NOTE: Some names and identifying details have been changed for the privacy of the individuals involved.
A few months ago, a friend of mine sent me a picture he had snapped while traversing a beach on the California coastline. It was a double-exposure of footprints in the sand, the waves just touching them and washing them away. In the distance, at the end of the tracks, was the ghostly figure of a semi-transparent woman running away from the camera. I found it striking, but not nearly so much as recently.
In December of 2006, one of my fellow alumni killed himself, violently exiting this world courtesy of a handgun. Let's call him Mark.
In school, I hadn't known him very well. There was the occasional class we shared and some brief conversations we had, but that was it. We ran in different circles.
When I heard the news through a friend of a friend of his I was shocked but not really impacted. It did haunt me a bit, since this would be the fourth member of our class that had died, and it brought up all these thoughts of mortality and the fragility of life. For me, I had to cope with only my own philosophical meanderings and existential questions; for his family and friends, I couldn't imagine how horrible it must have been.
I've counseled people who were severely depressed before, and I don't wish for anyone to have to suffer through that, as I had once done. Unfortunately, it does happen; we need only recognize the signs of it.
I decided I needed to see what my fellow classmates were saying about this tragedy, so I went snooping around the usual internet haunts. Not finding much (the news was still fresh), I Googled Mark's name and stumbled upon an online profile of his. He was, apparently, a frequent MMOG player, partaking in World of Warcraft and several others, not to mention his high frag ratio for Counter-Strike and others like it. It was a whole side of him I hadn't known or seen.
The great surprise, however, was his MySpace page. It was strange to be there, seeing his words speak as if he were still around and might update his blog later in the day.
"Hi, I'm Mark. I currently work with my dad at his manufacturing company and plan on starting my own after college." It was bizarre to read these carefree words for the future and yet know they would not come to fruition.
Though I didn't know him well, I had an idea of who he was. I learned about him through friends over the years, and through our casual conversations. He was the typical high school jock but without the self-important asshole factor. He was kind to his friends. Girlfriends stayed around for awhile, and he remained friends with them after breakups. (Melissa, his most recent ex, was the first to post.) This was the kind of person he was. It made me wish I had gotten to know him better, despite whatever pain I would be feeling now.
I scanned his pictures and discovered one that was taken just days before he died. He was staring directly at the camera, his blue eyes catching light from a nearby window, a small smile on his face. I wondered, was there sadness in that gaze?