These past few days, I’ve been touched in many ways by what’s happened at Virginia Tech. I keep thinking about my years in college classrooms, as a student and as a professor. The image of a 76 year old man blocking entry to his classroom stays with me, and I try not to dwell on wondering what I would have done, what my students would have tried to do.
Mostly, this week, I am thinking about the kid himself. I am thinking of all of the faces in all of the classes I’ve taught, and how no matter how old or serious or bereft they are, they all seem like kids to me, even when they are younger than I am by only a few years. In thinking about him, I am feeling awful for his parents. What a terrible way to lose a child.
When I was 18, my friend Jay shot himself. He’s not the only person I know who’s killed themselves, but he was the first. He was a couple of years older, and I hadn’t seen him since he’d graduated from high school three years before. But we’d been close, that year that I was a sophomore and he was a senior. Jay had a pickup truck, with a speaker on the top of the cab. We’d pile into the bed of the truck, and drive around town startling people by belting things out through the speaker, as you could without getting stopped or arrested in 1990 in a small town in Indiana. I was one of only a couple of friends who went to Jay’s house after his high school graduation; I remember his mother being so happy to meet us, and Jay being slightly sheepish. Jay’s younger brother had a developmental disability; I’m not sure if we even knew Jay had a younger brother before that day, but it was clear that he had learned to be protective of his family’s privacy. Later that summer, when I was staying with my grandparents for three weeks, I talked to Jay on the phone every few days. Not about anything in particular: the nothing he was doing in Indiana, the nothing I was doing in Ontario.
What I didn’t know about Jay back then was that he owned guns. The word ‘suicide’ was never spoken at his closed-casket funeral. His obituary says only that he died alone in his apartment, and that he was a member of the NRA. As in Virginia, it’s not hard to buy guns in Indiana, and owning several of them does not automatically trigger concern; at least, it didn’t back then. I should say, it doesn’t trigger concern for most people. I didn’t know that Jay owned guns. I did know that he thought more about death than the rest of us, even with our posturing and our various life challenges. He was the only one of us who wanted to sit through all of Faces of Death; the rest of us talked a big talk about being hardcore and disillusioned, but it freaked us out nonetheless.
I say all this because I’ve been thinking about Jay a lot these past couple of days. Jay didn’t kill anyone else, but I see him in the kid from Virginia Tech. This isn’t about guilt or blame or what might have been. For me, it’s about holding the weight of the reality of their experiences; it’s about the deep sadness that comes with knowing that whatever it is in us that allows us to face that choice and go a different way, they didn’t have it. If they ever had it, they lost it at some point and couldn’t get it back, the ‘it’ that keeps that path on the other side of unimaginable. I do know, though, that it’s not the kind of thing that returns with a phone call from a friend, or a ride in a pickup truck on a summer day, or because you realize, finally, how very much your family loves you.
In the end, I find myself wanting to say to the Cho family: I am so very sorry for your loss. Please know that you don’t have to face this alone.