A week ago Friday, I had the pleasure of participating in my first American Cancer Society Relay for Life. Like so many other great things associated with where I work, this idea was not mine. A core of Sailors have turned our command's participation in this event into a newly formed tradition and their excitement made me want to be a part of it. My father is a cancer survivor and both of his parents lost battles with the illness years ago, so like just about everyone at this venue, cancer has touched my life. I was told that in previous years enthusiasm waned in the middle of the night, so I chose not to be there for the opening ceremonies and instead arrived rested for the 0130 - 0500 hours. Clearly, we miscalculated as plenty of energy remained in the air. This was definitely a celebration of life, where survivors were there to enjoy more than a few victory laps and give hope to those still fighting, while pictures, candles, and stories, ensured those who lost their fight with the illness were present in spirit.
I had the pleasure of walking laps with numerous Shipmates (some walked more than 25 miles; my distance was much shorter), though I am convinced most were sleepwalking by the time I arrived. I had an especially enjoyable conversation with the mother of one of our Sailors who had beaten cancer a few years back. She and her husband made the trip from Virginia and arrived just in time to see the opening ceremonies. In fact, it was her son who partnered with a couple of others to create this opportunity for the command. She was so thrilled by her son's involvement in this event and the fact that there were so many Sailors participating. We spoke of her battle, but we mainly spoke of what this event means to her and others who have been directly impacted by cancer. It was her opportunity to reflect on the many people with whom she spent time (who have since passed away) in various waiting rooms as they battled the illness together - an annual reunion, if you will. It was this conversation that brought me back in time to just three days prior. Specifically, the moment when our Executive Officer called to inform me that one of our Sailors had taken his own life. I suddenly was sitting with a group of people celebrating life and cherishing every moment, yet thinking of a young man who felt things were so bad he had no reason to live.
I drove home that morning thinking more and more about my conflicting feelings. I am not a grief counselor and, fortunately, I have not personally had to deal with much loss in my life to date, so I am as little help to myself, as I am to others, when navigating the stages of grief. During that drive home, I became angry. I was angry because I was reminded about the impact the loss of a loved one has on those left behind. I was angry because I saw how much our Sailors valued life and cared about people whom they never even met. I was angry because we are left grieving in our own way because one of our own saw no way out despite being surrounded by so much friendship.
The last two weeks have been trying. We have individually, and in small groups, reflected on how we might have prevented one of our own from taking his life. We looked internally to take personal responsibility and most have since concluded that we were not at fault and did everything in our power to take care of a Shipmate. It is my hope that the memorial our First Class Petty Officer Association organized for Wednesday will help the rest of the team get to that point. I also hope it helps me to get past my anger and embrace my sadness. For this Friday, I, along with the deceased Sailor's best friend at the command, will be attending the funeral. It is there where we will witness first hand the void this young man's decision has created for his parents and extended family. I have always thought that suicide is the most selfish thing a person can do. It pushes the pain to those who care most about the individual and leaves us to pick up the pieces. As I reflect upon the cancer survivors at the relay, proudly wearing their purple and celebrating each day as a gift, as well as the memories of so many who would love to have had just one more day on earth, I cannot fathom why another would just throw away the most precious gift. We will all experience death in time. My hope is that none of us choose to leave this planet by our own hands. Our day will come soon enough, so let's continue to enjoy life for as long as we are able, and on this Memorial Day, let's give thanks to those who gave all so we could do just that...