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Dearest Jeff

by | Feb 9, 2021 | Voices of Davidson

(This updated article by Betsy Flagler was first published in 2018, as the initial Voices of Davidson column.)

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

— Mark Strand, noted poet laureate

Dearest Jeff,

In final letters and drawings you left for your family in 2003, 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.

Articulate letters and child-like drawings 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 a Dick’s Sporting Goods. Bungled, inaccurate background checks — you were under age and receiving inadequate mental health care — cleared the way for the purchase of a gun using your dad’s credit card.

Alone in your college apartment at Carolina one weekend in early 2003, you went on with your dying — just three weeks before your 21st birthday. For 18 years since then, your loved ones have trudged along without you.

In your obituary in the Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Wilmington newspapers, your parents were open about your cause of death. Medications didn’t work, and unfortunately 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 out of the blue and intensely at UNC. Psychiatric drugs and your college’s healthcare services were no match for your bleak view of your world — as being in a deep, dark well that you had no way out of.

Not even your achievements as an honors student at 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 told your mom that she was so sure of your success that she had already picked out a dress for the Nobel ceremony.

For 18 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 and nearly perfect score in language. We’ve not been afraid to say your name, again and again.

For 18 years, we’ve done the best we can without you. In many ways, you are still with us.

Remember that story about the time you and a couple of high school buddies got into trouble with the police for throwing water balloons at passing cars at Kure Beach, about an hour from your parents’ home In Wilmington. 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 life stops short before you are even 21. Your handsome, hilarious, brilliant self should be 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 badminton 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, gray marble wall.

It hit me on your birth date in February 2018, when I first wrote this column, that what is so, so sad regards the next generation: You’re missing out on making new memories as an uncle to your beloved sister’s daughters, two of the cutest 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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