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Seeking Daniel's Embrace on Valentine's Day

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MALE SUICIDE
Richard Boll via Getty Images

Mrs. Ryan asked me if I'd like to borrow a jacket. Her dead son's closest friends were waiting for me in her front yard. The oil lanterns they held flickered blue and yellow on their still, somber faces.

Standing in Mrs. Ryan's doorway, a stream of cold air swept inside her house, and I held on to my response for too long. Mrs. Ryan smiled, opened the hallway closet and handed me a navy blue nylon jacket.

As I slid my arms through its sleeves, Mrs. Ryan said, "This was Daniel's." A pang surged. I wasn't sure if I could wear Daniel's jacket. It was too late -- the jacket was already on my back, its collar snug around my neck.

Daniel Ryan was born on Valentine's Day in 1980. At the age of 22, he committed suicide. Several years later, on the weekend after Valentine's Day, his friends -- Tomas, Chip, Curtis, Brian, and Mikey -- and I returned home to remember him.

We followed Jon, Daniel's older brother by two years, down a slick wooded path beside Mrs. Ryan's home. It led to Kensington Park, where a year earlier we erected a bench with a bronze-plated plaque. The bench looks on to two opposing basketball hoops. Daniel had played ball under the chained nets on endless afternoons.

After night fell, the six inches of snow blanketing the court and fields in the distance had solidified. The park looked like one big ice-skating rink, glazed and polished under a dark sky. We placed the lanterns on the bench illuminating the inscription: "In Loving Memory of Daniel Ryan."

Jon began to speak. "For the longest time, I couldn't even hang out," Jon said.

"What do you mean?" Brian asked.

"I couldn't hang out," Jon said. "I could chill out, but couldn't hang. I couldn't hang anything. I couldn't even hang my clothes."

Jon explained that the day his brother died, Jon arrived home expecting Daniel to have returned from his community college classes. Jon made himself a bite to eat while he waited. "After a few hours, I called my mom," Jon said. "And asked her where Daniel might be and her voice quivered, 'did you check the garage?'"

Jon said he crossed the kitchen with the phone to his ear and opened the door that led to the garage. Standing in a semi-circle around the bench, Tomas pulled on the end of a cigarette. Curtis glared at the bench; Chip watched Jon's boots.

"All I remember when I opened that door is seeing Daniel," Jon said. "He was wearing a blue Rebook polo shirt." Jon took a breath and held the bridge of his nose. "All I remember is seeing blue where there wasn't supposed to be any blue."

Daniel's first breakdown, or manic episode, unraveled on the same day as our senior prom. Daniel was supposed to meet the rest of us in the parking lot outside of our high school. When Daniel didn't show, Mikey called him. Daniel answered though he sounded muddled and incoherent.

Alarmed, we drove to Daniel's house and found him seated at his kitchen table shirtless and agitated. I asked Daniel what was wrong. He blurted out syllables. The few words he managed to stitch together were fragmented. I couldn't make sense of what he was struggling to say.

Daniel looked wounded and explosive. Tears welled up in his eyes and the muscles in his arms and chest fired and clenched. Later that evening, as the rest of us slipped into black tie and piled into limousines, Mrs. Ryan checked Daniel into a hospital.

When we returned from Kensington Park, I asked Mrs. Ryan if I could spend some time in Daniel's old room. After her youngest son died, I tossed around the idea of honoring Daniel by committing to a tattoo. Its permanence, like Daniel's vanishing, seemed fitting. I liked the idea of etching an indelible symbol of Daniel into my body.

Upstairs, Daniel's room appeared unchanged, his belongings untouched. I reached for Daniel's elementary school class picture. Even as a child, Daniel looked younger than he was. His round, doughy face gave away his innocence. A photograph, though, does not make for a good tattoo.

Neither Daniel's Jujitsu medals nor golden-tipped trophies would do either. The risk of representing only one side of his many was too high. Daniel's miniature samurai-like sword was, momentarily, a contender. So, too, was his guitar, or better, his maroon pick suspended by steel strings. But by then I had made the mistake of sitting on his bed.

Surrounded by Daniel's belongings, it did not take long to be engulfed by the hollowness of his room. The more I searched and studied its contents, the more vacant his room felt, and the more vapid I felt within it. I felt suddenly enveloped by an intensifying heat. It arrived abruptly along with piercing nausea. It was not the rawness and the immensity of losing Daniel. Unjustly, those feelings had receded over the years. This was different though equally suffocating.

Facing the same walls Daniel had faced night after night forced me to confront the truth. My pulsing anxiety stemmed from the realization that I wasn't searching through Daniel's belongings to honor him. I was up there for entirely self-serving purposes. The idea of a tattoo was pure fraudulence. My motive became glaringly apparent: that by virtue of displaying an enduring commitment to my friend, I could assuage my own guilt.

I had betrayed Daniel when he was alive, and now, touching his things, I was on verge of betraying him again. When Mikey called me at college in the middle of the night to say that Daniel had died, I thought it was a dream. Throughout the shattering eight-hour drive home, I managed to tell myself that Daniel 's suicide was unimaginable -- an implausible ending to his life. Culpability fell entirely on Daniel's doctors and health care providers.

But our ability to lie to ourselves also recedes over time. My heart raced. I could remember my attempts to keep a beat beside Daniel's tremendous guitar. I could remember the two of us hitching a ride with a tow truck driver during a botched road trip. I could remember grappling with Daniel -- and losing to him again and again. But I could not remember the last time I had visited Daniel when he was most entrenched in his battle against mental illness. And no doubt my increasing abandonment of Daniel during the months before his death -- when he was most in need of a friend -- fueled his desolation.

I returned downstairs. My friends had gathered around Mrs. Ryan's kitchen table. They were telling stories about their lives. I joined them. Near midnight, Mrs. Ryan ignited a burner and cooked us eggs and sausages. I tried to be present but I was seated beside the door that led to the garage.

To grapple and be overtaken by mental illness is still perceived as submissive. Depression remains linked to an affliction reserved for the weak-willed. This is especially emasculating and isolating for men, who commit suicide at four times the rate of women.

Daniel was, however, the diametrical antithesis of weak-willed. To have been ensnared in the vice that was his grip was to experience the extent of Daniel's will -- and feverish intensity. When we grappled, Daniel almost always made me tap out. When I did, Daniel softened just enough to loosen his grip but not his hold. Daniel would simply take whatever convoluted position he had trapped me in and transform it into an embrace.

To have been held by Daniel in this way is to have known him. It is also to understand that Daniel had become a man long before the rest of us. It was not his sheer power that made him so. Rather, it was the ability for his strength to manifest as warmth and affection. And it was the force of his tenderness in everything that he touched that I revere and miss most.

Several weeks after our high school prom, at graduation, Daniel stabilized and appeared back to normal. That fall, most of us scattered across the country to begin college. Daniel remained nearby. Over the following months and years, during visits home, Daniel's mental health deteriorated. His erratic behavior surged, receded, and surged again. The biochemical imbalances in his head revealed themselves in unpredictable mood swings.

Just as mental illness disrupts the normal processes of the mind, it wrecks havoc on relationships. What I saw in Daniel were shards of his former self. At a time when we cared about experiencing a good time, Daniel's transformation and the inconsistencies of his personality proved difficult to handle. The illness stripped Daniel of his identity. Friends stopped inviting Daniel out, I among them. Daniel was seen less and less.

Mental illness disrupts relationships, but it needn't amputate friendships. It's not just doctors and the health care providers who are culpable. As friends of the mentally ill, we too are responsible. Visiting a friend in despair -- the same way one would fighting any other illness -- is required; if for anything, to make the patient feel more loved and less alone.

Soon after Daniel's death we found comfort in telling ourselves that suicide was not on the forefront of our imaginations. That comfort was short-lived. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among youth in this nation, and 10th overall, more than liver and kidney cancer. When a friend's brain is misfiring ignorance about what's at stake is in itself a form of negligence. When we talk about mental illness -- especially bipolar disorder, clinical depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder -- risk of suicide ought to be a bigger part of the conversation.

On the afternoon Jon opened the door to the garage holding the phone to his ear, a sound came out of him that he is unable to describe. Jon remembers only pieces of what occurred next. Jon remembers screaming for a knife. He does not remember cutting Daniel down. He remembers performing chest compressions. He remembers breathing into his brother while knowing that Daniel was already gone.

After we finished eating, we began to say goodbye to Mrs. Ryan. This process was drawn out, like with family, we remained suspended together on our feet for a long while, the front door cracked open. We embraced again and again before we finally slid across Mrs. Ryan's front yard.

We piled into cars and drove less than a mile to Chip's house. For the rest of the night we skirted talk of Daniel. Nobody uttered his name. Instead, we built a fire and drank vodka till dawn. We each slept for a few hours sprawled across Chip's living room, some wrapped in blankets, others on carpet with their arms folded across their chests.

In the morning, we stood outside Chip's house. The snow had loosened. We dug our hands in and tried to hit a stop sign with snowballs, biding a few more moments together. Chip hugged Mikey, and Tomas did the same to Brian. Across the street from Chip's house a group of five boys with hats pulled over their ears piled on to a black inner tube. They were preparing to ride it down a small hill and slick ramp they had erected.

Tomas was getting on a plane back to San Francisco, where he lives with his girlfriend. Brian was returning to Cape Cod -- his first child due in August. Curtis was meeting up with his fiancée and future in-laws nearby for brunch.

Daniel's jacket hung in Mrs. Ryan's hallway closet.

And I didn't want to wear it, and I didn't want to take it off.

This story has been written with permission from Daniel's family and closest friends. Daniel's last name has been changed to protect his family's privacy. The author may be reached at: marcos.barbery@gmail.com

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.