It’s Been a Year Since I Lost My Friend to Suicide

I was in second grade when I first met Alvar; the year was 1968. I was leaving my house, about to walk to school by myself for the first time, I believe. My family had just moved onto the block over the summer, and all my friends were still several blocks away, back where our old house was.

I was born in Brooklyn, New York, but I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and it’s amazing what a difference a few blocks meant in either city. A few short blocks that you could walk in a matter of minutes and you found yourself in an entirely new neighborhood. It was like each block or two had its own social structure, its own pecking order, its own bullies, its own celebrities, its own crazy old guy who likely would have put up an electric fence to keep kids from running across his lawn, if the city would have allowed it.

It was the “wonder years,” and we were a generation caught between the 1950s and the 1970s, too young to be getting into a real trouble, but too aware of what was happening in Viet Nam, and to those whose skin color was a darker shade of brown than our own, to be complacent and obedient as our parents thought children should be at that age. As Bob Dylan had told us, the times they were a changing, and even though we could only watch them changing on television and in the streets of the cities, we knew that we wouldn’t let the establishment control our lives as adults. We knew that we’d right what was wrong, stand up to injustice, and give peace a chance.

Pittsburgh was a city with a dual economy back then, all crammed together into a geographic area that could be viewed en total from the top of Mt. Washington. Most of the city was populated by industrial blue collar workers and their families, steel workers whose lives spent feeding the giant coke furnaces and shoveling coal from the barges that went up and down the rivers, had made them unafraid of anything. But Pittsburgh was also a college town, a city dominated by universities, most notably the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, and it was in that part of inner city Pittsburgh that Alvar and I grew up.

The year 1968 was one that few that lived through it could ever forget. As young kids, it was the year that taught us not to trust our government, a year that showed us that the world was a dangerous place and that it would soon be up to us to change it. The Viet Cong kicked off the year with the Tet Offensive, and every night we watched Walter Cronkite and the footage of American soldiers dying and under fire, as 70,000 of the NVA took the battle from the countryside into the cities. The American embassy in Saigon was overrun and held for a few hours, and now President Johnson was talking of peace. We saw the looks on our parents’ faces, and heard the stories of the older brothers that weren’t coming home, or that would give up their citizenship before agreeing to fight in such an unjust war.

The Tet Offensive started on January 31, 1968 and I can still remember the next day because of the photograph my parents didn’t want me to see. It showed a South Vietnamese official executing a Viet Cong prisoner who was on his knees, hands tied behind his back… the gun had been fired at his head, and the photographer had captured the precise moment where you could see the young prisoner’s head jerk to the side from the force of the bullet that had just ended his life. If I close my eyes I can still see that photograph today, as I’m certain is also the case for many others.

It was the photograph that taught me that perhaps we weren’t always such “good guys”. John Wayne wouldn’t have done that to an unarmed man… ever. Then I watched Walter Cronkite’s special on television, called something like “Who, What, When & Why,” or something like that, and I knew I was supposed to trust Walter Cronkite back then, he was a man whose credibility was not to be questioned. So, when he said things that contradicted what our government had been saying, I believed him and I knew my parents did as well. He said that many battles had ended in a draw, and that we should be negotiating a peace, not fighting a war that could not be won.

The government’s handling of the war in Viet Nam, combined with its resistance to civil rights for all Americans, destroyed any idea of unconditional allegiance that might have otherwise existed, and did exist in John Wayne’s movies. Dr. King spoke of a better way, a way of peaceful resistance on the road to creating a world of beauty. We all wanted to march with Dr. King, perhaps me as much as anyone, as I shared his first name.

He marched in Memphis and a 16 year-old boy was killed, and I felt the rage because I knew 16 year-old boys. And then days later… it was over… and he was gone. And a very bright light that had been shining on a better future went out. And I couldn’t see that future anymore. College campuses erupted in violent protests and Pittsburgh, along with cities across the country became dangerous. And I wanted to fight and riot along with them, but of course was too young. Soon I would be older… and for me it couldn’t come soon enough.

Then Bobby Kennedy picked up the torch and said he would carry it forward. And a couple of months later, he was gone too. My mother cried. I had never seen her cry before, and I was scared. I wanted to fight the injustice that had made my mother cry. I knew I would never back down from that fight.

Hubert Humphrey would be the Democratic candidate that year, and he was running against Richard Nixon, a man who had been Vice President during the 1950s, and to me a man who had not fought for civil rights. George Wallace was saying that he would run for president and the idea that a segregationist in favor of nuclear war could lead our great nation sickened me. I watched television that year during the dinner hour every single night, and I remember watching the Chicago police beating college students and even reporters with their Billy-clubs, as we used to call them. Later, I would dream of being one of the Chicago Seven, as I sang along with the harmonies of Crosby, Stills & Nash.

So, it was in September of 1968 that I first met the boy across the street from our new house, Alvar Luis Gonzalez. He was a year older than me, and had two older brothers… brothers old enough to have seen first hand the fighting for civil rights in the streets, old enough to evade the draft, and I hung on every word they said. We walked to school that first day, and being a year older than me, made it so I wasn’t afraid. And, although I didn’t know it then of course, we would spend the next 11-12 years walking to school together, walking or riding our bikes everywhere together.

My family was Jewish, as were most in Squirrel Hill, an area inside the city of Pittsburgh marked by large homes and tree lined streets… his family was not… and so they celebrated Christmas, something I had never done. I’m not sure everyone remembers their first Christmas, because I would think that it starts when you’re a baby, but I sure do because I was seven years old, and I spent it at Alvar’s house. In fact, I grew up half in my house and half in his.

It was early December and all we talked about was the war in Vietnam and the crime that was racism, as we listened to the records owned by Alvar’s older brothers. Songs of protest, songs of revolution, songs of injustice, songs of peace… and I learned to play the guitar that year, my very first song being Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind”.

The musical, “Hair” came to Broadway the next year, and we played the album so many times that I can still sing all the words to all the songs. Alvar’s older brother, Martin, had a close friend from down the street by the name of Claude who was black, the son of the first interracial marriage I had ever been exposed to. Claude and Martin, who were each over 6’3″ would walk the halls of our local high school and the streets of our neighborhood and fight injustice whenever it appeared. There were some race riots the following summer, and stories of Martin and Claude throwing people out of the way to protect others made me think of them as superheroes. I’d wait for them to walk down the street, just so I could be standing on my porch at the right moment to be able to yell out: “Hi Martin!” And he’d yell back “Hi Martin.” And Claude would wave. My own personal superheroes.

Alvar and I went through school together, elementary, junior high, high school. We expanded our friendship to include others and saw each other pretty much every single say. Being a year older, he always seemed smarter and knew more, but I was much more outgoing, social, and sports-minded, which are the prerequisites for popularity in high school at that time and probably today, to some degree.

When I got myself in trouble, he’d come to my defense. As a teenager, when I couldn’t stand my parents for one reason or another, he’d let me stay at his house and I became part of the family in many ways. Alvar also had a younger brother, Diego, and we’d all toss him around and make him run to do errands as we’d clock him and reward him with a quarter, or the chance to hang around with us.

Alvar and I talked about everything over the years. Our friends were intellectuals and the discussions were heavy… politics, policy, world history, religion… we debated the existence of God, the philosophy of existentialism and the writings of John Paul Sartre, among so many others. Not just once, but at various ages and thousands of times. We got drunk together, smoked pot for the first time together, frankly didn’t do a lot of drugs for whatever reason, but he carried me to the bathroom after I’d drank too much beer more times than I can remember.

When Alvar graduated from high school, he went off to college in North Carolina, and I was lost for a bit. It’s not that I didn’t have friends, I did, but after hanging around with a friend that lives across the street all of your life, it’s hard to see that end at 18 years old. Maybe it was hard for him too, because he came home to Pittsburgh after just one semester, and I moved out of my parents house to share my first apartment with him that year.

Then, after a stint hitchhiking around Manhattan and New England, I joined the United States Air Force, and perhaps that might have been the end of Alvar and me… but it wasn’t to be. I’d see him every time I had leave from the service. We’d be roommates for a bit on and off at various times.

A few years later, a girl I knew in the Air Force was being stationed in California and she asked me to follow her out there. So, I called Alvar and he said he wanted to come, so we fixed up his 1967 Buick Skylark, stocked up on 8-track tapes, and hit the open road for California.

We moved into an apartment in California’s Mojave Desert together, got our first real jobs together, and on weekends went everywhere together. I was the best man at his wedding and he stood next to me at mine. I went back to school and eventually started my own firm. And then he worked with me, although technically it was for me. He and his wife had a daughter, and my wife and I had one too. We were asked to be the Godparents to Jacqueline, and asked Alvar and Margie to be the same for our daughter Taylor.

As incredible as it may sound, after all those thirty-something years… he ended up living maybe two miles away from our house. My wife and I host an annual Christmas Party at our home, because I’m Jewish, we cater it with Chinese Food… Alvar and his wife always hosted an incredible Halloween. Some years we’d see each other on Thanksgiving.

Alvar was at our Christmas Party in December 2007, just as always. His daughter had turned 16 and he had bought her a very nice, late model used car. Jax was so happy and I was so proud as she drove me around the clock that Christmas. Alvar was beaming, and understandably so.

Alvar was someone who others went to when they had problems. When I had gone through the troubling times of being a teenager, he was always willing to listen and to offer supportive words and thoughts. When his wife had a problem with alcohol, Alvar became a leader at Al-Anon, while his wife followed the program at AA. He was like the community’s good guy. He volunteered to coach the high school’s debate team, and brought kids out of the ghettos and barrios to find themselves great debaters.

I think it was 2005 or maybe 2006 that Alvar brought a young boy into his home, his name was Taureq Cephus. Taureq was the poster child for underprivileged black youth. His mother was an alcoholic that could not get her drinking or drug use under control. His father was an absentee for most of Taureq’s life.

Alvar first met Taureq, who was about 13 years old at the time and living on the streets. He brought the young boy into his home and eventually went to court to become his legal guardian. Alvar shared with me many times that he wanted to adopt him, but there were problems because of the boy’s mother and father. It didn’t matter, Taureq was Alvar’s new son, and we all embraced him as if he’d been a member of the family since birth.

It was 2007, when things got harder to control. Taureq was now 15 and hanging out with a gang. Alvar would have the boys at his home and tried to counsel and guide them without being overbearing, but everyone could see that Taureq was sliding away. In February of 2008, Taureq was shot and killed after getting his bike off of a bus he took home. Witnesses said the shooter was “tatted up” like a member of a rival gang. Apparently Taureq told the gang member where he lived and was shot and killed for it.

Alvar had a hard time accepting what had happened. I tried to help him through it, we talked for hours upon hours. Weeks passed and then maybe two months went by… and finally Alvar told me he could get through a day without tears. Taureq’s death affected everyone, but Alvar… well, he was Alvar’s son.

I was leaving for London on business the last time I talked with Alvar. He told me that he felt that maybe Taureq’s death would have a positive outcome. Alvar said he wanted to start a foundation to help disadvantaged youth and I told him I’d write a check immediately upon my return. We talked business… how to set up a foundation, what it would do, how I could help. And then I left for London the next morning.

My wife called me a few days later to tell me that Alvar was missing. I told her I was 100% certain everything was fine. He probably just wanted to clear his head. He and his wife had been having some marital problems, and after 22 years, who doesn’t have some marital problems? I told my wife that he was fine, and that I’d call him and tell him to call home. That night I left him a message and sent him an email saying that I’d cover for him at home and that he should feel free to take his time. But he was already dead when I sent that message.

I was on a train from London to Bath, England when I got the call from my wife… her first words are indelibly imprinted in my mind, she said: “Oh honey, I’m so sorry… they found Alvar…” Everything after that is still kind of a blur. I wanted to run off the train… I didn’t know where to go or what to do… I was in a panic in my mind… I was frozen in time… I started to get angry at her for telling me… I asked how they knew it was him… I told her it wasn’t possible… I felt like… I don’t know how to describe it…

I would have bet anything against Alvar ever taking his own life… ever. It didn’t seem possible. It still doesn’t. I’m not sure how I made it through the next so many days until I flew home. To be honest, I cancelled all of my meetings and drank myself through it. I started smoking cigarettes again. I didn’t go to sleep until I was drunk and ready to pass out.

When I came home I drove to Margie and Jax. I cried a lot. Everyone wanted to know why this had happened… I wanted to know why this had happened. Everyone had his or her own theory. It was like watching people construct a rebus: Let’s see… It was Taureq + marital problems + financial stress = suicide, or something to that effect, and there were plenty of variations.

Alvar had driven out to the Mojave Desert and carried a shotgun two miles into the desert, fashioned a stick to push the trigger, put the gun into his mouth and ended his life. And to me, the person who knew him like no one else, there was no explaining that. There would never be an explanation for that.

There were 500 people at Alvar’s memorial service… I played guitar and sang “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and “In My Life,” by John Lennon. I made it through without sobbing or passing out. Then one by one, people came up to speak. I had decided not to. One by one they came up to ask how or why this could have happened. One by one they struggled with trying to find an explanation. And as each one seemed to find an explanation, I became angrier and angrier… because there was no explanation for what Alvar had done. None. And I wasn’t going to let these people say there was.

When they were all done, and even his younger brother had said his piece… unexpectedly, I rose to speak. I stood there and said that everyone wants to know why… and that none of the reasons given were right, because there was no explanation, and there never would be one… never ever.

I said that the law allows for a defense of temporary insanity… the law allows that in some circumstances a person can become temporarily insane and therefore not be responsible for their actions. I said that the Alvar we all knew would not have committed this horrific and tragic act… Alvar would not have taken his life. People had said that they never knew him to be capable of this, but that perhaps they didn’t know him as they thought they did.

But, I assured everyone there that day that I most definitely DID know Alvar Luis Gonzalez, and that Alvar Luis Gonzalez would not have and did not take his own life. I said that the Alvar that we all knew didn’t do this. Only an insane person would do this, so it could only be that Alvar was insane when he pushed that trigger and ended his life. The Alvar I knew could not have done so and did not do so.

Suicide is a strange thing for human beings to deal with. I suppose I wanted to write something about Alvar’s death for a year now… but couldn’t. They say time heals all wounds, but Alvar’s death hasn’t changed one bit for me… it feels exactly as it did one year ago. Oh sure, I force it out of my mind most days pretty well, but sometimes I can’t and then it feels as if it could have happened yesterday.

I wanted to write something about Alvar’s death because I wanted to share my feelings with others who have lost someone to suicide, because I think when you lose someone that way, the wound never heals. And maybe it helps to know others feel as you do. Maybe it helps to know that others struggle with such a loss as if it was the first day… forever, I suppose.

You go through feelings of anger… how could he not have called me… how could he do this to me… how could he do this to his daughter… to my daughter… to his wife, his brothers, his mother who still lives in that same Pittsburgh home across the street from the house I grew up in and where my parents still live.

You go through anger, sadness, confusion, you can’t accept it and there will never be a reason why. It makes no sense, except to say that it wasn’t the person you knew. The person you knew would not have done it. It was a person gone insane… perhaps temporarily, but insane nonetheless.

I also wanted to write something about this because I read recently that suicide hotlines are seeing a significant increase in the number of calls received. They attribute it to the economy and are concerned about the future, as things get worse. I think we all should be aware of what’s happening today in this country. People are losing homes by the million. It’s a traumatic thing to tell children they must leave the safety of their own bedrooms. I cannot imagine what it must be like.

I think we should all be aware and let others know that it isn’t just them… that they did nothing wrong. That they are caught up in an economic catastrophe that no one saw coming. I wrote an article on Newsvine in January titled “Where is the Outrage,” in which I asked why more people weren’t rioting in the streets, and I concluded that it was because people were ashamed. They bought into the whole “it’s the sub-prime borrowers” line of crap. It wasn’t then, and it certainly isn’t now. Hank Paulson has admitted this, President Bush has admitted this… we now know that what the banks did broke the bond market and bankrupted the global banking system.

It’s not the borrower’s fault, and they no one losing their home today should feel ashamed, because there but for the Grace of God go us all.

Suicide exists in the shadows, in the dark corners of everyone’s mind. Now, as our country faces its continued slide into economic abyss from which it will be many years before things change, I think it’s important that our national attitude be one that supports those who have lost… are loosing… or will lose their homes. There should be no stigma attached… no shame… we will come out of this if we stick together… let your friends know how you think and feel.

Let’s not let what is already an economic disaster become a human tragedy. I wish more than anything that Alvar was here today. I wish he hadn’t taken his life… and I suppose I will always feel the exact same way. I suppose those feelings will stay with me forever.

Let’s help others through this. Let’s not wait until more people receive that unthinkable call. Fathers and husbands desperate to help their families financially, or deeply ashamed of the situation in which they find themselves. Perhaps our attitudes can matter… can make a difference in one person’s life. I wish I had been able to do more, and I just wanted others to know…

Here’s a link to the newspaper story about Alvar’s death: OC Register Article on Alvar’s Death

Here’s the poem I wrote for Alvar’s Memorial Website, in case someone wants to read it: Memorial for Alvar

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