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[Editor’s note: The names in this piece have been changed to protect the privacy of the victim and his family.]
By Danny Schmitz | Multimedia Editor
That Thursday was like any other Thursday I experienced during my time interning at the Plymouth TreeHouse, a nonprofit faith-based organization that works with at-risk teens.
At 4:30 p.m., I jumped in Amy, my 1998 faded red Honda CRV, threw on my sunglasses and cruised in the left lane toward Peace Lutheran Church. I typically rode in silence, consumed in my thoughts, half praying for energy and listening for God to call me Beloved, but mostly getting distracted by anything and everything.
David was the first kid I met at TreeHouse. A gawky white seventh grader, usually munching on sour gummy worms, skinny as a board. His sandy blond hair fell in his face, his head was too big for his body and his skateboarding shoes were definitely too big for his feet.
“Hi, I’m Danny.”
“I know. I knew you were coming.”
I will always remember my first conversation with David. I only could spit out three words before he took off screaming, tennis ball in hand.
When I came into the office that Thursday, Nate had just given Chase a drum lesson. David was running around, just being David. Playing the drums, avoiding our Snapchat stories, and even digging through my coworker Nate’s desk and wallet. We left to pick up more students, and David decided to come with me. Before we picked up the other students I asked him about school, and he responded with his signature clown-hornesque “meh”. That was David’s norm.
He never seemed very fond of school, explaining to me that he had gotten pretty far behind on his school work, and didn’t want to catch up. I tried to encourage him, relating his situation to the countless times I have been in the exact same position. We were the first to arrive back at the church, but before we exited Vanada (my TreeHouse van), he found an unopened can of Sprite. He turned to me and asked if he could have it. I said sure. David marched into the gym, trophy in hand.
That night we played a game, and I was paired with David. During the game, I picked him up, carrying him across the room, in order to prevent him from sitting in a different chair. After he wriggled his way out of my grasp, a residual kick sprung out like a loose cannon, and landed rather close to this particular pirate’s “special treasure chest”. We all burst out laughing, and it took a minute or two to calm everyone down before we could start playing again.
That was David, a fast-moving, kind-hearted ball of 14-year-old energy. Annoying as hell, yet sweet as can be.
I drove David home that night, dropping him off last like usual. We talked about how I was going to share my story next week, and how I was excited for him to hear it. He said to me that he was excited to come next week. We said our goodbyes, and he jumped out of Vanada, disappearing around the side of his house. That was the last time I saw David.
Friday morning, my phone buzzed.
“Guys, David died last night.”
In a flurry, Heather organized us to meet in Plymouth, where we would visit David’s home, and be with his mom and grandma. The only sound in the van was ambient traffic noise.
What are we supposed to say?
We prayed for God to be present. Took a deep breath; and we walked in.
Jeanie’s house was only half as cluttered as her thoughts must have been. We joined a couple of social workers from David’s school, as well as the Chaplain from the fire department. I watched Jeanie collapse into Nate’s arms as he offered a quiet presence of strength, and a safe space for her devastation to be released.
David had a brother Chris. Chris is a few years older than David, and lives in a group home an hour out of the cities where he gets help coping with his emotions. Chris grew up as the oldest male in a family raised by a poor, single mother. Before he moved to the group home, Chris used to pick on David.
After the move Chris was able to be a better big brother.
Living in different places, David and Chris made the most out of brotherhood on the weekends Chris spent at home. They would talk about girls, music, video games and mostly superheroes. Chris loves superheroes, so, naturally, David loves superheroes too.
On Friday, Chris needed to be picked up, but more importantly he needed to know what had happened. Jeanie didn’t want Chris to find out over the phone, so Heather, Nate and I volunteered to do it.
We said our goodbyes, hopped into Vanada, and set off down Highway 7. That was the longest hour of my life.
None of us had ever been in a position to tell someone that their loved one had passed away, let alone had to tell a 16-year-old that his 14-year-old brother had just died the night before.
When we arrived, we took our positions and waited for him to come see us. We heard him from down the hall asking if he was in trouble, as he unknowingly strolled into devastation.
Chris is a bear of a 16-year-old. He has broad slumped shoulders, blond wispy hair that stopped above his eyebrows and clumsy feet that seemed to drag everywhere he walked.
After greeting him with hugs, we sat back down. We were about to shatter his world.
“We want you to know we are here because we love you, and we want you to know that from the start…I guess…I guess there is just no easy way to say this, but your brother, David… David took his own life last night.”
The natural grin Chris wore vanished as he took in the information. As those harrowing words escaped Nate’s lips, I watched as every ounce of life drain from Chris’s face.
His head fell between his knees, and he wailed.
Chris’s cacophonous cries refused to be contained.
In my 23 years of life, I have never heard a more dreadful noise. It sounded like the loss of a brother, the false notion of a failed relationship, the confusion of suicide.
He cried out, over and over and over and again. Occasionally he would choke out sentence fragments.
“He wasn’t supposed to do that!”
His wails would crash like waves in a storm.
“I should have protected him better!”
“I will never forget that moment. I will never forget watching his body heave between sobs, each exhale bringing him closer to the floor. Closer to nothingness.” – Danny Schmitz
As soon as things seemed to be subsiding, another roller would rip into shore.
“It should have been me!”
I will never forget that moment. I will never forget watching his body heave between sobs, each exhale bringing him closer to the floor. Closer to nothingness. In each passing moment the weight of devastation grew, the reality of death became more alive.
Later that day I recounted the moment to my dad, I remember him saying; “I hope I never have to have that conversation,” and “I hope you never have to do that again,” and I completely understand his thought process.
That conversation is excruciatingly painful. I had to look the 16-year-old in the eyes and try to communicate love, and even more difficult, communicate hope. I couldn’t even muster the strength to do that, let alone try to fall asleep that night knowing the last time I ever spoke to my brother might have been an argument. I know my dad’s support was well intended, but my sentiments are the exact opposite.
I hope we don’t insulate ourselves from pain, I hope we run to it.