He and I had been close when we were young. I remember him as a toddler; I even think I remember holding him as a baby. Four years my junior, we would play together as little children at my house along with some of my friends. I remember playing “buffalo”, where we would essentially run at each other on all fours. He would make up for his disadvantage in size and years with a fierce tenacity. But you would have been misled if that’s what you took of him, because he would grow into the sweetest, most kind-hearted person you could find.
Over time, school and summers filled with extracurricular vocations filled the spaces where we would have seen each other, and we drifted apart. It wouldn’t be honest to say that he was a major fixture in my life over many years, but that did not stop me from feeling the tensile strength of the residual bond between us, reaching forward from back in time, when it snapped.
If life is a braid through time, our lives had once been entwined, and I found myself grasping too late for threads that had long ago become unfurled.
The pictures at the funeral showed him rock climbing — why didn’t we ever go together? That was something we both loved. Why didn’t I at least ring him from time to time to keep up on his story?
My mom asked me to reach out to him after he completed his last semester. He had been in and out of graduate school, dealing with depression, and he had gone back and done well. Wouldn’t I just send him a quick note of congratulations? Of course I would. And within a few days, he wrote back, but I never opened his message. While he was alive, I never read him tell me he had had some ups and downs, but that he would persevere. And by the way, congratulations to me on becoming an uncle.
How could I, who had lived with someone whose affliction with Bipolar II manifested itself, who, after that chapter, committed to being vigilant to these warning signs, who had believed that familiarity with mental health symptoms should be something they teach you in school so as to become common knowledge, let this pass without pouncing on it? Demand a phone call; take a flight to Chicago; whatever it took. At least read the message he sent back.
Maybe it’s just a fact of life that these pathways sometimes only reveal themselves in the counterfactual. That only when it’s impossible to make them, do some decisions make themselves apparent. My grandmother used to say that the three worst words in the English language are “coulda, woulda, shoulda”, but our imaginations can torment us with alternate histories. And maybe it was fate, but when reading a book on this very topic, The Book of Why, I came across the following quote (with genders reversed):
I am convinced that, whether right or not, he was sure some sinister change was going on in his brain, from which he could never recover. So in tenderest love to us all he chose to spare us the grief of sharing with him the spectacle of such a tragic decline.
I can only hope that it was done with tender love, and not only some excruciating psychic pain. And I’m not sure whether to hope that I could have made a difference, or could not have. Either way, it’s a moot point now, and a voice nags at me that this gratuitous self-examination wildly misses the point. A good person is dead, he had been in pain, and his family is now exploring the depths of grief.