On June 1st, 2016 we got the news that our close family friend Ashley, had committed suicide.
I honestly thought I was all cried out after yesterday. But this morning, I was thinking about what I was going to eat for breakfast and realized that we had some baked oatmeal in the fridge. Then I remembered how I would often send an extra serving of baked oatmeal to school with my wife to ensure that Ashley actually ate breakfast (she was forgetful about that sort of thing).
And all of that hurt came flooding back.
I'm not good at most things, except telling stories. So, I thought I'd tell Ashley's story as I know it. All I really have are bits and pieces. So this is me trying to make sense, to give those bits and pieces a shape. There are other people out there with different and probably conflicting stories about her and those stories are true too. All different facets of the same person. But I want to talk about the version of Ashley that I knew.
My wife (Andrea) is an educator. She teaches dance in public schools – it's this crazy job that doesn't seem like it should exist, but it does. Two years ago, she got hired to teach at the same school as Ashley. Ashley was the P.E. teacher and they shared the gym together. Ashley and Andrea had immediately clicked with each other. Andrea calls me on her way home every day and we talk about her day. Ashley appeared regularly in Andrea's recounts of the day. Andrea told me how Ashley was a basketball coach, how she bent over backwards to help the kids at the school that needed help, how she was a boxer for years and how she was struggling with her faith and constantly seeking out different religions to better understand her own faith.
Andrea and Ashley's friendship was forged by the fact that they were in the trenches together. Most of their students were middle school kids and most of them from homes well-below the poverty line. The gym itself was constantly being used at the last minute for assemblies or events and often Andrea and Ashley would find themselves kicked out of the gym. In the event in inclement weather during recess, all of the kids would be piled into the gym, during Andrea and Ashley's classes.
They would commiserate. They often combined their classes and co-taught. Andrea, who has no interest in sports, became a big supporter of the girl's basketball team (which Ashley coached). Their students came to them with problems they didn't feel like they could tell their parents or other teachers. Andrea and Ashley created a safe space in that gym, free from judgement. On days when Andrea suffered from a migraine or other illness, Ashley stepped up and took over her classes and Andrea did the same for Ashley when she suffered from her own migraines. They texted outside of school, frequently. They opened up to each other. I didn't realize it until last night but Ashley was Andrea's best friend – a role that I couldn't fill for Andrea because I was already her husband.
I was never formally introduced to Ashley. We never actually spoke. We never actually met. We always put off hanging out, there was always something that came up. Nothing major, just stupid bullshitty things that we let get in the way.
All of my communication with Ashley was through proxy, through Andrea. I sent breakfast or lunch along for Ashley. She'd send a thank you back through Andrea. Our relationship became “Tell Ashley...” and “Thank Sam for ...” My wife would be texting Ashley and would tell me that they were talking about, I would offer thoughts and feelings and my wife would text those to Ashley and Ashley would text back “Tell Sam...” That was our relationship over two years on a near daily basis – I wish it was more, it should've been more.
Ashley was in her early 30's and single and as a result she regularly had “man drama”. She had terrible luck with guys, to the point where she was unknowingly “the other woman” more than once. This weighed on her. She once asked Andrea, “Why does this keep happening to me? What is it about me that makes me the other woman?”
Ashley desperately wanted someone to love her. She had so much love to give and she just wanted an iota of that reciprocated back by an honest man. Apparently, this is something in short supply these days.
Ashley had very little family in Colorado, most of her family was in New Mexico. She had a cousin that lived near her that she was incredibly close to. And one year ago, that cousin committed suicide. This absolutely devastated Ashley. Andrea was there for her, consoling her – and Ashley had other friends too, she wasn't alone. She had support. The school principal even gave Ashley the number of counselor to talk to, because he was worried about her.
In the two years that I knew Ashley, she had gotten pregnant twice. She had to terminate the earlier pregnancy because it was an ectopic pregnancy – which means the fetus developed outside the uterus. According to the doctor, the child was unlikely to survive. Ashley did what she thought was right and had the pregnancy terminated. She carried this guilt with her on the daily basis, I'd come to find out only a week before her death. It gnawed at her.
A couple of months ago, she met a guy. They hit it off and Ashley ended up pregnant again. That relationship, she would come to find out, was another dishonest man manipulating her into the position of “the other woman”. Ashley was heartbroken but was adamant about keeping the baby. This guy told her pointedly that she'd “never be anything more than the mother of my child”. Ashley thought maybe he'd come around but instead he began continually pushing her toward having an abortion, because this baby wouldn't be good for his career – despite Ashley's assertions that she wanted to keep the baby.
One month ago, Andrea was offered a position at another school. She needed to take it and did. I don't know how that made Ashley feel, but my guess is that it pained her that Andrea would be leaving her. But Ashley was great at putting on a tough exterior and told Andrea it was fine, that Andrea needed to do what was right for her, and that they still see each other.
Ashley knew that she couldn't raise a baby on her own. She was considering moving back to New Mexico to live with her mom. Ashley texted Andrea this just as we had wrapped up a long conversation about asking Ashley to move in with us and allow us to help her with the baby. Andrea extended the offer to Ashley and Ashley seemed excited about this prospect. We were too.
We'd taken to calling the baby by the gender-neutral name Pogo. We had gotten pre-approved for a first-time mortgage and we're looking for places to purchase, making sure that we took into account that distances that both Andrea and Ashley would have to drive to work and enough bedroom space for this weird new family unit. I was going to quit my day job once Ashley was closer to giving birth, so that I could help take care of her and Pogo once he/she arrived. With Ashley's immediate family was in New Mexico. Mine and Andrea's were in Missouri. The three of us moving in together felt like we had finally started to build our own family.
This past week had gotten more and more overwhelming for Ashley. The Guy was still pushing for Ashley to terminate the pregnancy. She was calmly confronted by “the other woman”, who happened to be interviewing to take Andrea's job for next year. During this confrontation, a number of truths (or possible lies) came to light about The Guy. My wife and I both pushed Ashley to sever contact with The Guy because we felt like this was a bad situation and toxic relationship for her. But Ashley wanted to figure out a way to make things work with The Guy. So, we backed off.
Last Friday, Andrea got hit in the head with a volleyball and was diagnosed with a concussion. She was ordered by the doctor to take the next week off from school, which happened to be the last week of school.
Ashley herself admittedly suffered from post-traumatic brain injuries incurred during her years of boxing. It's likely that she had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Most of what I know about CTE comes from the world of professional wrestling. CTE fascinates and frightens me. Here's what I know: depression, anxiety, migraines and thoughts of suicide can be brought on by long-term post-concussive damage. Your thought process isn't the same as others and sometimes rash acts can committed. We are just barely scratching the surface of what post-traumatic brain injuries really are and, how they can be diagnosed and treated. Ashley herself got intermittent care from psychiatric and neurological professionals.
This is what Ashley struggled with.
She wasn't selfish. She didn't mean to leave us in grief. She got locked in to these dark thoughts, didn't see a way out and in a moment of weakness, she made an error in judgement. Ashley needed help, more than anyone realized and more than current science was capable of giving.
This is why I'm not angry with her for committing suicide.
I'm heartbroken for her family, for the basketball team she coached, for the students whos lives she touched, for the admin and school staff that saw her smile every day.
I'm heartbroken for my wife, who has lost her best friend.
I'm heartbroken for little Pogo, who we never got the chance to met, but I'm certain would've set the world on fire.
I'm heartbroken for a future that might've been.
I think I loved Ashley. I know Andrea loves her. I don't have a biological sister, but I wanted to protect Ashley the same way I would if she had been my biological sister. Perhaps that's because we were both Latino? Maybe because Ashley was younger than me? I don't know why I felt what I felt, just that I felt it.
I wish I could've told her that I cared for her in that way, that she meant so much to me and to my wife. That she was important, that she mattered. That nothing was insurmountable.
The only thing I know is that for us, for me and for Andrea, there's no closure to be gained from this tragedy.
We love you so very much.