Personal statement: Permanent ripples

Illustration by Megan Mulholland
Illustration by Megan Mulholland Buy this photo

By Katie Burke, Daily News Editor
Published January 28, 2013

I was getting ready for a graduation party when I received the Facebook message. It was the summer of 2011. I was done with high school and looking forward to all the new opportunities of college. The sender’s name was unfamiliar and the profile picture seemed generic so I immediately assumed it was spam. But curiosity got the better of me and I opened it to double check. It read, “Hi, I am a friend of Sam's, and I just wanted to let someone from his Cherubs list know that Sam is no longer with us. He took his own life last night, the night before graduation. If you have any questions, please message me back.”

My mind froze. I kept rereading the message; I was disgusted someone would pull such a crude prank. I needed to respond, so I told the mysterious messenger that I didn’t believe him — that his joke wasn’t funny. His reply came instantaneously, this time providing Sam’s sister’s phone number and directing me to his Facebook page filled with his classmates’ messages of personal memories. There was no more denying it: Sam Mays, a seemingly happy and healthy aspiring journalist who lived in Minnesota, had committed suicide the night before his high-school graduation.

I met Sam the previous summer at a five-week journalism program for high-school students interested in journalism at Northwestern University. He was a towering blonde, glasses-wearing boy from Rochester, Minnesota. He was an incredible writer with a knack for website programming. Sam achieved instant fame that summer for not packing a single pair of shorts for the 80 degree summer weather. After the other kids in the program made this discovery, the name Sam Mays only appeared on his byline. From then on he was addressed by students and instructors alike as “Shorts.” He took pride in his new nickname and wore his jeans with an air of satisfaction during the pick-up soccer games and record heat. On the last two nights of the program, Shorts refused to go to sleep so he wouldn’t miss out on any final moments. By the time we had said our teary goodbyes, Shorts had cemented himself as a celebrity in the program and was the subject of the most memorable moments of those five weeks.

After Shorts’ friend proved the truth I refused to admit, he asked me to inform the rest of the program. It seemed the least I could do from a thousand miles away, but it was also impossible. I found my mom downstairs and, before I could get the words out, I started sobbing. I couldn’t stop. Eventually, in between tears, I got the story out and she took me back to my room. She reminded me of the graduation party and my friends who would be picking me up any minute. The party was the absolute last thought on my mind, but it would be the last time I would see many of my high-school friends until we packed up for college, since I was going away for the summer. My mom held my hand as I slowly typed out the message. The tears still didn’t stop. My message on the program’s Facebook group read, “Hi everyone, I have very sad news. A friend of Shorts messaged me telling me that he took his life the night before his graduation. It sounds like it was last night. I'm getting information about the family address so we can show our love for Shorts. There are posts on his Facebook, say a prayer.”

After I wrote the hardest message I’ve ever had to compose, my friends showed up to go to the party. I explained what had just happened and they sat with me while I calmed down and prepared to face a room of kids who, unlike Shorts, had made it to their graduation day, happy and unaware of the tragedy in Minnesota. I made it through the first five or ten minutes of the party before I had to find a closet and quietly let the tears return. Friends who knew what had happened sat with me as I tried to compose myself, while others assumed I was upset over some drama. I didn’t care what was going on in the room outside, all I could think of was Shorts and his family.

The responses from the other kids in the program that night and in the coming days were incredibly moving. Some sent letters and messages to Minnesota, while others put together videos of summer memories of Shorts that were shown at his funeral. I had never felt a greater sense of community than in those few weeks, when people from across the country came together to commemorate a lost friend. That summer I spoke on the phone with my friend in Evanston, where Northwestern is, once every few weeks. We shared our memories and talked through the grief. He would remind me of the importance of holding onto Shorts’ memory, to remember him with a smile rather than sadness. I’m forever grateful for those long calls and the comfort they brought to my summer.

I wasn’t close with Shorts. I had talked to him a few times and occasionally played soccer with him, but I didn’t count him in my immediate circle of friends from that summer. I couldn’t explain the overwhelming sense of loss I felt after his death. I had known him for five weeks, he lived in a completely different part of the country and he was going to a completely different college. Reflecting on my feelings, at first I felt selfish. What right did I have to sit and cry and mope from a far away city when his family must be dealing with an unexplainable amount of pain? However, Shorts was the only person I had known to take his own life. He was the only person I had known that was my age, on his way to college, full of potential, who had died. I stopped crying that summer but the grief and feelings of confusion remained. It never got easier, as dealing with death never does, but as everyone must, I went on with my life. Over a year later, I realize I’ll never know what Shorts was thinking or feeling that night before his graduation; there will never be an explanation, it will never be all right, but I know his memory will never fade. A premature death is a tragedy but it sends permanent ripples through communities, touching everyone near and far.

Katie Burke is an LSA junior and a Daily News Editor.