What Can You See When You're Only Sixteen?
Suicide: friends gone in the blink of an eye.
Declan was a friend of mine. He was a good-looking bloke, tall with dark skin and dark hair – the kind that girls noticed. He was loud too, and when he got going, everyone knew he was there. He was the quintessential extrovert. In contrast, I was quiet, reserved, pretty ordinary in the looks department as far as I was concerned, and had little confidence around the opposite sex. I was better one-to-one than in groups, so I kept mostly to myself in the early weeks at the training centre. I wasn’t a showman like Deco. He oozed confidence and had a laugh that made people turn around. For some, he was too much, but we got on well. We were a good fit. As the memory of him enters my thoughts these days, I think that maybe he wanted to be more like me, and I wanted to be more like him than we both cared to admit. Maybe life experience had made both of us fragile, and we merely developed different means of coping. I think that coping mechanisms constitute a large portion of what we call personality.
We both lived close by, so it was easy for us to become friends. We’d meet on Willow Park Road in the mornings and walk to Cedarwood, through the gate at Popintree Park, diagonally across the soccer pitches and over the railings to the centre. Then home again in the evenings. On Fridays, training courses finished early, so we’d take our merge allowance, buy a few smokes, drifter bars and cans of Coke, and head for the snooker hall in Finglas for a few hours. He was a soccer head, and I played Gaelic Football, so we’d slag each other’s respective games. He’d say Gaelic was a stupid game and had no skill. “Sure, you can kick a ball over the bar from anywhere all day,” he’d say, “there’s no skill in that.” Then laugh his head off at me. No matter what I said, I could never convince him otherwise. I enjoyed those days.
Once I was messing about in the workshop with a couple of lads, and we got caught. As it happens, John, our trainer, a former workmate of my dad, walked in the door and caught me red-handed, firing something across the room. There was no conversation or reprimand; he just sent me home. On the way home, my thoughts were consumed with what would my dad say when he found out. The company was sponsoring me, and if I were suspended, it would go down like a cup of cold sick. My mother’s reaction would likely be worse. Whatever happened, I was in deep shit now.
I could do nothing but wait, so I lay on the couch when I got home and dozed off. A couple of hours or so later, Deco called and woke me up. “It’s cool,” he said, smiling at me. “You’re off the hook, ye dope. John said you could come in tomorrow as normal.” “No way,” I said. “He caught me rapid. The oul one is gonna go bananas.” You’re grand; ye fuckin’ eejit. He told me to come and tell you. I’ll see you in the morning, alright.” Sure enough, John just had a quiet word with me the next day. No drama. Lesson learned.
We had a full year together in the training centre, so it’s funny how only a few events manage to stick out in my mind. Twelve of us starting our adult lives; Big Noel, Sticky, Franner, Paul, Kieran, Emmet, Connor, Damo, the mad yoke from Ballyer, Skin from Navan, Shay, Declan and me. There were others, but I can’t remember them now. Emmet became an engineer and started his own business. Skin emigrated to the States and worked just outside where I lived in Philadelphia. We never met up out there, but it’s funny to think that we both ended up in the same part of the world. Sticky went back to school. He was too young to have been there in the first place and copped far too much stick from the lads for one individual. Damo got hooked on heroin and ended up on the street. I think he’s still struggling to survive. I saw him once in a Spar on George’s Street. Half embarrassed, half not knowing what to do, I looked the other way, trying not to catch his eye. I wish I hadn’t done that now. As for the others, I don’t know where they ended up.
A few years later, Declan left the electrical game, to the best of my knowledge, and entered An Garda Síochána, the local police force here in Ireland. I dreamed I met him in McGowan’s, Phibsborogh once, and he was in his Garda uniform smiling at me just like he used to. It felt real. Sometime later, I heard through a family friend that he had taken his own life a few years before. I didn’t know what to think when I found out. I still don’t. I should have stayed in touch somehow. What kind of difficulty must he have been going through all that time and no one knew? What if he had someone to talk to? I don’t have a full picture of his family situation as we never really got into that. But I think he told me once his mother left when he was young, leaving his dad to raise him and his sisters. But I’m not sure how accurate that is now. My memory betrays me on the details.
REM Out of Time marks that Spring and Summer. It was released in March ‘91, and I latched onto it, and couldn’t stop playing it. Kind of apt now that I think of it. I miss those days, not only for Declan but for everything. The simplicity and infinity of life. How the end was so far away, and all we had was here and now. Superficial worries occupied my mind; money to buy smokes, busfare, training and football matches, games of snooker. Maybe that’s how life is supposed to be and maybe getting older is the chance to understand it. I wish I were sixteen again, and Deco and I could play snooker, have a smoke together, and maybe I could see a bit more than I did before. But what can you see when you’re only sixteen?
We say that we’re getting better at talking about mental health, and there is no shortage of advocates for open discussion and sharing personal problems. That’s good as far as I’m concerned. It helps people feel safe reaching out for assistance. The trouble is that some people, albeit well-intentioned, use the open platform to satisfy their personal need for attention and connection and hardly reach the cors of their difficulty. In many ways, talking about one’s mental health struggles has allowed us to merely seek validation. But what’s wrong with that? Is not validation what every one of us craves? Is the sense of existing in the eyes and minds of others not existing itself? We certainly seem to think it is. We need to witness ourselves reflected from the surface of others, but maybe it’s a deeper connection that matters most. In hindsight, I can see that Declan’s extroverted character was a way to get noticed, and to be noticed was to exist. Maybe in his personal life beyond the training centre, he ceased to exist. Maybe it was all too thin to last.
To all those I’ve known whose life became too tough to bear: Declan, Molly, Brian, Declan, Helen, Fran, and Paddy, consider this short essay a tribute to your time here.
Declan comes to mind sometimes, and I wonder if it could have been different if there was something I could have done, but there’s not. It played out how it played out, and in those circumstances, we can do nothing except learn something from it. My time from September 1990 at the training centre in Finglas was rich and valuable and was better for having known Declan. Since him, others I have known have passed away at their own hands, and I wonder if it is anyone’s job to try to make them stay. Taking a cosmic view of life, none of us is getting out of here alive, and while we are here, life has the habit of throwing challenges our way. Some are small, some are big, and some seem insurmountable. The loss of a friend or loved one to suicide is one of those insurmountable ones. But maybe we’re not supposed to better it. Maybe there’s hidden merit and opportunity in it. A kind of morbid beauty in the loss. We want them to stay, to live a life long and well. But maybe some of us don’t get to live as long as the rest. Who is to say a short life or a long life is best? Maybe it’s not about better but rather about managing what we’ve been given. It’s all I have to offer, whatever it’s worth.