August 12, 1998 is the day my life changed forever. It was two weeks before my twentieth birthday. My friend Wade killed himself. It set off a chain of events that led me to the man who became my husband.
I woke up at 1:30 p.m. to a call from Wade. I tried to act like I was already awake when I answered the phone, but he knew better. I had spent the entire summer between what was supposed to be my sophomore and junior years in college staying out and sleeping in very late. Much to my parents’ annoyance, I showed no interest in finding a summer job besides some sporadic babysitting gigs. Wade was able to recognize the depression that I was in denial of, because he struggled with the same problem.
Wade was an extremely fun but bipolar 24-year-old who suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder. I met him when I was 16, and we had dated on and off (mostly off) for a few years. He was a very extreme person. When he was on a manic high, he was the MOST fun person in the room. During our time together, he often took me for rides on his motorcycle – often while both of us were drinking. He would go way, way above the speed limit and do wheelies with me on the back. Neither of us ever wore helmets. He would commit to our relationship for weeks or months at a time and then break it off because he didn’t want to be tied down, although we always remained friends. Wade always did what he wanted to do.
When he was depressed, he was frightening to be around. He would play with guns. At least twice prior to the day he died, he called me to say he was going to shoot himself. The obsessive-compulsive disorder caused him to clean his apartment, truck, and motorcycle for several hours every week, but it was never enough. Once he threatened to drop me off on the side of the road because I took out my compact in his pickup. I told him he couldn’t possibly be bothered by the microscopic face powder contained inside. He tersely explained, “It’s the dust that I can’t see that bothers me the most.” I thought it was really funny at the time, but in retrospect it’s pretty sad. His inability to completely control his environment must have been exhausting.
He said the reason he was calling was because he needed a favor. Would I please call the police and tell them that he had shot himself, so they would come and remove his body before his roommate returned from work? I argued with him for about 30 minutes, alternately begging him to let me come over and talk to him in person, and threatening him with hell if he committed suicide. He said he didn’t believe he’d go to hell because if God is benevolent, why would he punish him for seeking relief from the anguish that God himself had given to him? That argument still haunts me. Why would I tell someone who’s clearly ALREADY in hell that he’ll go to hell if he tries to alleviate his pain?
At about 2:00 he said that he loved me and hung up, but not before telling me he would shoot himself if he heard someone trying to get into the apartment. That convinced me to stay home. I tried to call him back a couple times, but only the answering machine picked up. I hysterically called his roommate, who was at an out of town job site, and begged him to leave work and come home immediately. I think he believed I was overreacting, and Wade was just making an idle threat. I called another of his close friends and begged him to call Wade and talk some sense into him.
Then I called 911 and explained the situation to the dispatcher. I told her that Wade was supposed to start a new job today, but he had decided not to go. He had lost a delivery driver job that he really liked a few weeks ago because he got a DUI. He was terribly upset about the fines, the job loss, the thought of being a financial burden on his family, and the prospect of beginning a new job that he was sure he’d hate. I told the dispatcher about his threat to shoot himself if anyone attempted to come into the apartment. I don’t know if that’s why the SWAT team was deployed, or if it was because I said he was upset about the DUI and the police assumed he would be hostile toward them.
Local law enforcement arrived at the apartment building in the SWAT truck and surrounded the building. A female police officer broke into one of my rambling, pleading messages on his answering machine and told me I had to hang up because the police had arrived and she needed to speak to Wade. I had called him several times and left long messages but he never picked up. However, after each of my calls someone called my phone and hung up after letting it ring once. I think it was Wade’s way of telling me he was still alive. After the officer cut into my call, I didn’t get any more one ring calls.
I think it would have been too embarrassing for him to face his family and friends after causing such a big scene, so he laid down on his side on the couch, put his handgun to his temple and pulled the trigger. He told me he would do it that way in case the bullet went through his skull. He wanted it to get lodged in the couch, not go through a wall or bounce off something and hurt someone else.
By the time he pulled the trigger at 3:00, all of his close friends were standing outside of the building. The word traveled fast after I called two of them, as they were a very tight knit group of guys who had grown up together in the same small town. When they heard the gunshot, they all decided to leave. They knew it was over.
I was still at my parents’ house, sitting in the living room waiting for someone to call me and say they had stopped him. At some point during the 90 minutes that I sat there, I ate a bowl of cereal and drank a can of root beer. I still cannot eat or drink that brand of cereal or soda. They remind me that I was stupidly sitting on my parents’ couch while my friend was dying.
Eventually I called dispatch to see if they could connect me with a police officer on the scene. She put me on hold for several minutes. When she came back on the line, she told me an officer would be coming to my house to talk to me. That’s never a good sign. In a futile attempt to prevent the bad news from arriving on my doorstep, I got into my car and drove to Wade’s apartment. I calmly walked past the SWAT truck, police officers, and the building’s residents who had not been allowed to go inside. Wade’s family was also there. Nobody stopped me as I walked into the building, down the hall to apartment 101. When I placed my hand on the doorknob, the officer in charge of the SWAT team called my name. He and another officer ushered me into the first floor laundry room to break the news. I slumped against a washer and said, “But… I thought that you were going to fix it…”
The officers led me to a female officer in the parking lot to take my statement about what Wade said to me on the phone. Wade’s sister also came over to find out what he said. I told her what he said to me… that he didn’t want to be a burden to his family. I didn’t know what else to say. I really didn’t know his family.
The guy in charge of the SWAT team told me I shouldn’t (couldn’t) drive home. I was clearly in shock, and I’m sure he was worried that I’d cause an accident or something. Since it’s a relatively small community, he knew the family of one of Wade’s friends. He called the brother of Wade’s good friend, Scott, and asked him to please pick me up and bring me to the rest of the group.
The next few days were a blur of drinking heavily with a large group of mourners at Scott’s apartment. I had to tell the same story over and over. Everyone wanted to know what Wade said to me. Why did he do it? I wasn’t within earshot when the gun went off, yet I randomly heard gunshots in my head. They would startle me out of long periods of staring into space. People would talk about me as if I wasn’t there. I heard my mother tearfully call a psychiatric hospital to see if they would see me because she was so worried. Since I was over 18, they couldn’t force me go there.
Since it was the first death that I had ever experienced, my mind couldn't comprehend the finality of it. I had a dream that Wade was packing up all of his things and he told me he was moving away. Apparently, that's the only way my brain would accept his absence. He had permanently moved away.
Wade’s family invited his close friends to a private viewing at the funeral home. He didn’t look like himself at all. They had to reconstruct his temple and forehead, and his face and body were swollen because of the severe trauma. He inexplicably had facial hair when he’d always been clean shaven before. I collapsed in front of the casket, hanging onto the edge of it while telling the other five people there that this isn’t Wade. “He doesn’t look like that. Maybe he’s not dead! We should tell the funeral director that the wrong person is in this casket.” His five best friends from childhood just sat in the pews and stared blankly at me. They had had other friends die - one in a motorcycle crash and another by suicide. They were not in denial.
The funeral went slightly better. I did not collapse or freak out. I cried, mostly silently, throughout the entire service and dismissed my parents from the church as soon as it ended. I couldn’t stand the looks of concern on their faces.
After another week or two, it was time to go back to school. I could not do it. The entire summer it had been difficult for me to get out of bed. Now it was impossible. My already too thin body became skeletal. I dropped out of school and was granted alumna status from the sorority. After a month or so of constant sleeping, my parents told me I had to find a job. I ended up delivering flowers for a year after Wade died. If that job taught me anything, it’s that people die every day. I delivered sympathy flowers and funeral arrangements constantly. In a weird way it was therapeutic to know that other people were going through the same pain that I was. I was not alone.
Wade’s friend, Scott, also made sure that I knew that I was not alone. The trauma caused me to withdraw from everyone that I knew besides him. Scott is a very empathetic person. He called me at least once a week for the first few months to make sure I was okay. By January we started dating. Slowly, our relationship mended my broken heart and I started to laugh again. We were polar opposites. He had a long ponytail and a degree in Philosophy. I was a sorority girl who couldn’t figure out exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up. Somehow we ended up being a perfect match.
With support from Scott, I pulled myself out of the deepest depression of my life and went back to college the following year. I graduated in 2002 and began a career that I love. In 2005, Scott and I got married. We had memorial flowers on the altar for Wade along with our family members who had died.
It’s odd to think that because of Wade’s death, I am married to a funny, smart, sensitive man who is also my very best friend. Sometimes we joke that the SWAT team leader accidentally set us up when he called Scott’s brother to give me a ride that day. We still talk about Wade, especially on the anniversary of his suicide. Mostly when his name comes up it’s because of a funny story, not because we’re dwelling on his death.
In the 15-plus years since he died, I have let go of most of the guilt that plagued me in my early twenties. I’ve had to accept that Wade wanted to die, and that is why he killed himself. If I had somehow convinced him to stay alive that day, I believe he likely would have killed himself at some point in the future. Wade always did what he wanted to do.