Peace, At Last

Peace, At Last

As some friends and I stood in a circle in my living room, saying goodbye to a man who profoundly touched our lives, I felt a strong wave of old emotion well up. I was his first girlfriend, and it seemed right that this final ceremony should end with me.

It took me a long time to write this story because, for all of my adult life, I pushed down and avoided my thoughts and feelings about him and our young relationship; however, after hearing about his suicide, I wanted to bring our friends together and honor his life. To be honest, the event was more for me than it was for them.

From the early and impressionable age of 15 until I left him at 22, he had an alarming and frightening mental hold on me. My mother used to silently wonder and then bravely ask, “Why do you want to be with someone who makes you so unhappy?”

I can honestly say that I don’t remember exactly why I stayed with him all those years. Of course, there were terrific times — he could be hysterically funny — but endless tears and feelings of low self-esteem now jump to the forefront of my memory.

Sixteen years after I walked away, I saw him across the room at my friend’s art opening. The familiar stomach knot reappeared on cue, much to my astonishment. I got through the event with the brilliant help of my husband, who stood by me as an adoring and protective friend. Still, it was a shock and a surprise to have that queasy feeling rise up again.

Then, in my living room circle that ceremonial day, we shared stories about him — good and bad. One friend said that he had been talking about his suicide for quite some time. He had planned it all, meticulous in every detail, which was very much like him.

He told my friend that he felt unloved, and wondered why everyone always left him. He didn’t know how to find happiness or quality in his life. He claimed to have tried every available method — prescription drugs, therapy, alternative medicine — to quiet the noises in his head, but he still lived a miserable life every day. In an e-mail to my friend, he wrote, “I guess I just never knew how to show love even though I loved each and every sunrise, sunset, star, and moon I ever saw.”

He was calm when talking about his suicide, she said, tying up loose ends and making sure that, in the final moment, he would do everything right. He felt that he had nothing more to offer his family or friends, and it was his time to go. The thought of closing his eyes and drifting away was enormously appealing.

After hearing these stories, I gained newfound compassion, which helped me let go of my feelings of anger and blame. For the first time, I felt intense sadness about him — and not me. I learned that he had an honest-to-goodness mental illness, probably even during our time together. He never hit me, but I remember the craziness in his eyes when he yelled, which frightened me and which I could never identify. Now I can.

In their last conversation, he asked my friend to be with him when he took his life. She turned him down. He spent his last moments alone in a motel room, suffocating himself with toxic gas.

Of course, he didn’t ask me to be with him at the end because he knew, through our mutual friends, that I didn’t want him to contact me. As odd and unbelievable as it may sound, if he had asked me, I think I would have done it.

I realize that it’s illegal, outrageous, and against many people’s ethics and values, but I think I would have held his hand, kissed him goodbye, and wished him peace of mind — at last.


© 2011 Joanne Shwed

Originally written for CoastViews magazine

Selected for inclusion in Carry the Light: Stories, Poems and Essays from the San Mateo County Fair (2013)