Mentors can teach hard lessons

I pick up the phone and a voice takes me back, three months before to a sunny day on a lake in northern Idaho. On that day, a group of graduate students and I, the lowly undergraduate, had meandered up winding roads to an A-frame summer house in the woods owned by Jim and his wife Nancy. I had worked in Jim’s biochemistry lab for three summers, and this, the summer before my senior year, was the first time I’d been invited to go water-skiing with the group. I was shy and quiet in the lab, but I absorbed all that was going on around me. I admired Jim and Nancy and their work together, both of them researchers and university professors. I wondered if I would enjoy a life like theirs. I was trying to figure out what to do with my life after college, and biochemistry looked promising. Jim’s energy and curiosity inspired and engaged me, and he and his wife Nancy were generous and kind to each other and others, which encouraged me.

The voice on the phone is my father’s, and as he begins to speak, I see the myself on that day in Jim and Nancy’s boat, the sun reflecting off of the bright blue water. I picture Nancy at the helm laughing as Jim whoops and flies across the water, his silver-blond hair shining in the sun. I like him, I remember thinking. I want to be like him.

On the phone, my father takes a deep breath.

“Melissa,” he says. “It’s Jim. He’s dead. He…He killed himself.”

And I will say “Oh my god no. That’s impossible.” And I will hang up the phone and go looking for answers, and find nothing but questions. I will try to reconcile the happy day on the lake with his suicide three months later. I will come to realize that while I admired Jim from afar, I did not know him. And after a time, I will see that while I liked him, I am not like him.

I will begin to question my own life and choices, and where they might lead me. I will break up with my college boyfriend. I will leave biochemistry and become a writer. I will grow up and marry, and divorce and remarry, and I will have a child who will grow up too. I will lose my father under tragic circumstances. And more than two decades after that summer day and that fateful phone call, I will sit down and write a story — a tribute to a man and a mentor who changed my whole life when he ended his own.

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