After 30 Years, I Found Out My Best Friend in High School’s Death Was Not an Accident

We met in the second grade. My first memory of R (for the sake of his family, I’ll just call him that) was of me irritating him in a little-kid way. I was standing behind him in line. We were always standing in line in elementary school, and it was insanely boring. At some point, I noticed the top edge of his belt had curled outward, so I started pulling at it. Every few seconds, he would turn around and say, “Quit it,” but when he resumed facing forward, I’d do it again.

I have no memory of how we actually became friends.

Born in India, R and his family moved to Whittier, where I grew up, in the late 1970s. Like his parents and his two older brothers, R was very intelligent. So much so that he’d been jumped up a grade when he entered our school district, which meant he was about 6 when we met, while I was 7. We became best friends that year, and we stayed that way right up to his death, which happened during our junior year of high school.

We were nerds. We both read a lot, but he especially loved fantasy novels by authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien and Lloyd Alexander, as well as European comic books such as Asterix and Tintin. We rode our bikes everywhere, even in high school; we rode our bikes together to school right up to his death.

As kids, we played T-ball in the summer and sucked at it. We also played Atari video games until our hands cramped; Pitfall, Breakout and Indiana Jones were our favorites, the latter of which posed special problems because it was so damn difficult. At one point in this pre-internet era, one of R’s brothers somehow found a list of hints on how to finish the game and shared them with us.

I still recall the night he died. I was enrolled in a night class in contemporary art at the local community college with two other friends because we didn’t want to take ceramics at our high school. Around 7:30 p.m., the lights went out in the room. They were on an automated switch, which got confused when no one was moving; the lights came back on a few moments later. After I heard the news, I did a little math in my head and decided that 7:30 p.m. was as good a time as any to mark the moment R died.

When I got home that night after class, my mom came downstairs and asked if I knew where R was. Home, I figured. I called his parents, but I had nothing helpful to offer. In the middle of the night, the police showed up. “Did he have any enemies?” one cop asked me. Groggy, I shook my head. “Not that I can think of,” I said.

I was in newspaper class the next day when I finally heard what happened. It was near the end of the period, and I noticed our American history teacher talking to our newspaper adviser at the doorway. When the guy in front of me pointed out my history teacher was crying, I got up and walked over to them.

“What happened?” I asked, though I remember already knowing the answer. Through tears, my history teacher said that a few hours ago, the police had found R’s body at the bottom of the San Gabriel riverbed. He had apparently fallen sometime the previous night while out jogging.

That was in the spring of 1989. For the past three decades, I’ve held onto that story. Random shit happens, I told myself. His death was sad, horrible, but it was also oddly comforting: There was nothing anyone could have done to prevent it.

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That story, I found out very recently, isn’t true. A few weeks ago, my sister asked me if I knew the truth about R’s death. She said she had recently become curious about his death and obtained a copy of his death certificate from the Los Angeles County Recorder’s office. Of course, I asked if she could email me a copy.

Normally just one page, R’s death certificate had two. The first page, dated March 10, 1989, one day after police had found R’s body, was what I was used to seeing, except the word Deferred had been typed into the cause-of-death section. The second page was a form titled “Amendment of Medical and Health Section Data—Death.” The coroner had signed this document on April 27, 1989—more than six weeks after R’s death and long after his funeral.

Glancing over the amended certificate, my eyes kept zeroing in on certain words, including pills and suicide. Though R had apparently sustained a leg fracture in his fall from the bridge, the coroner had concluded that the “immediate cause of death” had been from an overdose of a drug used to treat irregular heartbeat.

It’s difficult to put into words exactly what has happened since then. A wound I thought had closed nearly 30 years ago was now very much open. Though I’m a completely different person—probably the age of his parents back then—it was as though I was 16 again. His death, long a distant memory, now stung every bit as it had in 1989.

When I first read R’s death certificate, news of the suicides of first Kate Spade, then Anthony Bourdain dominated my thoughts. At the same time, the Centers for Disease Control reported that suicide rates have been rising in every state over the past two decades.

I began making notes, writing down anything I could remember about R’s demeanor and actions. I blew the dust off anything I recalled that included R. I also began reaching out to people—some who had known him, others who hadn’t. I wanted to vent, vomit out a lifetime’s worth of questions, but at the same time, I was cautious, especially when chatting with those who had known R. Just because I was reliving a death I thought 30 years in the past, there was no reason I had to subject others to the same pain.

Still, the urge to talk with people such as my high school newspaper adviser—who also taught AP English to R and me—was overwhelming. Since we corresponded occasionally on Facebook, I sent him a brief message asking if we could talk about R’s death. He quickly accepted.

“He was such a sweet kid, and he was always engaged in class,” he told me. “I avoided thoughts on suicide because he never seemed troubled to me.”

That was the thing: R never seemed troubled to me, either. I mean, not at all. He seemed solid, stable, the kind of student the rest of us relied on. I never saw or even imagined him using drugs or drinking alcohol. He was polite, thoughtful and studious.

R had a sense of honor, even when we were little kids. When some new kid came to school, he made a deliberate effort to befriend him or her. R went out of his way to be nice to kids who were being picked on.

Both of us had been picked on in elementary and junior high. We were smart kids who liked school; plus, I was a skinny kid who hated sports, and he had dark skin. I remember kids in elementary school even called him the N-word once, which astonished me.

I remember him telling me he wanted to be a doctor. He could have done it. He was a very serious student, always maintaining a 4.0 GPA; he participated in activities and went out for sports. He wasn’t a great athlete, but he consistently ran track and cross-country.

Even as a child, R was politically aware, though at first that was probably just a reflection of his parents. They were very liberal, as was he. At the time, I was rather conservative, again reflecting my parents. Though we were ideologically different, we didn’t really argue about politics.

The notion that he faced pressure at home to succeed sticks in my mind. Everyone in his family succeeded in life. His father was an engineer, and his mother was a history professor. His brothers were also excellent students. His oldest brother became a doctor, while the other became an engineer.

At the time R died, he and I shared a few classes: AP U.S. history, chemistry and AP English, where we agonized over Huck Finn, Invisible Man and T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.” But at the same time, he was also excelling in math analysis (a class typically packed with seniors), while I was treading water in Algebra 2.

Sometime in our junior year, I recall R missing a week or even two of school, which was odd. My memory is that he had the flu, then a relapse, but now I find myself questioning whether that was true.

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I did not talk with R’s parents after seeing the death certificate. Though they clearly have far more information than I do, they are also old and, even now, don’t want to talk about R. I can’t honestly imagine what they’ve gone through, what they still go through, and I have no wish to add to their pain.

R’s funeral was at Rose Hills, an immense cemetery in Whittier. A bunch of us just left school to go to it. I remember R’s parents booked one of the larger chapels, and we easily filled it. Many of our mutual friends spoke, but I didn’t. I just didn’t have the words. After that, we all filed into the room for the viewing of his body. It was open casket. R looked completely lifelike, as if he were merely asleep. There were at least a dozen of us in there, but no one said a word.

R’s death was by far the most important event in my life before I turned 18. I’ve often looked back and wondered how things would have turned out had he lived. For a while after his death, I obsessively checked the Los Angeles Times obit section, looking for the names of other friends. My senior year in high school wasn’t great, and my first two years in college were ghastly. It took USC asking me to leave after just 18 months to snap me back into the realities of college life. That I managed to graduate from UC Santa Barbara with a bachelor’s degree in political science a mere five years after leaving high school still amazes me.

Looking back now, I find myself fixated on R’s age. I never thought about it in school, but now it seems horrendous. He was always a year younger than his classmates and friends. This wasn’t so bad in elementary school, but I can’t imagine it was easy in high school, especially in a class such as math analysis. R was 15 when he took that class, with virtually everyone else being at least 17.

I still remember being a very wide-eyed 14-year-old walking the campus for the first time and seeing what looked like adult men everywhere. Many sported mustaches and letterman jackets. Watching them strut across the quad with beautiful girls on their arms was one thing—sitting next to them in typing class was quite another.

Other moments seem to take on a vastly greater significance now.

“I just always wonder about the gay thing,” one lesbian friend (who did not know R) told me during a chat a few days after I saw R’s death certificate for the first time. “We lose so many at that age—and especially that long ago, during those times. It was suffocating being gay in the ’80s. That was my first time thinking about ending it all.”

Another friend, one who grew up in the equally rough 1970s but later came out, agreed. “In high school, you keep your mouth shut,” he told me. “Because you don’t want to get your ass beat, and you don’t want to lose your friends.”

So many closeted teens have taken their own lives that in 2010, writer Dan Savage (of “Savage Love” fame) and his husband, Terry Miller, started the It Gets Better movement, in which they and thousands of others contributed YouTube videos on teen bullying.

I have no evidence that R was in the closet. And I can’t imagine that his parents, so decent and progressive as they were, would have had a problem with him coming out as homosexual.

Still, I’m thinking a lot now about the fact that R and I never talked about girls. I talked about girls with other friends of mine, but never with him. There was also the time, maybe a few months before his death, when R asked me if I wanted to be roommates with him after high school. Without thinking, I answered pragmatically. I had no idea where I was going to college, and figuring that there was a decent chance we would go to different schools, I told him I just didn’t know. Sometime later, he asked me again, and I gave him the same answer. We were still just juniors in high school, I remember thinking. It was far too early to be thinking of such things. I know I thought nothing of it at the time, but I also never forgot the exchange.

Even if R were struggling with sexual-identity issues, there’s never a single reason for a catastrophe such as suicide. I learned this back in 2014, when a close friend of mine took his life six months after his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army. The decision to take your own life has layers of psychological and psychiatric reasons, some obvious, others contradictory. Even suicide notes (and to my knowledge, R didn’t leave one behind) can tell only part of the story. The only person who truly knows why is never around after the fact to explain it.

In the end, I’m left with questions about not only his conduct, but also mine. Have I spent the past three decades feeling the wrong pain?

Today, we often see in stories about suicide a call for those feeling alienated to reach out. But asking for help is a rational act—the kind of thing that usually gets smothered by depression.

Instead, I find myself focusing on what I saw—and didn’t see—in the teenager I considered my closest friend. There’s also anger that I wasn’t more thoughtful at the time. I was a heterosexual white boy in the 1980s. Though I had strong women influencing my development, I was still very much a product of the time: uncomfortable sharing emotions, masculine, aggressive. As a young man, I would have been appalled at the thought of a boy wearing a dress to school. And while I didn’t participate in the catcalls yelled at a young man suspected of being homosexual, I didn’t object to them, either.

Yes, I was basically a child when R died. But I’m not now. While I’ll likely never know if I did enough back then, I’m haunted by the question of whether I’m doing enough for the friends I have now. Because that’s the point to all this: being more considerate with my time, not taking my friends for granted—pretty much doing what I can to not be a jerk to the people I care about.

“Suicide is like dropping a rock in the pond of the universe, with the ripples propagating endlessly,” our high school English teacher told me. “You never know when you will be rocked by one of those fucking ripples.”

If you’re suffering and want to reach out to someone, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.

Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.

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