I ignored my phone’s vibrations in the early morning—my Organic Chemistry class taking precedence, obviously. I assumed it was a group chat or some other trivial social responsibility until the buzzing continued throughout the lecture. “Buzz, buzz, buzz,” and stop. “Buzz, buzz, buzz,” and stop. The rhythm became frequent—a familiar sensation that I eventually acclimated to until it ceased. There was nothing…except for the stillness on my lap, the ongoing chatter of a vexing lecture on molecular bonds and chair conformations, and 14 missed calls from Mom.
I still remember how the first thing I heard from my mom was “Are you okay? Duane…” Her voice trembled. I still remember the hour I spent crying in the privacy of my dorm room. My shock overwhelmed me. I still remember calling his best friend, (unfairly) hoping that maybe someone could be strong for the both us. But most of all, I still remember not being able to call Duane’s sister because I didn’t know what to say.
September is a month dedicated to raising awareness to the prevention of suicide. Ironically, this time of year also marks the anniversary of Kuya* Duane’s own passing and it never really goes away—the pain, the regrets, the missed opportunities, the loss of someone I looked up to. Yet I find that each year, I find myself more and more caught up in my busy schedules and forgetting this loss until I feel echoes of him when I see a boy with a lion mane, hear someone with power vocals belting their soul out in each note and meeting people who are just as accepting and kind as he was. But I am forgetting and that is what scares me.
Three years have passed since then and from what I gather, our community, his family, and his friends have slowly learned to adjust to the empty space left behind—we’ve graduated, moved out of our childhood homes, travelled the world, have started careers and some have even started their own families. But there are some who find the space too big to ever really forget. They say that you should never dwell in the past, that you should move forward, and I find that easier to do than most others I know. I don’t feel the urge to call him only to hear no response. I don’t have one less occupied room in a home. I didn’t lose a best friend. I didn’t lose a son. I didn’t lose a brother. And maybe that’s why it’s easier for me to forget. My pain was periphery and temporary compared to the more permanent and direct loss that others closer to him painfully experience. And it sucks.
It sucks that a friend is now a memory. It sucks that we’re here moving forward in our lives and he’s stayed behind in 2014. It sucks that at times I find myself forgetting. It sucks that it has to take an awareness month to remind me of who Duane was. It’s hard and it hurts. But I guess now, the best I can do is remember.
Our lives intersected when I started attending my current home church, but only by association; it was actually his sister whom I became good friends with. Yet even with the age gap and differing social circles, Kuya Duane always had a way of making me feel comfortable. It was his voice, however, that brought us closer together—it could shatter your soul. He was a musician at heart and that mesmerized me. When he sang, you could feel sincerity and control and it was something that I felt I could never attain as a musician. To me, he was a pro. So I looked up to him, hoping that one day, maybe, I could express myself in the same way. But I never told him that.
I visited his grave once and the only thing I could say was sorry. I should’ve known. Struggling with my own depression and anxieties, I blamed myself for not being more aware. How could I, someone who has thought similar thoughts and ideations, not know what Kuya Duane was going through? How could I, who spent hours after physics classes in Kuya’s apartment, miss the signs? Could I have changed the outcome if I had been more aware? Was there something I could’ve done?
Frankly, I find myself struggling to write this because I don’t know how to properly navigate my own feelings. I’m scared this will come out selfish and callous; but most of all, I’m afraid I won’t do justice to Kuya Duane’s memory. When I first heard the news I was speechless. For the past few years, whenever I saw Duane’s sister, I still had no idea what to say—so I never brought it up. Even last year, on the second anniversary of his death, all I could ask Kuya Duane’s best friend was “How are you feeling? Are you okay?” and it’s possible that I’ll never find the right thing to say. But finally, maybe, after all these years, I found something to share.
Learning to cope and adjust to the loss alongside my friends and community has forced me to grow a lot faster than I would’ve wished. That process, however, has also taught me a great deal. I’ve learned that it’s okay to not always have the right things to say; I’ve learned to listen; I’ve learned to be present; I’ve learned to be appreciative of my friends. But there are still so many thoughts that linger in my psyche.
For one, the loss of a friend is never easy. Losing a person to suicide is not normal, no matter how prevalent it is in the media. This ordeal has forced me to question my responsibility towards the lives and well-being of those I care about. Am I my brother’s keeper? Do I have to care about others this much? Would I even be this committed to caring if this tragedy had never happened? Am I being authentic in my appreciation and attempts to reach out to others? Am I obligated to speak out on behalf of those who might be struggling with suicidal ideations, depression or trauma?
While these questions weigh heavily on me and finding the perfect balance and answers to them requires a lot more time, these past three years have helped me reconcile a few of the less major queries. Primarily, I’ve learned that moving on is a part of healing—our current successes and strides forward in our lives are not a slight to Kuya Duane’s memory. We live on, but so does he in our hearts. The lives of my friends and I will get busy as we continue onwards. We might not always remember Kuya Duane every day—but we never truly forget, either.
I still remember one time we sang together with our friends and made $25 from a man and his family in Las Vegas. I still remember him being the only one in the room to accurately hit those notes in Flyleaf’s “I’m So Sick.” I still remember going to Kuya Duane’s apartment and learning that Scrubs is one of the best shows ever created. Most of all, I remember how easy it was to love him. His kindness drew me in, his talent moved me, and he and his family embraced our motley crew of friends—and because of that, he won’t ever fade away.
* Kuya is a Filipino term of respect/endearment delegated to males of older age