Saturday would have been my friend A’s 43rd birthday. I say “would have” because A committed suicide in September 2012.
I’ve decided to write this blog post, with my story about A and her husband J (also one of my best friends) as a tribute to two beautiful people that I loved very much. I also wanted to write this blog post to show people that true love does exist – and with all the talk about suicide at the moment (RIP Robin William), I wanted to share my experience with the subject.
I first met J when I started working at a bookstore in Woden – I was 21 years old and had somehow stumbled in to the greatest job I have ever had, and will likely ever have. The bookstore was staffed by a group of beautiful nerds and, for the first time in my life, I felt as though I had ‘found my people’. I met J on my first day and I knew I liked him right away – he was a straight up geek and so was I. He excitedly shoved sci-fi/fantasy books at me, exclaiming that I ‘must read this, and this, and this’. To this day, when I close my eyes and think of J, I remember his never ending enthusiasm for literature (and art and music and food – he was so excitable!).
During my time at the bookstore, I also had the pleasure of meeting J’s wife of 3 years, A – and back then, she terrified me. A was loud and blunt – a result of her European background, she said exactly what she thought (often very loudly) and quite frequently she said the *c* word in front of six year olds. She was something of a ying to J’s yang – she was feminine and obsessed with clothes and pretty things, and he was a stone cold nerd who wrote poetry and watched Babylon 5. They called themselves the owl and the pussycat, and because they were totally lame, he read that poem to her every night.
J and I worked together for about two years, before he took a job editing with a small company. Around this time I started a Trivia team with some of the bookstore staff, through this we managed to stay in touch and that kept our friendships alive after we had all stopped working at the bookstore. We ended up becoming a tightknit group of about 6-7, some former bookstore staff, some partners of bookstore staff and some randoms we picked up along the way. By this time I had also gotten used to A’s personality and saw her for the person she truly was – a warm hearted, larger than life, loving, protective mother bear. I adored her. A and one other lady, who worked at the bookstore with me, became my mother figures. The ladies taught me how to cook, how to drink wine and they taught me valuable tips and tricks for life. When I couldn’t afford to feed myself, they fed me and they did it with no second thought – once J & A bought me a $100 Coles voucher to buy food because I couldn’t afford bread.
By the time I stopped working at the bookstore I had also been privileged enough to witness J and A’s love for each other in all its touchy feely glory. They had been married 3 years when I met them, and they still acted like teenagers (I had to frequently yell at them to stop making out in supermarket aisles). A had been in a long term relationship with an abusive partner when she lived in Melbourne, and after moving to Canberra she was introduced to J – 10 years her junior – by a workmate (who also happened to be J’s big sister). They were married (eloped) within a couple of months, with no thought of their families who never got to see them wed – right from the beginning no one else existed outside of the two of them. Their whole lives revolved around each other. He worshiped her and she adored him. It was the truest love I’d ever seen, so much so that half the time I thought they were putting in on and showing off. It was gross. But that is a reflection of my upbringing – I didn’t believe anyone could actually love like that. I do know that they were very possessive of each other, one could not speak of the other’s flaws or anything – they were perfect in each other’s eyes and everyone else should see it like that too. I used to get annoyed because J would make sure A had everything she needed, but the rest of us were ignored. Their manners towards each other were lovely, but the rest of us tended to get ignored – it took me a while to get used to that (as someone who is used to looking after other first).
When I first met them, they were considering having children but eventually they decided that it wasn’t for them and instead got two cats; lovely Hugo and she-devil Matilda. The cats became their “fur babies” and they spoilt them rotten.
The two of them lived together in a small townhouse, which they had made their own – A’s style and perfectionist nature, and J’s books, could be seen throughout. I always felt warm and safe when I would visit, and not just because A would feed me the biggest bowl of woggy food you’d ever seen and J would put on Star Wars, but because it felt like a second home. I remember fondly my favourite nights, which usually involved eating ridiculous amounts of noodles and taking up residence in ‘my arm chair’ to watch movies like The Witches and Blade Runner.
We spent a lot of time together, as a group – lots of ‘night of shites’, visits to Noodlehouse and pizza dinners. We went on a few holidays together, and we were always first in line on opening night for any comic book movies. When crap went down with my family, it was this group of nerds that I turned to for support and they helped me through some really rough times. I could talk about anything with them – stuff I couldn’t even talk about with my oldest friends. It was more than a friendship group, it was a family.
On December 4th 2011, I invited the group round to watch Bridesmaids and eat pizza – a typical Tuesday night for us really. I was going to New Zealand for a holiday a few days later, so I wanted to see everyone before I left. I remember having a great time, as always, and I remember how J and I yelled at one of our friends who didn’t like the movie (because who doesn’t like Bridesmaids??). When they left that night, I obviously had no idea that it would be the last time I would see J. In hindsight, I am glad it was such a typical, fun night, because I want to remember it.
My flights home from Christchurch, New Zealand were delayed due to an earth quake and I missed seeing J & A on Christmas Eve when they left their house for the coast. As I was house-sitting for them, they left the keys under a pot plant and drove down the coast to spend Christmas with J’s family. That afternoon I moved in and made myself at home, let them know I was in and got a message in reply from J – I can’t remember exactly what it said but he told me they had arrived and were headed down the beach. I went to my Mother’s house to watch Love, Actually – a Christmas tradition – and when I came back to J and A’s that night the answering machine was buzzing.
I listened to the message on the machine but it was all in Hungarian – A’s family were Hungarian – and I couldn’t work out what was being said. I could tell that the person was upset though, so I assumed it was A’s Mother (she had been known to get a bit emotional at times). I messaged A and told her to call her Mother. I went to the bathroom and while I was on the toilet the home phone rang – obviously I didn’t get up to get the phone in time, so it rung out. As it was really late at night, I messaged A and told her that I’d been on the toilet if that was her who called, she should call back – I didn’t want to risk waking her up if it wasn’t her who had called. After waiting a few minutes for any follow up call, I went to bed.
At 7am the next morning, my mobile rang displaying a number I’d never seen before. I am one of those people who never answer their phones for numbers I don’t know because I assume everyone is a telemarketer if I don’t know them already. They hadn’t left a message after a few rings, so I was convinced it was an automated telemarketing call. And so I didn’t answer my phone when it rang another 30 times that morning. I went to Mum’s for Christmas morning, and the phone kept ringing the whole time. I ended up putting it on silent and eventually I sms’d the number and told them that I don’t answer numbers I don’t know and that they should leave me a message.
And they did. It was A’s brother Z, he asked me to call him back. I automatically knew something was wrong – but it wasn’t what I had expected. J’s Dad had had a stroke the year before, so my mind naturally went to troubles with him.
I went in to the front rooms and called Z. He said that he was sorry to have to tell me, but J had died. He’d drowned the afternoon before (Christmas Eve). J, one of the fittest, strongest, people I knew had drowned. Z told me that both he and J had been swept out to sea by a current and that J had saved Z, but had drowned himself.
Later I found out that a man on the beach had swum out to save them, and bought them both back to the rocks – if he had not been there then Z would probably be dead too. A and J’s Dad were forced to watch the horror unfold on the rocks as the stranger, and then later the paramedics, tried in vain to resuscitate J. I take comfort in knowing that he was unconscious and felt no pain, and that A was with him when he passed, as he would have wanted.
After I got off the phone from Z I sat in the front room and stared at our Christmas tree. I was so confused. J was only 30, and he was a good swimmer. How could this happen? Then it all came out in a flood of emotions. I screamed. I wailed. Mum thought I’d said that J’s Dad had died and told me she was sorry and knew how fond of was of him – until she realised I was talking about J, and then my whole family went in to shock along with me. I threw up.
That night I had to call a friend of J’s, and a member of our friendship group who had moved to Sydney, to tell her what had happened. Not the Christmas phone call she was expecting, I am sure, and a moment seared in to my brain – having to actually say the words out loud. J was dead.
As I was house-sitting for J and A, I had to go back to their house on Christmas night and feed their cats. Usually I would have stayed the night, but I couldn’t bring myself to stay in the house – it felt so strange to be in this space, with so many happy memories and so much warmth but to feel so much sadness inside of me.
The next day I spoke with Z again and he said they would be cutting their coast trip short, because A had been put on suicide watch and was being transferred back to Canberra to a facility that could properly monitor her – the hospital down the coast had no facilities or staff to deal with her situation. A had been trying to run through glass doors and cut herself, she’d also been banging her head on things. She had lost her husband, her true love and her will to live without him.
A was taken to Woden’s Canberra Hospital, to the psych ward, and met there by her brother and two of our friends. When the boys saw the standard of patients in the ward (ie criminals and mentally unstable people who looked like they might stab you), they petitioned to have A moved straight away to Calvary’s Hyson Green and thankfully she was moved. She kept saying that she wasn’t crazy, that she didn’t belong there – and she was right.
Once A was settled in the hospital she was given some drugs to help her sleep, and everyone went back to J and A’s house. I cooked Tacos. I’m not sure why, but I knew everyone would be hungry and tacos are good for feeding a large group of people. To this day, tacos remind me of that Boxing Day.
I also decided cleaning J and A’s house from top to bottom and cooking a ridiculous amount of food to keep in the fridge for the family was a good idea – it helped me take my mind off things and let me take care of some people I loved.
That night (Boxing Day) A’s family arrived – her brothers, sister-in-law and mother came up from Melbourne and moved in to their house (which meant I was no longer house-sitting). J’s Dad moved in as well.
We all went to Hyson Green to visit her in the evening, because she had rung me to check on the cats but said that she was lonely and she didn’t like being treated like a crazy person. It was the first time I had seen her since J died, and I knew straight away that the person in front of me was not A. Now, I expected the grief obviously, but she was also lost, confused and angry – she was a shell. She didn’t understand why this had happened (none of us did), and she kept saying that she wanted to die – she wanted to follow J, she said that he was waiting for her to follow him.
While we were sitting outside getting some fresh air and making A eat her hospital food, she started repeatedly banging her head on the table – as though she was trying to whack any and all thoughts out of her mind. I understood how she felt, if I could have removed the feeling I was having, I would have tried too. We calmed her down and then stayed with her until she fell asleep. I didn’t see A again until after J’s funeral – she was surrounded by her family and I didn’t want to intrude (to which they would always say “but you are our family”…).
The next day I went back to work. This was in the days before Christmas shut down at my department, and I had volunteered to hold the fort well before these events transpired. I decided to go to work, it gave me a good reprise from the chaos of what was going on – it also provided me with my own personal psychology service in independent parties. People at work had heard me speak of J, so they knew the name, but then eventually word spread that I had lost my best friend – thanks to my well-meaning boss who ran around and told everyone not to ask me how my Christmas break was (naturally everyone asked me what happened). It was an excuse for me to talk about what had happened, in a way that felt as though I was recounting a story that happened to someone else – which was strangely therapeutic.
A few days later we held a very solemn New Year’s Eve – four of us sitting around eating pizza and watching the fireworks on TV. I am not sure what A and her family did that evening, but I presume it was something similar.
Due to Christmas and the New Year period, it took the coroner a long time to do an autopsy for J, and as such his funeral wasn’t held for about 2 weeks. There was a viewing of his body before the funeral, but I declined to attend because I wanted my last memory of J to be of him stuffing his face with Pizza while laughing at a silly movie. J’s funeral was held at the Crematorium and consisted of all the geeky things you would expect. The coffin was brought in to the Star Wars theme music, which made me break down – I’d lost my geekiest friend and now he was rubbing it in my face like the shit stirring bastard he was. Damn, I loved him.
The funeral wasn’t just about J; it was about J and A. Even the celebrant was blown away by the love these two shared – having to stop herself a few times, because she was tearing up. Poems that the two of them shared and other inside jokes reminded us how close these two were and how lost A would now be.
Poor J’s Dad and sister-in-law – both were dealing with the loss of their son/brother, a grief no one can comprehend, but at the same time they had to be strong for A. I have always felt bad about the whole situation, they were grieving but it was only ever about A – that’s the type of person she was. She was the one who chose everything for the funeral, it wasn’t about anyone else’s connection with J. A lot of people in that crowd had lost someone they loved, but none more than A.
There was no official wake for J, A could not handle it – instead she went home with her Mother and the few of us who had known J through the bookstore moved on to a house, where we sat outside and drank whiskey (his favourite) and smoked cigars. I hate whiskey, so my sister drank mine – but I happily smoked everyone’s left over cigars. Everyone got a little tipsy; so naturally we ordered pizza and watched Xanadu. J would have loved it.
If I die, everyone has to sit outside under fairy lights (I don’t care what the weather’s like), smoke Cuban cigars (Cohiba if you can afford it) and drink gin martinis. And eat noodles. And watch The Avengers.
Anyway. A few days later A’s family all returned to where they lived and suddenly she was alone. For the next month or so, one of us would stay with her because A couldn’t be alone in the house, especially at night. I sat up with her, sometimes just the two of us, sometimes with others – but mostly we took turns. A few times my friends had to dump plans, or sometimes even their children – we had to drop everything because A needed us. A would talk about how much she missed J, how she missed his body and his smell, that nothing was right with the world anymore. I managed to convince her that one day she would be crazy cat-lady and I would be crazy dog-lady and we would buy houses next to each other and grow old and wrinkly as spinsters.
In February she went to Melbourne for a couple of weeks and I had to take a week off work with migraines – it’s as though I had put all my own grief aside to help look after A and then when she was gone, it all crashed down on me. I hadn’t been allowed to grieve for my friend – and then all of a sudden 5 weeks of repression came crashing down on me. Eventually J’s father, who had also been going through a hard time, moved up to Canberra and moved in with A. It was the best thing for both of them – company and someone who understood their pain.
After J’s death, A went from being a happy bubbly person who took a lot of pride in her appearance, to someone who spent all day moping about the house not wearing a bra. It was both a blessing and a curse that they had no children – no children lost their father, but no children also meant that A had no reason to try to go on. She left her job, she stopped cooking (a passion of hers), and she just stopped caring. J used to put her up on a pedestal and without him she had lost all confidence in herself. Occasionally we saw glimpses of the joyful old A, but they were few and far between. She also didn’t care about anyone else’s grief, it was only hers – we were all strong for and none of us were really allowed to overshadow her.
One night in April we had a group dinner, and A sat on the couch crying, as she did most of the time. It was raining outside that night, and I mentioned to her that whenever it rains really hard I always want to run outside and dance around in it – she said we should, and we did. For about 10 minutes the two of us jumped in puddles, the rain bucketing down, laughing like crazy people. As soon as we went inside A had a breakdown and within 2 minutes I was holding her, naked and wailing, in our shower. The rain dancing was a beautiful moment, meant to show her that she could still have moments like this with J gone, but to her it was just a moment that J had missed and the furthered her feeling that the hole in her life, and heart, was infinite.
I found it hard to be around her during the months that followed that night. I felt guilty for making myself busy with other friends and my siblings, but being around her constant melancholy reminded me of my own grief and it was hard to maintain that level of sadness. I suffered from depression for three years, and in an attempt to tame the black dog, I tend to remove myself from situations that may bring those feelings back. I started to pull away from the friends we had in common too – every time I saw them it was a reminder that someone was missing. Sometimes I would sit at A’s house and just sit watching the stairs, because I always expected J to come bounding down them with a book I “simple my read” in his hands.
A did start to work on getting J’s fiction published, which I had hoped would inspire her to keep on going to make sure that J’s legacy was realised – she worked with the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild to edit his works, but I never saw anything come from it.
I did meet a few members of the Guild at a birthday party we through for J on what would have been his 31st birthday, in May – and it gave me hope to see she was making new friends. I spent most of the night hiding from someone A was trying to set me up with – she’d decided to project her need for love on to me, as she wanted me to be as happy as she was.
Later in May I went to America with my brother, and the day I got home I ran in to A at the shops – she told me that she was leaving for America the next day too. I was happy that she was going to do something, that she was embracing life. But after she left I talked to our friends and found out that during my time away A had started smoking pot, that she had started meditating (while heavily medicated) and had been seeking “alternative” paths.
Turns out she had gone to America to attend what was an “alternative camp”. She had mentioned to our friends that she had spoken to J and that she was sleeping so much because she was learning how to astral project in her dreams to be with him. This place she went to in America was a “retreat” that specialised in astral projection, and other out of body experiences.
Now, I am not a sceptic or anything – I don’t know for a fact that she wasn’t seeing J, I’ve never experienced that sort of thing myself but I can’t say for certain it’s not possible – but what I know is that she was sleeping away her life, she wasn’t doing anything. Without J, she had no reason to. In my mind, she had so much to live for – but she couldn’t see it.
I believe it was on this camp that A decided she would kill herself. She extended her trip in the US and did a few things I know she’d always wanted to do – she went to New York, she went to Niagara Falls. When she got home from America she threw herself a birthday party and announced that she would be going to China (having only got back from America a week before).
I had had a major allergic reaction about a week before the party, and as such was not really in the partying mood – but I’m so so glad I forced myself to go that night. A mothered me like she used to, and she smiled a lot that night. Once again, stupid me saw this as a sign that maybe she was doing things she’d always wanted to do now that she had some money from the insurance and that she was becoming happier – that she was looking at the people she loved and who loved her, realising she had things to live for.
A went to China with one of J’s friends and by all account had a wonderful time – I know they saw Panda’s and it sounded awesome! They arrived home on a Friday, and on the following Monday I had a message from J’s sister asking me if I’d seen or heard from A – apparently no one had seen her since Friday night. Once again, naïve me thought that she probably just went down the coast or went somewhere to spend some time by herself. I believe the exact words I used, while talking to my family at dinner that night, were: “she’s a grown woman, jesus! If she was going to kill herself she would have done it months ago!”. I got home from dinner to a knock on my bedroom door and my flatmate telling me that A had killed herself. Everyone had found out earlier, but my friends knew that I was at family dinner so they decided not to tell me until later. I was upset, obviously, but it was different to how I felt when I found out J had died – it was certainly less of a shock.
A had checked herself in to a hotel (in Canberra, but I will not mention the name) and spent Friday night writing her suicide note. Saturday night she had taken a pill that she had bought when she was in China – a pill designed to cause death. On the Monday morning she was due to check out, she was found by a cleaner from the hotel – who A had even thought to write a letter to (saying she was sorry that she had to find her, and explaining the situation). A left notes for the police, explaining what the pill she took was and where she’d gotten it, and letters for a few select friends, including myself. I was given the letter a few days later but refused to open it – I just couldn’t bring myself to read it. At the funeral I found out that it was just a copy of her suicide note and we’d all gotten the same thing – it was as though she wanted us to keep a copy for our records.
The day after I found out that A had killed herself, I went to work, but two of my friends went with J’s Dad to identify her body. That night we all got together and ate more pizza than I’ve ever seen in my life. Grief = food.
In the lead up to her death, A had written up a set of instruction for us to follow after she was gone – including what music to play at her funeral and what coffin she wanted. Apparently she had pre-chosen a cardboard coffin and J’s sister organised a night where we all came round and decorated A’s coffin with stickers and pictures and glitter. It was the weirdest experience of my life. Even more of a strange moment, given that half the people standing around the coffin were mad and angry about A’s death and resented the way she was treating us from the afterlife. Personally, I was just really confused about how to feel. I wanted to honour her wishes, but I resented her telling us how to handle her death – I was upset at losing one of my best friends, I didn’t really feel like stickers and glitter.
The songs played at her funeral were meant to make us laugh, but instead made some people angry that she thought that some ill-placed rap music would make up for her leaving us behind – again, I was just confused about how I should be feeling and instead just ended up feeling numb. She wanted us to celebrate the fact that she was now with J, and that thought did make me happy, but mostly we just saw the extra grief on top of what was already a tragic situation. And we knew, without a doubt, that this is not what J would have wanted – he would have wanted her to live on.
I must admit I did have some anger towards A, but mainly because of what I thought she had left behind – her father-in-law, her sister-in-law, her brother-in-law, her mother, her brothers and her friends who loved her, and all of whom had suffered the loss of J only a few months before. How could she be so selfish to put these people through more pain?
Eventually I came to realise that A couldn’t see the good stuff, she was in a haze of depression. She was also one of the most selfish people I have ever met – this would be no secret to anyone who knew her. I’m not saying suicide and selfishness are linked – because they’re not – I’m saying that a contributing factor of A’s suicide was her selfishness. J’s death became about her. It was her grief and her loss – all she saw was her life without J and it didn’t make sense, no one could possibly understand. Except they could, J’s sister and his father were both suffering unimaginable pain too, and she could have reached out to them and shared her grief – but she couldn’t see any of that because that was her nature, she didn’t think their pain was even close to hers. She was also the most stubborn person I’d ever met, and it was just one of the many reasons I loved her, but I am sure that also contributed to her view that life would never get any better.
But more than her grief and her depression, she wasn’t A anymore. In my mind A’s soul had left Earth on the beach with J on Christmas Eve – it just took 9 month for her body to follow. I came to see her suicide as a release, a form of closure on the whole awful story. A believed that her life was never going to get any better than when she was married to J, and I can’t see that it would have – in their minds they had a perfect life.
I know it sounds dark, but after A’s death, we were provided with some closure and life returned to normal as much as it could. When the group would hang out, we would talk about J and A with affection – we loved them, but life goes on. I see J’s Dad and A’s brother every now and then, and J’s sister is a friend. I run in to some of J’s friends around town and I always make sure I stop and catch-up with them, and I am still friends with the bookstore group – this tragedy was a shared experience that will bond us to each other for the rest of our lives.
I’ve been in J and A’s house a few times since A died, J’s Dad now lives there and inherited their cats (one of whom has sadly passed away since, gone to join his human parents). I went in to the house a few months ago, to feed their cat while J’s Dad was away – it was an eerie experience being in there after so long, but a happy one too. J’s Dad has moved a lot of the furniture and a lot of stuff was given away or given to charity, but it still feels like J and A. The house has a presence that I associate with people I loved, and despite the emptiness, it is full of loving memories. I sat on the ground in the study, surrounded by J’s books and I felt at home. I rue the day it is ever sold to someone who doesn’t love that place as much as we all do.
J and A taught me to believe in love. Though their story ended tragically, as all the best love stories do, the years I spent getting to know them and being part of their extended family changed me forever. I grew up in a house-hold without much affection, and I’ve always been terrified of it, but J and A taught me that it’s not only gross to make out all the time, it’s also a beautiful thing to have so much love and desire for another person. I am not sure their dependence on each other was particularly healthy, but it worked for them.
I have an owl foot print and a cat foot print in their memory on my big toes, so they can walk with me throughout my life – they were always so supportive of me going out and embracing life, and I want that reminder with me forever.
Saturday was A’s birthday. It is also two years to the day since I last saw her. When I picture her in my head, I see her standing in the kitchen at her 41st birthday party with a smile on her face, taking in the character and personality of the people she loved. And she did love us, I know that, but it was nothing compared to the love she had for J. I don’t think any love I will ever witness in my life time will compare to their love – they literally were not able to live without each other.
Happy Birthday A, I love you and miss you.