A few years ago, I attended a memorial service for a former colleague and friend who died too young. I remember the service vividly for several reasons. I remember the chapel at the funeral home being filled to capacity with what appeared to be people from a broad cross- section of my friend’s life and wondering how, in the midst of so many, my friend could possibly have felt so unloved and alone. I remember the open invitation extended to those who wanted to “offer a few words” and listening intently as one guest after another took to the microphone and portrayed the man I knew from our early days of practicing law together, intramural flag football games and family get-togethers too numerous to recount. I remember hearing college buddies and fraternity brothers describing my friend as “the life of the party,” a sports enthusiast (as a spectator and participant), an avid golfer and a gregarious and fun-loving man with a heart of gold, a good sense of humor and a kind word for everyone he met. I remember listening to fellow lawyers speak of my friend’s professionalism, his skills in the courtroom, his humility, his unimpeachable ethics and his compassion. And I remember family friends recalling good times shared when children were young, my friend’s giving spirit, which unhesitatingly once would have extended to the shirt off his back if required, and the words of empathy and support they extended to the family my friend left behind – a family I remember being the center of my friend’s universe for so many years.
What I remember most about the memorial service, however, was what wasn’t said. I remember the tap dancing everyone did around the 300 pound gorilla in the room. No one seemed to want to talk about my friend’s addiction to alcohol or the fact that he likely was (and for many years had been) severely and clinically depressed. No one wanted to mention how those diseases combined to destroy my friend’s marriage; caused him to be separated from his two boys, who he loved more than life itself; alienated him from many of the same people who were so effusive in conveying their fond memories of the man he once had been; essentially ended his legal career; and, ultimately, claimed his life. I’m sure, if asked, everyone who spoke would have offered a different explanation for why they avoided the subject: “I didn’t think it was the time or place to bring it up;” “I thought about mentioning it, but I really wasn’t sure what to say or how to say it;” “Why focus on the ‘negatives’ when there was so much good to talk about;” “I didn’t want to further upset his ex-wife or his two boys, they already were hurting (and had been hurt) enough by his bad behaviors;” or “No one else was talking about it and I certainly didn’t want to be the only one!” And then there were those of us who didn’t speak at all. Some out of respect, some out of fear and some, regrettably, out of ignorance – silently, misguidedly thinking that what all of us were witnessing was the inevitable, albeit no less tragic, outcome of “bad choices” my friend had made, a weakness of purpose or, worse yet, pure selfishness.
My final memory is of a voice inside of me, urging me to stand up – not for the purpose of casting aspersions, but rather in the hope that, speaking from a heart that had to learn the hard way, I could bring understanding. Looking back, I can’t help but think it was my friend searching for someone in the room to be his voice – someone brave enough to let those in attendance know that the diseases he’d battled for so many years were no less “real” just because none of us could “see them” on a x-ray view box, CAT Scan or MRI; that no one would “choose” to live the existence his life became; that he’d never intended to hurt anyone, particularly his wife and two boys; that he was profoundly sorry for all the pain his words and actions had inflicted on so many for so long; that no one in the room was to “blame” for his immeasurable sadness and loneliness; that he was grateful to those who desperately tried to help and who were there for him, despite everything he did to drive them away and make them think otherwise; and, most importantly, that he had struggled mightily to “rescue” the dad, the husband, the man, the friend everyone had loved and admired – the guy everyone was talking about – from the strangle-hold of his captors, but that, ultimately, the enemy simply proved to be too strong. My silence that day was a cowardly act – one borne mostly out of fear for “what others would think” – how I and my words would be perceived. My friend – I owe you an apology. It’s time to break the silence.