Exactly twenty years ago, today, I took the last final exam of my high school career. It was the Physics Regents exam — the same test that every physics student has to take in New York in order to graduate. The test started at 9am, and I was done at 11:30. The answers to the test were posted on a brick wall outside the testing room, and I checked them and confirmed that I had passed before calling my mom for a ride home.
It might seem weird that I remember so many details about a relatively mundane day, but that’s because of what happened after that. My mom picked me up, and we went to Subway to get sandwiches for lunch. I ate meat at the time, and my favorite was the ham and cheese sub with extra veggies.
We got home, and I unrolled my sub. I hadn’t even taken one bite when the phone rang.
My uncle Jeff had died that morning. He committed suicide in his hometown of Kansas City.
The rest of my high school experience — all of the things that should have been celebratory and memorable — are a blur. I went to prom with a group of girlfriends, and remember nearly nothing — and not because I was passed out drunk in a bathroom. I attended senior week celebrations, and can’t tell you even one of the activities. I lived in a complete fog of denial, anger, and sadness. After we got back from the funeral, I cried alone in my bedroom every night. I bargained with God — with one of the only chips I had: I wouldn’t go to my commencement if he’d just bring back Jeff.
Jeff was a 31-year-old kid. He was the uncle that every kid wants to have, even if they don’t know it. He wasn’t afraid to roll around on the floor with all of us cousins, laughing and delighting us with his Donald Duck impersonation. He let me drive his car VERY slowly down a country road, months before my parents (or the law) would allow me behind a wheel. He and his wife, Corina, hosted a few of us for a weekend in Kansas City that surely would have tested Gandhi’s patience– we were away from our parents, we ate whatever we wanted, and we slept on a leaking air mattress that we made Uncle Jeff blow back up every hour or so.
Yet, Jeff was also a friend, and as supportive of an extended family member you could ever ask for. He gave me a day planner — my first — when I was accepted into college, and I still have it to this day. As a somewhat aspiring writer himself, he was proud of me for wanting to pursue a journalism degree, and even though that’s not ultimately what I did with my career, I still think he’d be proud. (Ironically, his death actually connected me to a reporter at the Kansas City Star, where I later had an internship — an internship that convinced me I wasn’t cut out for journalism).
There was a dark side, too — Jeff suffered from depression, and that’s ultimately what took his life. What made it so unbelievably hard for me to accept was that I never saw that Jeff. The Jeff I knew was bubbly, loud and vivacious. His death instilled in me a greater understanding of mental health, and a deep appreciation for anyone who works in mental health services.
Every June 16, I take a moment to reflect back on Jeff. Some anniversaries have been harder than others. The third anniversary was particularly tough because I was living in Kansas City at the time, and I got stuck in a traffic jam not too far from where Jeff’s life had ended. Six years ago, I was Jeff’s age when he died – 31 – and that was also a tough one. Eighteen years was difficult because it marked an age at which I had known Jeff for as long as he had been gone.
Twenty years ago, I took my physics final. I was thrilled to be ending my high school career, though I’m not sure I was ready to grow up quite as much as I did later that day. But if there is a silver lining, it’s that I’m grateful that I’m the oldest cousin: I had the most opportunity to know him and love him.
Jeff, you may be gone. But you’ll never be forgotten.