Before you read, I understand this is a touchy subject, one most people would want to avoid. It is a very uncomfortable subject and I am sure I will upset some people but by writing about it I hope to remove some of the stigma people attach to it. The problem will never go away until we all learn to address the issue head on.
August 30, 2011 would have been my friend Paul’s 50th birthday. No matter how much I want to I can’t stop the tears that are beginning to well up in my eyes, his birthday was very hard for me. Writing this post is difficult, I miss him! I miss my friend.
Paul and I first met when he was a midshipman at the United States Naval Academy, 9th company, class of 1983. I don’t remember talking to Paul that much in college. As he liked to tease me later in life, it wasn’t for a lack of him trying, I was always surrounded by groups of people, I talked too much, and I never let anyone get a word in edgewise. The conversations I do remember with Paul all involved sports. I was a diehard O’s and Colts fan, he loved ‘Da Bears” and the Cubs. I had a blast teasing him over my teams' victories and his teams' losses.
As Paul often said after twenty seven years of light and across 3,000 miles we reconnected via Facebook. When we first found each other he was amazed I remembered him. At first we emailed/messaged back and forth. Then labor day Monday he called. At first scolding me for listing my cell phone number on my profile, then we talked all things Jimmy Buffett, finally he confessed he spent the holiday weekend reading my blog. He was upset with me that I never called him or any of the 9th company guys after Bobby died. He told me reading my blog made everything fall into place. It all made sense to him why I seemed to drop off everyone’s radar in 1987/1988. He made me promise since everyone from the old days were finding each other I was never allowed to go through anything alone again. I was not permitted to "fall off the radar." He believed we all needed to rely on each other. Even if I did not graduate from the Academy with him in 1983, he still considered me part of his class of 83 family.
After our first phone call, it never failed, every ten days or so he would call, always greeting me with the same question, “Woman have you forgotten me already?” Between phone calls Paul would arbitrarily text. Some days I wondered if he ever slept. If he saw me on Facebook late at night he would text me “Go to sleep woman”, a few hours later I would be greeted on my phone with a text, “Good morning beautiful.” I would always send back, “Let me sleep you bum.” A texting argument would soon commence over the value of getting up early, not wasting the day verses staying up all night! He swore one day he was going to break me of my night owl habits, I was going to learn to love sunrise!
Slowly as we got reacquainted I was amazed at how much he remembered about me from college; parties, dances I attended (including what I wore), tailgaters, nights at the Flight’s house etc. His memory astonished me. I was touched when he told me about the time he saw me crying on the porch in the arms of Mrs. Flight, heartbroken once again over one of his company mates. He admitted he heard part of the conversation, he apologized he should have walked away, but as he put it, he was a typical male back then. I laughed when he try to explain, he didn’t understand why but he felt the urge and did mutter “jack ass” when he walked by the certain someone’s room.
On numerous occasions Paul would talk of how much he missed the Academy days and his fellow 9th company classmates. I almost dropped the phone the night he announced/promised he was coming back to Annapolis. The man who had not stepped on the Academy grounds for 26 years was coming home for a football game. I was informed I had no choice but to make myself available for whatever weekend he chose. He knew a lot of his old friends lived in the area and he wanted us all to be together; the ‘family’ that hung out at the Flight’s. Paul demanded jokingly, “I want a fun reunion so every one better be in a good mood including you! Be prepared to drink woman!” If you have not figured it out by now with Paul I had no name, I was always addressed as “Woman”.
Paul definitely had a gruff side; he loved to disagree with me, try to correct me. I knew most of the time he was full of it, he simply enjoyed bantering back and forth. I knew I frustrated him more than most of his friends I never gave in during an argument, I would keep pushing my point until he got tired of the subject. I knew I had won the debate when he would yell, “Damn it Woman you confound me! I can’t win if you make no sense.” I would laugh at his confusion, quickly change the subject and the conversation would continue. Numerous times Paul in his very frank not so gentle style pointed out how he thought I needed to change my life. There were certain aspects he believed needed overhauling and certain people needed to be lost. Yes sometimes his truthful words stung more than I wanted to admit.
Paul may have been brusque at times but I was lucky I got to know Paul’s gentle side as well. Last fall when my father was dying from cancer he always checked on me, making sure I had everything I needed. One morning after posting I had spent most of the night silently crying at the hospital, I was gently reprimanded via text from Paul. He reminded me he was in California, three hours behind the east coast. It really didn’t matter what time it was I never had to cry alone he was only a phone call away. From that morning forward Paul called or texted before he went to bed to say goodnight and ask, “You hanging in there?” A simple question, his way of letting me know he cared. Upon receiving the message Dad died, he called immediately. I never said anything, yet he understood the one thing I needed the most he couldn’t give me. He apologized because he wasn’t here to hug me, hold me and give me his arms to cry in. Paul had listened, he remembered the one thing I said I have always wanted yet never seem to find; a set of big strong arms to crawl into and feel safe enough to cry.
The two of us spent many hours on the phone I thought sharing everything that was going on in our lives. We talked about his ‘potential’ (girlfriend), work, motorcycle trips, wine, back pain, migraines, plans we were making for the summer, for the future. I was flattered when he confessed one of the things he loved and admired about me, was the way I could forgive anyone, anything and move forward. The fact that I forgave my daughter’s father and was able to be friends with him again gave Paul hope with his daughter. The topic of many phone conversations were our daughters. He loved his little girl more then he thought possible. He confessed he wasn’t the best father but was trying to improve on their relationship. He hoped one day they would be close, maybe not your typical father daughter relationship close but one that worked best for them. I smiled when I read on my newsfeed that he was friends with his daughter on Facebook, I texted a quick, “Way to go Dad” when I read it.
I thought Paul and I were always open and honest with each other, no subject seemed off limits. I confessed many things, feelings I had never admitted to in the past. Sadly I learned he was not as open. He did not share all he was feeling. He lied to me when he said life was good, he had everything under control. Something was going on inside Paul that he did not share with me or as I have learned with anyone else.
The last time I talked to Paul was May 16, 2011 at 9:24 p.m. I have forever locked his entry into my cell phone log. We talked longer than normal, in fact I had to hang up and call him back from the house phone. He had me rolling on the floor in laughter as he was reliving some of his Academy days. Apparently it is frowned upon at the Academy to move some of the planes on the grounds, and it is also not a good idea to come back to Mother B drunk after a football game. Doing both within a twenty four hour period, not so brilliant. I had never heard about the Black N Star club until that evening. Paul was a proud sweater bearing member. He also informed me after his trip to Hawaii he hated women, we were all bad. I reminded him he was talking to me and I was a woman. I was informed by him I don’t count. I decided it was smarter not to ask if I did not count as a woman or bad. I chuckled as Paul tried to decide if he wanted to live the life of a celibate or a ladies’ man. I suggested the later would be more fun for him. I could live vicariously through his wild ways. Looking back, what should have struck me as odd at the time but didn’t, for the first time before he hung up he said, I miss you, I will always miss you. Then quickly his voice changed from sweet to gruff and he bluntly told me it was my turn to call next, I needed to carry my weight in our relationship. I hung up thinking I was being scolded as always!!
I never got that chance to call Paul back, on May 25, 2011, twenty eight years to the day of his graduation from the United States Naval Academy, my friend Paul took his own life. He committed suicide. It would be a week before I would know he was dead.
I was getting ready to sign off Facebook the early morning hours of May 31/June 1 when I saw a post come across my feed from one of his classmates sending condolences to Paul’s family. In an instant I couldn’t breathe, I stared at my computer in disbelief. I immediately went to Paul’s page hoping to find some information, praying it was a mistake. As wrong as it sounds hoping it was someone in his family that had died, not Paul. His wall was filled with messages to his family, to Paul stating how much he was missed. I scrolled up and down his page trying to find out any information what happen, when, where, there was none. Tears were flooding my face as I emailed an academy friend to see if he knew what happened. Paul had told me he was planning a motorcycle trip over Memorial Day weekend, my initial thought, he was in an accident. I was not prepared for the phone call that I received later in the afternoon informing me the man who looked after me, made sure I was okay, told me he would always be there, killed himself. I wanted to break down but I couldn’t, it was my daughter’s birthday, so I wiped the tears from my eyes, put on my happy face and went out to dinner. No matter how much pain I was in I could not and would not ruin my daughter’s special day.
After dinner when I returned home, I crawled into bed, screamed, cried and cursed him. I was angry at Paul, he told me if I was ever in pain I could call him anytime. Did he not understand that it was the same for him? By the time I finally fell asleep I was no longer angry, my pillow was soaked with tears. I missed my friend and wanted to talk to him one more time, ask him why? Didn’t he know I would always be there for him no matter what it was, how he felt? I was trying to fathom what could be so bad he couldn’t talk about it? I wanted to turn back time so I could remind him he was loved by many including me. I cried harder when I realized I had never told Paul I loved him and his friendship meant so much to me. I had once again left some very important words/feelings unspoken. I assumed he knew. One day I will forgive myself for making that mistake a second time.
I thought his birthday wouldn’t be as hard as it was, randomly throughout the day and night a few tears would roll down my cheeks. I know if Paul were still here he would be surrounded by his friends celebrating this huge milestone in his life. I would have been one of the first people to tease him playfully that he was half a century old. You better believe I would have greeted him with “Happy Birthday old Man!” He had tons of friends who loved him. I pray he never doubted that but his suicide makes me wonder.
If you visit Paul’s Facebook page you will see old friends are still asking what happened, how did Paul die? No response is posted to the question instead they are asked to email someone for the answer. His suicide is the silent demon on the wall, ever present yet no one wants to acknowledge it. I am not sure why. Is it because we all believe we hold some amount of guilt, not knowing or understanding what was going on with Paul? Not seeing his pain? I know I feel that way some days. Or is it shame? Are we all afraid to put suicide on his page worried it is like a scarlet letter to be worn in disgrace? Paul was obviously hurting and there is never any shame in that. We all hurt at times, we all cry. I am upset with Paul for not talking to someone, anyone. He should have sought solace from his friends. He left a lot of us confused and hurting when he killed himself.
I can’t help but to wonder if that is what we are all doing wrong, not talking about his suicide openly. Maybe a frank conversation might stop someone else from taking their own life. Hopefully they would see the pain Paul left behind. I don’t think Paul ever truly comprehended, by killing himself, how much sorrow he would cause those he loved. He did not leave a note, none of us will ever know why he chose to end his life, we can only speculate but there will never be any certainty. To me, not knowing, the guilt I carry for not recognizing his pain makes it harder for me to grieve and let go.
Maybe if we all talk about his suicide, maybe not on his facebook page but acknowledge it directly in conversations and emails we can help each other accept his death. Instead of using words with hidden meanings or indirect statements remove the stigma address the subject head on, suicide. We can help each other understand there will never be an answer to the question why. I understand Paul is the only one who truly holds all the answers. For some reason he did not want to share them but who knows we may discover we each hold a piece of Paul’s puzzle, together we form the why of his suicide. For me what hurts the most is knowing Paul did not feel he could share his pain with me. It means he did not truly trust me the way I trusted him. I will always wonder if there was anything I could have said or done to get him to open up, stop him from making the decision to take his own life. I will always question, what didn’t I give him that he needed?
What haunts me the most, what I can still hear in my brain, the memory of Paul’s voice, his traditional phone greeting, “Woman have you forgotten me already?” The answer is no Paul I have never forgotten you, never will. You were my friend and I love you!