The death of Derek Jerome, a man whom I only knew a little, has me thinking about others I’ve known who chose suicide. One of them stands out.
It’s been more than 16 years since my friend Gabi killed herself with too many pills in a lonely hotel room.
I still wonder why.
Gabi had been a friend since high school – never more than that – and I shared so much of growing up with her. I saw her become a nurse, fall in love, get married, have a son, and battle an addiction to the painkillers to which her job gave her easy access.
She suffered from something that she could never make clear, the depths of which those of us who loved her never understood until it was too late.
Perhaps Gabi never knew how her laughter changed our world.
In photographs, she looks less beautiful than she ever did in person. That's telling, I think. What made Gabi so appealing was the magic of her soul, the way she thirsted for fun, adventure, excitement, and also the simplest pleasures.
My old friend Lisa said Gabi "always had a smile and a joke and a helping hand," which was true. She never asked us for much -- too little, I imagine -- only gave everything she could. No wonder she became a nurse.
When I think back to high school days in Virginia, I remember so many stories about Gabi. How she had two dates to the prom and couldn't decide whether she should go with the guy she really liked or the fellow who asked her first. How we painted "I Love You" in big white letters on the asphalt street in front of her house one night just to see who she'd guess did it. We waited years to tell her the truth. How we turned fifth period in our senior year into a year-long party for The Tree of Life gang. The stories blur together a little. Time does that.
Yet Gabi’s laughter echoes still.
After we graduated but before we all spread out across the country as adults, our high school gang would get together every Christmas eve at Gabi's house. A gorgeous tree always stood in the living room, lighted by candles, as people used to do everywhere long before we were born. We drank eggnog instead of our usual schooners from the Fish Market. We talked of everything, of absent pals and pleasant times. We giggled. We joked.
Afterwards, we'd pile into someone's car and go to the Catholic church on Popkins Lane to sing Christmas carols at midnight mass.
One of my first dates was with Gabi, sort of. She had agreed, to everyone's bemusement, including hers, to go out with my buddy Neal, but only if I went along with Mary.
Since most snails had more social graces than Neal and I, which is probably still true, we wound up at Springfield Mall, pummeling one another in bumper cars until "King of the Gypsies" started at the cinema. I recall an almost sinister glee in Gabi's eyes as she steered for my car. She managed to sail across the floor, sparks flying from the hook overhead, to broadside my little cab.
"Gotcha!" she yelled, and burst into laughter.
Later, there were playful times watching the fireworks on the Mall, and sitting on the Tidal Basin wall afterwards, watching the reflection of the Washington Monument ripple in the water. Another Fourth of July, a whole bunch of us partied in a hotel room in Alexandria, watching the pageantry from a distance. One St. Patrick's Day, we drank rotgut Wild Irish Rose wine, sang dumb songs in a Georgetown bar and paid a late night call on Thomas Jefferson's statue inside that grand rotunda surrounded by cherry trees.
Always, there was Gabi, smiling, laughing, joking.
In her last years, sadly, I saw her only rarely. I shared some of the hard times with her. We all did. But I saw how proud and glad she was to have a fine son, Andrew. I heard her marvel at the wonders of the ocean after scuba diving. I listened to tales of sailing on the Chesapeake.
I thought, and hoped, that a long, happy life lay ahead for her.
But some dreams are cut short.
It’s bad enough when they’re brought to an end in a highway wreck or an illness. It’s worse when someone makes the choice to have no future.
These days, as some of my old high school pals sign on to Facebook and we start reconnecting with each other after the busy years of raising children and securing a place in the world, I find myself increasingly angry that Gabi’s not here to be a part of it.
I think of that little boy of hers who never knew his mother -- a boy who must in college now -- and I wonder how it’s possible that Gabi could pick oblivion over her duty to be there for that child, to be there for all of us who cared about her.
I wonder how Gabi, or Derek, or anyone, could have so much pain that they would rather slip away than stay for the long haul.
I don’t suppose I’ll ever get it.
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