It’s amazing how one small twist in a series of events can have disastrous consequences. The twist to this story – for my part in it – is a single missed phone call. It was me not being there, not being in the right place at the right time.
I wasn’t there when my friend needed me most. I’d give anything to go back and be on the other end of that line. It still haunts me that my friend probably needed me in that moment more than he needed air to breathe.
The guilt I still carry over it is unbelievably heavy.
My friend was Paul Harlan McDonald:
He was, in every way, the perfect guy. Paul was shy and brilliant. He was sweet and incredibly physically strong. He was a gifted guitarist, weight lifter, music lover and an avid fisherman. I’ll never forget being scared out of my mind and thrilled at the same time as we drove down country roads in his red CJ-5 Jeep. I still remember the deafening noise his oversized tires made on the road.
It was Paul who taught me to cast and to take a fish off the hook once caught. I was totally grossed out but I finally got the hang of it.
I can still hear him play his guitar as he listened to the same songs over and over on the floor in his bedroom. He was self taught and it didn’t take him long to figure out how to play something new.
He was my friend and, for a short time, my boyfriend too. We were in the Class of 1998 at a local Catholic High School. He had attended private school since kindergarten. I however was new to it all, having entered the Catholic school system as a freshman.
We remained friends as our years of high school passed into history. Our senior year something changed and he seemed depressed at times. More quiet than usual, he appeared to be just going through the motions. Paul went away to school at Sewanne College and I remained close to home at The University of Tennessee.
I really thought we’d be lifelong friends.
I got a call about two months into our freshman year in college. I’ll never forget it. I was driving and one of my closest friends called and said I needed to turn around and get back down to campus.
I pulled in to see a small group of friends gathered in the parking lot. My stomach churned. I knew something was wrong. As I got out of the car, she said she didn’t want to tell me over the phone:
Paul was gone.
He had committed suicide.
A wave of nausea and panic swept over me. I felt like someone had hit me in the chest with a bowling ball.
Paul had come home from school unannounced. After visiting with his family, it was expected that he’d return to Sewanne.
He would make it as far as the garage.
Paul died there in a running car with the garage door still closed.
Always a thoughtful soul, Paul stopped to put the family dog inside the house. It was kept in the garage when no one was home. He sealed the adjoining door. A note was left but the contents were never – to my knowledge – disclosed beyond his immediate family.
The scope of what we lost that day will never be understood.
He had called me earlier in the day. I wasn’t there to answer. I still wonder what he would have said. Would he have asked for help? Or did he want just one last conversation?
What hurt him so badly that he felt things could never get better?
I will never know.
I learned a few years later he confided in his cousin that he wanted to die a few weeks prior to his death. She remained silent about his confession. She told me later it is her biggest regret.
I do not blame her, I don’t think anyone does. Back then, suicide wasn’t something openly discussed and there certainly wasn’t any education provided on the topic at a Catholic school. I reminded her of this and that it was not her fault. I know it still weighs heavily on her mind anyway.
Looking back, all the signs were there. He had withdrawn from his social circle, all but stopped working out – which was his favorite past time – and he became sullen.
Anyone who was lucky enough to know him was undoubtedly blessed. It’s been almost 20 years since I’ve spoken to my friend.
I’d give anything to be given the chance to answer his phone call again.