I was dozing off in my squeaky bed when, suddenly, white lights flashed at my face. Just two flashes and then it was over, like a dreadfully unamusing firework. It was my phone. I attempted to ignore it but it had my attention so I slid open the screen to see what had stirred me from my slumber, what had dare shone its obnoxious light upon my resting body. It was a Facebook notification: Today is Alex DoomBringer Haler’s birthday. Alex Haler’s wall looked how I imagined it would: memories, condolences, farewells, and I miss you’s. After all, it had been only three years since Haler killed himself.
I was a sophomore in high school and had just joined the staff of our student-run newspaper when I first met Alex Haler. He was a head-writer and editor of the editorial and opinions section, and for good reasons: he was an outspoken atheist, a die-hard metal fan, and a staunch student of philosophy. His big ideas matched his big body and when he argued with another writer, his heavy footsteps acted as exclamation marks punctuating the end of his statement. He was like a big blonde-haired bear dressed in black band t-shirts.
The first time I spoke with my large and intimidating editor, I was working on an article and listening to music. Specifically, a band I was and still am fond of named Portugal. The Man. He asked me what I was listening to and so I gave him my headphones. He listened for less than five seconds and then said, “They [Portugal. The Man] sound like a shitty The Mars Volta.” After that we became good friends and even better colleagues. He showed me better techniques for writing and how to be a decent editor and I showed him even more shitty bands – occasionally he took a liking to some. He graduated the following year and I became the editor of the features section, undoubtedly because of what he showed me, and for two years we fell out of touch. Then I began attending Arizona State University.
On the first day of Spanish class, I timidly sat in the back corner waiting for the rest of the students to pile in so that class could begin when suddenly I felt a large presence sit near me. I was buried in to Slaughter-House Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. but I could feel this person staring at me. I eventually looked up and it was Alex Haler, big and bold and bright, smiling a cheeky, ridiculous smile. He was much skinnier, still a big man, and his Goth attire had transformed into a skater get-up, a backwards cap, Vans, shorts, and a long grey t-shirt. We immediately hit it off, as though our two-year parting didn’t exist, but we were older and more mature and we both saw that right away. For that one semester, I was not interested in Spanish. I was interested in Alex, what he had done, what he was doing, and what he planned on doing. After every class we’d hang out at a pizza place down the street from campus, or a dive bar, or on the streets of downtown Phoenix watching strange people strut by. As we continued our friendship throughout the semester, there was no denying the undercurrent of depression and morbidity in our conversations. None-the-less, it felt nice to be back in the presence of someone who was a teacher and, more importantly, a friend to me.
Then the semester was over. My Spanish was a little better but my knowledge of Alex had greatly improved. I was obviously not an expert, though, because about a year later he killed himself and I had never saw it coming. I didn’t cry when I heard the news and I didn’t even cry at the funeral. I cried weeks later when I attempted to write again because all I could think of was him and what he might say about the piece I was writing and that’s when I realized how much he meant to me, how much he inspired me to try harder and do better. When I started attending high school, I began to question the Catholic religion since I and my family were predominantly Catholic. Knowing Alex was an atheist I asked him what happens when we die. He said, “Nothing.” He told me we become the nothing that we were before birth, “Isn’t that beautiful?” he asked with a great big smile.
It was hard to sleep after receiving the notification and even harder to keep my mind on my studies the next day. Part of me felt bad that I needed that reminder because I had honestly forgotten about him. It’s always scary how fast we get over things like that.
There’s a quote by David Eagleman, an American neuroscientist and writer. He says, “There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.” Thinking of this quote, I had two conflicting emotions. Part of me wanted to keep him alive but the other part of me wanted to respect his suicide. The idea of respecting suicide might be where someone reads this and says I’m crazy but, as someone with suicidal thoughts, I understand and empathize with suicide. People claim that suicide is selfish but I disagree. What’s more selfish is when an individual wants someone who clearly is in pain, who clearly does not want to live anymore to keep going because it might hurt themselves.
After much deliberation, I ended up at The Gopher Hole on Lerox and Aspen, a quaint downstairs bar near The Orpheum. Whiskey was cheap, two dollars a shot, so I ordered Alex’s favorite drink: a whiskey sour. I grabbed my drink, sat at my table and thought about making a toast.
“To Alex. Though I knew thee very little, what little I had come to know made a large imprint on me. To you and everything you were. My good friend, Alex Haler.”
But, while others claim he might have heard it, Alex and I knew that he wouldn’t. In fact, I thought it might be insulting so I scratched that idea and proposed a new toast.
“To nothing. Because if Alex believed that in death he became nothing, then nothing is beautiful.”