Since it is a dark, gray day, and Opening Day is later this week, allow me to share a memory.
It is of an Opening Day 9 years ago that had me filled with excitement. It later turned to one of my darkest memories, and something I think about every year. In light of what’s been going on with younger people during this year-plus of being out of school and staying at home due to COVID, I think about it even more this year.
I’ve been blessed with friends who are baseball fanatics. I like baseball, don’t get me wrong, but these friends absolutely love it. One friend, whose name was Paul, insisted that I always go with him to Opening Day. From the first year the Nationals came to DC until 2012, he never asked whether I wanted to go. He just said he’d gotten the tickets and what time he was coming by the house.
He was that way with the last game of the season, too. Missing either in a season was like a religious person missing church on Easter Sunday. It was important to him, and you had to be there.
Every year on the drive to at first RFK, then Nats Park, the conversation was the same. We’d ask each other if this year would be the season the Nationals finally broke through and made the playoffs, and despite evidence to the contrary, would convince ourselves the answer was “yes.”. We’d endured the beginning of some bad 100-loss seasons in the past, but we always rationalized about the next season and how changes made in the offseason would somehow mean this coming season was OUR year.
Thursday, April 12, 2012 was no different. We convinced ourselves this would be the year the Nats made the postseason, and like every year, we believed it. Because of traffic that day, we’d spend 7 hours together between riding in the car to the stadium and watching the game while debating all this.
It ended up being a very good game. Paul was not a fan of Jayson Werth, and after riding him all day every time he came to the plate, Werth repaid the criticism with a single in the bottom of the 10th to move Ryan Zimmerman to second. A ground out moved both over a base, and with two outs, Zimmerman would then score the winning run on a wild pitch.
We all went home happy.
The Nats would win again Friday and Saturday before losing the final game of the series on Sunday. Monday was a busy day for me, but right after dinner I was about to call Paul to talk about the Nats when the phone rang. The voice of a mutual friend said “oh God, you don’t know do you?”
Paul was dead. He had taken his life that morning.
I had known this man for 5 years, spent 7 hours with him a few days earlier at a Nats game laughing, telling stories and having a great time, and now I was told he had taken his own life. It is something even now I can never understand, and have replayed every conversation we had that day a thousand times since, as if there were some words I could have said that might have changed his mind.
Five months later I would sit in those same seats and watch the Nationals clinch their first berth ever in the playoffs. Our conversations in April proved finally to be true, and as the fireworks went off and Nats stadium went crazy with fans cheering the team, all I could do was look up at the sky and whisper out loud “you should have been here.”
I’ve learned a lot about suicide since, but the most important thing is what I saw that Opening Day. People who are suffering and considering that option don’t outwardly show signs of being sad. Paul was no different that day than any other, even though I am now convinced he knew what he was going to do as we were sitting there.
So ever since, I don’t mess around. If I see ANY sign of someone having a tough time, I immediately ask. Total strangers on Twitter have gotten DMs from me when I read something that’s concerning. I would much rather embarrass myself by asking too soon if someone’s OK than answer another phone call like I did that Monday night.
It’s been nine years and I still think of this every Opening Day. Truth be told, it’s rare I don’t think of it every week since. And when I read stories this week showing the huge increase in cases involving potential suicides among our young people, it makes me think of it every day.
I’ll never know if a simple question like “while we’re joking around, everything’s OK in your world, isn’t it?” would have made a difference. But I’m not taking a chance any more. So if anyone is in your orbit of friends and family and you’re not sure, ask. Talk to them. Assume they won’t tell you. You never know if it will make a difference. But there are a lot of people out there hurting during this COVID experience. You reaching out could make a difference.
If you are hurting, talk to someone. If you don’t have anyone, tell me. I’ll call you. Or we’ll find someone you can talk to. There are helplines and organizations with people specially trained for this (the National Suicide Prevention Hotline number is 800-273-8255). But don’t stay in the silence of your own thought process. There are always options. Talking to someone else may help you consider those other options.
I grew up in an era where admitting you were struggling with this was seen as a sign of weakness. Now, I firmly believe it is a sign of strength. It says you realize there’s an issue, and you’re strong enough to reach out and get help to fix it.
So do it. There are so many more wonderful moments ahead in life. You need to be here to experience each and every one of them. Along with your friends and family.
Don’t make it so some old man with tears in his eyes is looking up at the sky and whispering “you should have been here.”