Survivor’s Guilt

A few weeks back, I lost a good friend from my college days.

I say “a few weeks back”, but truth be told, I lost him about 15 years ago. Nate, as I’ll call him here, was one of my favorite people at Hofstra and was by my side during my wilder years. If I considered myself the King of 1998, he was one of the top members of my court. Realistically, he was probably closer to the actual king I thought myself to be than I was. People loved him and his carefree, if sometimes brooding, demeanor made him a popular guy.

Nate was there for a lot of our heavy partying days. We all threw caution to the wind and tempted fate on a nightly basis. We did everything to excess and did it all in the spirit of fun. There were plenty of nights where we would half-joke about nearly dying.

sgOur group of friends were together for some of our proudest moments. We also bore witness to some of our biggest tragedies. Nate went through those too and I watched, over time, as the partying we did for fun slowly morphed into the partying we did to forget. Those transition years from teenager to young adult are fraught with some serious moments.

When he suddenly left Long Island one day and sprinted back home without looking back, I never questioned it. In fact, I understood it. In many ways, I did the same thing. Nate became a memory that I could fondly recall, but I also accepted that he had to put those days away. “Partying”, as we playfully called it, was something that I put behind me. I assumed he had to as well.

Twenty years later, that’s how he died.

I didn’t write any long eulogies on Facebook or make the drive upstate to his funeral. The Nate I remembered was the Nate from another time. I knew that he had made his choice years ago to leave us behind and understood that. I also didn’t think that his family needed my presence there. They don’t know me. I don’t know them. By the end of his life, I didn’t even know Nate anymore.

Above all else, I felt responsible, in some ways, for how his life turned out. I felt guilty for contributing to the lifestyle that eventually took him. I felt guilt over the mere fact that I’m here today and he, somewhere on his own, wound up dead before 40.

I’ve experienced death a great deal in my life; more than many others I’ve spoken to. My best friend from high school died in 2004 and my best friend from elementary school died ten years later. I’ve outlived childhood bullies, pledge brothers, and bitter teenage enemies. I’ve watched them taken by everything from cancer to suicide. For some reason, I’ve just managed to outlive a lot of different people my own age and younger.

Every one of the deaths I’ve experienced has affected me, but none more than those that I felt like I had taken an indirect hand in. If a friend you drank with regularly ends up dying of alcohol poisoning years later, you can’t help but feel a sense of responsibility. If someone you shared stories of depression with takes their own life, even long after, you feel that sting too. Your mind tells you that you were complicit with it, encouraged it, and deserved it yourself instead. I know I did. Every time.

People may tell you that it’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything. The choices that Nate and others made were their own. To put that on my own shoulders is illogical and somewhat narcissistic. While all of that may be true to an outside observer, it doesn’t feel that way when you’re beating yourself up about it. In fact, you almost feel like, “That’s a nice sentiment. It’s true in most cases, but it’s not the case with me.”

alive1Even those people who have died that I didn’t share moments like that with bring some form of that same guilt. Why is that person gone while I live on? How did all of my life decisions, many which I second guess or regret almost immediately, help me to survive until today? Does that even matter? Is it just pure luck in most cases?

When I had my heart attack in 2012, my tests showed no evidence of one by the time I made it to the hospital. They searched for any reason to send me home. One doctor tried to talk me into admitting I took “a little cocaine, maybe a little Viagra” and simply misunderstood the signs. Had I shrugged my shoulders and left, I wouldn’t have had an angiogram that day and they wouldn’t have seen that I needed an immediate quintuple bypass. I would have been, just as the doctor told me, “a perfectly healthy guy who drops dead at 40.”

I’d be gone and there would be other friends and acquaintances from my life feeling the same guilt I feel for those I’ve lost. They’d be the ones asking the same questions about mortality, responsibility, and what effect they have on others. My death would be their anecdote, much like Nate is for me.

It would be nice to say “I’ll see him again one day”. It’s even nicer, though, that I’m able to say that I saw him while he was here. My life was better because of him and, just like those who were taken from me before their time, he’ll live on in my mind. Moments will pass where I picture him there, shaking his head behind someone who’s annoying me or echoing advice from years gone by. He’s a part of me today. In fact, he always was.

Cherish the time you have on Earth…or don’t. Whatever. Either way, your time here is limited. Those whose lives you touch today will remember you tomorrow. I know I have. One day, I hope I’ll do the same for those who knew me.

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