Adam Prescott Collier sheepishly took my hand as we sat high up on the tool shed roof that late, overcast afternoon in May, and I blushed. Of course I blushed. I turned red just at the sight of him. But such a tender and soft and kind gesture reminded me that I still had some sense of innocence left.
At 14 years old, I was more knowledgeable about adult things than any girl should be, and yet never embarrassedly experienced the awkwardness of a first kiss, more or less considered standard eighth grade protocol. While I constantly wrestled with nonstop feelings of being used, dirty and broken, “Scotty,” the one other soul in the world who knew where those feelings came from, often helped me to forget how ruined I felt. But as he leaned in and the tips of our noses just barely touched, we heard the sliding of the back door and snapped our heads away and both mumbled something about math homework.
I wish I could tell you that our fear was as simple as our shyness and embarrassment. I’d even settle for angry parents, some sort of star-crossed lovers curse.
But it wasn’t.
No, our fear was of JP, the boy who more or less controlled my life, who had climbed up on my shed one time to find Scott giving me a theological exposition on why my life apparently mattered to God. It was explained tersely to both of us that if Scott ever touched me, JP would be happy to cut out his tongue. I also wish I could tell you it was an empty threat. Scott got to keep his tongue, but I got the other end of a “do I make myself clear?” I still have the scars.
At least a foot taller and broader than JP, Scott wasn’t as much afraid of him as he was of what JP might do to me. Scott had learned of my predicament… for lack of a better word… about a year prior after he had spotted JP climb through my window. When Scott confronted me about it, I made him swear not to tell a soul, and he hadn’t, but for the safety of all of us, he kept his distance.
This combined with his attendance at a different school and his parents’ rather strict rules about socializing meant I had only seen my friend a few times since that incident, but we had kept in communication in a private chat room we had set up on the newfangled Internet contraption that was starting to crop up in personal computers. Scott became my moral support as he threw in encouragement that God loved me, had a plan for me, knew I was hurting and my pain, and that no matter what, God saw me as forgiven. He knew my depression ran very deep, that I sometimes was passively welcoming an end to my life, and he had on a good many occasions talked me into pushing through another day. Sometimes I felt he was the only one who cared. Just keep going, he urged. Keep going. Keep going. God won’t drop you… keep going.
“You have a purpose,” he often smiled. “I won’t let you give up.”
I hated those sermons. But with his constant barrage of reminders that I was loved, and an increasing amount of attention by my youth pastor assuring me of forgiveness, I started to feel like my life might turn out okay… that maybe, like Scott said, God did have something good in store.
JP had left our lives sometime in early May, maybe only a week before the interrupted romance on the shed roof, but it emboldened both of us to meet up again face to face- quite literally, in this case. But old habits die hard, and in our heightened emotional state I guess we both forgot he was no longer a threat, and we both sort of panicked in the moment.
Gosh I waited for the conclusion.
Summer came and so did long, boring summer days. Every encounter with Scott that wasn’t over the web usually consisted of us awkwardly catching each other’s eyes as we worked on forts or picked blackberries or tossed Frisbees with other kids from his block. For some reason there were new rules regarding curfew in his house which made for fewer late night chats. No matter, now that I was starting to pull my life together, I was usually exhausted by bedtime anyway.
I started high school confidently. I held my head up as I walked through the halls; I said hello to other students, even sang my way to drama class every other day. I landed a part in the play, I aced all my history and geography tests, got high marks on all my papers, and seemed to be a favorite in science class, a subject that was consistently my weak spot.
Meanwhile, Scotty and I maintained a fruitful kinship over electronic mail and the occasional late night walk through the neighborhood or humming in the rain on the toolshed roof. We talked of everything, it felt like, everything except the terrible business of JP and the increasingly severe injuries he seemed to sustain at home. He did, however, suggest that he hadn’t been feeling like himself lately… just moody, he supposed, angry, having trouble focusing. Headaches. Would I pray for him?
What a silly question… he was the one that did the praying. But sure, I’d do my best.
One day in mid-October, as I trodded up the cul-de-sac after a long, hard day at school and drama practice, I found my brother in the front yard kicking a newly placed real estate agency sign in our yard.
My family was moving, and not just down the street.
Nine weeks into my freshman year of high school, we were uprooting from all I’d ever known, from a sleepy suburb in Oregon to a rural speck in Western Montana… a school of 2,000 to a school of barely 350… from freedom and independence to sharing the same quarters with four other people who generally didn’t get along.
I was almost dumbstruck by the whole thing. I mean, who puts the house for sale and prepares to move to somewhere cowboy boots were still in fashion without consulting their children? I had just gotten my life together! I had worked so hard! I was healing! I was moving on! I was… gosh, did my parents even care? Did they notice?
That night, hiding from the rain at the base of a fir tree in my backyard, I yelled and cursed and swore and seethed at my friend. Processing, I guess. So many thoughts and feelings that I didn’t even know where to begin working through. It was like I suddenly felt like all the weight I was carrying was finally crushing me. And I didn’t want to hear his reassurance… I didn’t know what I wanted…
In an instant I was so overwhelmed and overcome by the chaos of emotions I was experiencing, it felt like every scar and seam burst open, flooding my heart and mind and thoughts with memories of every hard and terrible thing I’d been through in the last few years. I couldn’t bear another second. Almost shaking with fear and sadness, I choked for breath as I cried. All I managed was a frantic “You cannot tell anyone what you know,” as I grabbed his ears and stared into his sad grey eyes.
He didn’t say another word. No questions, no prying, no cheap encouragements that everything would be okay. Instead he awkwardly wrapped one arm around me in the manner only a 15 year old boy can, gently stroking my arm. I laid my head on his shoulder, and that shook loose a thousand more tears.
And I cried. And I cried even more. Silently, my whole body throbbed with sadness and hopelessness, and I cried until I must have drained every drop of water from my entire body.
When I could cry no more, with my nose and ears plugged, my vision blurred and shaking as the chill of the breeze brushed past my wet face, Scott held my hand and met my eyes.
We sat and listened to the rain as I tried to catch my breath. He hummed a few lines of some silly hymn he always hummed to himself. I hated that song, but in that moment it was comforting. After what felt like far too few minutes, it suddenly dawned on me that he shouldn’t be there with me. Of recent his father had cracked down on his being out after dark, and his father cracking down on things sometimes meant actually cracking things. How could I be so selfish? Focusing on poor me and not thinking twice that this could cost my friend. And, oh gosh, I had forgotten all about my promise to pray for him. What kind of terrible friend am I?
“You should go,” I mumbled. He nodded, but hugged me tightly before setting off.
“It will work out,” he whispered, and hopped the back fence for home.
I took solace in the extreme unlikelihood that our house would ever sell.
But it did in record time – and before long I was having to come to grips with the fact that I wouldn’t be in the school play, I wouldn’t finish out my Freshman year in a manner that redeemed my prior years of failure, and that I’d probably never see my friends – friends I had worked so hard for- ever again. I had just two short weeks to figure out what came next.
You must remember there were no cell phones, instant messaging programs or Skype or any other miracle of technology connecting friends who are so far away. There were phone cards to avoid the long-distance call charges, but the rest would have to happen by hand written letters and email – which I swore I’d keep up with all of my friends.
The last few days in Oregon were very hard. I planned goodbyes for each of my friends and made sure to spend some time hanging out and gathering contact information before the moving day came. On my last day, I cleaned out my locker, scrambled to return all of my books before I missed the bus, and hugged the teachers I liked, managing to do it all without crying. Scott’s cousin, also a close friend who had helped me get out of my junior high slump, was waiting for me at the house when I got home. He gave me an envelope and told me to open it as soon as I moved into my new bedroom in Montana. “We’ll chat soon,” he smiled. As we hugged he whispered an “I’ll miss you,” and backed away hiding that he had let a few tears get in the way.
I packed the last of my things and counted down the minutes until my final goodbye.
The night before we left Oregon for good… November 10th, 1996… in the freezing air of a cold winter night, staring at the sliver of a moon in the cloudless sky, I waited on the shed roof for my friend in earnest hopes of finally finishing that awkward kiss he started months before.
My heart ached at the thought off leaving Adam Prescott Collier. I didn’t know how I would say goodbye to someone who had shown me such care and love. But I didn’t have to.
He never showed up… I’m not quite sure how to describe what I felt. On one hand I was deeply sad that I wouldn’t get to say goodbye. On another I felt queasy because I guessed he probably had a valid reason for his absence.
As soon as we had internet hooked up in our tiny house on the side of a bald, ugly, snow covered mountain in Montana, I learned in an email from his cousin that Scott couldn’t join me that night because he and his father had gotten into a fight that sent them both to the ER – Scott with a broken rib and dislocated shoulder, his father with a broken hand and broken nose.
It took what felt like months before Scott himself finally contacted me and assured me everything was fine.
That’s what he said every email… everything’s fine, everything’s good… after a while he mentioned that he was seeing a doctor, something about his headaches, having problems with school, missed having me around to help with stupid language arts class. Promise not to tell, he said, but he felt like sometimes he was disconnected from the world, getting lost in his head. Dad didn’t like it, he said. And did I remember that time he tried to kiss me? Yes, I remembered. Gosh, he was sorry he never made it up… but he would, he promised. He thinks of me, he assured me. All the time.
Scott’s emails came less frequently and sometimes seemed to be written by a completely different person. The ‘good’ and ‘fine’ were obviously lies. After a few months Scott’s access to the web was taken away; his cousin said Scott had emailed his school counselor to tell them that his best friend had been raped and that she had been taken away so that no one would find out the truth, that his step mom was feeding him medicine against his will to make him forget things…. All Internet privileges were revoked.
One night I had the courage to call, figuring I’d apologize to my parents for the long distance charges by paying them from some of the money I’d earned watching brats over the summer. I was glad I did, and so was he. The call was short, but he was in good spirits and said things were working out well. He was taking medication, he told me, but said it was helping. He explained that his grades were up and he was enjoying art class, even had a few friends. God was doing good things, right? And always remember that God loved me, right. Promise that I’d remember that, yes, I promise.
Then it was time to go, and hanging up felt so miserable that I even took the following day off school.
About a month later I found myself sitting alone on the edge of a hotel bed in Kalispell, Montana, twirling my fingers impatiently in the telephone cord. My body ached so much from a day’s worth of performance that I wasn’t even able to take off my shoes; I don’t remember what event I had done that day. It didn’t matter. I was calling a three way voice mail card Scott’s cousin had sent me from Oregon. Before cell phones and unlimited long distance, it was a way for three broke teenagers to keep in touch in a time when we desperately needed each other’s company. I hadn’t seen either of their faces since our move but I missed them terribly. I bit my lip as I listened to the very calm, collected voice tell me that Scott was gone.
I mean, that’s what schizophrenics do – they kill themselves, and having a mental illness speaks more volumes than any of the circumstances. Apparently his first real ‘break’ actually broke him. He was 17.
In fairness, I mean, he had a rough life and been through things no child should have to experience. Perhaps God was giving him the break he deserved, someone told me. Perhaps.
In my head and my heart, it didn’t make sense. He loved life. He loved Jesus. He loved his friends and his family, even that wretched piece of rubbish of a father.
Taken. That’s what I thought as my heart welled with anger and hate that manifested itself in solitary tears at first. He was taken. In my growing rage I blamed his father, his step mother, his deadbeat druggie real mom. They all wanted this, I just knew it. They couldn’t handle him, couldn’t bear the stigma of a son with mental illness… so they let him die. He was stolen from me.
All I wanted in that moment was to hear his sweet voice humming that stupid hymn he’d chime to kill any dead time, to look in his deep grey eyes and be told some stupid lesson in his silly oafish accent about God. For the love, could that boy just stop with the preaching! I wanted to hear him ask how my day was, even though he knew I was battling depression and was career truant in school, then I wanted to hear him whinge about Language Arts class. And I wanted to curl up and go back to the moment sitting on the shed roof in the long hours when his stupid kindness and his stupid compassion, far beyond his stupid years, managed to pierce through every layer of armour and defenses I had built to hide how broken I was and gently ask to carry my burden, my great secret, that I was far too young to bear alone if at all.
He was always so full of hope…And I wasn’t. So I borrowed his.
I had never lost a friend before, certainly not someone so close and dear. The distance was almost cruel.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. Not like this.
That phone call saying the end had come was supposed to be about me.
He was the encourager, the hope-filled one, the one that kept going. Me… I was supposed to be the one that gave up! All those times I told him I was done with life and he looked me in the eye and made me promise to keep going… And I couldn’t be the encourager for him. I was saying goodbye to him after all the times he begged me not to take that step myself.
Somewhere, in the middle of our combined challenges and illnesses and battle with the world, we somehow traded places.
I was never good at supporting others, building them up, or keeping them going. No, I was – am – selfish and spent so much time wondering how I would survive to miss the reality that he was slipping away in front of me. I knew he was sick… but suicidal? Never. Not ever.
Perhaps it was that thinking that kept me from seeing the warning signs. I had failed.
Eventually my lone drops turned into sobs into the arms of teammates and coaches as I did my best to bumble through the rest of the speech meet. And aside from a few phone calls made on long-distance phone cards to his cousin, I grieved alone. I didn’t go to the funeral back in Oregon. I struggled to find words to explain how I felt and I told God that I didn’t understand. I wasn’t mad at God, and I knew deep down that my friend was in heaven – even if he really did kill himself, which I didn’t fully believe – and that He was happy and safe and free from the things that pained him in this world.
Ashamed of his illness and what was perceived as cowardice, I told those who were interested that he had died from some terminal illness.
And I moved on, more or less.
In time, I grew to understand more about what happened and learned how to feel and grieve. I lost another close friend, again far away and again to mental illness/suicide, in my early twenties. It wasn’t any easier, but it grew in my heart compassion for those who struggle with depression and mental illness. For a long time I feared loving anyone, getting too close to friends because it just hurt too much. Any sort of emotional relationship would result in nothing but death or great heartache, and so I struggled with how to actually do the friendship thing.
‘Doing friendship’ when you have your own issues isn’t easy. My long bouts of passive suicidal feelings continued, but as Scott left, it meant fighting without someone to encourage me when my heart was fragile. I even attempted to end things the summer before my senior year of high school – and I didn’t have anyone with whom I could share my burden honestly.
It wasn’t until many years later when I was battling severe mood swings, ultimately put on suicide watch for 72 hours and hospitalized that I learned that God had brought me new friends who would do what it took to understand and encourage me. I was visited by many during my time in the hospital, and several people in my community took me into their families to help me on my journey through recovery and doing Bipolar life well. Some have gone so far as to learn what to look for in bipolar mood swings, learned what questions to ask and how to help me in the midst of trouble. Others are gentle and kind with me when I need meds or sharp things removed from my home. Others pray with me in the long hours and dark nights. Few have left my side as they’ve learned of and watched me work through my challenges…. I have a great family to keep me going.
I still miss Scotty Collier, though. I think of him when I hear people attempting to hum songs to fill silence. I smile when I think of the two of us on that tool shed, our silly little sheepish behaviour. I mourn when I hear of young people who take their lives.
But I never noticed how significantly the loss of my close friend truly affected me until about a year ago when I was feeling very, very low. One of my closest friends sat with me as I outlined how hard going through trauma counselling was, listened to me state over and over that I was all done, I was finished, I was giving up.
“You say that,” she said, “but you’ve said it before and before. Why haven’t you done it? Why haven’t you killed yourself after all these times you’ve wrestled with suicidal thoughts?”
And I looked at my dear friend and remembered when I felt the sting of a friend’s suicide.
My heart hurt for so long, the regret was unbearable, the grief, the sorrow, the anger, the uncontrollable sadness… and I put that together with how much my friend loved me.
I realised that I couldn’t bear putting her through the pain that I had felt when Scott left me. His actions, I realized, changed the way I understood what it meant to love my friends and family, giving me perspective on how my friends feel as they walk with me as I work through depression and bipolar disorder, and ultimately caused me to think about how it would affect others if I were to lose my battle with illness.
I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t leave those who love me so much; I couldn’t cause them such pain.
In that way, the loss of my friend has been keeping me going.
I like to think he’d like that. I like to think he’d grab my hand and tell me to keep on going and keep going and keep going until we see each other again.
This post was hard to write.
I did so for a couple of reasons.
First, it’s helpful in my own growth to tell the story of such a great loss that I’ve never really talked about with anyone. It’s not exactly a little thing that you gloss over, but I’ve been shy about sharing it. Moreover, it’s only very recently that I’ve thought much of Scott as I’ve worked through the trauma of JP, the neighbor boy, and related events. In my trauma was a boy who knew my heart was fragile and did what he could to protect me. In some ways it’s like he was God’s voice in person.
Second, as someone who has lost friends to this tragedy, and someone who has survived attempts, I feel like an open conversation about what suicidal thoughts are like and how to spot them is due. Everyone needs a friend like Adam Prescott Collier, who encourages us in the dark times and listens when we need an ear, who sees the best in us – even when all we can see is failure, despair, and hopelessness.
Everybody needs somebody sometime. Be an amazing somebody.
Finally, because God is good.
I could have been angry with God for taking my friend so young. I could have cursed God for putting him in an abusive family. I could blame God for the onset of schizophrenia in a boy who was a good boy, a nice boy, a devout boy; anyone else in the world deserved it. And I could complain that God has not taken away my illness despite my prayers, that He hasn’t saved me from the occasional bout of deep depression and passive suicidal feelings after all these years. But I wasn’t, and I won’t. In loss like this, I see God’s tender, loving heart. I see God’s tears as He sees His children suffer, broken hearted for a fallen and trouble world.
Over time and through my challenges I have learned that God values and treasures me, that He’s kept me alive because He has plans and purpose and meaning for my life. I certainly couldn’t look Jesus in the eyes, his tear filled eyes, and justify my actions after He has worked so hard to keep me going. He sits with me in the dark nights of the soul and encourages me to keep going – even if my heart wants so much to just be in heaven and forget the world. If I were to take my life, I don’t believe God would be angry with me, but deeply sad that I valued myself so little when He considers me precious, pure and worth dying for.
My heart feels a little lighter having shared this story. And it still flutters a bit when I think of that afternoon on the tool shed, what could have been the beginning of many awkward firsts.
Maybe we’ll finally finish that last kiss goodbye when we again say hello in heaven.