Here is a picture of me and someone I miss more than I could ever put into words, on what would have been his 48th birthday. He’s eternally 34 years old, though, because he committed suicide on December 25th, 2002 and left a giant hole in the wake of his decision.
My uncle John was the coolest person I knew. My parents are awesome but everyone knows nothing really beats a cool aunt or uncle, and John was the best. He lived in California so I only saw him a few times a year, but he made sure to make them count. When I was really little, he was Uncle Johnny with the long hair. It was about as long as mine is now, and at every family gathering (where I was the only kid) he would sit down on the floor in front of the couch and let me give him beautiful princess hairstyles. As he got older and his hair thinned a bit, he buzzed it all off - but the fun didn’t stop there, because he would dye it before every visit and I would have to guess which color it would be. Typically it was some shade of magenta.
As a kid I think you forget that the “cool uncle” has a life outside of playing board games and slipping f-bombs into casual conversation, and since he died when I was only twelve I didn’t know the extent of just how cool John was in his personal life. He traveled the world, often alone, spending time in New Zealand and Taiwan and France and probably some other places I’m still not aware of. He wore a really great leather jacket and took a lot of photos with his old Canon AE-1, which is now the only thing of his that I own. According to the stories, he once hopped a train with a friend with only a backpack each without realizing that the train was heading into the mountains. They nearly froze to death but eventually made it home, and nobody in my family can identify the other person in the photos so the rest of the adventure is a complete mystery to us.
In 2002, depression mixed with misfortune pushed him to the brink of suicide. I don’t know if he reached out for help, but I don’t think he did - and on Christmas he composed a suicide note in two emails (one for friends and one for close family) before driving to the Golden Gate Bridge and leaping off the side. I wonder what he thought about on the way down, and I hope he finally felt free.
I can never fully describe the way it feels to have lost him this way. I’ve been told that when you lose someone to suicide the grief never gets easier, it just starts to feel different. That’s accurate most of the time, but I can say without a doubt that waking up on his birthday and Christmas every year is met with me ugly-crying into my pillow and wishing that I could give anything to bring him back. It breaks my heart over and over again in the same way it broke when I found out what happened to him. I want to tell John about my travels and call him for advice when the TSA is interrogating me about frozen rats. I want him to read articles about my work and talk about the ethics of scientific collections and I want him to judge who I date. I want to hear his laugh one more time in a way that isn’t a looped mp3 ripped from home videos. When he died, he didn’t just leave a John-sized hole in all of our lives, he left a hole that was also comprised of all of the things he could have and should have been there for. One choice changed the lives of everyone in my family forever. I hope he found peace.
If you’re ever on the edge and you need help, there are so many options. In the United States, the phone number for the suicide prevention hotline is 1 (800) 273-8255 and is open 24/7. They also speak Spanish. Other countries, states, and cities have them too - please do a quick Google search before making any rash decisions. You are never alone and there is always SOMEBODY there for you whether you realize it or not. Friend or stranger, I am always willing to listen and help as much as I can. I love you all.
Happy birthday, JMP. You are always missed.