A letter to the friend whose suicide I interrupted
It’s the summer of 2002.
Most of our University friends have already headed home for the holidays. I had planned to do the same, but when I heard that you were going to be by yourself, I decided to stick around for a few more days. Seeing my family is easier for me; for one, I only have to fly for a couple of hours to be with them. You, however, have to take long international flights just to reach your home country.
As peaceful as it is, I am tired of sitting around in my flat on my own. I idly glance at the long list of assignments from my Professors but feel no urge to begin working on them. It is after all the first day of the vacations, and I am still getting over the full-on week of clinical assessments that marked the end of this term at medical school.
Sometimes I think you chose a more sedate academic path; you seem to have nowhere nearly as many assessments in Commerce. Thankfully, our career choices have not impacted on our desire to be friends. We’ve been told that we are supposed to only mingle with our class peers, but you and I somehow found each other despite these ridiculous traditions. Perhaps bending the rules, especially silly ones is our way of showing that friendships go beyond academic choices.
You and I are not best friends, but that doesn’t matter. We both left our best friends behind when we moved to university. It was yet another part of growing up that we hadn’t foreseen as teenagers.
In time, we will come to learn that nothing remains the same.
I think of visiting you on a whim. Neither of us had made any plans to see each other today. I had been too focused on my assessments this week to reach out to you, and you had been spending more and more time with your boyfriend. I know this relationship thing is new for you and I am sorry that he decided to go hiking with his friends instead of spending time with you. In all honesty, he did ask you to go with him, but you are not exactly the camping type.
“Bugs,” you’d said, waving your arms like an orchestral conductor. “Bugs.” That one word was enough to end the conversation.
So I stroll down to your apartment, my head full of ideas of what we could do in the coming days. My flight home isn’t for a week or so, and I think about what you like and how we could combine activities that bring us both lots of fun and hopefully, help you forget that you won’t be going home this year. I never did ask you the reason why. Was it the cost, or were your parents perhaps too busy?
You had stayed unusually quiet when everyone discussed their summer plans. At the time, I had just assumed that you were going to spend more time with your boyfriend and let’s be honest, none of us was particularly keen to pry into anyone’s private life. It’s just the way we were brought up.
The door to your apartment is unlocked, as always. I knock on the door twice before calling out.
There is no answer.
Usually, I hear your loud voice floating down the stairs, inviting all and sundry to come in. But today there is only silence.
I stand at the doorway, feeling foolish. You’ve probably gone shopping or to the movies with your Commerce buddies or other friends. I feel the warm breeze against my skin and decide to come back later. It’s not like I don’t have things to do.
Those assignments are not going to get done by themselves, but I have a craving for homemade chocolate chip cookies, and it feels far too long since I have done any baking. I know you are not much of a baker, but you seem to like my cookies, so perhaps it would be better if I returned bearing some still-warm-from-the oven treats.
Yet I remain standing in your doorway.
To this day I do not know why I called out again.
This time there is a sound. A muffled thump in the floorboards upstairs right where your bedroom is.
I automatically move into the apartment, calling your name again. The fingers of my left hand wrap themselves around the railing as I step onto the staircase. For some reason, my mouth feels dry, and I swallow a few times, before calling out again.
My feet have led me up the stairs, and I am now standing outside your bedroom.
The door is closed.
I place my now sweaty palm against the door handle. Something is telling me to open the door quickly yet for some reason I hesitate. Bedrooms are private sanctuaries, and I know how much you prefer to keep yours secluded from prying eyes.
I call out your name again, with a wordless prayer for your safety. The rational part of my brain is telling me that the thump could have been anything; a textbook knocked over by the breeze, one of your copious perfume bottles rolling off the table, or could it be you - unconscious, sliding onto the floor?
The last thought is what spurs me into action. I squeeze the handle, pushing my body against the door. But nothing happens.
You have locked the door.
I call out your name again and again. My pulse is racing. For the first time, I wish there was someone else there. Yes, I could be yelling at the locked door of an empty room, but I can’t shake the feeling that you are somehow inside and need help.
I pause, only when I run out of breaths. The only way to get in would be to find the caretaker and ask him to open the door. What if it takes too long? What if I am too late?
Call an ambulance.
This is what I am going to do first. At this point, I don’t care if the paramedics are mad at me if this turns out to be a false alarm. I just want to know that you are safe.
I run down the stairs to use the phone. Just as I am dialling the numbers, I hear a door unlatch. My eyes turn towards the ceiling as I hear slow, muffled thumps overhead. The emergency operator’s voice is in my ear, but I cannot speak.
Gradually your pink fluffy slippers emerge down the stairs. You look so tired; your eyes, bloodshot and puffy. You are still in your pyjamas, the fabric wrinkled and saggy. I apologise to the operator and hang up the phone.
Mutely I walk across the room and hug you.
We stand there for a long time, neither of us speaking. At last, we break away gently, my eyes taking in every inch of your exposed skin. It would be days later when I’d realise that I was scanning your body for injuries.
One of us had to break the silence eventually.
“You hungry?” I asked.
You just nodded. I helped you sit on the sofa and made you a fried egg sandwich. You devoured the lot in a matter of minutes. I made you another.
I spent most of that night in your apartment with us just talking. The topics were vast and varied. We spoke of our experiences at University, being away from home, and our childhoods.
You told me many secrets, without swearing me to secrecy. Somehow you just knew that I would never tell these things to another soul.
You were right.
Not a day went by over the next week that we weren’t together. We baked, we cooked, we laughed, we told stories, and watched movies. Not once during that time did you speak of what happened the day I knocked on your door, and you didn’t answer. I didn’t push you either. Instead, I waited.
It was the autumn of 2015.
There is an email waiting for me in my inbox as I return from teaching my medical students.
The email is from you. It is the first email I have received from you after all these years. You somehow found my contact details and decided to get in touch. You are happily married now, with a young daughter. You speak of how much fun we had in our University days, how awful that boyfriend was, whom you cut ties with after his hiking trip, and how wonderful your husband is.
You bring up that afternoon all those years ago when I came by your apartment for no reason.
You share how no one knew that you were struggling so much in your personal and academic life.
You explain how you had lost the will to live, how you were tired of fighting, how ready you were to give up.
You detail how you had spent weeks carefully preparing your plans to end your life that day.
You speak of your surprise at hearing me outside your apartment, your annoyance at me for interrupting your carefully laid plans, and your relief that I stayed with you.
You thank me for saving your life, for not bombarding you with questions, for giving you the space to heal.
I read your words again and again. They take me back to that moment I am standing outside your door, unannounced and unexpected.
I think of the future you would have lost, the husband you would have never met, the child you would have never had.
I think of all your accomplishments, the joy and love you have brought to people’s lives, of the life experiences you have gained since then.
I take a deep breath and begin to write. It has been thirteen years, yet it feels as though we are back at University, young, eager and innocent, navigating the ever-changing waters of adulthood.
“May you always be happy. May you always be healthy. May you always be loved.”
This was my prayer for you back then. It is my prayer for you now. It will be my prayer for you always.
If you or a loved one need someone to talk to, please call any of the following helplines. Your life matters.
US National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1 (800) 273–8255
UK Samaritans: 116 123
Helplines in other countries can be found here