Today marks exactly eight-and-a-half years since the day you died, just over a week before your 22nd birthday. I’ve been thinking about you a lot these past couple of weeks. Google says you lived about 75 days shy of 5,000, or about 7.1 million minutes. Each year since you left is a smidge easier than the last, but the loss of you will always ache. I’ve cried for days writing this letter. The four hardest days each year are the anniversaries of your birth, your death, Christmas, and Pi Day — plus family vacations and gatherings. This summer marks the first tropical vacation that I will have taken with Mom and Dad in years. I’m excited, but it will feel eerie knowing that you should be coming along, too. It always does.
Shortly before Christmas, one of my coworkers shared a tragic story from her local news of a young teenager who hanged himself on a volleyball net in his school’s gymnasium. He was braindead by the time paramedics arrived on the scene, and died a few days later. The night after last Christmas, I dreamed that you and someone else (a stranger?) were brought back to life, only to hang yourselves soon after your resurrection. Although I awoke feeling traumatized, the dream provided an odd moment of solace. I hoped that dying wasn’t distressing or painful, and that you didn’t regret choosing to die, since you chose to do it twice.
That dream triggered memories of another dream, a recurring dream that I used to have when we were younger, in either late childhood or early adolescence. In the dream, we were visiting a beloved cousin, playing on the merry-go-round in the public park near her house. There were four or five older children playing there, too, using the same merry-go-round. Somehow, you were knocked backward and fell off the merry-go-round, becoming trapped underneath. When I screamed and begged the other children to stop turning the merry-go-round so that I could rescue you, they ignored me, nonplussed by the emergency. I was immobilized with shock. By the time they finally left and I stopped the merry-go-round from turning, you were fatally unconscious, and your body lay limp and intact on the ground.
Each time I had this dream, I would wake up foggy-headed, in a surreal tizzy, and would have to breathe slowly and deeply for a minute to assuage the panic. In the dream, I felt powerless to the other children, and guilty for not having tried harder to do something, anything, to save your life. I felt responsible for letting the tragedy happen.
The parallels between that dream and your real-life demise intrigue me. Part of me will always blame the other children for your death. Although they played no physical role in your suffocation, they created a social environment in which you felt miserable and frustrated enough to want to end your life. Also like the dream, I feel guilty for having failed to intervene, even though you never indicated that you were in danger or needed help. I suspect Mom feels that way, too, and I think all of us feel helpless, in general, to your decision to have left life.
As Dad has reminded Mom on many occasions, ruminating on the “What Ifs” is a waste of energy, but it’s challenging to avoid occasional (and tempting) speculation.
There was a young man who reminded me of you in my world literature class in college. I thought of him recently, too. He was skinny and slouched, with mousy brown, unwashed hair, and wore tennis shoes beneath track pants that were too short for his long legs. He kept to himself, like many of us did, yet he somehow attracted the attention of one of the popular men in the class. It warmed my heart each time I witnessed the popular classmate going out of his way to include him in his social group and be genuinely nice to him. He could have ignored the man but didn’t, instead going out of his way to do the right thing, seemingly for no other reason than it being the right thing to do.
I first realized in my teenage years that your social behavior was more peculiar than that of my friends’ younger siblings, but it wasn’t until you died that I started paying attention to literature about autism and Asperger’s. You were undeniably on the autism spectrum, likely as a high-functioning person with Asperger’s. How most of your teachers didn’t suspect that and/or failed to protect you from your peers in class, I don’t know. I think that many of us on Dad’s side of the family have traces of spectrum traits, but you had ’em with flying colors. Unfortunately for you, your peers mistook your social ineptitude for intentional rudeness or hostility, which only aggravated their ostracism against you.
I remember your remarks that the children from your elementary school “poisoned” the children in your middle school, suggesting that you never had a fair chance to start fresh or become anonymous post-transition. I’ve always wondered the specifics of what your peers did to make you think that.
In the days immediately following your death, kids in your grade created a couple of Facebook groups about ending loneliness in schools. While their gesture was kind, the titles came as a shock to me because that was the first I had heard of your alleged loneliness. I naively assumed you were immune to your peers’ social criticism because you always appeared disinterested. Clearly, however, your peers recognized the magnitude of your isolation, which I had failed to see.
I’m so sorry that I ignored you in the school halls and on the school bus. I honestly thought you wanted us to act like strangers in public, and that you wanted no association with me. I assumed that I was doing you a favor, though I’m not sure if we ever formally discussed those terms during the brief years when our schools overlapped. It never occurred to me that you might have been lonely, not even after you told Mom that there were some days that you never spoke a word at school. I hope you weren’t as miserable as I now fear that you were. I was completely oblivious to whatever you were going through. I wish you’d asked us for help.
I will always wonder if the day you died was your first attempt to kill yourself.
You erased the browser history on the family iMac prior to your death but did not clear the Google search bar. I was horrified to discover that electrocution was the second most recent topic you’d researched that day, and I can’t imagine what websites you found with subsequent searches.
I also wonder how much you knew about suffocation before attempting it, especially the level of pain involved. Were you experimenting and accidentally passed out, like Dad initially suspected, or did you actually intend to die? If we’d had firearms in the house, or if you knew which over-the-counter painkillers to take in what lethal amounts, would you have chosen a different method than suffocation, a method from which you could have suffered less pain? Did you get the idea to Google electrocution from all those years of us playing The Sims, since that’s one of the only ways to kill a Sim? Was the garbage bag you used already in your possession from having been instructed to tidy your bedroom the previous weekend, or did you have to come downstairs to the pantry to select one thick enough to more fully inhibit your breathing?
Similar to how you clearly didn’t want your computer research discovered, you must also not have wanted your suicide/experimentation interrupted, as you locked your door during a time of day when no one else would have arrived home for several hours. Why did you check the mailbox when you arrived home from school, and why had you started doing your math homework for the following day? Why kill yourself at that time and on that afternoon? What tipped your frustration and despair over your threshold of tolerability? For how long had you been considering (and perhaps planning) your death — hours, days, weeks, months? If you did intend to die, were you nervous, at peace, or something else? What horrible questions to ponder.
I’m guessing you did intend to die, and that you picked that afternoon in the heat of a moment of panic and frustration.
I’m guessing that you panicked that middle school would have the same, if not worse, social stressors and bullies as elementary school. (And you never wanted to fight back??? You tolerated a lot of shit, always passively receiving it without resisting.)
I’m guessing that you panicked that English class wasn’t going well, and you wanted to hide your grade from Mom and Dad at the upcoming parents’ night (which was planned for the same week that you died… maybe a day or two later?).
I’m guessing that you panicked that quitting the Boy Scouts, which you hated more than many things, meant forfeiting that stupid 1909 S VDB penny (your raison d’etre) that Dad had promised you for your coin collection upon completion of an Eagle Scout project. You also panicked that you would never be able to afford to buy one yourself, due to inflation, because it must never have occurred to you that Dad had already secretly bought the damn thing for you — or that you’d ever be earning thousands of dollars a month as an adult, and buying a $1,000-$2,000 penny would be quite possible.
And, I suspect that what tipped you over the edge was panicking that you’d lost your math affinity. You’d recently had that qualifying exam for some math organization, where they failed to warn students that the questions would be exceedingly difficult, and that answering even a few of them correctly would qualify your score. This cajoled your self-esteem and left you susceptible further threat, because you thought you failed the test. (We later learned that you had passed it, and did quite well.) I suspect that when you started your math homework that fateful afternoon and came upon a problem that you were having difficulty solving, that frustration triggered you. Losing math would have meant losing your sense of self. Maybe that’s what killed you, not the rejection of your peers.
But I don’t know. Only you do.
Back when I only published these feelings exclusively on Facebook, one of the most interesting people I met in college confided to me that they had publicly cried in a Starbucks while reading one of my letters to you. It was strangely vindicating to me to know that it moved them so deeply, like I had elicited in them a glimpse of my anguish, even though they never met you. That’s been my favorite of the many reactions people have shared with me thus far. (I love to hear anytime something I’ve written resonates with someone, for any reason.)
Similarly, I feel that your death has granted me the capacity to appreciate dark humor and dark art in a way that I otherwise could not have without first experiencing profound emotional distress.
Growing from mild curiosities to personal fascinations, I have found that other people who appreciate morbid things tend to share that same intimate understanding of pain. My soul has a greater depth since your death; I feel more humane. (…or maybe tragedy has allowed me to access a part of my soul that’s always been present. Who knows.)
I miss how you used to get mad when people served you Sprite with ice in it, because you felt you were being cheated out of soda. I miss how you used to take personal offense when your favorite roller coasters were closed for maintenance on family visits to amusement parks. I miss watching Spongebob with you, and arguing with you about the proper pronunciation of the name of father’s nemesis neighbor on Fairly Odd Parents. I miss building forts and playing made up games on the floor of your bedroom for hours in the summer in elementary school, and staying up all night giggling when we had sleepovers on the loft in my bedroom. I miss your hysteric shreiks when Dad would fart in your room while putting you to bed at night. I miss fighting you for the best Fruit by the Foot flavors each time Mom returned from a Costco pilgrimage. I miss sharing your computer to play Roller Coaster Tycoon, Monopoly, and that Hot Wheels racing game together, and comparing who could get their virtual pets to have the most frequent offspring on Dogz and Catz 4 and 5.
I’m not sure how adult-you would feel about the topics I write about and study, but teenage-you would have been curious. I’m disappointed that we can’t have conversations about what consent means, how to communicate with intimate partners, why introversion doesn’t have to be a social handicap, why masturbating and other forms of self-love and self-exploration are important for everyone, why periods are amazing and not gross, and my other favorite rantables. I wish I could have helped you emotionally mature as an adult.
I miss you, I miss you, I miss you, I miss you. But I remain angry with you for not leaving a note, offering a final goodbye, or providing any other shred of evidence that you thought you were making the right choice at the time and/or were at peace with your choice, or if you thought about our feelings.
You didn’t know, or didn’t care, that you would devastate the family that survived you.
Thanks for giving me an easy answer when people ask me who I’d dine with if I could have dinner with any person who had ever lived. Despite my skepticism, I find myself desperately hoping that some of your energy remains in our house, and that I’ll be able to find and recognize it.
Please come home.