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'A decade on, the ache is still there'

Wednesday 26th March 2014

Trigger warning for suicide.

Matthew remembers Alex as being deep and calm that day. I recall Alex fretting about a physics test but it’s a memory, I’ve gone over it so many times it’s become warped and unreliable, like a worn-out VHS tape. At the time, it was just another lunch with friends, sorted into my mind’s ‘not important’ pile, marked for deletion. After all, there was no way I could’ve known that’d be the last time I’d see Alex.

Someone took a photo of the group of us. I remember Alex in that photo as pale and staring wide-eyed at the camera. Someone else is pulling the fingers. Chances are it was the last photo ever taken of Alex and, like most of my memory of that day, it’s lost now.

Two days later, Alex took his own life. That was 10 years ago next month. He was a clever, hilarious, generous friend. We were in our first year of university. He was 18.

Illustration
"I was hit a lot harder by his death than I think I realised at the time, and I’m probably still dealing with it"

Jem Yoshioka

None of us at the table knew anything about Alex’s mental health problems. I’m sure all of us have asked the same questions: was there something we could have done? Could we have been better friends? I know it’s not all on me, but I still feel like I failed him.

Alex and I had met four years earlier. I’d never really settled on a stable crew for most of my time at high school; I sort of flit between groups of acquaintances, never being particularly popular, but Alex had been a constant ally.

In the last year of high school I’d finally fallen in with a solid group of friends, and in a way I left Alex behind. If we were going to a party, I’d go with them; Alex would drive alone in his beaten-up old Mitsubishi. I felt like I had used him a bit, treated him as a guy who’d always be there. But he wouldn’t.

*

Matthew, another friend, remembers learning of Alex’s death clearly:

“I got a ride home from a girl in my class and I was talking to her about how [Alex] was missing,” says Matthew. “I was telling her that I wasn't worried because of how he tended to go for those long drives on his own all the time and he'd show up sooner or later.”

A few hours after getting home, he got a phone call:

“It was such a weird conversation,” Matthew said. The friend who’d called to let him know told him ‘Alex is no longer of this earth’ and then he did this kind of nervous laugh.

“What? He’s an alien? What do you mean he’s not of this earth?” Matthew asked confused and in severe denial.

We laughed at suicide and at death and in the face of sadness and at our own lack of ability to cope with the loss.

He was then told, “Alex was found dead”.

“That's where my memory gets pretty hazy due to the tears and the emotions and whatever,” Matthew says.

A group of us met up in town the day after we got the news, I guess to try and process what had happened together. We couldn’t even try to act normally – the heaviness among us was too great, Alex’s aching absence taking on a presence all its own.

I supposed the others hadn’t worked out an appropriate emotional response any better than I had. The silences were long and heavy, punctuated only by the occasional swear word or pointless exclamation.

And then someone made a joke. I don’t remember what the joke was, but the idea of making a joke seemed powerfully subversive: a total insult to any kind of proper response. We laughed at suicide and at death and in the face of sadness and at our own lack of ability to cope with the loss. Even at the time it seemed callous and heartless, but that was part of the appeal.

It was dumb and senseless, but I was 17 and I didn’t really know what to do. I didn’t have anyone else to talk to. It was my brother’s birthday, and I didn’t want to ruin it for him, so I had decided to keep Alex’s death a secret from my family for a while.

Years later, while horribly drunk, one of the old crew revealed he was really hurt by the way we had all acted that day. Today, I am too. Which I guess is another thing I’ll always feel guilty about.

It affected all of us differently. I retreated to my worst hermetic tendencies – spending a lot of time at home alone, ignoring others’ social olive branches. Others drank heavily.

For another friend, Nick, Alex’s death was the beginning of an unravelling period – his grades slipped, his relationship fell apart and after a major panic attack he was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

“I still feel guilty I haven’t stayed in touch with his parents, I just felt so bad for them,” Nick says.

“I couldn’t bear to look them in the face again.”

*

Matthew and I went to see the body, which lay in a faceless little funeral home deep in suburban Christchurch.  We were running late and ambivalent about whether we wanted to do it, and as soon as we arrived it felt like a door had abruptly slammed on the rest of the world. Time ceased to exist – there was only us and Alex’s body.

 Alex’s father delivered a devastatingly moving speech, of which I now remember almost nothing. I was empty and upset, but most of all I was sad.

Lying in a sleek navy blue casket, the body had been dressed in Alex’s favourite clothes, and it had our friend’s face, but it was askew: an artist’s impression of Alex, as crafted by someone who never knew him. The characteristic wrinkle on his forehead was gone, his lips were rendered the same flat, pink colour as the rest of his heavily made-up skin. He was as small as he’d ever been, but in that coffin, in that room, his presence was enormous and inescapable.

Matthew says seeing the body helped him to deal with Alex’s death. “It kind of made it seem real. I remember really wanting to touch his skin to feel if it was cold, but I chickened out.”

It was different for me. I supposed all the blood had been flushed from his body, and what had once been a person was now all chemicals and matter. I don’t regret seeing the body, but my last memory of Alex is a hazy, fragmented one of a rowdy lunch in a university cafeteria, not my brutally clear memory of a strange body in a casket.

Alex’s funeral was at a church opposite a KFC where we used to buy snack burgers while skipping class; it seemed like everyone from our high school was there.

“The funeral was awful. I spoke with a couple of [people]. You try and put a positive spin on his life but looking around the church all you saw were ghosts,” Nick says.

I’d arrived late and though I was asked, I missed my chance to speak. I don’t know what I would have said if I had stepped up to the lectern. It was a week since he died, and I still felt numb and stupid, like the interior workings of my brain had protectively thickened to keep any emotions in check.  Alex’s father delivered a devastatingly moving speech, of which I now remember almost nothing. I was empty and upset, but most of all I was sad.

I do remember this: Sitting on a rooftop listening to Radiohead in the summer; Alex explaining away the little glitches in the movie Fight Club to avoid spoiling it; his shyness when asked about pashing a girl at a high school party; my dad gently jeering at him about his lurid blue pair of shorts; the night we met girls behind the trees at Christmas in the Park; and the unremarkable conversations, the tiny everyday building blocks that make the foundations of friendship.

A decade on, the ache is still there. I was hit a lot harder by his death than I think I realised at the time, and I’m probably still dealing with it. The same things tick over in my mind: the last time I saw him, the body, the sickening feeling I get when I imagine his final moments.

I’ve long ago lost contact with most of my other friends from that period. But it’ll always be Alex, whose warm, genuine friendship, I stupidly spurned, but will miss the most.

*

If you need to talk to someone about your own mental health, try these helplines. If it is an emergency, call 111.

Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland
Depression Helpline  0800 111 757
Healthline  0800 611 116
Samaritans  0800 726 666 (for callers from the Lower North Island, Christchurch and West Coast) or 0800 211 211 / (04) 473 9739 (for callers from all other regions)
Suicide Crisis Helpline (aimed at those in distress, or those who are concerned about the wellbeing of someone else) - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Youthline  0800 376 633, free text 234 or email talk@youthline.co.nz

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“What a wonderful piece. I want to suggest that you consider contacting your friend's parents, if you still haven't. Chances are high that they will appreciate hearing from you even now, because he will still be just as much in their memory as he is in yours. And it could be healing for them to understand why you weren't able to communicate with them then, but how much their son meant to you and the rest of his friends.” — Margaret Mcarthur


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Tobias Brockie is a journalist and frustrated writer living in Wellington. He likes ghosts, dislikes domestic airport terminals.
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