I met a man, I’ll call Tony, three years ago when we both volunteered at St. Anthony’s Dining Room in San Francisco, an organization that serves people in poverty. For some reason, I had thought about him a couple of times this week, but wasn’t sure why he was on my mind. October 1, 2015 had been a long day and night for me. By the time I got home it was late. As I scrolled my News Feed on Facebook I saw a post to Tony’s Timeline from a family member that listed Tony’s first, middle, and last name, his birth date, and the day he died — September 22, 2015.
Here’s what I know about death from personal and professional experience: when someone dies from a cause, that information is usually shared. For example, “Jack struggled with cancer for many years.” “Susie died in a car crash.” But when someone commits suicide the description is always vague, something to the effect of how the person “left us” or “is no longer with us.” No one ever writes, “Frank committed suicide.” Tony’s eulogy was vague.
I don’t know the exact circumstances of Tony’s death. He was 42 years old. I scrolled through every comment made on his eulogy. Many people were equally shocked, horrified, and obviously saddened by the news. As I scrolled through his Timeline I saw he made a post just five days before he died, something lighthearted about how hip hop had changed.
Tony was a black man. An educated, amicable, charitable, and attractive black man. Father, son, brother, friend, world traveler, computer geek. I can empathize, but I think it’s truly difficult to know what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be black and living in the U.S. I hate the news sometimes, ashamed of how others treat people of color. In my role as an occupational therapist in mental health, I’ve worked with so many people who have tried to commit suicide or have thought about it as an answer to something. My cousin, Heidi, committed suicide. Like Tony, she was 42 years old.
On that Thanksgiving Day in 2012, I volunteered in a few different capacities at St. Anthony’s Dining Room. At one point, Tony, me, and two others dished up to go containers in a small section of one of the kitchens. Our space was hot and cramped. The four of us had a lot fun, laughed, and got into a rhythm as a group. Tony told me how he liked to volunteer for St. Anthony’s and how he liked to cook, too. He had a big bright smile and was popular. Lots of people stopped by the kitchen to say hello to him. We talked about lots of different things. I knew I wanted to stay connected with him, if possible, because he was interesting, genuine, and kind. We became friends on Facebook. One time, I posted a technical question on my Timeline about something I struggled with on my computer. He chimed in and gave me some advice and later spoke to me on the phone when I still had problems with my Mac. He was that kind of guy.
I am deeply saddened by Tony’s death and feel for his young son, family, friends, and colleagues who were touched by his life. I am grateful we crossed paths at St. Anthony’s Dining Room. I don’t know why he suddenly died, but I hope he can rest in peace.