The Happy Stranger Who Killed Himself

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Colorado has the ninth-highest suicide rate in the United States, with approximately twenty out of every 100,000 people in the state ending their own lives annually. Yet somehow, it's always a shock when someone we know takes this drastic step. Or in my case yesterday, shortly after the end of National Suicide Prevention Week, someone I barely knew: a young man who made my life, and the lives of many others in my neighborhood, better simply because of his presence.

The news came to me when I was least expecting it, as it often does.

Each afternoon, rain or shine, I take my Goldendoodle, Lucy, for a walk. The trek covers a mile and a half over a span of about half an hour, with the route beginning in my cul de sac and continuing through my subdivision and one adjacent to it. At that point, we reach an open-space area marked with a "No Trespassing" sign that I've ignored on almost a daily basis since Lucy joined our family over six years ago. The two of us head down a hill until we reach the border of a nearby golf course before heading back up again. Then it's down a block and through the parking lot of an apartment complex to our place.

We were almost out of the lot when I noticed a van parked in the middle of the traffic area. I was moving alongside it when the driver, a woman accompanied by an unusually well-behaved Chihuahua on the passenger seat beside her, began speaking to me without preface.

"Do you know the young guy who was always out here?" she asked. "Skinny guy — the one who was always smoking?"

With no more of a description than that, I immediately understood who she meant. Not every day, but many days during my dog walk, I'd come upon the man. He would be standing outside his ground-floor apartment, cigarette in hand, baseball cap on his head and a smile on his face. No matter what he was doing, he would always say hello to me in a tone that couldn't help improving my mood. And I was hardly the only one. I saw him do the same for plenty of others passing through the complex. He was the unofficial greeter, and a damned good one.

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A balloon memorial like this one is currently on display outside the young man's apartment.
"Yeah, I know him," I told the woman.

She looked at me for a beat before saying, "He just killed himself."

I was floored. I stood there, gape-jawed, as the woman unspooled the rest of the story. The man was in the Army, just 24 years old, she said, and by all appearances, he was doing great. But then he returned from partying with some friends, and as they dropped him off at the apartment, he said he was going to commit suicide. And he did. With a gun.

"That's his truck," she said, pointing out a large vehicle with a single red rose on the windshield. And this wasn't the only memorial display. Only then did I notice that the entryway to his apartment's sliding door was crowded with balloons and other items of condolence.

As I stood looking at these tokens of grief, the woman said, "I see you around, so I thought you'd want to know." And then she drove away.

I know well the long and lasting impact suicide has on those left behind. My grandfather took his own life long before I was born. He was a coal miner who lived in what is now a Colorado ghost town with his wife and kids, including my mother. They lived in company housing on the side of a hill not far from the opening to the mine, and when he committed his final act, the rest of the clan was in the next room. While family lore has it that he'd just gone to the doctor and may have received a terrible medical diagnosis, no one knows for certain why he did what he did.

My mom was five years old when her father died, and the way he exited this world left a mark on her that hasn't faded in the more than seven decades since then. No doubt the same will be true of the friends, family, loved ones and neighbors the Army vet down the street touched while he was with us.

The woman who told me what happened didn't mention the young man's name, and I didn't ask. To me, he'll always be the happy stranger who brimmed with good spirits that apparently masked a deep and personal pain.

If you or someone you know needs help, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK [8255] or Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-4493-TALK [8255].
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts