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Dearest Jeffrey

by | Jun 13, 2018 | Top Right Box, Voices of Davidson

(This beautifully written article by Betsy Flagler is our inaugural post on our Voices of Davidson Column. Please send us your pieces about topics of your choice – around 500 words.)


“Nothing could stop you. Not even your best day. Not the quiet. Not the ocean rocking. You went on with your dying.”

— Mark Strand, poet laureate

Dearest Jeffrey,

In final letters you left for your family 15 years ago, you reassured that you had the best life and the best parents and big sister that anyone could ever want. But you also said you knew you would be your own doom.

Remember how your childhood was filled with Legos and Star Wars and boating and busting waves? Camping and snow skiing. Music and movies. A cat named Soot and a Brittany Spaniel named Indy. The best days of Thanksgiving feasts and Christmas surprises.

Not to forget whistling before school to annoy your older sister, and her $1 bribes to coax you to read novels. Your child-like drawings, along with your final letters, illustrated the love you had for your family and they for you.

And still, nothing could stop you from ending your life at age 20 with a gun you bought at Dick’s Sporting Goods. Bungled, inaccurate background checks — you were under age and receiving mental health care — cleared the way for the purchase of a gun using your dad’s credit card.

Alone in your college apartment one weekend in early 2003, you went on with your dying — just three weeks before your 21st birthday. For 15 years, your loved ones have trudged along without you.

In your obituary, your parents were open about your cause of death. Meds didn’t work, and you saw no other way than suicide to diminish your deep sadness. Nothing, you wrote in your last letters, could heal the depression that showed up intensely in college. Psychiatric drugs and your college’s healthcare services were no match for your bleak view of your world.

Not even your achievements as an honors student at UNC-Chapel Hill could hoist you out of your darkness. Your biology professor was so impressed by your work regarding fat cells in DNA that she expected you’d win a Nobel Prize someday. She was so sure of your success, she quipped after your passing, that she had already picked out a dress for the Nobel ceremony.

For 15 years, our saving grace has been to rummage through videos and photos, and recycle memories at family gatherings: Your love and care for animals, laughing about your mischief with fireworks, and marveling at your perfect SAT score in math. We’ve not been afraid to say your name. For 15 years, we’ve done the best we can without you.

Remember that story about the time you and a couple of high school friends got into trouble with the police for throwing water balloons at passing cars at Kure Beach, and your dad brought along your dog, Indy, to bail you out of jail? Yes, he brought the dog! That tale never gets old.

What does grow tiresome: there are no new stories to tell about you. We can only take you with us in spirit. Your handsome, brilliant self should be 35 and married with a couple of kids, not forever 20 as a junior in college.

At your grandparents’ house in Winston-Salem, remember hiding in their giant magnolia tree, building an igloo in their driveway, cooking pancakes with your Papa, and playing badmitten in your aunt’s backyard? Remember, that’s when one of your little cousins was perched atop “his Jeff” using birdies he called “ice cream cone thingies.”

We said our final, tear-filled good-byes at a columbarium at a chapel next to the UNC campus. Your full name, date of birth, and date of death are etched into a cold marble wall.

It hit me on your birth date in February that what is so, so sad for the next generation: You’re missing out on making new memories as an uncle to your sister’s daughters, two of the cutest little girls ever. And they are missing out on you.

Betsy Flagler

Betsy Flagler, a retired newspaper designer, parenting columnist, and preschool teacher, has lived in Davidson for nearly 20 years. Her husband, Mark Washburn, is recently retired from The Charlotte Observer. Betsy and Mark live in Bailey Springs.

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