They say that in a group of 23 people, there will be two people who share a birthday. I have only ever found one person who shared my birthday and birth year. That was Stephen. This is a very small excerpt of his story, the little bit that he was in my life.
Stephen was creative, a lateral thinker in a creative way that was not in any way applicable to work. He would leave funny little messages in the communication book at work (and apparently had graffitied a number of them in the library at Adelaide University, where he studied medicine). He was bright, very witty, but somehow a little out of step with the stereotypic doctor. And he loved to laugh.
Stephen drove the “fast brown car” which was an appalling poo-brown falcon in terrible condition. He had to put the front seat back in so I could sit in it – and it probably wasn’t very safe. It was fast brown car mark two – the first one had been trashed at a party when people jumped all over it (quite probably encouraged by Stephen).
As we were the same age, and attended uni at the same time in a relatively small city, it was inevitable that we knew people in common – and in fact had attended the same parties (most notably one in some share houses in North Adelaide featuring a band called “Buster Hymen and the Penetrators”. Classy. We were young, we thought it was funny. And it was certainly a memorable name. I can remember it almost three decades later.)
I met Stephen when we worked together at a medical service. We briefly dated but nothing came of it and we became friends instead, companions in the still dark nights inhabited by the chronically ill and the drug seeking. The living dead. We shared gallows humour and kept each other going. At least he kept me going. He was funny, zany, and bizarre, creative. He loved to entertain and confuse with his very off-beat humour. We would go out to breakfast at the Hilton and the Hyatt after night shift ended, with a group from a few other medical services and the local hospital A&Es. It was great to be relaxing and taking our time, then heading home while the rest of the world rushed off to work.
Stephen killed himself when we were 26.
He went home after night shift, put a tourniquet around his arm and shot up 15 ampoules of morphine. He was a doctor, so he had access and he knew what he was doing – almost. He was a big man – tall and solid (he called himself fat boy), and he passed out before he could release the tourniquet. The morphine didn’t kill him, but he wasn’t found for 12 hours, when he didn’t turn up to his next shift. He had been breathing about once a minute all day and had wiped out most of his brain from lack of oxygen. I had last spoken to him three hours prior to when he would have done it, when my shift finished before his. I could not tell anything was wrong. Even in retrospect, there were no signs. Nothing.
He spent the next two weeks in a coma in intensive care, in the hospital where he had trained. I have never prayed for someone to die, but for Stephen, I did. With the brain damage – only the brain stem was still functioning – he could never be more than a vegetable. This was an appalling outcome for a man who had been so lively, so witty, so clever. He had lived from his brain, his intelligence, and his charm. Just as arrangements were being made to transfer him to a permanent ward – a ward of the living dead where bodies that refuse to die are fed and washed – mercifully, he died. I doubt his family felt that way at the time, and maybe they still don’t, but for those with any medical knowledge, it was a blessing.
It was still terrible. I lost one stone of weight in a week. I retreated into compulsive behaviours – horse-riding and playing the same song over and over – Baby Animals ‘Lights out at Eleven’, (below). Even now I occasionally think about him, what he is missing, what his family is missing because he chose the way out that he did, what could have been. No condemnation, just deep sadness.
I heard his grandparents couldn’t believe he had suicided, and believed he had been murdered. His sisters were of course devastated. His parents kindly sent me a photograph and a letter. I can no longer picture his face except for the photograph, which is etched in my mind. I can’t imagine his voice any more. The letter spoke of their ongoing disbelief at what had happened. Pride at the man he was and how loved he was by so many friends, disbelief at what happened and a fathomless grief at the utterly unexpected and inexplicable turn of events that had taken him from them irrevocably. Their lives altered forever.
So why did he do it? I will never really know, but I heard much later that his girlfriend had got pregnant and she had had an abortion. He was brought up Catholic and couldn’t deal with it – in his mind, she had killed their baby. This post is not meant to be either anti-abortion, or anti-religion. There is no moral of the story, the meaning you overlay on the story says more about you than it does about Stephen or his girlfriend. The story is what it is, no more. And it may not be correct – it may be only the Chinese whispers that follow this sort of tragedy as people try to make sense of the insensible – and some try to lay blame.
There is no blame to be laid.
Thanks to the modern wonder of the internet, I can keep Stephen alive a little. I haven’t mentioned his surname, and I won’t post his photograph because he belongs to others – to his family. I can only share my memories, keep his humour, his bizarreness, his creativity alive in my mind. It was meaningful at the time. And we were young. This should never have happened, but it was his choice.
I am tempted to say, as they do, he will always be young, but he won’t. He is gone. He will never be anything now. He was my friend, but all I have is a photograph and a few scraps of paper.
If you are feeling distressed, please seek help. Don’t choose a permanent solution to a temporary problem, no matter how overwhelming it feels right now.