MY FRIEND KILLED HIMSELF
7th February 2014
Suicide is a tragic desperate act. One of my best friends Graeme, a gay man who I loved so dearly, killed himself the night before my birthday ten years ago.
I remember the telephone call with great clarity and a stabbing pain. I was driving to yoga just before 9 am, when my mobile rang. I was new to mobiles then, and always a little alarmed when they rang. I pulled over on the highway, and reached into the recesses of my large bag, certain it would stop ringing before I could answer it. A man introduced himself as Detective Sergeant Someone from the Sutherland Shire Police Department. I stopped breathing for a few seconds and managed to choke out "Is it my son?" And when he said "No", I sobbed in relief for my son and despair for my friend, for I knew at once who he was calling about. "It's Graeme." I said, and he responded, "I'm sorry."
He had called me to come and identify 'the body'. Graeme had become 'a body'. I drove home as slowly as a funeral cortege, intentionally focussed on the road ahead, my eyes wide. I drove into our long country driveway and began tooting the car horn in a long unbearable wail. By the time I got to the house, my husband was waiting looking annoyed with a 'This better be worth it' look on his face. I stopped the car and battled with the door, panicked and trying to get out, as if the inside of that car held the awful news I had just heard, and I needed to get away. I fell out and he caught me, confused and worried, saying "What what what?" I doubled over and vomited into the gravel and then started a sorrowful wail, and even in that terrible grief, I made the analogy, I sound like my car.
An hour later I called Ed, who was the third person in our tight triangular friendship. His pain and his sobs down the phone matched mine. We had been The Three Musketeers, these two gay men and me, a happily married woman, whose husband enjoyed and encouraged our friendship and enjoyed his own with them. Our friendship was one of companionship, celebration, a sharing of our relationships and the sharing of my family. My parents had 'adopted' them both, and our son related as he may have to a generous uncle, or a doting older brother. I was 'spoiled' by two generous and loving men, men with impeccable taste and biting humour, men who I respected, who charmed and courted me, who believed me witty and beautiful and intelligent, men who poured me champagne and danced with me, men with whom I could be direct and who were willing to be equally direct with me. I rejoiced in their open hearts, their irreverence, their kindness, their dramas, their friends and their advice. I valued how vulnerable and willing they were to open their hearts with me, I loved that they loved the way I loved them.
I had to tell him that Graeme had left an envelope addressed to me with my phone number on it, and that this time, Graeme had been successful at killing himself. He had learned from his previous messy failed attempt at cutting his wrists, and had carried out this plan with meticulous attention to detail. I recounted the sad details. He died of monoxide poisoning in a car in the Sutherland State Forest about 11 pm the night before. Weeping, Ed told me he had been speaking to Graeme an hour before that, and had asked him what the 'strange noise' was. "I'm driving" was his reply but we now know it was the sound of poison pumping out of the tubing he had purchased earlier at Bunnings, a ticket in his wallet testified. I told Ed that my husband and I had spent an hour on the phone with Graeme around 6 pm, when he asked Gerald for advice about his finances, then gossiped and talked of mundane things, and said "I wouldn't be dead for quids! Life is good!" He ended the call telling me, then insisting I get Gerald so he could tell him too, how much he loved us. He remembered that tomorrow was my birthday, he that he wished me happy days, "You gorgeous creature, you."
Who would have known?
We lived 2.5 hours from Sydney and Ed offered to identify 'the body'. We also had to make plans and organise the funeral, one here in Sydney and then fly his body back to New Zealand. Graeme had, in his orderly fashion, nominated the funeral directors, a place neither of us could believe when we saw it a few days later. We drove out west and exchanged bad taste glances when we saw our friend Graeme, the King of Style, lying in an open satin (satin!) lined coffin in a gloomy establishment with plastic blinds, ruffled polyester curtains and Copper Art prints on the wall. But they did 'Ship to New Zealand' - he had definitely done his research. And it wasn't as traumatic as we had expected - we even managed some snorted laughs and a joke, a few bitchy comments about the decor, the thickness and colour of the foundation pasted on Graeme's face, and the oily slick of his hair. His forehead was cold to my lips as I bent to kiss him. Ed stood beside me, our hands held tightly, and we wept loud tears.
But there was a funeral to organise and so we made our way back to the south coast, where seated at the dining room table in my home, we made phone calls to caterers, friends, and possible venues, we planned a 'theme' which we knew Graeme would love, we listened to songs he loved and began making lists of which ones we could play, we made lists of friends to invite, and food we wanted, we drank too much wine. We cried and we remembered, we got angry and we asked questions, we beat ourselves up, and asked over and over "How could he DO this?", dwelling in our own pain, whilst trying to understand his. We also laughed a lot, and our own friendship, now minus one, deepened in the bonds of our own sorrow. By the early morning hours, we had an outline of a 'production' - An Event which would be fitting for our friend's send off. There was still much to do, but we were satisfied.
We also needed to take care of his frail and elderly parents who would come from New Zealand. I had met his parents many times, but I felt like a coward but was relieved I had no tbeenthe one to inform these good and kind people. They were then in their late eighties, sprightly folk who enjoyed a party, a glass of wine, a joke, and were so proud of their son and their large and loving family. Graeme had been married as a young man, and had an ex wife, three children, and three grandchildren - with whom he shared a close and loving relationship - his ex wife's name was Sandra, too, and they never stopped loving each other. Each year, Graeme's parents would fly to Sydney and drive themselves to the Gold Coast for a holiday. They were strong, hard working, practical people and they were absolutely slain by the death of their son. A few days later when they arrived in Sydney I was shocked at how they had aged, how bent and tired their bodies were, and unbearably sad and lined their dear faces were.
Ed and I held their hands as we led them into Graeme's immaculate, stylish harbour view apartment, which still smelled of his after shave, and impossibly, the lush ginger plants and expansive greenery in a tall vase was still very much alive. He had labelled everything he wanted to give away with the name of the intended beneficiary. The kitchen gleamed, the bins had been emptied, the fridge was stocked with wine, his bed was made, a large wooden bowl held dozens of lemons and the bathrooms sparkled, his toiletries displayed as if in a David Jones catalogue. It looked like a home featured in a Vogue magazine. His mother clung to me and tears coursed down her cheeks as we walked silently from room to room, I was determined to be strong for her, but my eyes leaked anyway, for her son, and for her, a Mother, witnessing her son's final hours. She asked me what I thought Graeme would like to wear 'to his funeral', and so we headed to his bedroom. His wardrobes were like a designer fashion outlet. He had expensive and exquisite taste and if he liked a shirt, he bought one in every colour, and there were rows of them, colour co-ordinated, on matching wooden hangers, all of which faced the same direction, a regulation centimetre apart. Dozens of pairs of trousers hung with knife creases, racks of polished shoes lined up like soldiers, his underwear was neatly folded in identical piles, there were stacks of jumpers and jackets and t shirts, each folded into exactly the same size and shape on the shelf, an exercise in precision. I had spent many nights sleeping in a guest room in this apartment, but never been into his wardrobe or bathroom, and my mind was reeling with questions and insights.
But it seemed OK to be there with his Mum; in some ways, I knew he knew I would be there with her, doing just this. She fingered his shirts and held them to her nose and her heart, she wrapped a singlet around her face and inhaled her son. She opened and shut drawers and patted his clothes, I waited quietly, and then she said "What do you think we should dress him in?" I attempted humour and said"Just as long as he looks good, he will be happy!" She smiled. We both knew Graeme was into 'looking good'. "A suit?" she ventured. Oh good heavens no, I thought, Graeme only wore a suit to funerals, and then realised the absurdity of that thought. Treading lightly, I suggested something a little 'less formal' - and she agreed at once, saying "Yes, Graeme only wore a suit to funerals.' - which made us both laugh out loud. She selected a pair of navy blue slacks, and asked me to help choose a shirt, a soft linen of blue, '"To match his eyes" - we agreed. We chose a pair of casual shoes and socks, and finally underpants of just the right shade.
The next few days passed in a blur of sadness and preparation. We put Graeme's parents on the plane back to New Zealand, to prepare for his funeral in Auckland. Meanwhile, preparations for our Sydney Celebration ramped up. Gay men know how to 'do' a party, and we had to make it fabulous. It was, and had Graeme been there, he would have been ecstatic about the creativity, the style, the colour, the people - oh, and the eulogies! The eulogies! Oh Graeme! You were acknowledged profoundly as a spectacular human being. He would have cried, as we all did, for the deep love and emotion present, for the beauty of what was said, for the sadness of someone who was loved so dearly, but whose life was so painful,he could no longer stay and he had chosen to leave.
And those dozens and dozens of coat hangers from his wardrobe? Ed, my son Joshua and I sat at a table at the end of that day, filled with memories and tears laughter and love, and wrote in felt tip pen on each one, as a gift to the attendees "Graeme was well-hung" - which were received with shrieks of laughter. From his large wooden bowl,his friends were given lemons to take home, for a last ritual gin and tonic with Graeme.
My husband was overseas, and I returned home to an empty house, feeling spent, and grateful for the solitude, I could sit and just be with my old friend. I talked with him, and I remembered the pink pleasure of picking up my phone in the days before we knew who was at the other end, and hearing Graeme's voice saying "Is that the beautiful, talented, generous, funny, loving, kind Sandra Groom? My Friend?" He did it often, yet it always made me smile, it always made me feel special, the chosen one, a friend who was much loved.
I miss you Graeme. I miss your humour, the way you filled a room, the way you made me feel, and how you really seemed to cherish every moment. Perhaps you did, perhaps you knew all those years ago, that yours would not be a long life. You were such a thoughtful, loving, generous man and would never intentionally inflict pain on another. Yet the pain you inflicted on those you left behind isa deep wound, which time has healed, but has left a deep scar which is visible, and always hurts when touched. And I still stop and think, "What did I miss?” Wherever you are, beloved Old Friend, I hope you are at peace.
Let's bekind today. Let's be kind everyday, to all we meet, especially those who do not seem to warrant our kindness - for we do not know what demons people are dealing with. Let's just send them all our love, no matter what.