Hey There Delilah, or How a Cranky Agnostic Copes With Grief Via a Christian DJ

Trigger warning: the following piece discusses a suicide.

It also might not make sense.

She has a voice like mauve Wet N Wild lipstick – thick and spackled-on tacky, the outdated church lady style of my tiny-town childhood. She name drops God a lot more than I’m comfortable with and plays the sappiest love songs, all from her farm she shares with approximately three million kids. In other words, she is everything I wanted to escape when I moved to the city.

And yet I listen. From my dusty apartment with one cat and approximately three million lipsticks (none of them mauve), I crank up the volume to counteract the noise of traffic outside. I thank Flying Spaghetti Monster for live-streaming radio that allows me to get the full four or five hour experience from a time zone of my choosing. I sometimes sing along. I occasionally roll my eyes. But every night I listen.

Since my friend J shot himself four weeks ago, I’ve tuned in to Delilah.

This is Delilah. (Image: wejz.com)

Normally I stay far, far away from light rock and platitudes. I’m an emotional person, but I scoff at sap. As I don’t have a car, I hardly ever listen to the radio.

But since I got the phone call at 3:30 on a Wednesday, it’s like I’m living with my head perpetually tilted to one side. The world is still around me, but it’s slightly skewed. I breathe differently. I bristle at violent images because of the brutal way J took his life. I wonder when my world will be upright again, or if that will happen at all.

Somewhere out of this sideways world came my Delilah habit, resurrected. Nine years ago, when J and I worked together at an arts camp during the day and rehearsed for plays at night, I’d listen to her on the long drive home. Puffed up with 23-year-old bravado, I’d groan out loud at her cowtown philosophy and penchant for Foreigner. J didn’t know. No one had a clue. She was my guilty secret.

On July 25, I cried in my cubicle as my mom gently delivered the bad news, knowing exactly how much it would break my heart. I called our mutual friend M, who raged (“Why did he do it? You would have helped him. I would have helped him. I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHAT WE’RE SUPPOSED TO DO NOW!”) as I sobbed (“I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.”).

After leaving work I stumbled down the sidewalk in a daze, stopping to visit my best friend Bob (who also knew J) at his bartending job. He and I gave each other tight we’re-holding-it-together smiles as I kept Facebook on my phone and we speculated who knew, who didn’t, and who had just now heard. Later, M and I puzzled over the awful details (we’re both blunt to a fault, the cornerstone of our friendship) late into the night. Even later, I reassured Bob that yes, we could both fall asleep and not have nightmares.

The last time I talked to J, if you can call it that, was two months ago. I posted a song on Facebook, from a musical we did a decade ago. He commented how we’d spent that summer teaching at the arts camp and rehearsing for two shows, together 16 hours almost every day, and yet I managed not to kill him. I retorted that I’d “married” him a few months later when we played parents in The Nutcracker. In truth, we hadn’t been in touch much the past few years: we lived in different cities and despite being an IT guy he wasn’t big on social media. (He deleted his Facebook page before taking his life. When I saw I was down a friend, I just figured someone was pissed that I posted about Planned Parenthood.)

But in the days following his suicide, I put it all together. I met J the summer before my senior year of college. I’d never worked with kids before and he was magic with them. After six weeks of teaching drama to five- to fourteen-year-olds, I felt like I could handle an internship at a children’s film festival. When I decided on law school, I paid for two of the three years with an assistantship, a coveted spot I won partly thanks to my teaching experience (and my interview where I confidently asserted, “I taught drama to eight-year-olds. I can handle anything!”). When I earned my degree but decided not to practice, I went back to work for the children’s film festival, where I was surrounded by creative, interesting people who encouraged me to write.

Bottom line: J was a huge part of who I became as an adult. Moreover, he helped keep me sane during the weirdness of my early to mid-twenties. We IM’ed. He took me out to dinner when I came home weekends. We rang in 2006 by watching fireworks on top of a parking garage. “I can’t believe I’m 25!” I marveled. “I’m 30!” he retorted, and we laughed. After I moved away, he’d track me down online now and again. “I love that you’re writing now,” he typed right after I started a blog. “You seem really happy.”

Memories annihilated me in those first days, stuff from a different time in my life that I thought I’d long forgotten. The dirty jokes we’d tell just out of kids’ earshot. His penchant for going barefoot, which led to mine. The first time I tried on my Nutcracker costume which was very, uh, confining. (“Check it out!” I whispered to him. “I’m so flat-chested I can look straight down and see my shoes. That hasn’t happened since sixth grade!” “Thanks for sharing,” he said dryly. “Whatever, dude,” I shot back, grinning. “I had to tell someone and our fake son is eleven years old, so you win.”) Not to mention his running joke about not wearing pants and his aversion to one of my favorite colors – he couldn’t even tolerate the word. (“Hey J! What color is my shirt today?” “Light red.” “Nope. Piiiiiiiiiiink!” Insert maniacal laugh.)

What hurt the most: remembering when we talked about having a relationship. It never happened. It wouldn’t have worked. We were never in the same place at the same time, literally or figuratively. But still, those romantic feelings existed on both sides, which added a strange new layer to an already confusing state of mind.

I sang for the first time in five years at his memorial, getting up on stage with three others to belt out “Seasons of Love.” “Listen to you wail!” commented our friend William, who planned the service. He had no idea how appropriate that last word was. That day, I wore fishnet stockings (because I knew J would have made an awkward compliment disguised as a smart-aleck remark) and I held M’s five-month-old daughter. “Did he meet her?” I asked M. “Yeah, right after she was born,” he replied. I smiled. “Good.”

I’m slowly moving forward. The memories are still coming, but at a pace I can handle. I’m angry he did this, and I’m acknowledging that as a normal reaction and one many of us are having right now. I can look at photos without crying too much.

Back in the city, I stream Delilah. I listen intently as she reassures people in interracial relationships with disapproving parents, those with spouses in the military or with kids they don’t understand. As reliable as the Wet N Wild display at the drugstore, Delilah shares her own experiences, directs people toward professional help when appropriate, then puts on a Colbie Caillet song or the summer 2012 earworm known as “Call Me Maybe.” I fall asleep to her voice. When I make dinner, I take my laptop into the kitchen so as not to miss a syllable.

I toy with the idea of calling her and telling J’s story, requesting that she not mention God too much and that she play this song.

And I remember a dark and stormy night in 2003 when I pulled into J’s driveway and ran through the pelting rain to his porch.

He opened the door. “I got your message.”

“Yeah,” I panted. “Sorry. I know it’s late. I just don’t know if I can drive in this, you know? I think I have to wait it out.”

J stepped aside. “Come in.”

PSA time: If you need help, don’t be afraid to ask. You always have choices. You always have options. Here is one: the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or visit http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.  

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The Unprofessional Critic

Lauren Whalen is a freelance writer living in Chicago. She reviews plays for Chicago Theater Beat (http://www.chicagotheaterbeat.com) and talks about movies on The Film Yap (http://www.thefilmyap.com). Lauren's young adult novel is represented by Chalberg & Sussman Literary Agency. Say hi to her at maybeimamazed02(at)gmail(dot)com. (Photo by Greg Inda)

10 thoughts on “Hey There Delilah, or How a Cranky Agnostic Copes With Grief Via a Christian DJ”

  1. So update: I didn’t call Delilah, but after this piece was posted, I did email her the link and thanked her for helping me. I said if I ever called her, I’d request “Picture” by Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow.

    Guess what she played on last night’s show?

    It could totally be a coincidence, but I’m gonna pretend she read my email.

  2. Wow. Just wow. I, personally, have never had to cope with anything of this magnitude, and I give you infinite credit for being able not only to cope, but to move forward and write about it here with such aplomb. I am also not religious, so I will not promise you prayers, but I will say that my thoughts are with you. May the happy memories only make you happy, and the depressing ones be few and far between. Thanks to you for writing this.

  3. I was very pregnant with my older son when my friend made his final choice. I wore a red dress to the funeral, partly because I was short on clothes that still fit, but mostly because even as mad as I was at him I knew he would get a kick out of my very large, very bright gingham dress among the sea of black. I wanted him to see something that might make him smile.

    Peace to you. Thank you for sharing your story.

    1. Brenda, I love that you did that. My friend who planned the memorial instructed those of us who were speaking or singing NOT to dress like we were going to a funeral, because we were celebrating J’s life.

      Besides my fishnets, I wore a dress I’d worn to a wedding, a graduation and a party – so there were happy memories attached and I felt confident in it. It’s black, but it has yellow stripes and flowers and is very pin-up-y. I know J would have liked it.

      Also M’s baby daughter tried to eat my fishnets after the service, which I took as a compliment.

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