My birthday is this Saturday. As you all found out on Monday, this is one of my favorite days of the year because it’s almost entirely about me. It is the anniversary of my escape from the womb, my first glimpse at this big crazy mess we call life. Everyone has to be nice to me; I get more activity on my Facebook timeline than all the other days of the year put together; I can have a cocktail at lunch if I want because fuck it, it’s my birthday. Aging doesn’t really faze me; I am only as old as I feel. So getting another year older is not a subject of mourning, but one of celebration.
But the anniversary of my birth is often interrupted by moments of solemn remembrance. You see, this Saturday is also the 11th anniversary of the day my friend Albert committed suicide.
He was technically one of my sister’s friends from her community college theatre group. She started college when I was a freshman in high school, and by the summer she was reveling in new friendships and a serious love for the theatre. They always needed extra bodies for their summer shows, so we got my mom’s permission and I went with her to the auditions. Her friends welcomed me with open arms, tucking me under their collective wing, and introducing me to the world of the stage; thus my ten-year love affair with the theatre began.
Albert was tall and skinny, which earned him the nickname “Big Al”, and a little odd looking. He was older than most of the others in the group. And he was the shyest person I have ever met. Albert made me look like the biggest extrovert on the face of the earth; that’s how shy he was. He would chuckle quietly at jokes and sit in the corner listening while everyone was talking in the green room or hanging out at the local Whataburger, but rarely contribute. Outside of asking questions during rehearsal, I probably only ever heard him say three or four complete sentences of his own making in our three year acquaintance. It wasn’t that he was dull or didn’t have anything to say; it was easy to see the intelligent thought behind his eyes as he watched us all. He just wasn’t able to express himself with ease.
Not until you got him on a stage. The difference was night and day. Where he couldn’t express his own words, Albert could relay those of a playwright with such realism and feeling it was breathtaking. I’ve rarely seen an actor with better comedic timing; I’ve also rarely seen one who could so easily bring tears to your eyes in emotional scenes and tragedies. The highlight of my entire theatre career was sharing the stage with him. I’ll never forget the show where I played a cop and had to pull a gun on him; it was always all I could do to keep from laughing at his reaction. The stage was where Albert came to life.
My junior year, Albert took the big step and moved to Austin, to become part of its blossoming theatre and independent film industry. We were all so proud of him, confident he would do well. How could he not? He was the best actor any of us had ever seen, professional or otherwise. We were all so sure he was going to make it.
And then a few days before my 17th birthday, in rehearsal at the theatre one afternoon, the director read us all an email Albert had sent him. I don’t remember what he said, but it was all very sweet, letting us know what a big part we’d played in his life and how much he appreciated our friendships.
How could any of us have known it was his goodbye?
A day or two after my birthday, my sister’s friend Jeff pulled up to our house, sat us all down, and made his sad announcement: Albert’s body had been found earlier that day in his apartment in Austin, a gun in his hand.
The next few days were a blur of grief. I don’t remember most of them. What I really remember is finding out at the memorial service that the coroner had put his official date of death at June 8, 2002. My birthday. I like to think he must have forgotten about it; that he might have waited a day if he’d known. He wouldn’t have wanted to spoil it for me. He was just that kind of guy.
I’ve heard people say that suicide is the coward’s way out. I’ve even, very recently, heard someone make light of an old friend’s suicide, saying glibly that they didn’t even feel sorry for him, that there wasn’t anything more cowardly or selfish he could have done. With all due respect, I think people who say things like that are lucky, because they cannot have ever been low enough to consider taking their own life. They have no possible way of understanding.
(Here I go quoting Cloud Atlas again) Suicide takes tremendous courage. It hurts. It’s final. Only those who feel really and truly alone, at the end of all other options, at the end of all hope, can go through with it. And I think only those who have been truly suicidal, who’ve seriously and thoroughly considered killing themselves, can understand that. I cannot begin to comprehend exactly what Albert felt that night when he decided he could not face this world another day, but I can put myself in his place.
I was there less than two years later.
My freshman year of college was hazed over with panic attacks and a severe bout of depression. I spent many a time hiding in my dorm room shower, crying in the corner as the water ran over me. Crying because I was in a new place far from all that was familiar, crying because of the isolation and loneliness I felt, crying because I didn’t know what was wrong with me, crying because despite the fact that I fit in for once and people liked me I still felt worthless and alone. It was during one of these crying fits toward the end of the spring semester that I glanced over at my razor and wondered how hard it would be to take apart. The blades were sharp enough. I’d seen The Craft; I knew “the right way” to cut.
And that thought scared the shit out of me. It was what made me realize I needed help; it was what got me into therapy when I went home for the summer. Not because I thought life was worth living, but because I’d seen what my friend’s suicide had done to everyone who knew him. I’d felt what it had done to me. I made myself a promise, right then and there, that no matter how much I hated my life, no matter how hard things got, I would never let myself go through with it. Not for me, not even for my friends and family. For him.
Albert’s suicide did a lot for me. It changed the way I look at the world. It began the slow process of extracting me from that Bible-Belt Christian culture which had never fulfilled me (it’s enough for another post entirely, but suffice to say I just couldn’t believe he was suffering in hell after all he’d suffered in life). It gave me a deeper appreciation for the people who love me. But more than any of that, it saved my life.
For the first few years, many tears were shed on my birthday. Sometimes I didn’t even want to celebrate it as anything more than the anniversary of his death. But slowly, gradually, I realized he wouldn’t have wanted that to happen. Albert wouldn’t want my special day to be forever clouded by his loss. He’d want me to go on with my life. So that’s what I did. That’s why I’m posting this today and not Saturday, because I’ve written most of this through a blur of tears. Eleven years hasn’t been long enough to erase that pain. I don’t think even a hundred and eleven could do it.
But last year, my birthday came and went without a moment of sadness, without a single second’s remembrance. It wasn’t until the next day when I was scrolling through Facebook and saw a post of Jeff’s that it hit me: it had been the ten year anniversary. Albert had been gone from this world for an entire decade, and I hadn’t thought of him once that day. I was a little ashamed of myself, but I think he’d be glad I’d had a good birthday.
This year, he’s been on my mind for a while. I’m not entirely sure why. A little, perhaps, to do with the comment I mentioned earlier. And maybe a little to do with the fact that I think I’m getting close to the age he was when it happened. I used to see so much of him in myself: the introversion, the social awkwardness, the difficulty with self-expression. And while those things are still a part of me, they’re much more muted now. I feel like I’ve grown into myself. Even though it’s now through dance instead of theatre I’ve become a much more confident performer—a much more confident person.
I don’t know if there’s an afterlife. I don’t know if we’re reborn to another life on this earth, or if this is all there is. Whatever happens to us, wherever Albert is, I miss him. But more than anything, I hope he has found the peace that so eluded him in life.