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  WINDY CITY TIMES

VIEWS My best friend's suicide
By David Hurst
2013-11-13

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EVERY morning, after the first few moments of blinking awake, I feel the weight of the same three questions: 'Why?', 'How could he?' and 'Could I have done more?'

Despairing sadness. Bemusement. Anger. Guilt. A toxic combination that sets the pulse pounding and ignites pangs of emptiness.

Sometimes my wife, Debs, will detect my discomfort and ask gently: 'Are you thinking about Tim?'

The truth is I am always thinking about my best friend of 21 years. Or more specifically why he—such a brilliant, witty, warm, popular person—committed suicide 15 months ago.

Losing a dear friend is always deeply upsetting but when they have taken their own life, there is other emotions too.

If the person had reached out to you in the weeks and days before—as Tim did me—one of the most dominant is a gnawing guilt that will stalk you for the rest of your days.

The most difficult, though, is the rage. I was horrified when I first felt anger towards Tim, because I thought I should only feel love and warmth towards him. But then he had hurt me; even if it was the last thing he'd meant to do.

The fact is when a loved one kills themselves, they leave you with a lifetime of anguish, desolation, unanswered questions.

It also causes inner change, some of this is probably positive. The sense of waste jolts you into a renewed sense of the fragility of life. You rearrange your priorities, propelled by a new knowing that time does run out.

In an unsettling way it is life-affirming; how could anyone wish to leave behind the sight of a dramatic pink sunrise or the delicious taste of strawberries in summer?

I was a 24-year-old Fleet Street journalist when I met Tim Martin, then 27, on travels in the Caribbean in December 1990.

I was sitting with my then girlfriend on a deserted beach when he strolled towards us, tanned and brimming with confidence.

'Pleasant day,' he said.

'Seen worse,' I smiled and we started chatting.

Tim was a 'business guy and artist' on holiday from Chicago. Conversation flowed easily. He told us with his great enthusiasm that I got to know over the years about the art and architecture of his hometown, the blues bars, the politics, the lake and the parks.

'Come and stay with me any time,' he said.

I couldn't have guessed I would end my travels with a detour to Tim's home. When I suspected my girlfriend cheating on me a few days later ( we were young and the relationship hadn't been that serious ), I decided to flee and remembered his invitation.

Looking back, it was an outlandish decision on my part, but it was one that cemented one of the most important friendships of my life.

Tim was the best host, taking me round the city pointing out all the grand buildings. He was hugely proud of Chicago and of being from the city. He showed me the city's art and markets, and especially around near where he lived in The Loop. Of an evening, we'd go out for a few beers. I especially remember a bar that was also a place you could do your laundry—I loved that! We shared a raffish sense of humor and could talk for hours.

In the daytimes I spent some time with Tim at his workplace which back then was at the John Marshall Law School. All over, I met some amazing people who also were passionate about Chicago. Very quickly he slipped into an older brother role too. He was a strong person who naturally wanted to help other people.

I left after a week and although I loved Chicago it was to be my first and last trip to his home. Shortly afterwards I developed a profound fear of flying—after an engine had failed on my flight to the Caribbean that must have started to trigger something in me.

The following year Tim visited me in London and I returned the favor, taking him to the Tate Gallery and many a bar in Soho. From then on, he would fly out to see me at least once a year, sometimes every three or four months.

In-between we wrote long, excitable letters to each other and spent hours on the phone. These were replaced by emails and Skype calls as and when they were invented.

Ever spontaneous, Tim would phone and say: 'I've found some cheap flights… see you tomorrow!' I'd meet him at the same coffee shop in Heathrow and away we went.

There was many a riotous night out, including six New Year's Eves, the most memorable of which was the eve of 2003.

That's when I first introduced Tim to my wife Debs, who I'd met in a local pub in Kingston upon Thames. Tim had known many of my girlfriends but Debs was the first he raved about; he knew me so well and quickly worked out she was 'the one'.

As is often the case with close friends with shared values and interests, our lives began to mirror each other—albeit Tim was a self-assured American who happened to be gay and me a comparatively quiet Englishman who's 100% straight.

Around 11 years ago adopted a son, Andrew, who was then ten. I'll never forget his ebullience on the phone that day: 'I have a son! I have a son!'

A couple of years later Tim settled with a long-term boyfriend and in 2005 I went on to marry Debs. Then came our two beautiful sons, Daniel, now nearly four, and Darley, who's two.

But both Tim and I decided a move to the country was necessary to raise a happy family: he settled in Sonoma County, California and we chose west of Exeter in Devon—in each case 20 miles from the seaside.

In fact it was not long before our move, for New Year 2006, that Tim last visited. Debs, Tim and his nephew Kevin—who he often travelled with—went to Dorset on that visit and we saw the New Year in, as usual, in great style…

If I'd known our parting hug that time at Heathrow would be the last, I would never have let Tim go. I cling to the memory of his stubble scraping my cheek, his stocky arms squeezing me tight reassuringly.

I felt aghast when after his death, I worked out we hadn't seen each other for six years. I'd always told myself it was about two or three.

But the fact was time had marched on and life ( having children and the restrictions of the recession ) had got in the way. Not to mention my fear of flying and the fact Tim's partner feared planes as well.

Thankfully, the thing about a soulmate like Tim is that friendship isn't diminished by absence. We were in weekly, sometimes daily, contact and he was planning to visit our rural idyll just before depression took hold.

There had never been any hint of the black dog before. Tim was an incredibly intelligent, sensitive, caring man who always seemed upbeat. In fact, many of my friends in Britain that he became friends with too said he was an American version of Stephen Fry with his absolute perception, smartness and wonderful sense of humor

That's why when he first started emailing dark thoughts, I didn't take it as seriously as I could have done; I just figured it would pass and he'd pull himself together.

If I reveal the contents of these messages, you'll understand the clouds of guilt. You may even question my judgement—God knows I have done.

It was ten days before Christmas in 2011 when he first sent me one chilling line: 'I might just kill myself'.

I replied: 'Don't. Do you want to chat?'

I might have sounded flippant but that's how the two of us conversed: a typically masculine downplaying of any drama.

His partner had left him for someone else, his son had recently fled the nest to start his adult life, his business life had not been going as well as he'd always been used to, he had some health issues and at 48, I think he probably felt washed up and lonely. He had lost faith in himself, misplaced his sense of self.

For two months we chatted—on email and Skype—and Tim's mood fluctuated wildly. One minute he was telling me he didn't 'want to live anymore' and the next he seemed to be turning a corner, planning his visit to see us.

Of course I was worried but whenever I discussed it with Debs, we agreed he would never do anything silly. This was Tim after all: strong and worldly-wise.

I sent him old photos to remind him of the good old days, messages of love from my two boys whom he was yet to meet. Anything to cheer him up. I told him I loved him many times.

A week before he died, Tim wrote: 'Please remember I had a very full life with lots of amazing places, events and people. Of all of them you are the highlight.'

How I wish I'd told him he was definitely one of my highlights, too. Instead I just thanked him and promised to Skype soon.

Our last messages were exchanged days later on Feb. 23, 2012. I was asking to Skype and he replied: 'It's midnight, I need to sleep.' I replied: 'Have sweet dreams'—an eerily pertinent response.

Four days later I was browsing Facebook when I strayed on to Tim's page. I can't remember how I reacted, whether I went tense or started to crumble, but Debs was alerted to my shock.

'Oh my god; he's done it,' I said.

It felt as if the blood had drained from me. Debs took hold of me and we just stared in silence at the screen.

On Tim's page, his son and his ex had posted messages about having 'loved' him and that they would always miss him.

I emailed Tim's nephew Kevin and he confirmed my fears—Tim had hanged himself in the early hours of the morning.

At first I just felt numbness, nothing. Then came the disbelief: checking Facebook to see if I'd imagined it. Soon after there was incredulity mixed with frustration: 'But it's nearly spring, then there'll be summer… why did he want to miss out on all that?'

The darker emotions were to follow. The anger at what many people told me was a 'selfish act' ( I have since accepted that while the act of suicide might be selfish, Tim the man was not ), the agonizing guilt.

I should've just taken a heap of tranquilizers and got on a plane to see him in his hour of need. I knew all too well he would've done that for me.

It goes without saying there were copious tears. Debs would hug me tight. One of the worst things was that I couldn't attend the funeral—although I did manage to compose an obituary for his relatives to read.

After a few days, on the advice of a wise older friend, I wrote a three-page letter to Tim himself, an outpouring of these complex emotions. I walked up the muddy lane by our house to the breathtaking views of Dartmoor on one side and Bodmin Moor on the other.

There, I read the letter aloud, my voice shaking, my eyes stinging and my heart thudding. When I finished, I set it alight, dropped it on the ground and watched it blacken as the fire took hold, eating the words and the feelings in those words.

It might sound airy-fairy but as I watched the smoke drift up into the clouds, I wondered if Tim could somehow see or sense me. It was a form of release.

With this in mind, I found myself starting a book about our friendship, my loss last June. It was a cathartic process, which I hope might help others in a similar predicament. I've called it Relentlessly Me, which is something Tim tweeted about being once and that summed up perfectly how he lived his life, and that his death has allowed me to realize I should too; that we all should be relentlessly ourselves.

Confusion still reigned, though—perhaps this is what led me to track down the coroner's report of Tim's death. It was horrifying reading but I was hunting for answers, clues as to motive, something official in black and white that confirmed this nightmare was reality.

There's no question that a loss like this colors your whole life. I am so very grateful for my patient wife: I've usually been a calm person but the other day she did admit that I had changed since Tim's death.

When I pressed her, she said I was more irritable, quicker to react to situations. This is perhaps understandable: at times I ache so much from losing Tim that I feel as if I'll implode.

Throughout all this too though I have had to remain professional in my work and strong for my amazing family, Debs and our two little boys. Of course the boys are far too young to understand but the other day Daniel caught me looking at a photo of Tim and asked: 'Who's that?' It triggered our first ever—albeit sugarcoated—chat about life and death. His brow crinkled as I told him Tim was now 'asleep in the clouds'.

Daily, though, I try to stifle my distress. When everyday objects remind me of Tim and the manner of his death: the plug chain hanging from the bath tap; some ropes coiled around flakily-painted red posts at a harborside; the loop of the dog's lead hanging from the coat hook.

I feel these ghouls will always spring out unexpectedly at me, forever, until the day I take my last breath.

There are other things that remind me of him, in happier ways, though: the color maroon ( he often wore maroon, the color of the University of Chicago where he gained his Master's degree in Fine Arts ), the sea and the stars as we spent many a time gazing at these while chatting about the wonder of life, and the rain that he and I both loved.

But there is some solace. I have made contact with many of Tim's friends and relatives including his mother and his son—people I'd never met but who I now consider friends.

Then there's the strange life-affirming nature of loss, which both delights and feels jagged. It goes something like this: I'm so lucky to be alive, to delight in these wondrous rolling hills… If only Tim were here to see it with me.

And of course there's the fact you naturally hug your wife and children that bit tighter, appreciate them even more if that's possible.

There is no positive spin to suicide. But Tim was a joyous person, full of love and laughter and he'd hate for me to suggest otherwise, or to be otherwise.

It's about celebrating the things we shared. I have such wonderful memories: how I just wish with all my heart we could make more of them.

'Relentlessly Me' is available from: tinyurl.com/p6kbtev or www.amazon.com/relentlessly-memoir-friends-suicide-ebook/dp/B00BMB7TVY/ref=sr_1_4 .

And in the UK: amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00BMB7TVY .


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