When I was ten, my family moved to Owatonna, Minnesota. We joined a Baptist church and my brother and I enrolled at the church’s private school, and that fall I began sixth grade seated behind a dark-haired boy named Sean, because his last name came before mine alphabetically. Although I never called Sean a close friend, those larger-than-life growing-up years he became to me like a sibling in a large family. We both, along with most of our classmates, remained together in that class until fourteen of us graduated from high school.

Sean was always making me laugh. First, because I’m easily amused, especially by the random and the strange, and second, because he was so genuinely funny – in a random and strange way. A little like living with a Far Side comic strip. There are two special words I will always associate with Sean. The first is jocularity because he would, now and then for no apparent reason, crow that word like a rooster, getting a verbal running start and then lifting off – “Joc-joc-joc-jocuLARity!!” And the second is gyrate, because he did, and was famous in the school for it (when teachers weren’t looking that is). Hands clasped behind head, hips swirling in decidedly un-Baptist fashion, easygoing grin lighting up his devilish good looks.

I say devilish good looks, and as Sean was famous for gyrations, I was famous for boy-craziness – but I never felt that way about Sean. He just felt like family I guess. In junior high he’d tie my shoelaces together or sneak up and steal the book I was reading; once or twice he pulled my chair away before I sat down. That’s the kind of ‘ship we had, and as we grew up the teasing smoothed out into a little private joke that he just inexplicably started one day and only targeted on me – a smiley face he named Mr. Chubbs. He would draw Mr. Chubbs on my paper or notebook or the chalkboard when I wasn’t looking. I would pretend to be terribly annoyed every time Mr. Chubbs mysteriously showed up.

After high school graduation we went to different colleges and mostly lost touch, but then five years later I married Nathan, who grew up in Owatonna too and whose mother happened to be close friends with Sean’s mother, and I discovered that in Sean’s life outside of school, Nathan and his brother and Sean and his brother had all grown up together as friends. So Sean came to our wedding, and made me a card, a delayed punchline of sorts – of course it was Mr. Chubbs.

Over the years after that I’d hear random bits about Sean from Nathan’s brother who stayed in touch with him – he was painting, and traveling the world, and he settled in South Korea as a teacher. When I joined Facebook I found him there and requested to be his friend, but got no response. I learned later that he had thirteen Facebook friends.

Last month Nathan’s mother said that Sean would be coming to Minnesota to visit in a few weeks. I was looking forward to a chance to reconnect with him.

And then he died, by suicide.

I knew Sean as fun, and funny, and popular and attractive. But for most – arguably all – of that time, he was a child. When I last saw him he was barely into his twenties. I never really knew him as an adult. My brain wants a reason for this tragedy, and imagines that the expectations and potentially soul-crushing nature of adulthood were ultimately too much for him. But I can’t, and need not, know. I treasure his memory and found peace in singing to him this week.

On my first day of sixth grade
I was looking at the back of his head
Alphabetically it was always me after him
And all those years no one else would come between us
I think he was an old soul, a lover of Pink Floyd and M*A*S*H
“Jocularity” he’d shriek wildly out of the blue
So many strange delightful moments passed between us

Sean, rest in peace
Sean, rest in peace

We were never that close but we grew up together
In a little class in a private school in a small town
Fourteen children figuring things out between us
The last time I saw him he gave me a smiley face
And I’ve kept it safe, brought it every place I’ve called home
And all these years nothing else has passed between us

Sean, rest in peace
Sean, rest in peace

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text HELLO to 741741.

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