A year ago today, my friend Ryan died. He took his own life. I haven’t written much about it before now for a number of reasons, not least of which is that words seem entirely insufficient to describe the enormity of his loss. But also, I haven’t really known what to say or rather, I’ve struggled to feel entitled to say it because my time with Ryan was brief and isolated in a hyper-reality that no one but we shared.
We met in Vancouver, Canada where Ryan was living and spent the better part of my month long stay in each other’s company. When it came time to continue my journey, it was difficult to leave but it wasn’t long until we met again in Italy for an insanely intense fortnight, travelling in and around Tuscany. Never before has my life felt so like a trashy romance novel, the kind I would never read but living it was something else entirely. We stayed in constant touch as I continued around the globe, eventually returning home to Sydney, Australia. Ryan spoke about coming to Sydney and came very close on a couple of occasions but it never came to pass. The tyranny of distance, amongst other things, burst our bubble but we remained in close contact as our individual journeys unfurled in synchronous parallel. I assumed that our paths would continue to criss-cross each other’s for the remainder of our days but his ended abruptly before we had the chance to intersect again.
If we’re lucky in life, we get to play a variety of roles and be different things to different people – none of us are entirely good, nor is anyone entirely bad. I subscribe to the belief that we just are and good and bad is a matter of perception. To me, Ryan was a hero and a savior. I don’t think he’d played that part too many times before, if at all. He was very open and honest with me about his colourful past, the likes of which I hadn’t encountered before. I can certainly appreciate that his other relationships in life were more multi-faceted and complicated but that didn’t make the Ryan I knew any less true. It wasn’t even selective. It’s just the very privileged point of view I had.
By the same token, he cast me in a light that I had never seen shine my way before. I wasn’t long out of my one and only previous relationship, one that I’d entered 18 years prior with poor self-esteem. It ended with the revelation that he could not have been attracted to me but also, that he apparently didn’t even like me very much. With every paranoid thought I’d ever had about myself confirmed, I assumed that was case closed on my shameful love life.
In the truth of hindsight, Ryan and I were two very damaged people who, through the confluence of events, were bought together to provide the perfect salve for the temporary relief of each others pain. I was a soul in search of experience and experience was certainly something Ryan had in spades. And there I was, all naïve and wide-eyed with wonder – no doubt the very picture of redemption and the promise of a clean start.
We were reflective of the best in each other. To me, he was strong, capable, charming, confident, cool, wise, compassionate and so funny. To him, I was brave, bold and beautiful. His perspective of me revealed aspects of myself that I hadn’t even known were missing. As ridiculous as it may sound, I’d never felt especially feminine before, at least not in such an empowering way. In light of the revelation of my previous partners homosexuality, it stood to reason that my femininity wasn’t something of value in our relationship but he was my one and only and without a point of comparison, I had no reason to notice. Ryan ripped the plastic right off it and gave me the most precious gift of myself. Ryan saved me with how he saw me. My heart breaks that I wasn’t able to save him with his own reflected magnificence.
Of course, I’m not so naïve to think that my version of Ryan was any more complete than his was of me. Indeed, I also knew his darkness and knew that it was deeper and more magnetic than most. I knew that he struggled long and hard to overcome it and exhausted every avenue he could think to try. In fact, in the aftermath of his suicide, I was left to wonder if he made the right choice for himself in the same way a person suffering with an excruciating terminal physical illness may choose to hasten their inevitable end. I’m not saying what he did was right, only that I cannot judge that it was wrong. I don’t know the answers and ultimately, I don’t need to know because knowing won’t bring him back.
There’s actually a lot I don’t know including the circumstances surrounding Ryan’s death or the details of how he died. As I mentioned, we existed in a bubble – I didn’t know the people in his life and he didn’t know the people in mine except for a small handful of one-off meetings and Skype introductions. Luckily, that small circle encompassed Ryan’s mother who thankfully notified me of his death. I couldn’t ask her for details though and didn’t have anyone else to ask. Just when I made my peace with not knowing, I received an unsolicited message from Ryan’s brother who filled in some of the blanks in the anger of his grief. That further helped me to accept that the truth is a matter of perspective – anything anyone could tell me would be clouded by his or her own grief just as all I’ve said here is a myopic personal account and one I’ve been hesitant to share because it is so personal.
When I heard the news, I was at home alone. I had no one to grieve with because no one I knew knew Ryan aside from my sister, Rebecca, who’d met him on Skype and my friend, Laura, who was in Vancouver. I did receive tremendous support from those close to me who knew how significant Ryan was in my life but it was an odd and difficult thing not to have anyone to reminisce with. Our memories were ours alone and now I am the sole custodian of them. That said, I have been extremely grateful for ongoing contact with Ryan’s mother, Pauline; his brother, Kenny; and friend, Sarah who reached out to me though we’d never met. It meant a great deal to me that they knew who I was and what Ryan and I had meant to each other.
I don’t wish to overindulge in revisionist history; there’s a tendency to beatify people once they’ve passed away and to selectively forget the not-so-great stuff. I’m under no delusion that if Ryan had come to Australia that all would have been well. There’s no way of knowing that we could’ve withstood ‘real life’ outside of our beautiful bubble. If anything, the evidence suggests that we both too damaged to have been able to sustain the healing effect we’d had on each other. Nonetheless, I will always regret not being healed and whole enough to have given him a fairer share of myself.
Similarly, I have poured over our messages from his final months and especially his final days looking for clues I missed or things I could’ve said that may have pulled him back from the brink but time and again, I realise there was nothing I could have said or done that I didn’t say or do. In hindsight, I can only conclude that at some point, he made up his mind and silenced the alarm bells by telling me what he thought I wanted to hear: that he was feeling better and moving forward.
I hope he knew how absolutely I loved him in universal terms and how unendingly grateful I am for the role he played in my life. A year ago I said “I am who I am because Ryan braved my darkness to bring me his light” and I mean it just as much today.
I miss him terribly. I still go to message him or send him some music or share a memory and then have to remember again that which I’ll never forget. I miss the way he saw me. I feel perhaps that version of me died when he did because it was his gaze that bought her to life. He swept me off my feet when we met and knocked me off them when he died. To be honest, I’ve struggled to find my feet since.
I do have a strong sense of Ryan around me at times. It’s difficult to describe other than to say it’s a very visceral, repetitious and overwhelming sense of joy, freedom and love. He always seems to be laughing at the silliness of my sadness and mocking me gently in his inimitable way. Even as I write these words, I can feel a certain resonance that makes me both laugh and cry and feel that he’s with me. Perhaps I’m imaging it or wishing it to be but if truth is a matter of perspective, I feel privileged to remember him this way.