Suicide, Scrambled Eggs, and Secrets
In 1991, my boyfriend and I graduated from the University of Notre Dame and moved to New York City; a big move for 21-year-old Catholic kids from the Midwest. Our families were fearful of muggings or shootings; we were fearless and ready to take on the big apple. We lived together on the Upper West Side and I worked at a marketing firm in Chelsea.
In 1992, we got engaged. For years, I had dreamt of singing at my own wedding.
One morning headed to work, I saw an advertisement for voice lessons offered by a piano teacher who lived at the Chelsea Hotel. Living in Manhattan, I associated the Chelsea hotel with musicians, drug use, and all forms of lasciviousness. Yet with zero hesitation about meeting a stranger, I called the number and made an appointment. The voice instructor agreed to help me prepare a wedding solo. To keep my wedding solo a surprise, I didn’t tell anyone about the voice lessons.
On the appointed day, I made my way up the dingy old elevator to the eighth floor. It suddenly dawned on me… “No one knows where I am going. I could be killed. If I die, would it be worth it for a wedding song?” I was too naïve (remember that Midwest thing!) to know that it was ill-advised to visit a total strangers’ apartment without alerting a single soul.
At that first lesson, I met “Vince” who became my new voice coach. He was an insanely short, lean, gay Jewish man with a deep Brooklyn accent. We could not have been more different, however we both shared a love of voice. Vince was well-trained and incredibly gracious, so for a few weeks I left work early on Tuesdays to belt out ‘With You I’m Born Again’ as he accompanied me on his baby grand.
About a month into lessons, Vince called my office in a panic. That morning he had learned that another one of his close friends had died from AIDS. It was the early 90’s, the HIV epidemic was devouring New York. AIDS hadn’t touched my life personally until that very moment. For Vince, it hit too close to home. Vince explained that in reaction to the loss, he had downed too much vodka and taken too much cocaine. He described feeling acutely suicidal and begged on the phone:
Shannon, will you please come to the Chelsea Hotel? I want to toss myself off the fire escape. I need you…
Remember, no one knew I was taking voice lessons in a hotel known for the stabbing death of Nancy Spungen. At that moment, with thoughts of his body splayed on the sidewalk, I overrode the voice of my mother saying “Stay put, bad things happen at that Hotel.” And my fiance’s voice: “ WHAT?! You’re going to help a suicidal voice coach? I didn’t even know you had a voice coach.”
But, I am from the Midwest. While most people would have recommended Vince call a friend or 911, I felt compelled to go to his side. I told my boss I was headed to the Chelsea Hotel. He looked at me quizzically and I raced out the door.
When I arrived, Vince was scared, overcome with grief, and outrageously high, a state of being with which I had zero familiarity. To help him recover, we walked around Chelsea blocks for five hours! We visited a nearby diner (the one in all the posters), drank coffee, and ate enormous plates of scrambled eggs.
The drugs wore off and by late evening he felt safer and grateful. As I hugged him to leave, he said to me “You must never tell anyone that you were here, or about the cocaine, or that I wanted to kill myself.”
Until then I had not told anyone about him, the voice lessons, or the hotel. At that moment, I was overwhelmed by the cocaine and suicidal thoughts. I didn’t want to keep any secrets any longer. With extreme trepidation, my head filled with thoughts of violating a mortal sin if I told a soul, I nodded my head affirmatively and we said our goodbye.
Traveling home by subway, I couldn’t get Vince’s voice out of my thoughts: “You must never tell anyone.” It had been my choice to keep the lessons secret; now it seemed an obligation.
My fiancé worked late into the night, so I knew our apartment would be empty upon arrival. There would be no one there with whom to share this experience. To get to my apartment from the subway, I had to pass our local church where I taught Sunday school. As I passed the rectory, I realized that priests have ecclesiastical privilege. If I told our local priest, he would be obligated to keep it confidential.
Though nearly midnight I knocked at the rectory door. A wave of relief, combined with tears, passed over my cheeks when Father John invited me into the warm sitting room. He listened thoughtfully to the story and said something I have held dear for 20 years.
With a deep Irish brogue, he said “Once someone gives you information, it is yours to keep. It is a gift. You become tender of that gift. You can choose to hold it or you can give it away.” He talked about using judgment to decide when and how to disclose. Without specific direction, he gave me permission to tell my fiancé, my family, or to tell no one.
That night was the last time I ever saw Vince. A few days after that night, Vince called to say he was moving closer to family in Philadelphia.
I didn’t sing at the wedding. It seemed it would have betrayed our secret.
For nearly two decades I told that story to no one, not even my husband and family.
Since then, I have been asked to keep other secrets. Most of those secrets I have kept confidential. Some secrets, for reasons not always clear, I have disclosed. I reflect often on Father John’s words. I no longer feel compelled to guard secrets without meaningful consideration. In some instances, the cost of keeping a secret outweighs benefits to either party. With Vince and my secret, there was no benefit to be gained in blabbing to others. Though I never saw Vince again, I wanted to honor his request. I wanted to honor his grief, pay hommage to his pain, and respect a day that I will never forget.