"Last week, I opened my eyes abruptly from a turbulent sleep. I felt around with my clammy hands, trying to orient myself. Confused, I hobbled out of bed and rushed to the bathroom, unsure if I was going to be sick to my stomach. I looked into the mirror, and splashed cold water on my face, finally waking myself completely.
'It was a dream,' I repeated to myself until I knew it was just that: a dream.
I’ve had the dream quite regularly for almost a year now. I always wake up, feeling as though my world has caved in around me. Finally, upon being fully awake, I get the privilege to be indescribably relieved to know that it didn’t happen: my dad did not commit suicide. I quickly text my dad to tell him I’m glad he’s alive, and, knowing the drill, he responds with a picture of my parents’ dogs or some terrible--yet hilarious--'dad joke.' And my day goes on.
These dreams, I assume, are my mind’s way of trying to truly feel what one of my best friends went through and is still experiencing. The difference is that I get to wake up from my nightmare, and Whitney Saleski is living through it.
I remember absolutely everything from the day it happened. It was a beautiful fall day. I had just finished taking a walk through Oakwood, my old hometown, with my friend, Matt, and I was driving to Dayton for my friend Tori’s birthday party. At the corner of Shafor Boulevard and Harman Boulevard, my phone rang, and it was Whitney. I was excited to hear from her, as we had not seen each other in a few weeks.
I answered the phone with my usual 'Hey, Whit!' only to hear what I know will be seared in my mind for the rest of my life: 'My dad is dead! My dad is dead!'
Whitney was hysterical. Without thinking, I said, 'Are you sure? Do you need me to call 911?!'
My mind had immediately concocted a scenario where Whitney had glanced outside to her parents' yard, only to see her dad laying on the ground because he was having a heart attack. 'He’s still alive,' I told myself.
Whitney just kept screaming: 'He’s dead, oh God!'
I immediately started heading over to her house, but when I finally asked if it was alright for me to come over, she indicated that it wasn’t a good time.
I drove aimlessly for a while, calling my mom to cry and tell her the terrible news. Talking it out with my mom made it more difficult to process, as I just couldn’t understand how someone so lively was gone. Mr. Saleski appeared to be in excellent physical shape. Whitney had never mentioned him having any health issues. My mom and I decided it was an unexpected heart attack. We thought of how sad it was, especially because he did take such good care of his health. It was almost a rarity to drive through Oakwood without seeing Mr. and Mrs. Saleski walking up the Schantz hill.
I arrived at the party, and immediately told my friends that one of my best friends had unexpectedly lost her dad to a heart attack. We began to prepare food for the party, but with a somber cloud over the room. Soon after we began cooking, Whitney called again.
I quickly answered my phone, and Whitney opened with a new, hollow, monotone statement:
'He did it himself. Oh God, Veronica. He did it himself.'
This was the last thing I expected to hear. Whitney was clearly in a deep state of shock, as she was not crying and was discussing quite matter-of-factly the method of transportation she and her mom needed to use to go to Baltimore to retrieve her dad. I told her I would look up flights, train rides, buses, and that I would put a Facebook message out, asking if any of my friends happened to be driving to Baltimore that night. For the majority of the party, I stayed upstairs in an empty bedroom, trying to facilitate travel arrangements.
By the end of the night, all I had managed to do as far as the party was to pose for a few pictures with a fake smile on my face. I felt such sorrow for Whitney and Mrs. Saleski. I have never heard agony in my life as I heard in Whitney’s first phone call.
Shock, anger, disbelief, and sadness enveloped me. Whitney called me one last time, and we arranged for me to come over to her house the next evening.
The next day was a busy blur. I had court out of town, followed by a weeknight wedding ceremony. Despite the ceremony's undeniable love and beauty, I felt disconnected from it, as questions of how a husband could leave a wife in such a manner as Mr. Saleski left Mrs. Saleski swirled through my mind. I excused myself from the wedding as early as I could to get to Whitney.
I arrived at the Saleskis' familiar house after it was dark. Whitney and I both spent our whole childhoods and most of our lives in Oakwood, and grew up only two blocks apart. The house was completely lit up on the dark side street, and I expected, as I entered in my high heels and cocktail dress, to find dozens of people surrounding Whitney and her mom. Instead, I knocked on the door, and a tall man answered the door and introduced himself as Brian, one of Mr. Saleski’s best friends.
He was the only one there besides Whitney and her mom, who were upstairs in Mrs. Saleski’s bed. While Brian manned the door to accept condolences and kind gestures from friends and neighbors, I walked upstairs, unsure of what to expect.
Whitney was sitting cross-legged on the bed, facing her mom, who was lying down, tucked under a pile of blankets. Whitney jumped up and gave me a hug.
Mrs. Saleski let me hug her, but she laid in bed, shaking uncontrollably. Both women were white as ghosts. I slipped off my inappropriately high heels from the wedding and crawled in bed by Mrs. Saleski’s feet. We talked about how we couldn’t believe it. Mrs. Saleski asked if Whitney told me the manner in which Mr. Saleski died by suicide. Whitney said no, and began to cry for the first time since I had arrived. She tried to begin telling the story, but stopped, and looked at her mom with a pleading look of a child.
She shook her head and said: 'I don’t want to say it. I can’t say it.' Mrs. Saleski, in the same type of hollow voice Whitney had used in the prior day, recounted the manner of his death. Whitney began to cry again, and both women tried to remember every aspect of their last phone call with Mr. Saleski. Whitney became frantic when she couldn’t remember with certainty if she had told him she loved him before she handed the phone over to her mom.
It was late and time for me to leave. I took some library DVDs that were due from Mrs. Saleski, told her I would drop them off, and headed home, assuring them I would be there the next day right after work.
The next month was also a blur. I went over to the Saleskis' house every day. I helped cancel credit cards, searched for tax documents, encouraged both women to eat, and just sat with them as they tried to sort through their lives without Mr. Saleski. I helped Whitney record all of the voicemails Mr. Saleski had left her, so she would never lose them.
Whitney and Mrs. Saleski’s grief showed in different ways at different times.
Occasional clashes resulted from these different cycle patterns, as one would be furious with him for 'choosing' to leave them, while the other one missed him so much and only had adoring and positive things to say about him. I oddly felt like the father figure of the house for that period of time. I sent Whitney, one of my lifelong best friends, to her room on more than one occasion when she and Mrs. Saleski’s grief cycles created conflict. I also firmly (but lovingly, I hope) told Mrs. Saleski to calm down in front of Whitney, as Whitney needed her mom to be a strong parent at that time.
The most vivid memory, and one I know that stayed with both Whitney and me, is the 'Post Office Day'--a few days after Mr. Saleski passed away.
Whitney called that morning, saying that the post office left a note stating there was an envelope waiting for her mother at the facility. She asked if I could drive, as she was weak from not eating or drinking enough. I picked Whitney up and we drove to the post office.
I approached the desk and just said: 'My name is Lisa Saleski, and I’m here to pick up something. I just received a phone call from you guys.' The lady at the desk gave me a strange look, and went back to retrieve the item. As she handed it to me, I then knew what it was.
I grabbed onto Whitney, who nearly fell to the floor as she finally realized that the package--which had a sticker reading 'Cremated Remains' on it--contained her father’s ashes. We didn't know that they were arriving so soon, and none of us had been notified.
'What? What is that? Is that my dad?!' Whitney said in a faint, tiny voice.
I steered her outside, intent on getting her and her dad’s ashes back to the house as quickly as possible. I gently placed the package on the floor of my backseat, and headed back to the Saleskis' house.
I picked up the box from my car, and we headed to the front porch. I sat on their front step, Whitney on one side and Mr. Saleski on the other. We had an oddly optimistic talk. She said she felt like she could make a difference eventually, and that, even with this new life she had, she was thankful for her new perspective on things. She commented on the beautiful weather and the leaves and the breeze, and how lucky she felt to be alive, despite her tremendous pain. She talked about raising suicide awareness, even in her first days of coping with her father’s unexpected death.
While I was not particularly close to Mr. Saleski, I was and still am deeply affected by his suicide. Like all people coping with the effects of suicide, I experience moments of anger, pity, sadness, and understanding. As a person who was welcomed into a home at a time of such incredible grief, I learned that victims of suicide are not just those who lose their lives. Family members are survivors who have to relearn how to live.
Contributing to a loving, listening, stable, non-judgmental environment for those survivors to live in is imperative to their healing. I love Whitney for allowing me to be a part of her environment through her loss. Whitney and I have grown closer than ever in the time since Mr. Saleski died by suicide.
It has been absolutely amazing to see the grieving process in Whitney, taking her from justifiably inconsolable and confused to astonishingly open and determined to heal and make an impact."