When I started working for the company that operated the large machine shop where you worked, I was intimidated. Introverted by nature, but having been instructed to “manage by walking around,” I tried my best to appear comfortable and to engage each person in conversation. But it felt a little like parading through a maximum security prison as hundreds of cold, angry eyes looked me up and down before spitting on the floor in disgust as a way of expressing their disapproval. Wandering through the oily aisles between huge, noisy, dangerous-looking CNC machining centers, mills, and lathes, past welders, the hobbing area, assembly, paint and shipping and receiving, I was bombarded with hostile stares, then completely ignored. Rigid backs were turned, delivering a clear message without saying a word. I was the new HR person. The last HR manager had done a lot of damage. I had been hired to rebuild the relationship and credibility he had destroyed. To make a difference. Challenged to create a connection built on trust with a group of men who didn’t trust women anyway, especially not women at work, particularly not women in management and never those in human resources, I felt doomed to fail. And I was terrified.
You were the first person to show me kindness.
A few days after I was hired, I had to pull together an agenda and chair a previously scheduled meeting of the safety committee. The guys on the committee joined because, per long-standing tradition, the meeting was held during lunch, they got paid while they attended and they were provided generous helpings of all the pizza they could eat. And they could eat a lot. You were on the committee. And you were the only one who listened. Who spoke to me. Everyone else laughed and talked among themselves, acting as if I weren’t there, as they gorged on slice after slice of free thick and thin crust pizza decked out with every imaginable topping.
By the next meeting, your best friend spoke to me too. And participated. He followed your lead and I was grateful.
I discovered you were someone I would be proud to call a friend both at and outside of work. Like most of the machinists, you lived quite a distance away from the shop, deep in the “country.” Your home was nestled in an spot with pristine, post-card perfect scenery, the land dotted by farms, tiny towns, isolated houses that could only be accessed by long dirt roads, and stretches of untouched woodland that extended for miles beyond the metro area where I lived. And like most of the guys, you loved to hunt and fish. You were an outdoorsman. Drove an old “muscle” car; rebuilt them as a hobby. You effortlessly existed and fit quite nicely in this world of macho men. But there was another side to you.
You were a few years younger than I was, but had married a woman who was my age. She was an RN and had run several nursing homes before finally opening her own. It was a dream she couldn’t have fulfilled without your support, both emotionally and financially. And you spoke about her with love and respect, in total contrast to the way the other guys talked about their “old ladies.” She had children from a previous marriage, but to you, they were your kids. You loved them and did everything you could to give them a good foundation. Tried to make up for their dead-beat dad. You read books. Lots of them. Contemplated your purpose, sharing some deep thoughts with me that let me know there was much more to you than the “good ole boy” front you wore to work each day. I enjoyed those conversations. Looked forward to them. And I came to profoundly respect you.
I was there for 7 years and during that time, you were the one person I could turn to when I needed an honest answer or someone to help me see a different perspective. You would also tell me the truth about anything dangerous that was going on out on the floor. You were the one who told me about the machine that was malfunctioning, throwing the giant bearings we manufactured halfway across the shop, endangering lives. No one else would report it. They were tough. Management sucked. Safety was a joke. But you recognized the idiocy of their machismo and let me know when there were serious problems.
I think you came to trust me. I know you shared some very private and personal thoughts with me; I treasured and guarded each jewel you entrusted to my care. I valued you. As a friend. As an employee. As a leader among a workforce of 200 crusty men who were all trying to be the same. And I certainly trusted you. For me, you were a light in a dark and hostile world. I don’t know if I could have had any kind of positive impact without your cooperation. And friendship. You led the way. You were the one who truly made a difference.
The company sold shortly after I left and you moved with them to their new location. I thought about you from time to time. Hoped you were doing well. Hoped your wife’s business was growing. And that you had found another friend with whom to share your weightier thoughts. Those feelings you could never divulge to your fellow machinists without being ridiculed and ostracized.
Several years later, I ran into one of the guys who had worked at the shop, who had also stayed on after the sale. I asked him if he knew how you were doing. If you were still with the new company.
He looked at me with an expression of wary surprise. “You didn’t know?”
Even before I answered, my heart started beating faster. I felt a lump in my throat. “Know what?”
“He’s dead. Killed himself a few years ago. Shot himself, tried to put the bullet in his heart, but it didn’t kill him instantly, so he shot himself a second time. Took him a while to die is what I heard. He must have been crazy!”
I don’t remember how I responded. I was suddenly numb. And undone. And brokenhearted. Grief flooded over me, along with disbelief and horror.
There had been no signs. No note. No one knew the reason you gave up on life. I learned that you walked out into the woods, presumably so neither your wife or kids would find you, thinking the animals would discover and take your body away instead. Considerate until the end.
Though it’s been almost 10 years, I still think of you, Terry. Did the mask you wore to survive the world where you worked become too heavy to carry? Were you no longer able to reconcile your sensitive heart with the tough exterior you donned as a shell of protection? Did something happen between you and you wife, the love of your life? What went so horribly wrong to cause you to take such drastic, destructive action?
You weren’t educated, but you were wise. You had a “hick” accent, but a philosopher’s brain. You had an intensity that hummed inside of you, a vulnerability and tenderness visible in your eyes, though you hid it well by surrounding yourself with powerful, humming machines. You were contemplative and interesting, mingling with the common and unthinking. Had a depth that was contradicted by your unassuming, woodsy exterior. And the heart you shot and killed was such a kind and gentle one. You were so unique, grounded, sensible. How did you reach the point of losing all hope? How did you come to that terrible place of total aloneness and despair? Why did you think the only answer was to die?
I’ve been there. I survived my attempt. Women tend not to shoot themselves, preferring a less violent departure. But you…you were so determined to die, you shot yourself…twice. You might have survived the first bullet. Why didn’t you take that as a sign? A sign that you were not supposed to leave us? Why did you feel such a desperate determination that you ignored the pain and all logic, unflinchingly willing yourself to pull the trigger the second time?
I think of you. Your shy, tight smile. Your wise, observant, piercing blue eyes that seemed to see so much more than most. Your quite spirit. Your innate intelligence. I think of the kind person who spoke to me when no one else would, who gave me a chance when the rest of the men turned their backs, and who shared bits and pieces of your heart with me, only to ruthlessly, mortally wound it until it stopped beating as you dropped to the ground, alone in the woods. Wanting to fade into nothingness, yet wishing to spare those you loved and those who loved you.
I think of you and grieve. I feel I let you down. Succeeded at my job, but failed as your friend. I should have been there for you, just as you were there for me, when I needed you.
I don’t know if I will ever be able to forgive myself for this failure. I know I will never recover from the loss of your light.