Author’s Note: This has been written as a model essay for my students and the personal narrative essay they will be writing this week.
The Prompt: Describe a time when you have helped someone else or a time when someone else has helped you, how you feel about it, and how that situation has affected/impacted you and your life.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy
I never thought the moment would come when I could possibly hold someone’s life in my hands. However, one autumn night in Brown County, Indiana, it did. One hardly thinks that the phone is going to ring in the middle of the night and one of your best friends will be on the other end of the line, her phone in one hand, and purportedly, a razor in the other. It only takes a moment for you to realize just how hard you will fight to help someone stay.
Several years ago, I was down in Brown County attending a Smekens (Reading and Literacy) retreat with two or three other teachers from Yorktown Middle School. The day’s workshops were over, and the 8th grade Social Studies teacher and I were relaxing in our hotel room, winding down and readying ourselves for sleep. It was late, past nine o’clock, when my cell phone rang. Picking it up, I saw my friend *Katherine’s name on the caller ID. I answered immediately, asking her what was up. It was unusual for her to call me on the phone; we usually spoke via Facebook messenger or Skype ever since she had finished college at Ball State University and moved back home to Ohio. I am not a phone-talker, not usually. I tend to prefer either text or face-to-face conversations. My friends know this so when one of them chooses to call me, I have no doubt that it’s likely important. This was.
When Katherine spoke, her voice was shaky, and I could tell she was crying. Through her muddled and muddied words, I was able to figure out that she was sitting alone in her bedroom, contemplating ending her life. Immediately, I jumped to my feet and walked out of my hotel room, searching for somewhere to have this private—and increasingly, critically important–conversation. Finally, I settled on a bench on the porch in front of the hotel complex, as it was deserted this late. Sitting there on that bench in the evening cool, I listened to my friend pour out her aching heart and soul and in return offered her my own, breaking itself at the thought of losing her. She had been through quite a great deal in the past few years. Her childhood had been tumultuous, with lots of ups and downs, biological and foster families involved. After that Katherine had gone through several difficult relationships, a hard breakup before she’d finished college, and then had moved back home to find setting up life as an adult to be far more challenging than she had anticipated. It was all extremely heavy and weighing on her. I had walked alongside her through the college breakup and her fear that, afterward, our circle of friends would discard her because “we had been friends with him first”. That time, too, I had sat outside on the phone with her and reassured her that I understood her fears. I was the “outsider” in the friend circle, too, and I had worried about just the same things if my relationship with my then-boyfriend-now-husband had ever gone sideways. Would I be ostracized? Would I lose the only close friends I had in this part of Indiana? And, unfortunately, she did lose some of those friends, as did we. They chose to “side” with him and, in his mind, if we weren’t with him, we were against him. It was sad and hard, losing friends always is. Now I listened to her pour out a new set of burdens that had been placed on her already loaded-down and bowed back.
I sat there in the deepening darkness of that porch and the darkness that she undoubtedly faced in her bedroom, and I listened and cried. I reassured her that she was indeed loved, that, no, she was not a burden on anyone, and that I would miss her terribly if she left. Never once did I tell her that she was being selfish or cowardly. Those were not words that she needed to hear, nor were they in any way true. No, what my friend needed then was reasons to stay. Reasons to put that razor down, reasons to let her heart keep beating and her lungs keep breathing. She needed reasons to stay alive, so I did my best to give her reason after reason that I could think of. I don’t remember how long we sat there on the phone together or what all I actually said, but, eventually, the tears slowed, the words cleared, and she let out a huge breath. It was the kind of breath you exhale when you’ve just put down something very heavy. She was going to stay. I exhaled, too, and told her how much I loved her again and again. She was going to stay.
Today, I am absolutely elated to report that Katherine is doing well. She sought out and received the help that she needed, she found and built a new, healthy relationship, has found stability, and is now healthy, happy, hearty, and whole. I am unbelievably proud of her and so very happy for the beautiful thing her life has become. Until that night, suicide was just something I had heard of. It was just another statistic, something far removed, second-hand stories that I knew to be true because friends had had friends who had attempted or succeeded. This moment brought it home to me, made it absolutely, extremely, frighteningly real, and I think it changed something in my heart and soul. Ever since then, I have worked very hard to make myself and the spaces I inhabit (my home, my Facebook page, my classroom, etc.) a place where people can feel safe. Safe enough to share their feelings, their joys, and their struggles. I want to be a person and a place where people know they aren’t going to be judged because they are having a difficult time; they aren’t going to be called lazy or cowardly or selfish or weak. I read, donate, and participate in groups and projects such as To Write Love on Her Arms and The World Needs More Love Letters. I want to hold space for others to be able to be themselves, whatever that means for them in that moment, and, with any luck, give them some encouragement, a prayer, a bit of love, and some hope. Hope that they can take the next breath. Hope that they can take the next step. Hope that they can face another day. I want to do my best to be a place where people can come and, hopefully, find that they want to stay.