There’s no good way to learn someone close to you has suddenly died, but even before I heard the news, I already knew. The empty chat window told me.
My friend Sam. He was a 24-year old UX designer, fiction writer, poet, and musician. He was 6’5 (his website read “I am probably taller than you”) but unassuming; he balanced his wry sense of humor with considerable thoughtfulness. We’d met in Minneapolis when we were both volunteering on the same team at the Nerdery Overnight Website Challenge, an event in which developers, designers, and copywriters work with nonprofit organizations to build them beautiful, functional new websites in a 24-hour marathon session.
Sam had since moved to San Francisco and I to Phoenix. When I’d visit the Bay Area, he’d create an impromptu itinerary starting whenever I texted: I’d walk from where I was staying to a hand-selected punk rock coffeeshop or cupcake bakery, then to another location, ultimately leaving me with easy directions to the bus I’d need to catch. In spite of the dozen or so times we’d actually hung out, I mostly knew him on chat. Living 750 miles apart meant we rarely spent time together in person, but I’d see his avatar flick across my laptop screen every day—sometimes multiple times a day.
The hardest part was the silence.
His last chat message to me was a complaint about coworkers discussing things they’d do together without him in front of him. I tried to coax more details, and he didn’t respond. Thinking he maybe no longer wished to discuss it, I changed the subject to an interactive fiction game he disliked, letting him know that I’d played and agreed with his assessment. A day later and still no response, but this time I led with an issue I was having with one of my own friends. Eventually I resorted to the desperate “hiiiii” and “are you ever online anymore?” “Sam isn’t on Hangouts right now. Your message will be seen later,” Google helpfully reminded me.
When I hadn’t heard from him in four days, I knew something was wrong. I switched to text messages, and then voicemail—a desperate measure, since we’d only ever talked on the phone when recording podcasts. I even asked a mutual friend to knock on his door to check up on him. So when I heard from that same friend while driving to Gold Canyon one Saturday evening, I already knew what it meant.
One of Sam’s favorite things in the world was to play Capture the Flag in the park. He never missed a game. He’d show up early with a book. When he did miss a game, the team organizer noticed his Facebook page was down, and got worried. The next day, he called Sam’s landlady and convinced her to enter Sam’s room. She agreed to, and hung up. The next time they spoke, there were policemen and paramedics in the house, and he had to talk to a police officer who wanted to know why he’d called the landlady. The landlady then confirmed that Sam had taken his own life.
The hardest part was the silence. Each time Sam and I chatted online, he would help me dissect an awkward personal interaction, listen to me vent about an annoying client, or discuss ethical quandaries. No matter how dire things seemed, Sam would either commiserate, help me hash out the best response, or just make me laugh a lot. For months after he died, whenever anything would come up, I’d want to hop on chat to get his take on it, but of course, he wasn’t there. Even seeing his name whenever I checked email was painful. Eventually I asked random friends to hit me up on chat so their names would be above Sam’s and I wouldn’t be forced to think about him more than I already was.
And then there was the guilt I was racked with after learning he had taken his own life. Sam was instantly helpful when I had a problem—I felt the loss immensely—but I’m afraid I wasn’t as effective. He’d whine so often that I limited him to three topics a day and didn’t know exactly how to respond even to those. One time I told him that my husband and I were making pickles, and he lamented the fact that he had nobody to make pickles with. I tried to extol the virtues of pickling alone but to no avail. After he shot down a half dozen suggestions I offered on a different day, I said, “Alright, I give up.” He said, “Don’t worry; I’ve largely given up myself.”
People act like suicide is inevitable, but I’ve always found that argument to be disingenuous. Surely external circumstances—including one’s community—play a role. Why else would there be suicide prevention websites, or telltale signs people are told to look for? I saw the signs and encouraged Sam to see a therapist, thinking that would be the magic bullet and would take some pressure off me, since I didn’t have the emotional wherewithal to hold space for his despair. The sadness in Sam’s last chat message to me was palpable, and even if I was on chat that moment, I’m not sure what I would have said. “I’m sorry”? “That sucks”? “Those people are stupid”?
One time, while discussing a couple of great professional connections I’d made, I told him I thought my trick was to be genuinely interested in speaking with not just the internet celebrity, but his trusty assistant (who was impressive in his own right). (“Yay for treating people like human beings,” Sam wrote.) I theorized that I came across as nice when I was nervous or just bullshitting. “Has it occurred to you that you might just be empathetic and caring and nice?” he asked. “You should at least leave that on the table as a possibility.” If I was the kind and empathetic person Sam thought I was, would he still be alive?
One of Sam’s gifts was the ability to rewrite what would otherwise be bridge-burning screeds into polite, palatable counterparts. "I don't know what the fuck you want me to do with the intro that I already rewrote three times and I can't read your mind" became "What compelling key point would you like the intro to emphasize?" What if he was able to translate the world around him for himself? How would he have worded my suggestions to be less dismissive?
In fact, it seems like he did the opposite. When I invited him to my wedding, he asked me how distraught I’d be if he didn’t come. “Zero or some?” He wanted to know if it was ‘an indifferent thing.’ “why would I invite you if it was an indifferent thing? you are strange.” I wrote. “To be polite?” he responded. “I’m not polite,” I typed. “...fair point.”
The sadness in Sam’s last chat message to me was palpable.
It was months before I felt comfortable looking at our old chat transcripts, was ready to face the truth. I spent hours in Google Hangouts, scrolling up, up, up. (There’s no easy or quick way to do this.) I braced myself for the onslaught of messages where he’d gently counsel me on my own problems, followed by me virtually ignoring his. There was no way to remember things differently, to explain this away. It would be right there in black-and-white text within the tiny screen.
But what I found was different than I’d remembered. There was a lot of in-depth conversation in which we were both equal participants. I’d sent him multiple job listing and housing listings when he was still in limbo, and I listened patiently when he’d explain why Bitcoin stories should never be illustrated, especially not with physical manifestations of Bitcoin, “which is at best contradictory, at worst dishonest,” he explained, followed with, “Why does a story about bitcoin need a picture? Let the lede fall above the fold and I'll fucking read it with my reading eyes.”
Our chats were filled with Sam’s wry humor. He described Cards Against Humanity as “Apples to Apples for unclever people” and compared it to watching The Hills. He told me he went to an event where people brought it because they weren't sure if the group was socially capable enough to converse without it… Said he wanted to flip the table but his beer was on it. We’d made plans to go to Cheeseboard (cheeeeeeeeeeeseboard, he called it) when I was in town.
There was a lot of commiseration, support, and laughter on both ends. Nothing can bring Sam back, but at least scrolling through these conversations allowed me to put a false interpretation of events to rest.