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
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
newspaper. He and his wife, Elise, are expecting their first child—and
greatest hope—in August.