When you get the news that someone you care about, someone who touched your life, has left this world it hurts. The initial hurt is encompassing, and the loss is felt on a visceral level. However, when that news comes that the loss is by that person’s very own hand, it becomes something different. It becomes a loss tinged with anger and so much remorse. Why? Immediately you ask the question. Then you wonder, could I have done something to prevent it? Did I miss the signs? How could I have not known? The days that follow provide no answers. The questions continue to come, mixed with the pain and the absence.
I received such news yesterday. A former student. A bright young man who had made an impression on me and who I had remained in touch with following his graduation from high school two decades ago. Daniel had been one of those rare students who touched my life as much as I hope I touched his. He had been artistic and creative, respectful, and hard working. He went out of his way to be helpful and treated others with respect and compassion when called upon. Following graduation, he had worked for my sister while going to college, so we remained in touch and saw each other on a regular basis. I witnessed him grow from a teen to a young man. I was often an ear when he needed one. He’d call on me at times, when life became too challenging or when he needed an objective ear. Daniel struggled. In high school he had tried to hide his differences, but he had shared them with me. He shared his fears with me. Fears born from understanding that he was different; that not everyone would understand him. That some would even condemn him. In the mid to late nineties, homosexuality was a subject that inspired vicious reactions and so much uncertainty in others. In high school, being different was a sure way to be labeled an outcast, to be preyed upon, to be misunderstood and unapologetically condemned. I witnessed it happen many times in my teaching career. I witnessed it happen to Daniel. I suppose in many ways it’s still the same. However, the purpose of this piece is not to debate the subject, or insight argument. No, these are simply my thoughts on a goodbye, sadly said much too soon.
Daniel wasn’t the only one of my students who shared their differences with me. There were others. I never judged. I simply listened, tried to understand. But more than anything I looked at the whole person. The light, dark, goodness, uncertainty, intelligence, creativity, all the pieces that made each one unique and, in my eyes, special. I celebrated their accomplishments and hurt when they did. To me, they were my students, and as such, they deserved from me the same unconditional love and acceptance I gave to each child that passed through my classroom doors. My position as a teacher, in my heart, required me to be an example, to put into practice the words I often impressed upon them, “Treat all you encounter with the same respect and compassion that you want to be treated with. Don’t judge, for you have no idea what burdens others carry, what pain they have endured.” The same words that were impressed upon me as a child, as a student, and most importantly of all, as a Christian.
I’m not sure what finally drove Daniel to take his own life. I’ll likely never know. However, I can’t help but wonder if maybe he had just grown tired. He suffered from anxiety and depression, had since I first met him. I’m left wondering how much of that was a result of all the years and all the times he tried to conform? How painful must it have been to try to live a life of conformity when that conformity was in direct conflict with who he was? I cannot imagine. So, the questions form one after the other. Was that it? Was the struggle just so overwhelming that the only alternative was silence? Absolute and total silence?
“When we leave this world. After all the time. After all the lives we’ve touched. And after all the ones that have touched ours. When we return to the universe. Taking our place among the stars. It is love that we take with us. And love that we leave behind. For love is the very essence, the essential force, that ignites and fills all that is, that whispers in the echoes of memories left behind, and that shapes and forms the dreams of all that is yet to be.”
As I write this I realize that those answers are as lost now as Daniel is to this world. And really, they matter little in this moment. What does matter is that he was, he lived, and in his own, quiet way he touched the lives of others. His presence was valued. He was loved, and he loved in return. In the end, isn’t that what matters most? He will be remembered, and as such, a part of him will still exist in each of us who knew him, who shared moments of his life, who loved him. That’s really all any of us can hope for, is it not? Regardless of the burdens we carry, the differences that separate us, the impact we make, whether large or small, isn’t that what we all yearn for in the end? To leave something of ourselves behind, something good, and pure, and real? Daniel left that mark on me. So instead of dwelling on the whys, the remorse, the differences, I will remember him as I knew him. As a bright, kind young man who left this world too soon, but who left brilliant pieces of himself behind.
~ Jennifer Nelson Fenwick (©2018)