Content Warning: This article contains graphic content about suicide
“Diane, call me on my cell.”
We were in Amsterdam when the text message came. My mom had wanted to visit ever since she read “The Diary of a Young Girl” as a grade schooler in Brooklyn and learned about the museum dedicated to Anne Frank.
Amsterdam was a trip for the two of us, mother and son, just as 2020 began. It would be cloudy for most of our week abroad, but we tried not to care. On the chilly morning of Monday, January 6, we balanced chunks of smoked mackerel on top of horseradish cream and breakfast toast in a café perched over the Amstel River. My mom swiped through her unread messages.
The text had come many hours ago from Frank, a member of her old college friend group. My mom left the table to call Frank. He didn’t pick up; America was six hours behind. When she returned, I looked up from my phone. She started talking to me about Gabriella.
My mom, Diane, met Gabriella in high school. In 1979, they enrolled at the State University of New York at Albany, where the two began living together. They won a dorm-wide quiz competition for which pair of first-year roommates knew each other the best. Most impressively, Diane knew that Gabriella’s favorite piece of clothing to borrow from her closet was the purple bouclé sweater, which they always made sure to pronounce with an emphasis on the “clé.” They majored in English together, found new friends together, entered the workforce together, and became mothers together. Gabriella would drop by our house in New Jersey on a whim, always with little trinkets for me and my sister.
Gabriella, my mom told me in the café, had probably died. She had probably killed herself; she had probably drowned in a river weeks ago; they had probably found her body last night. There was no other reason, she explained to me, for Frank to send such an urgent text in the middle of our vacation. My mom hadn’t wanted to tell me that Gabriella had been missing for a month until now, when the end of her friend’s life was all but certain.
Some college memories are just so brilliant they can always be re-remembered, even when you think you can’t possibly remember any more, that you can’t somehow fit more beauty, happiness and love into the living histories of your best friends. But even 40 years after college, one old moment of friendship that felt so ordinary, so natural at the time, can resurrect into its own afterlife of gratitude for an experience shared together.
I see this when my mom suddenly perks up at the dinner table, lost in memory. Thinking back to when she would wake up twice a day in her dorm room, first to the sound of Gabriella scrambling for 8 a.m. calculus, and then again a couple hours later to the clumsy noises of Gabriella climbing back into bed. When Gabriella turned to my mom after accidentally spinning her pre-owned Mercury Capri 360 degrees on a snowy New York State Thruway — without, miraculously, crashing — and said “Hey, I think I handled that pretty well.” When she felt chills after Gabriella quieted a classroom with her reading of “Do not go gentle into that good night.” They took a trip together to Cape Cod last summer; Gabriella enthusiastically told my mom that it could be their new yearly tradition.
We are so lucky. So, so, so lucky to have found friends in our four years of college. Friends who you can follow right into the world, knowing that they cannot bear the idea of losing you any more than you can bear the idea of losing them. Friendship is advice, it is laughter, it is support, it is adventure. It was my mom, Gabriella, and their closest SUNY companions gathering together every Friday after Thanksgiving since 1981, sharing a day of shopping and dinner in New York. “We were the original Friendsgiving!” my mom declared.
They brought life to life. And it felt so cruel that of all the days my mom and I had planned a visit to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, it was January 6. I remember walking over the dark water of the city’s canals, thinking about the river that took Gabriella from the world. Approaching the museum of the artist who painted such beautiful sunflowers as he struggled — like Gabriella, my mom steadily explained — with depression in the last years of his life, until he succumbed to suicide. Sitting on a park bench to read a new text from Frank that confirmed the worst. Hugging my mom, crying for Gabriella, looking up at a sky overcast with gray clouds.
As we wandered through the life of Van Gogh, my mom told me about everything that her college friends had done for Gabriella. Organizing interventions when they first realized she had an eating disorder; checking in on her as much as they could when Gabriella entered a treatment center; frantically considering what they could do to help her family after she went missing. They never stopped loving her. Afternoon sunlight began trickling into the museum through ceiling-high glass windows, the first real Dutch sunshine we had seen all week. “I feel like that’s her,” my mom smiled. “She loved art.”
There is no telling what lies ahead for us after graduation. But we do have control over whether we try our hardest to be there for our friends when they need us the most. We can give everything to the people who care about us. We can realize that life is plural, not singular, and that our greatest achievements will always have names, faces and wondrous personalities.
Britton O’Daly is a graduating senior in Branford College. He was Editor in Chief of the News for the 2018-2019 school year. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org