2006 Melinda L. Wentzel