Today is his birthday. He would have been 43.
We met at age 19 in college. He had a warm and friendly aura. He was one of the most generous persons I’d known, and even to today, I have yet to meet many who match his level of giving. He confessed his amour at age 25, even though our friends knew it had probably been there since day 1. He was mature and committed. I was neither. I entertained the idea, even followed through with “taking a chance”. But in the course of only two months, I was already eyeing my options and living out my “play the field” mantra. He was forgiving, persistent, and patient. I foolishly believed if I kept him within distance, that one day I could fall for him. This is the kind of advice from friends that was a constant in those days…
Me: “I see him like a friend. I don’t want to ruin what we have. What if it gets ugly, like most relationships do when they go sour?!”
Them: “He’s the kind of guy you marry. He’s not exciting, but he’ll be really good to you. He’s always good to everyone. Imagine what he’d do for the One he’s in love with!”
Me: “Maybe someday. Right now, I’m not even thinking about getting married. I just wanna have fun!”
Years would pass. He was there for me. I was there for him. One year, he was short on money for tuition. I didn’t even have to think twice about it. I paid it with my summer work money. He’d changed his major from engineering to nursing. He eventually became an emergency room nurse.
After his first month at work, he paid a visit. I wasn’t home, but my mother was. When I came home that evening, my mother gave me a talking to.
Her: “You know I taught you that you can’t take gifts from any guys. They will expect things. You have to make your own money so you don’t rely on anyone for anything. Your friend came by today and left you this.”
Me: “I thought you said I couldn’t accept any gifts from a guy?”
Her: “He told me you helped him pay for school. He’s got a job now. I’m proud of you for helping him. When someone gives you a gift to say thank you for doing something for them, you must accept it graciously.”
I untied the silky red bow wrapped around a cream colored box lined in bright red velvet. The word Omega was etched on the box. A bright and shiny timepiece with sparkling diamonds in the bezel was snuggled around a small pillow in the same bright red velvet color. A note fell from the lid.
“Dear Little One, thank you for being there for me in every way. You’re the best kind of friend anyone could ask for. Please take this gift as a token of my appreciation. Consider it a repayment of my school loan from you, with a little interest. Love You Always, XXX”
He grinned widely when he saw it on my wrist at dinner. We had a long conversation about the meaning of life and what the future held for each of us. We’d be best friends, always. We jokingly made a pact – that if neither of us had anyone by the time we were 30, we’d marry each other. At the age of 25, 30 years old seemed really old to me and a good age to be married to your best friend.
He got his new apartment near his work. I borrowed my dad’s van and chauffeured him to Ikea. He bought a ton of stuff – living room, dining room, bedroom, entertainment center, and even decorative items. We hauled it all in the van and spent an entire weekend assembling every single item. When we were done, we kicked back on his couch and admired his fully furnished crib.
He leaned over to kiss me, and I let him, for a second, maybe two. But I couldn’t continue. I had a boyfriend at the time, one that I was about to dump anyway. He had a bad temper and was extremely jealous and controlling. I kept thinking he would beat up my best friend if he found out we kissed, even if for a second or two. I jumped off the couch and said, “Please don’t mess up our friendship. I won’t tell XXX about this. Enjoy your new place.”
Out of fear, out of confusion, out of awkwardness…out of whatever it was, we didn’t talk for months after. Then suddenly, these conversations started swirling among our mutual friends…
Them: “Did you hear? He has a girlfriend. Some girl with 2 kids! XXXXX already met her. He can’t stand her. She’s so not right for him. You’re his best friend. You need to talk some sense into him!”
None of our friends knew about our awkward moment on his couch and that we hadn’t been in touch for months.
Me: “Don’t judge her yet. We don’t know her. I trust him. I’m sure he wouldn’t be with someone terrible.”
I wasn’t jealous. But I was certainly curious.
Me: “So who’s the lucky girl?”
Him: “She’s been dealt a really bad hand. She’s great and she’s totally into me. She comes over a lot, cooks for me, and we have a great time together.”
Me: “Is she hot?”
Me: “Our friends who’ve met her aren’t thrilled that she’s got two kids. Are you ready for that?”
I should have known it would get serious quickly. He’s not the type of guy to fool around. I called him one early Saturday morning and invited him to lunch to investigate further. His voice was groggy, obviously I’d woken him up.
Me: “Hey, you wanna grab lunch today?”
Him: “Maybe another time. I’m busy today.”
Me: “Oh ok. What are you up to?”
Him: “XXXXX is with me.”
Me: “Like right now? As in next to you as we speak?”
Me: “Ok. Well enjoy the rest of your day!”
She was sleeping over. It had gotten way serious. He eventually married her, against all advice and persuasions by many. The wedding was beautiful. We were all there to support him, even if we didn’t feel she was right for him. His parents weren’t all that thrilled, to say the least. His mother spoke with my mom at the reception. “Your daughter is the one that got away. I wish it was her.”
I was hoping to become friends with her, but she kept her distance from me. The looks she’d shoot at me with a side eye were obvious to everyone. My bubbly greetings were always met with a quick glance and an even quicker “hey” under her breath.
Me: “Why doesn’t she like me? Does she have something against me?!”
Him: “Yeah, she’s not comfortable around you. She says I act differently, even speak differently when you’re around. I don’t know. I guess I shouldn’t have told her you were my first love.”
Me: “Ugh, you moron! Why did you tell her that?!”
Him: “Because she asked me why we were so close. Since I love her, I wanted her to know the truth.”
He was so naïve. And I was prideful. More so, I was frustrated with his optimistic, nice-guy attitude that believed she and I could get along if he was truthful to her. It only made things worse.
Me: “Ok. So for the sake of your marriage and your happiness, I think it’s best we not talk anymore. So much for being best friends forever. I guess you have her now. She can be your best friend.”
Him: “She’s my wife. I love her. But I love you, too, but as a friend. I don’t want to not be friends with you, though.”
Me: “Too bad. It has to be this way. Take care of yourself. Bye.”
That was the last time I ever heard his voice again. We were already in our 30s. Our pact deadline had passed, and now our friendship was over.
Through friends, I learned that he had a child with her. He put her through nursing school, bought her a fancy car, a nice home, vacations, the works. One big happy family. I was happy for him. I was forging my own happiness and was relieved that maybe we were wrong about her.
October 2009, he sent me a Facebook friend request. On the day of my birthday, October 19, instead of posting a birthday wish on my timeline, he posted on his own that “things don’t turn out the way you’d imagine.”
I was afraid to initiate contact with him. What if she reads his stuff? What if she sees my “likes” or my comments? I’ll just wait for him to reach out to me. He never did on Facebook. I had to wait another 2 and a half months to hear from him.
December 31, 2009. I’m in Houston for the holidays and ringing in the new year with my siblings and cousins at the house my parents bought for us. They stayed in the house we grew up in, and we got this nice pad to ourselves. In my bedroom, I have a white cardboard box filled with mementos and keepsakes. Many of his cards and notes were in there. My little cousin Vinnie came downstairs around midnight as the ball in NYC dropped. He had a purple envelope in his hands and showed it to me.
“Auntie, what is this?”
I looked at it. It was from him, a birthday card with the same salutation as all the other notes and cards, “Dear Little One”. I got really sad when I read the last line, “We will laugh until we’re old and gray.”
“Vinne, why did you give this to me?”
“I don’t know.”
January 1, 2010.
Them: “He’s dead. I can’t believe it. He’s dead.”
Me: “What?! No, are you sure?!”
After hearing it enough times, it started to sink in. He was gone. He’d taken his own life. And he took a part of me with him. My gut was sucker punched. The blow was the kind of pain that induced vomiting, and I’d never cried with such anguish as I did in the days after. I was full of regret. Regret that I ended our friendship. Regret that I didn’t initiate contact after we made our social media connection. Regret that my pride and frustration got in the way of being mature enough to work through the struggles of seeing a friendship through even if his wife didn’t like you. Regret that I held out during all those years – when I wanted to just say “Hi, how are you doing? – and not in a superficial way, but in a genuine way of really wanting to know. Is your wife being good to you? Are you happy? Are your kids happy and healthy? Do you miss me? Because I sure do miss you. I miss our talks. I miss our walks. I miss the bets we used to make playing pool in the University of Houston game room in between classes. I miss giving you shit for loving me. I hope she’s brought you happiness. I hope she made you feel like you’re the best guy in the whole wide world.
But if so… if you were happy, then why? Why did you let her treat you that way? Why did she abandon you when you had done nothing but given her a better life than she could have ever imagined? Why did you leave us? Why did you not reach out to me? Why, damn it?!
Because I was firm, our friendship was over. This was all my fault!
Hunger and slumber eluded me for 2 days until my body shut down. I eventually crashed into a deep sleep, only to be awakened shortly after by a text message on my Blackberry.
This message came from a student in my class when I taught in 2006 at Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs. Initially, I was dazed, confused, and spooked (to say the least). How could this be? She could never have known that he ALWAYS addressed me as “Little One”. I shed tears as I type this now and look at the message that is black and white in front of us. This was his message to me. He did reach out. And he used this young lady who was my former student, who had my number because she spoke to me only 6 months earlier about going to graduate school, as his messenger. What a paradigm shift for me in the way I understand life, death, and the meaning of the soul. And in the moments after my thoughts settled and I had a long conversation with the messenger, I was at peace. All the pain, the anguish, the sorrow, the regret…they all washed away in an instant. Calm, love, peace, resolution – these feelings were running through my veins and spiritually cleansed me of any regrets and misgivings.
I wanted to tell his parents, but I had not spoken to them in years. I didn’t know how to reach them. The next night, I had a dream of an old cordless phone with the digital display. 281-XXX-XXXX. It was clear and obvious. Their home phone number had been delivered to me in my dreams. I shit you not.
My visit to his parents was not sad. They listened with compassion and appreciation. “We know he always loved you. We’re not surprised he reached out to you. Thank you for being his messenger.”
Their Buddhist beliefs and their Vietnamese cultural knowledge affirmed the understanding of an afterlife, where our loved ones communicate with those they love and cherish.
Needless to say, this changed my world view. I believe that there is indeed another plane of our existence. I believe myself to be rational thinker, a lover of science, and a champion of the scientific method. But this experience has shaken me and shifted my world view regarding the afterlife. My soul is connected to his. Over the years, I’ve received signs from him, but only on my birthday. My bedside light flickers. My television turns on. One area in my room gets very cold. These moments are treasured. And in moments like tonight, when I’m reminded that it’s his birthday, I write this to send my energies to him, and to share with you something in my life that truly stirs my soul.