I've been driving up to my alma mater weekly for almost a year now, and I have thought more about the good 'ol days when I was a full-time student there more times than I can count. Today, however, some rougher memories came to mind.
There were two tragedies that took place while we were students. The first was during my sophomore year, and the second almost a year later. Both are circumstances that I'll never forget. I remember the exact desk where I was sitting in Miller Hall when we heard a horrific sound coming from the direction of the train tracks. Nothing more was said after the sound, but I did notice later on that afternoon when I was driving to a local elementary school to tutor a child that a train was stopped on the tracks on the edge of campus. I didn't think much of it at the time. When I got back about an hour later, there was a note for me from my roommate for me to find her at her boyfriend's dorm. I honestly don't think I've written about that day since then, and my eyes are filling with tears at the memories....
I didn't make it all the way across campus before I saw Robin, her fella, and the guy I was crushing on at the time, and they called out to me. I walked toward them, and soon my 'guy' folded me in his arms, as they explained that a fellow student had been killed by a train earlier....that had been what we had heard during class, was the train trying to stop.
In order to understand this well, you have to know that we were very accustomed to the train....it was just part of our life there. We crossed the tracks on foot daily as we headed to the local post office to get our mail, and some students lived across the tracks in small houses that served as dorms. We honestly got to where we didn't even give the train a second thought, and I'll admit that I've been near the tracks and realized the train was upon us. I truly believe that this was the case with Keith...that he was reading something and simply forgot where he was. Also, a freak of aerodynamics due to the mountains surrounding the school. They are positioned somehow work so that when you were actually right on the tracks, you didn't hear the train whistle as clearly as you do farther away from them.
It was a very sad day. I even remember what I was wearing that day. I remember walking up to Stuart Hall, a boys dorm, with friends where we all gathered and called our parents to make sure that they knew we were okay. I remember saying to Nut, "I don't deal well with death...." and him answering,"None of us do...". Little did we know that he and I would have a tragedy hit us even closer to home a year later, when we both lost a close friend.
I was sitting in my Teaching of Reading class when our professor came in and told us that what he had to tell us was never easy to do, but as educators we would have to deal with such things...and that our classmate Scott had killed himself the night before. I reacted immediately and pretty dramatically by bursting into tears. Looking back, I realize that I had an immediate panic attack then and there. Dr. Thompson gave us permission to leave class, and 3 of us did: Robin, Paige, and I. Paige went home to grieve with her parents, and Robin and I found friends with which to mourn. I'll never forget the bear hug in which David, our scholarship coordinator and friend, squeezed me as he, too, wondered why.
He was my friend. I sat in front of him in a class only the week before. He was in a scholarship program with me, and had been one of the first people I met on campus. He was one of my buddies...I remember him buying me a Mountain Dew at a party once when I didn't want to drink that night. We went together with other friends to see The Bodyguard. He rode in my car...he'd been to my room....he was my friend, and I would have done anything to keep him from taking his own life.
Though the details are not important in this context, we do know them, and know how deeply they affected those who loved him most. It was a heartbreaking moment that didn't have to happen. It reaffirmed to me that mental illness was VERY real, and that it needs to be addressed--and this thought came to mind later when I realized that given my history with mental illness, I would probably need to be on medication for the rest of my life in order to not follow Scott's path. It hurts even today, 16 years later. I again remember what I was wearing, and have the sweater still. I remember where we went to eat. I remember my roommate feeling as though she needed to be with her former boyfriend comforting him, and the probably pivotal decision she made NOT to go to him. I remember friends who called our room to tell us that they were thinking of us, as they knew he was our friend.
Today as I was driving on campus, I thought about Scott...and thought about how much he missed. Though Keith's accident affected me to the point that I still have a very healthy respect for trains, it was just that--an accident. Scott's death was not. He made a deliberate decision to end his life entirely too soon. What would he be like today? Would he have gained weight like we all have? Would his thick blonde hair be receding? Would he be a daddy now? And who would he have married? Would he be teaching, or even in school administration? He will never know how much he missed out on! I weep today for the life that could have been, if only he had tried to stick it out.
I cried today. I had to wipe tears away before entering my class. And when I got a chance, I went and shared my thoughts with one of his roommates...because I knew he would understand. Though I didn't cry then, I know that if I had needed to, that I had a welcome shoulder to lean upon as I wept...because I know he has wept as well. We agreed that we think of him often. His death was such a waste! He doesn't know the pain that he left behind. This, too, showed me why I always needed to resist any temptation I ever have to take my own life, because it would mean a way out of pain for me, but would leave such a path of destruction and despair for those left behind.
I'll never know if I could have said anything to Scott to change his mind--probably not, but I will always, ALWAYS wonder what might have been different if I had reached out. What if I had just spoken to him more in class when I last saw him? I know that I'm not the only one who has wondered such things.
Keith, Scott--your memories linger on. Your presence is still at Emory, and today your presence visited me. I hate you're not here with us anymore. You will always be in my heart.