I used to wear Hawaiian shirts. Terrible tacky things with toucans and tropical scenes. My friends Joel, Kevin and I would bike to the local thrift stores and pick out new ones from time to time. Then I showed up to 6th grade to find out that Joel had killed himself. He was 12. That was the first time I learned how delicate, how precious, and how painful life is.
Two years later, in 8th grade, my childish romance with a girl at school turned heavy when her father shot himself. It was a horrific scene, she saw it, I heard all about it. I became an adult in so many ways as the answer to the ‘why did he do it?’ question came to light. It was horrific. We were 13.
It wasn’t long after this, as my world fell apart around me, that I first thought about death as a way out. Sitting in the back seat of the car, hand on the door lever, I figured I could dive out into 70mph traffic. It seemed quick, and I could do it right then, in that moment when I was hurting so badly. That memory, that moment, is burned in my mind.
In college while studying psychology I began volunteering at Suicide Prevention Services in Santa Cruz. I sat in a room, by a phone, waiting for it to ring. I usually took the night shift. The phone rang with horrible regularity. I’d try to calm my heartbeat then answer.
More than once I talked to people with their finger on the trigger. I went through the formula, difused the bomb, calmed them down. Stepped them away from the edge. Sometimes I would talk with people for hours. Sometimes it just took a few minutes once they heard a voice that cared, because I did really, truely care.
Suicide became a theme in life. It had become normal. There were others over the years, friends who held onto pain so deep and so raw that the only way out seemed to be death. Moments of grief that seemed as if they would never, could never change. Ultimately they gave in, unable to see the light at the end of the tunnel any more.
Recently I found myself in the car, foot smashing the peddle as I rushed to a friends house. The text came from his soon to be exwife, the fear in her message was palpable. She was afraid he was going to hurt himself. She had called the police she was so concerned. I called him as I rushed over, he answered and I kept him on the phone.
When I got to his house I let myself in. His emotional anguish was visible in his shaking body, locked jaw and choppy speech. I embraced him as I came through the door. I hugged him tight, I held onto him a long time. We talked for awhile. Awkward difficult discussion. What was there to say when your friend came home to an empty house and a note from his wife. She wasn’t coming back.
Finally I asked the hard questions, said the difficult things. “I’m worried you're going to hurt yourself, to kill yourself.” You have to be direct, use the words that are uncomfortable to say. I went into the garage and pulled the action on the shotgun open. The chamber was empty but a single shell sat on the ground next to a stack of cinderblocks and a chair.
The pain he was experiencing was extreme. I understand how he felt, I understand how it seemed like there was no way out. I understand how death seemed like a viable option. I’ve sat with a knife pressed to my arm more times than I’m proud to admit. I’ve called a friend. I’ve done it more recently than I like to think about.
When I heard that Hayden Kennedy and his girlfriend Ingrid Perkins died in an avalanche I was devastated. My heart dropped and I had to sit down. It seems like it was just yesterday that I saw HK. We talked about Inge, for a guy that didn’t care for spraying, he sprayed all about her: how amazing she was, her climbing skills, her skiiing skills, her status as a super snug honey (his words, not mine). He asked about Carmen, we talked about life.
Hayden and I talked about the mountains. I tried to convince him to go somewhere with me. I wanted to share his energy, channel it, use it. He gave a slideshow that night about the importance of friends. I hoped that he enjoyed our time together in Red Rocks, enchaining a weeks worth of climbing into a casual day, as much as he clearly enjoyed his time with the characters of the slideshow.
A day after I heard about the avalanche I heard the real story. Hayden had survived the avalanche, Inge hadn't. The following day Hayden took his own life. I can only imagine his pain. I can’t fathom his suffering.
As people of the mountains, we sadly confront death more than anyone likes. We see our friends head into extreme places and not come home, lately it has been with far too much regularity. It is the fucked up reality of our obsession to live life to the fullest, to explore the world and its mountains. We push limits and take chances, and sometimes we pay the ultimate price. We learn to accept and rationalize this type of death. We find comfort in our friends and we push forward.
Suicide is not death in the mountains. It leaves the rest of us confused and hurt in a different way. It leaves us with guilt and anger. It leaves us frustrated. But in the end, it is the same death.
I am angry that Hayden made this choice to kill himself. I can only imagine his pain when Inge died. The aweful moment alone in the mountains. The horrible feeling of loss, of a life ripped from his hands. In my mind I try to tell myself that Hayden died in that avalanche. And I am still angry, because Hayden killed himself.
There is no question in my mind that suicide is the worst iteration of death. That it is the most confusing and the most difficult to deal with for those left behind. I wish that Hayden had called a friend, had reached out. I wish that he had done something other than what he did. But he did not.
Hayden was a good friend. He was a wise, amazing human. I could never believe that he was five years younger than me because I looked up to him so much. It wasn’t just his skill on the rock or in the mountains, it was his wisdom and his knowledge. I looked up to his drive to learn and to better himself. His ability to see the importance of friendship above all else.
My time with HK left me with a deeper appreciation for my own relationships. Hayden always asked about Carmen, he always wanted to know how she was, how we were. He always told me how amazing she is and how lucky I am. Hayden’s love for Inge was no different, it was inspiring. After our last conversation, I felt deeply grateful for my relationship, Hayden made me see how lucky we are.
I am still angry and frustrated by the loss of this wonderful guy. I regret that he made the choice he did. I am saddened that Inge lost her life in the mountains, I felt that I knew her from all that Hayden said. In the end all I can do is try to respect the decision Hayden made, to understand the deep sorrow that filled his heart, the pain he could not live with, perhaps the guilt he felt at being there in the mountains with her.
I will always remember Hayden with a bright smile, long gangly arms and an incredible ability to make everyone smile. The world misses you and Inge both my friend. If you could only see the lives you have touched, you clearly had no idea.
Fly free my friends. You’re with the birds, as we all will be one day.
To all my other friends who hurt, suffering so deep it feels like the pain will never change: This too shall pass. Something my mother has said to me since sixth grade. These hard times will fade. There is hope. Things may not be the same in the end, but new joy will be found. Pick up the phone, call a friend, move forward one minute, one hour and one day at a time.