By Mary Wagner • February 20, 2016
The news of his death was nearly four years old, but it was still news to me.
Earlier that day I had appeared in court for a routine set of “initial appearances” on some criminal cases, and had smiled to myself at how closely one of the defendant’s names resembled that of a boy—a young man, really—I had been in journalism college with. It had been a good fifteen years since I heard from him in the aftermath of a college reunion only one of us attended, our brief updates changing hands via email.
He had become an acclaimed newspaper reporter in his field, and had gotten married, and back then he’d told me that and his wife were eagerly awaiting the adoption of a daughter from China. He sent me a copy of a recent award-winning series he’d written to bring me up to date on his work. I can’t remember if I returned the favor.
I promised myself that I would look him up when I got home after work and send him a quick email about my morning in court for a shared laugh. But while I waited on “hold” as a polite, drawling young police officer in Alabama searched for some information about an individual I had charged closer to home, curiosity got the better of me and my fingers quickly typed his name on Google.
I hit the “enter” key with a quiet confidence, expecting to find the name of his most recent newspaper employer and, hopefully, an email address. What popped up on the screen instead was an obituary. And the news that his death nearly four years earlier had been “investigated as a suicide.” My smile of anticipation turned to the taste of ashes.
Thirty years passed away in an instant, and I felt both hollow and tremendously sad.
My mind kept turning back to younger, more innocent days, when we all shared the shining idealism of young journalists in the post-Watergate era. Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford had made investigative journalism seem not only rigorously principled but absolutely glamorous in the film version of “All the President’s Men” just a couple of years before. Nobody told us we couldn’t change the world every day, and even if they did, we wouldn’t have believed them.
The young man I remembered was tall and slender, with gorgeous deep brown eyes and the broad shoulders of a swimmer. We were never very close, but our journalism school was small, and everybody pretty much knew everybody else. I remember that he was unfailingly polite, and well spoken, and ferociously smart.
He was a couple of years younger than I was, at a time in my life when things like that mattered, and he had what I think of as “Breck Girl” hair—layered and a bit stylishly long, and shiny and squeaky clean. He cooked dinner for me at his apartment one evening—one building over from where I lived with my roommate—and I remember a night of baked pork chops and candlelight and glasses of wine and nice conversation. We shared a G-rated kiss in his doorway as I left to go back to my own apartment and reality.
I printed off a bunch of pages about his passing. I took them down to the lakefront the next day, and read them in solitude under a cold, sunny sky. There were so many things I had not known. There were profound and well-earned accolades by the dozens, fond reminiscences, tributes to his inspiring and encouraging nature, celebrations of his colorful character and incredible intellect. But along the way there had evidently also been depression, professional turmoil, and a strange admission years earlier that he had slept for a while with a gun under his pillow.
The thing which had apparently tipped the balance for him to take his own life beside his favorite fishing spot, it was reported, was an upcoming initial appearance in court on a charge of drunk driving. The sort of thing that is absolutely routine for me on the other side of the table, but in his position obviously terrifying and unfathomable. I guess it’s true that “the bigger they are, the harder they fall.” I tried to put myself in his shoes, tried to imagine how he must have felt at this very public frailty, his reputation as a crusader for the public good on the verge of being seriously tarnished, and the humiliation that would have followed. It didn’t feel good.
As the days passed, the shock finally lessened. I tried to “shake it off,” rationalizing that we had never actually been close friends, that I shouldn’t feel this so personally. By the next time I had to appear in court for more initial appearances in drunk driving cases, I was back to my usual form, confidently asking the court to require this, that, and the other thing as bond conditions “for the protection of the public.” It’s my job, it’s what I do without hesitation and without doubt.
But in the moments in my office when the phone isn’t ringing, when nobody’s looking for my signature in a hurry, and I’ve caught up just briefly with the tide of paper that drives my work, I can see him still.
Tall, slender, in blue jeans and a checked shirt, standing at the top of the stairs outside his apartment, smiling at me as I left, his eyes a beautiful brown, and the light from the hallway shining on his fluffy “Breck Girl” hair.
I first published this essay on my Running with Stilettos blog. It appears now in When the Shoe Fits...Essays of Love, Life and Second Chances.