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Editor's Note: After a half-page notice appeared in the Fall 2001 issue announcing BCM's first essay contest and a $1,000 prize, nearly a hundred original works of fiction, fact, and poetry followed. Among the entrants were members of classes from '51 to '04, as well as BC faculty and staff. The topic proposed was "Hope," and many wrote about deeply personal concerns--incipient alcoholism, a father's suicide, a grievously sick child. Some sent treatises, with footnotes; Erin Heath '03 took the voice of Noah's wife aboard the ark.

Given the timing and the topic, many entries conveyed the strains of September 11. "There are days when [hope] is difficult to muster," wrote Geraldine Lauinger Moriarty '72 of her job as a fifth-grade teacher in a Massachusetts inner city school. She derived hope, on one day at least, from her students' grief at the senseless loss of thousands of strangers' lives in a city hundreds of miles away. Children figured often in the writings: Parenthood itself is a state of constant hope, suggested Kate Lee Padden '85. A few writers quoted Vaclav Havel: Hope "is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense." In that vein, wrote Michael Azevedo '84, "We lay odds with the words we choose. . . . Who among us would confidently board Hope Airlines?"

A new contest topic will be announced in Fall 2002. In the meantime, here is the winning essay, by Michael Antrobus '88.

The day after Thanksgiving last year, a former colleague of mine named David Legier swallowed a bottle of prescription pills in a final act of hopelessness that would end his short and remarkable life on earth. At 37 years of age, the former special-projects editor of the business newspaper where I worked—who once moonlighted in the French Quarter as the transvestite Belinda—had come to a grim threshold I believe he had visited many times before. This time, he stepped across to the other side.

The popular assumption is that people like David kill themselves because they have lost hope—we mortals' protection against despair. The implication is that hope is something we carry through life like a football as we march toward the final goal line. If we aren't careful, we may fumble it or allow it to be stripped.

In casting this view, we allow ourselves to feel the sorrow that accompanies loss from suicide, and the pity aroused by another's misfortune, yet we reserve room for an underlying indignation: Suicide desecrates the sacred temple where life resides—therefore it must be condemned. We sympathize with the players tackled suddenly from behind, but we nonetheless believe them culpable when they drop the ball. Why couldn't they just hold on? The suggestion is that hope can be possessed by individuals, on their own. My experience as a phone counselor at a suicide hotline contradicts this.

It was around the time I first met David Legier that I volunteered to become a suicide phone counselor. A former poker buddy of mine had recently shot himself in the head. Jim's unreturned voice message on my answering machine still haunts me. He had called to talk, to connect with another human being. His voice sounded tired, but I was familiar with Jim's alcoholism. Put off by his frequent drunkenness, afraid of becoming an enabler, I found it easy not to return his call. When I erased his message from my answering machine, I did not realize I would never hear his voice again.

My training as a crisis intervention phone counselor taught me to tune in to the feelings behind the words of callers. Often, just naming the feelings they communicated through tired or sorrowful or angry or fearful voices helped establish a rapport with people I'd never met. Confidentiality prevents me from sharing details of my calls. Some callers were manipulative. Some were genuinely lost. Often calls ended without much measurable progress. Other times I was left feeling I had helped someone live at least one more day. When I resigned from the phone lines after five years, I was no longer afraid of answering a call from a troubled soul.

David Legier's coworkers all loved him. He had an endearing way about him. He seemed very much in control of his universe. The product of a dysfunctional nuclear family, David fashioned his own new family out of confidantes and trusted colleagues.

David was a student of human social interaction. He read people with expert precision, learned what made them laugh, manipulated them to his advantage like a genial puppeteer. He had a nickname for everyone, with no regard for political correctness. One of our colleagues was a native of New Delhi; David called him, without malice, "the Injun." The executive assistant to the publisher was "Governor." My byline read Michael but most people called me Mike, so David called me "Michael Mike."

His home he called "the Villa Belinda." The alter ego grew out of a love for the singer Belinda Carlyle, whose picture he kept above his desk. His most endeared neighbor was an older woman he called "the señorita," and he loved to drop her name in conversation. He once remarked that he had spent more time at her house in a particular week than at his own. It seemed to me she was his adopted mother.

Not only people got nicknames from David. David didn't go to the bathroom, he went to "make water," and he wasn't shy about announcing this to a room full of managers in suits. He was unapologetic about his homosexuality, and generous in offering to lend out his formal gowns to any woman in the office large enough to wear them.

None were. Standing around six feet tall, he easily weighed in at 230 pounds on a bad day. His weight rose and declined like the stock market. David tried every weight loss program that came his way—Sugar Busters, Slim-Fast, pills, you name it. But he wasn't one for moderation. He drank Diet Coke out of three-liter plastic bottles.

We knew David struggled with his weight, and some of us suspected there were other struggles as well. My editor later told me David had spent a week sobering up at a local treatment center, where she visited him every day. She loved him too. She wanted to help him tame his demons, and for a time after his stay at the rehabilitation clinic, things appeared promising. He returned to work and continued to bring in special-project clients. He wrote a cover story—about Amway—that was widely praised. But then he engineered a scheme to defraud an insurance company using our business paper's stationary. The editor may have saved him from prosecution, but David was sacked and I never saw him again.

Unlike beauty, hope is not found in things. Unlike faith, hope does not reside within the individual. As it turns out, hope is found only in other people. If it cannot be found there, it cannot be found. When hope is lost, we all are implicated.

This becomes clear when we consider where individuals on the threshold of despair turn when they embrace hope. Following the horrors of September 11, friends and families of the missing distributed flyers with pictures of their loved ones. They turned to other people, strangers, anyone who might give them hope. By no coincidence, Christians place their ultimate hope in Jesus, a human.

In the five years I worked as a phone counselor, I spoke with hundreds of Davids. They came from every walk of life. No age, gender, race, sexual orientation, or economic status seems to derail people on the approach to the hopeless threshold of suicide. Though my callers often turned for brief comfort to alcohol, drugs, sex, money, food, religion, they found no hope in them. Nor did they find it in themselves.

Ultimately, they turned to me. I was the one working the lines when they called. I was hope.

On Thanksgiving Day last year, as I sat down to a marvelous formal dinner with all the fixings, David Legier, once again struggling with the ultimate despair, drove himself to a substance abuse clinic. I'm still shaky on the details and don't know the reasons, but the clinic turned David away. It was then, when those to whom he had gone for help—and hope— shut the door on him, that he returned home and took matters into his own hands.

Michael Antrobus '88

Michael Antrobus is an editorial page writer for the Baton Rouge Advocate newspaper. He and his wife, Elise, are expecting their first child—and greatest hope—in August.

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