11/07/2011 03:29 pm ET Updated Jan 07, 2012

Losing a Childhood Friend

October 28 -- I got an email message that I never expected last night. Jane (not her real name), who I had met my first day in a new school in the second grade, was dead. Having just gotten back from my 30th high school reunion, I had heard stories of my classmates that were no longer with us. There were heart attacks, cancer, car accidents; so many things that you hear about on the news or in the paper had claimed members of the class of 1981. I called my friend in New York to get the details. And it was nothing that I had imagined. The news made me crumple into my seat; the potatoes from a catering job I was preparing were now on the floor. "Gillian," Lori said, "Jane killed herself."

We are all almost 50. What could have made Jane give up so far into the game? Had none of the lessons learned from the hurt of adolescence, the post-collegiate dashed hopes, the unfulfilled dreams of middle age brought Jane to a place where she was comfortable with herself and could talk herself down from the window ledge? No. All of those things that we overcome and get passed left open wounds and the pain was too much and hurt more now that she had just turned 49. She hanged herself. Her sister found her.

I sobbed quietly when I hung up the phone. I cried for Jane's older sister who had one big image now to flood out all of the others she would cling to desperately -- like holding on to old photographs while tsunami waves crashed over her. A stabbing pain in my gut flared hot when I thought about Jane's parents. They always seemed sad to me. I imagined now their frowns deeper and their eyes flooding with tears they could not hold in.

Lori and I, like many of Jane's surviving friends and family are all thinking the same thing... what if I had done more? Why didn't I call Jane on my way to the reunion? Maybe being with her old friends -- the school chums that spent more hours in her company than her own family -- would get her feeling good enough to leave that man that was bringing her down. Perhaps she could reacquaint herself with the Jane we all knew and loved. Not the Jane she feared she'd become -- scared, worthless, better off dead.

We had been each other's solace in that school full of wealthier kids in bigger, nicer homes. We both had hardworking, immigrant parents. And neither one of us had dates to the senior prom. So we decided that we would get all dressed up and have a great time together. We had a lavish dinner at our favorite Chelsea restaurant. We ended the night at a club on the Lower East Side dancing to Duran Duran and missed our train back home. I walked up the driveway as the sun was coming up and my mother was leaving for work. "Are you in trouble?" Jane called me later. She had also been grounded for two weeks.

We did crazy teenage things together like cruising the small downtown of our neighborhood in her Dad's old Chevy with the broken tie rod and steering arm. We played tennis on hot Saturdays and cooled off with a thermos of iced vodka. We'd stumble home hanging on each other and laughed years later about the woman who asked us -- two drunk teenagers -- to baby-sit.

Damn it, Jane. We think about it, we joke about it. But don't do it. I had my George Bailey moment. I took a job making powdered potatoes and defrosting frozen salmon on one of those dinner cruise boats. With loans to repay and bills piling up I tightened my grip on the railing at the stern and thought about it. The key man life insurance made me worth more dead than alive. Instead, I quit that job where the food I watched people eat made me ashamed I was wearing a chef coat. Standing there watching them pile heaps of yuck onto plates made me grip that railing and think about all that was wrong with my life. I would be free and my family would get the cash. All I needed to do was jump into the unforgiving Potomac.

I suppose my misfortune didn't hold a candle to Jane's pain. While I just wanted things to start going my way, Jane just wanted it all to stop hurting. Everything she'd tried wasn't working; there was no way out but the ultimate exit. I would give anything to go back to the night of my reunion. This time I'd call her and insist she come with me. Coerce her to put on something decent and not let her say no, the same way she convinced me (I was the one out of the two of us with a license) to get behind the unpredictable steering wheel of her dad's Chevy. I'd object to all of her protests. This time I would be there.