(published by Life After Hate, 4/21/12)
Last week marked the 20th anniversary of the death of my friend, Dan. I’ve been wanting to write about it, but it is very difficult. He was one of the first people I met when I moved to Madison in 1982. That means I only knew him for ten years and four of those years I lived in Denver. But we were very close, like long-lost brothers, like a couple without the romance, even when I was a thousand miles away. When I moved back to Madison in 1991 I moved into the same building as him and our friendship resumed where it left off in 1987.
Dan more or less introduced me to the gay community of Madison. Through him I met many, many people and settled comfortably into queer life in the big city after coming out in a small town in southwestern Wisconsin. He was the first person I ever knew to be a drag queen and while he was always a little nervous on stage he loved dressing up. He would select odd little numbers (songs and clothes) and have fun with the performances–he never took himself too seriously. In his drag world, at least.
He was also very troubled in some ways. Early in our friendship Dan told me about the loss of his father, a man he clearly admired and who had been murdered in a small town in Wisconsin, a case that to my knowledge is still unsolved. He had a lot of suffering in his background and he shared that with me. Every time he fell in love, which was often, I was the one he talked to about it. He desperately wanted love and would start talking of marriage and life-long relationships after one or two dates, sometimes even before the first date. I think he often scared people off who could have loved him because he was so desperate for things to work.
Dan was also the first person I knew to be manic-depressive, something I have encountered in many others since then. He explained what it meant and how it felt in ways that helped me to understand what he was going through. When he was manic he was perhaps the most fun person in the world to be around–very funny, sharp-witted and sharp-tongued, hilarious really, and he drank in life in all its fullness. I had some of the best laughing jags of my life with him. On the contrary, when he was depressive he could be very difficult to be around because he dwelled in his depression in all its fullness, too. He could bring others down with him because the gloom was so deep. Dan felt everything fully, whether he was in a happy or depressed state. He took medication for his condition, but didn’t always stay on the regimen the way he should.
Dan was always honest about his illness. He was always honest about everything. He would confess the most intimate things to people, sometimes too open too quickly. I think ultimately it was because he wanted most of all to be loved and accepted and he didn’t feel that in his life, so he opened himself up at the first indication that someone would care enough to listen. We balanced each other nicely that way as I am a natural empath and I could take on his pain sometimes, even when I was depressed myself.
At least two times while I was in Denver Dan ended up in the hospital after suicide attempts. I felt guilty for not being there for him. When he died at the young age of 32 it was from an overdose. I don’t know if the coroner ruled it a suicide, but I knew that it was. At the time I was in a new and wonderful relationship that is still going strong more than 20 years later. Dan was struggling to salvage one that had degenerated into fights and jealousy. I think he felt that it was his last chance at love and that if it didn’t work out he would never have anyone. He needed to be with someone to feel fulfilled.
At the time both Dan and I were spending a lot of time with our boyfriends. One day Brian and I were at Brian’s apartment where he was cooking a nice dinner for us when we got a phone call from Dan’s workplace asking if we had seen him as he hadn’t been into work for a couple days. My heart sank. The one thing that had been going right at that time was his job, which he really liked. I realized we hadn’t heard from him in a couple days either. I hung up and tried calling and got an answering machine. Something told me that he hadn’t collected his messages. There was something about the machine that if there were a lot of messages you could tell by how long it took before it beeped to allow a new recording. I knew. At that moment I knew. I told Brian we had to go downtown to my apartment building right away.
When we got there we raced up to the fourth floor to Dan’s apartment. There was something on the door handle that had clearly been there for a while, so we knew he hadn’t been in or out. We made a phone call and within a short time the apartment manager and police were there to open the door and check on him, but of course they found him unresponsive. It had been a couple days. One of the policemen asked if I wanted to see him and I said no, then broke down sobbing in Brian’s arms. It was one of the hardest moments of my life.
Brian and I went to my apartment and started to call some friends. Soon an ambulance pulled into the parking lot. We stood at the window watching. When the front door opened and an EMT started to come out of the building in front of a stretcher a bird suddenly flew right up at my apartment window directly in front of us. Brian turned and fell to the couch and I turned to him. By the time we got back to the window the EMTs were closing the door of the ambulance. It was an incredibly powerful and symbolic moment that neither of us will ever forget.
I have often heard people say that suicide is selfish. I think I disagree with that. It may be thoughtless, but Dan was not a selfish person. He was one of the most generous people I have ever known. He and I were roommates a couple times and always shared what little we had–and we always had little at that time–with those who had less. Our apartment was known as the Hotel for Wayward Homosexuals because we let so many people live with us at various times–friends who lost apartments, runaways, friends who were kicked out by their partners, strangers we met at the bar, and on and on. We should have had a revolving door on the apartment.
The thing is when a person is suicidal, when they are in that much pain and despair, they are not thinking about the effects of their actions on others. I have been there myself and yes, in a way suicide can seem selfish because a person gets so wrapped up in his or her own pain. But the thing is the feelings of sadness and despair are so strong that you cannot see through the haze to even think about anyone else. It is not because you don’t care about others; it’s that you forget about others because the pain is so strong that is all you can focus on or feel.
So I don’t blame Dan for leaving. He did what he had to do for himself in that moment. I am confident that if he had known that people would be grieving him twenty years later he would not have left. He would have understood that in fact he was loved and accepted, and that really was all he ever wanted.