When winter takes us, where winter takes us

Content note: This is a piece about mental illness and suicide. 

Days turned short, ground turned cold and hard. It started with the trees slowly going golden one by one, orange, red, sweeping in glittering falls across the lawns until the groundskeepers raked them up. The strange light of fall thunderstorms, utterly perplexing when I saw one for the first time, all of us gathered at the End of the World, looking out across rolling hills turned equally golden, each trembling leaf a threat of creeping winter. The frost began to appear on the grass, crunching underfoot when you walked home late at night, slowly replaced by a fall of snow that grew thicker and thicker, more and more confident, blanketing the ground, where the grass slipped away to hide until spring.

We didn’t all see spring, all of us for different reasons. I was driven home to cower under the headlands, listening to the waves, infuriated by the betrayal of my own mind. But this is not a story about me. It’s a story about someone else.

I still remember my first suicide, you see. But who doesn’t? My first real suicide, I mean, someone I knew, someone my age, someone I passed on the commons now and then and nodded to. Maybe he wasn’t the very first person roughly in my age range who had taken his own life, but his death struck me in a way that the others did not, perhaps because I was having a private battle inside myself — so maybe I lied, maybe this is a story about me. All of our pasts are collective stories about ourselves, though, so that’s not really surprising. We’re self involved, seeing only ourselves in the mirror, almost evolutionarily invested in vanity.

Here is a secret about death: Everyone knew the victim.

You already know that too, though, because you remember your first suicide. We all have one. The same desperate need for connection that fuels emotional outpourings in the wake of celebrity deaths is present on a smaller scale, too. Death is frightening and scary, alienating, the monster under the bed. Some might try to hide from it, but most of us ultimately find shelter in each other, and the common thread we find is this: We are all afraid of death, we know death, death has drifted by on the street leaving tiny tracks in the snow, so we huddle together on the couch, hoping he will pass us by the next time he travels by.

The college fluttered nervously around us, uncertain about what to do in the face of a momentarily grief-stricken student body. We all knew him, you see, despite the fact that the very isolation that contributed to his death kept him apart from all of us. Someone somewhere knows what happened but here is the story I was told: He stayed at home over the long weekend — like I did — because he couldn’t go home — like I did — and maybe he had a substance abuse problem before or maybe he didn’t — no one was really sure when — but he went into the bathroom on the first floor — no, it was the second — no, he was in one of the suites — and he shot up and was found by the housekeepers — no, the resident advisor — no, his roommate — no, a friend. It was suicide — no, it wasn’t, it was just a bad batch — no, he underestimated the dose. The ambulance came even though he was dead — I never saw an ambulance, even though my room faced across the street, looking into his residence hall, my friend Z used to slip notes through the screen, windownotes, scrawlings and scraps of poems and stories — but they wouldn’t declare him dead until they left the grounds to keep statistics looking clean and shiny for parents.

Their residence hall became a black hole, a silent lacuna, a place everyone stepped around nervously, bleak faces staring out from windows, someone upstairs had a cat, I remember, and the contraband pet sat in the window, staring disdainfully down at all of us. A little snowdrift of cards and flowers rested against the front door, ‘shushing’ aside every time someone opened it, scattering across the snow, bleeding ink.

Few people knew him, but that didn’t stop the campus from going into a sort of collective state of shock, memorial wall, memorial memorial, memorial presentation to family, what must have been an awkward packing up of things by someone somewhere, hands grasping for items ‘he would have wanted them to have.’ Classes put on hold for a day or two, more for some of us, to grasp this tragedy, notes in mailboxes to talk to the counselors, who skulked in the upper regions of the dining hall, down corridors dusty and long, making you feel like you were lost in a maze behind an ancient stage, expecting the Phantom of the Opera to loom out of the darkness at any moment. I already knew them well, thanks to some eagle-eyed administrator who suspected I Was Trouble and dispatched me into the hands of Trudy, or maybe it was Judy, the psychologist who probably thought I was a bigger suicide risk than he ever was, both of us hiding in our rooms in quiet isolation, appearing on campus with looks of grim determination.

Maybe if I’d been there the following semester, I would have been the victim everyone knew too, the subject of the memorial wall, the memorial memorial, the late-night phone call to a father who probably wouldn’t have been able to afford to come and fetch me, let alone my belongings, quietly whisked away by ambulance — the coroner — to be cremated and returned in a tin can for scattering somewhere.

I don’t know. I guess I’ll never know, but I still remember him, my first suicide, my first real suicide, I mean, the subject of a black-edged memorial memorial card I found the other day when I was going through old papers. I’d forgotten his name after all those years, but there it was, curling in black font against cream-coloured paper, the privilege of the rich, death compressed into a hastily-assembled serif font.