I lost a friend on Friday night. He called me She, and I called him Pey. He wasn't just my friend though. Peyton was a friend to many, a Dad to Henry, a son, a brother to Meredith and Maggie, a beloved cousin, Sis Sis' firstborn grandchild, a fraternity brother, and a colleague. He could also be an asshole sometimes, and I loved him dearly.
Peyton entered my life in 6th grade, the year before his stepdad took a coaching position at Delta Academy. We met at a basketball tournament at Delta and exchanged addresses so we could stay in touch. Physical addresses to write each other letters! Imagine my JOY when a letter arrived from Peyton from Camp Eureka where he was attending sleepaway camp that summer. Not much happened in Marks, so to have the bragging rights of having received a letter from the new boy coming to our school in the fall? Well, I may have just peaked right there in middle school.
Peyton and I became fast friends and spent the rest of our teen and college years trying hard to stay out of trouble while always pushing the limits. One weekend, Donna, Charlotte and I decided we wanted to try drinking, so Peyton somehow obtained a four pack of wine coolers for us. In preparation, we ate slices of bread to soak up the alcohol in our stomachs, bought Visine to fend off having red eyes the next morning, wielded ourselves with minty gum, and drove out to Vance Lake so no one could find us. To our surprise, we didn't feel much of anything after each having drunk one and a third wine coolers, but the next morning, my Daddy sure said, "I know you drank wine coolers with your friends last night, and y'all are not old enough to be doing that. I don't want to hear about you doing that ever again." Stunned, I asked Daddy how he knew, and he told me I couldn't get away with doing anything in Marks, MS, without the whole town knowing about it. I think I vowed right then and there to get the hell out of Marks as soon as I could. Ha!
Peyton and I attended youth camp, went on miserable choir bus tours, performed with the Delta Singers and toured our future college, Ole Miss, together. Sometimes we even had little crushes on each other. Peyton was my first kiss. No offense towards Peyton, but the only thing I remember about it was hearing Brian Coker yell afterwards, "I kiss my Grandma harder than that!" Why Brian was there to witness our first kiss, I do not even know, but I am sure at least one of us was wearing braces at the time so there was risk involved! Other times we were setting each other up with our friends.
Peyton and I could fight like siblings, too. One fall after graduation, I flew in from D.C. for an Ole Miss football game weekend in Oxford. I was staying with some sorority sisters at their apartment, and Peyton came over to see me. I took one look at him and said, "I thought you quit dipping." He said he had. I then asked, "Well, why are you carrying around a can of Skoal in your sock then?" He got so mad at me he stormed out of the house and didn't speak to me for the rest of the weekend but shoving a can of Skoal down your sock is a terrible hiding spot, right?
Our freshman year of college, Peyton and I were each other's go-to dates to parties and football games as our respective significant others weren't at school with us. I went with Peyton to the Sigma Nu Halloween party. He was Robert Palmer, and I was a Robert Palmer girl. Tri Delt grab-a-date? Peyton always. We noodle danced to Widespread cover bands around the pool at the Sigma Nu house and shotgunned beers on Highway 6 while doing the Pete's challenge. In the wee hours of the morning, we became lifetime members of the Elvis fan club at Graceland Too in Holly Springs. Peyton worked at Star Package on Jackson Ave, and I worked directly across the street at Sir Speedy. On Saturdays we would stare out the windows at each other while talking on the phone, always hanging up without saying goodbye when a customer pulled up at either place. We would take turns ordering lunch for each other, because alone, neither of us could hit the minimum required to have food delivered.
We spent hours riding around Quitman County or out to Sardis Lake talking about life or singing at the top of our lungs. Peyton was a beautiful tenor, and I, a decent alto. I was a terrible soprano, but I would quickly take the high notes if the song we were harmonizing to dictated it. I was Kate Pierson, Amy Ray and Emily Sailers; he was Michael Stipe and Iggy Pop. Our favorite duet was "And When She Danced," from the Stealing Home soundtrack. Oh, and Stealing Home! We knew every line to that movie and would quote it back and forth to each other. "You had sex with my prom date. You. Had. Sex. With. My. Prom date!" "She was never your prom date, App." "Ya, not after you had sex with her." And to us, Val Kilmer was not Goose on Top Gun; he was only Jim Morrison in The Doors.
We were obsessed with The Best of Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live. We would rent the VHS tape from that janky video store by the Quitman County Courthouse. A couple of years ago, I texted Peyton a picture of Paul McCartney from Austin City Limits Music Festival along with, "Hey, Paul, let's get rid of Clarence and steal all of his great ideas." He texted back he almost wrecked his car laughing from the Eddie reference. The following year I texted him, "Seeing Guns N' Roses at ACL RFN. Axl is so f*cking fat. Slash and Duff are carrying them." He said he missed me more than I knew and made me promise to take him with me the following year.
So, on Saturday afternoon, when I received a text from Charlotte asking if I had heard the news out of Mississippi and remembered I had a missed call from Missy earlier in the day, I immediately called home. It was a kick in the teeth to learn Peyton was dead, having taken his own life the night before. I was shocked, and I was angry. How could he have done such a thing to all of us? Was he not thinking about what his selfish action would do to his family, his friends?
Coincidentally, Clete and I were about to receive two of Peyton's fraternity brothers and their wives for pre-dinner cocktails at our house. I immediately relayed the news, and we quickly tried to process it and pull ourselves together as to not ruin the fun evening we had planned together, but none of us could escape the news. Much later that night as I did a deep dive of our text exchanges and tried analyzing his most recent posts on Facebook and Instagram, my anger quickly turned to guilt. What had I missed? He was quoting "Me and My Bobby McGee." What signs had I missed? He had remembered my birthday every single year, and I had never once remembered his. Who's the asshole now?
By the next morning, I was distraught and devastated by the thought Peyton had clearly been in so much pain, suffering from such mental anguish, this path felt like the best way out of his suffering. I realized I didn't know all that I didn't even know about him. He didn't deserve my anger and judgment; Peyton deserved my compassion, love and forgiveness. I fervently prayed for him to now be at peace.
I spent that day digging through boxes of old photos and trying hard to sit with the discomfort of it all. I found myself compelled to write about my friendship with Peyton to honor him and to help me better process his death, but I couldn't just sugarcoat the ending or skip over the fact he had taken his own life, but is that not exactly what society has taught us to do? Especially in our Southern culture? Suicide is an incredibly icky topic, and who am I to try to broach that subject? Plus, it's so private and not my story to tell. Yet I kept feeling drawn to do so and oddly enough, like I was receiving messages from Peyton that he wanted me to use my voice in this way. As I re-read his text messages, he shared with me his stepmother had found such great comfort reading my blog about my family after his father had died. He wrote, "Thank you for always managing to get the words right." Clete and I encountered this odd-looking, little cardinal with this Brian Bozworth-y tuft of hair standing up on its head, and I continued to ignore the signs, but after Anthony Bourdain and Iggy Pop showed up in my Facebook newsfeed together, I picked up the phone and called his family. They not only encouraged me to write this, they graciously granted me the freedom to write about Peyton's life and death as I had experienced it, to demystify it, to say it out loud, because Peyton had, after all, taken his own life, and that fact had further complicated their grief.
Admittedly, I am still struggling to make sense of his death, but I do know this much is true: the HOW or WHY Peyton did it, doesn't matter, just like knowing HOW or WHY my late husband got stage IV lung cancer at age 31, doesn't matter. Knowing the how and the why does not bring solace with it. The true peace that surpasses all understanding can only be provided through our faith in the Lord, through our ability to be present and feel the grace that is surrounding us now, to be grateful we had Peyton in our lives, through letting our anger go and most importantly and maybe the most difficult, forgiving him for making the choice to go Home by another way.
Mental illness, whether chronic or acute, is real and must be recognized and tended to just like physical illnesses such as heart disease or diabetes should. It is no different, and we must not only learn to recognize it in ourselves and in others, but to also speak up about it and to seek professional help when needed. So many of life's moments are precious and beautiful, but life can also be really hard sometimes and require professional help or medication to help us better navigate our thoughts and feelings. We call it "the head and the heart doctor" in our house, and I'm going to see mine next week.
I will miss my beloved friend Peyton so very much, but I give thanks for his great life, all the laughter and joy he brought to mine, his twinkly eyes and sly grin, and the chance to quote Katie Chandler from Stealing Home to him one last time.
"See, that's all I want to do Billy Boy. I want to leap off this pier and fly high in the air, hang with the wind and drift with the clouds, and at night, with the Moon full and the sea wild, I meet my lover high on a cliff and we'd swoop down into the ocean and swim all the way, touch the bottom, up through the dark water and break the surface. Then we'd fly to Jamaica for pina coladas. God, I wish I could do that."
Rest easy, my friend.
In life’s most joyful moments and in the darkest of hours and seemingly impossible circumstances, there is grace. Abundant grace always abounds if you allow yourself to see it. This I know, and these are my lessons in grace.
Read about what came before Sweetness Follows at TeamKennett.com.