When Jared Stopped Smiling

By: Cindy Rich

I was standing in my grandpa's kitchen when my world changed.

I'd stopped by his house for dinner after I got off work at NBC, where I was a desk assistant. While there, I called my friend Brad to ask about what was going on that evening, but my boyfriend, Chris, picked up the phone.

Chris was supposed to be working until midnight. He explained that he'd come home sick. After six years of dating, I knew he wasn't telling the truth.

"What's wrong?" I asked. "You don't sound sick."

He asked me to meet him at my parents' house in Rockville, where I lived.

"Did something happen to my parents?"

No, they were fine. He just wanted me home.

I called my mom, who sounded down. They all knew something I didn't.

"Just come home," she said.

"Stop!" I said after I heard whispering in the background and realized my

Dad was in on this, too. "Who is it? Who's sick?" Silence. "Tell me!"

"It's Jared. He . . ."

"Oh, my God," I said. "He killed himself."

I started pacing between the doorway and the sink--opening and slamming cabinets, trying to wake myself up. I didn't feel any tears. This had to be a nightmare.

"Cindy, don't get in your car," my mom said. "Dad is coming to get you. The guys are meeting here soon."

I'D BEEN ONE OF THE GUYS FOR YEARS--SINCE THE FALL OF 1993, my senior year at Bethesda's Walter Johnson High School, when I started dating Chris. He went to Albert Einstein High in Kensington, and with him came Jared, Brad, Eddie, Russ, and Tom.

Jared had grown up with Brad, Russ, and Tom in Kensington--or K-Town, as they called it. Even though he technically lived in Silver Spring, Jared was an honorary member of the K-Town crew. The guys shared a love of sports, video games, and bathroom humor.

Jared lit up a room with his soft brown eyes, bushy eyebrows, and movie-star smile. All of that on top of a six-foot, muscular body. My friends called him "a hottie." He looked as good in basketball shorts and a paint-splattered T-shirt as he did in his favorite outfit--blue jeans with a button-down shirt and sandals.

Jared was voted best-looking in Einstein's class of 1994. A secret admirer once left roses at his doorstep.

Besides Chris, Jared was the only one who always held the door for me or insisted I get the front seat. He treated every woman that way.

I'D SHOW UP AT CHRIS'S HOUSE AFTER SCHOOL TOfind the guys eating his mom's groceries and wrestling with his little brothers.

A few worked the same summer jobs--bagging groceries at Snider's in Silver Spring, selling concessions at the White Flint Mall movie theater. They never got sick of one another.

I fell in love with the way Chris made me take life less seriously. The way he told dumb knock-knock jokes and wrote funny poetry just because he was thinking of me.

Chris had gotten to know Jared in 11th grade, when they warmed the bench for Einstein's varsity basketball team. They spent most games critiquing girls in the bleachers.

Brad, the glue of the group, was voted best personality. He organized the senior pranks and dragged Jared along.

Russ liked to stir things up, starting debates about everything from basketball statistics to foreign policy. He was carefree and never wanted to commit to much. He and Jared led Einstein's varsity volleyball team.

Tom was Mr. Smooth, impossible to be mad at. He greeted the guys with a handshake even if he'd seen them the day before. I usually got a half handshake, half hug.

Eddie, voted best dressed, was big on loyalty. It didn't matter what they were doing--skipping class, seeing a movie, lifting weights--all six had to be there. He talked openly about how much he appreciated his "boys."

"You guys are the best," Eddie would say.

THE GUYS HAD ISSUES WITH ME EARLY ON, AND PART OF ME understood--I'd moved in on their territory. I might warp Chris into liking date nights with me better than Nintendo Street Fighter tournaments, basketball under the lights at KenGar Park, or sneaking backpacks of Beast Light into someone's basement.

Senior year was supposed to be about the boys--so they started to treat me like one. I kind of liked it.

Because I went to school ten minutes away at Walter Johnson, the guys took advantage of connections. A new school meant new women. By winter our groups were mingling, and the guys included me and my friends in their plans--Blockbuster nights, Orioles games, barbecues, anything that wasn't a guys' night out. When one of them called my house looking for Chris, I chatted with him instead.

Jared took a little longer to loosen up toward me. Despite being one of the most popular guys at Einstein, he'd never had a serious girlfriend.

When the guys went to Bethany Beach for spring break senior year, I stayed with a friend a few blocks away. Chris came to visit me and returned to find Jared fuming. This was the time for high-school buddies to play drinking games, toss the football, swim in the ocean--not walk on the beach with a girlfriend.

Everything changed a few months later, when Jared got into his own serious relationship. Suddenly it was fine to be "whipped," as the guys put it.

The summer after our senior year, the group loaded into a couple of minivans and took an eight-hour road trip to Woodstock '94. In exchange for free admission, we sold Snapple and hot dogs. We slept in rain-soaked tents among mobs of music fans, waded through mud that felt like quicksand, and couldn't shower for four days. That week, I realized I'd be friends with these guys forever.

WHEN MY DAD SHOWED UP AT MY GRANDPA'S, I WAS STILL PACing. He tried to hug me, but I wasn't accepting condolences for something that hadn't happened.

"Mom and I will get you through this," he said as we got into his car.

"Get me through what?" I said. "Stop acting like Jared is dead. I don't understand why I couldn't just drive home. I'm fine." I turned up the radio.

I walked into my parents' house feeling like I might fall over. Most of the guys were there, but not Jared. My mom had the family room lit with candles and the fireplace roaring. There were Ledo pizzas and sodas on the coffee table.

Brad sat on the hallway floor making phone calls: "No, I'm not kidding." He had to say it over and over. He volunteered to call Eddie, who had moved to Ohio for college. I hated the thought of Eddie's dealing with the news alone.

I called my friends from Walter Johnson. "You know how Jared could get really down sometimes, right?" I started. "Well, something happened. . . ."

The guys were speechless, except for the emotional outburst when the doorbell rang and we had to tell somebody new. I had always been the drama queen who got upset during arguments and sad movies. This time the guys were crying and I wasn't.

We didn't talk about it that night, but we were thinking the same thing: We'd known this could happen and hadn't stopped it.

IT'S HARD TO FEEL SORRY FOR GUYS LIKE JARED JORGENSEN--guys who turn heads when they walk by.

Jared had grown up in a cozy, kid-friendly neighborhood, his best friends a bike ride away. He was active in his church youth group and the Boy Scouts. He was a competitive athlete as early as elementary school; by high school, he'd accumulated a bedroomful of basketball and soccer trophies. He got angry when he missed an easy hoop or a spike, but he was still fun to compete with.

He spent a summer teaching at Landon Grand Slam tennis camp, even though he'd had only a few tennis lessons.

He breezed through high-school honors classes. "I dogged him every day not to study, but he always did," says Russ. Jared played first trombone in the jazz band.

The stupidest things made him laugh. Chris videotaped Jared doing toe touches and yoga stretches in the median of the road near Oakland Terrace, his elementary school.

"Only Jared would come up with something that goofy," Chris says. "He just liked making other people laugh."

JARED HAD A SENSITIVE SIDE THAT HE DIDN'T MIND SHOWING. He invited his middle-school DARE officer--a Montgomery County cop who'd spoken to his eighth-grade class about drugs--to his high-school graduation. The officer said lots of kids promised to keep in touch; Jared did.

When a college girlfriend spent a semester in Nicaragua, as a birthday gift to her Jared donated chickens to a poor Nicaraguan woman with whom she'd become close.

Whether I was venting about an exam or looking for a male perspective on a problem with Chris, Jared focused on my words and asked follow-up questions.

He was always willing to listen to me or Chris talk about our relationship. He didn't take sides, but he usually ended up being very honest with one of us. If he thought I was overreacting, he'd tell me. If he thought I had a good point, he'd tell Chris.

"Face the music, buddy," he'd say. "She's right."

Jared had loving parents who supported every choice he made, a brother who doubled as his best friend, half-siblings and a nephew who adored him, and a tight group of friends.

Things weren't so clear-cut on the inside. He found the good in our situations but had trouble finding the good in his own.

COLLEGE TESTED MY FRIENDSHIP WITH THE GUYS. WE STAYED IN touch via e-mail and spent holiday weekends and summer breaks together, but life was never as simple as it had been in high school.

Jared and Brad went to Virginia Tech, where they lived together for four years. I went to school three hours from there at the University of Virginia, so we took road trips to see each other a few times a semester. Brad and Jared became my friends, not just friends of my boyfriend.

We went to bars on the Corner in Charlottesville and talked about relationships, classes, and that age-old question: What will I do when I get out of college? Sometimes we'd talk about the rivalry between our schools.

We played tennis and watched stupid movies. By the time I got out of college, I'd heard the guys quote the Chris Farley and David Spade movie Tommy Boy enough times to recite it myself. Jared's favorite line was "Richard, who's your favorite Little Rascal?" Must be a guy thing.

JARED LEFT FOR VIRGINIA TECH A ROMANTIC. HE WAS DETERmined to hold on to the relationship with his high-school sweetheart, who had another year left at Einstein, but he had problems adjusting. He'd call me complaining about how much he missed her and wanted to be home. He didn't try to make friends in his freshman dorm--his life was back in Washington.

He started to show signs of depression after their breakup during his sophomore year. I had dealt with mild depression in high school, and Jared's symptoms were all too familiar. He had trouble getting up for morning classes. He stayed in on Friday and Saturday nights. He ate dinner alone and watched a lot of television. He could go days without speaking to Brad. Jared would say it was just bad moods.

When he still sounded down a few months after the breakup, I called and told him I thought he was depressed. I said he shouldn't shrug it off because he was embarrassed. I explained what my parents had told me--depression is like having a broken leg or pneumonia; you treat it and it gets better.

I encouraged him to talk to his family and maybe a doctor. Jared insisted it wasn't a chemical problem because he had a reason--the breakup--for feeling this way. I said it didn't matter which came first--he was suffering, and he had to do something. He promised to talk to his brother Greg about it. I didn't want to push any further.

I kept close tabs on him--e-mailing between classes and calling when I didn't get a quick reply. He appreciated my concern but insisted I was worrying too much.

"Really, I'm fine," he'd say.

From the outside it looked that way. He kept his grades up, became an economics tutor, went on a few dates, and joined the German Club, a prestigious service fraternity. Volleyball was the perfect distraction. He made Virginia Tech's club team as a freshman and was named to the Southern All-Conference Team in 1998.

When Chris started having problems at school in North Carolina, Jared offered him advice on colleges he could transfer to and summer jobs that might inspire him. Jared even tried to persuade Chris to come live with him and Brad in Blacksburg.

TOWARD THE END OF JARED'S SOPHOMORE YEAR, GREG SUGGESTed he try St. John's wort, an over-the-counter herbal remedy for mild depression. Jared agreed. He still hadn't seen a doctor, because he thought he'd figured things out. He diagnosed himself with seasonal affective disorder--a condition caused by reduced sunlight during fall and winter, resulting in symptoms of depression. It made sense to Jared because he'd always hated Washington's winters. And Blacksburg was no different.

He said he'd take the pill during the winter, when he felt the worst. He'd play more tennis and basketball and spend more time at his family's condo in Bethany. He said he wanted all of us to get a place together in Southern California after college. "We'll have our own version of The Real World," he said. He could handle this on his own.

The depression surfaced in other areas. He started to over-analyze term papers and make class projects harder than they had to be. Everything needed to be perfect.

He considered transferring to St. Mary's College, in southern Maryland, where Greg went, thinking he might be happier at a small school closer to home. He changed his mind at the last minute.

"There was always one major stressor in his life," Eddie remembers. "Whenever he was down, he tried to blame it on someone or something. It could never just be depression."

AROUND JUNIOR YEAR IN COLLEGE, JARED STARTED CALLING ME Momma, a nickname I found endearing.

I played a motherly role with all of the guys--reminding them about plans and forcing them to get organized. It wasn't okay to say we might go to the beach that May--I needed dates. I took the car keys at parties and tried to break up friendly fights that looked too unfriendly.

Occasionally my perspective came in handy. I gave them advice about Valentine's Day gifts or how to ask out a woman they knew only from class.

Chris and I talked a lot about Jared's depression. He gave me advice on how to approach Jared without making him feel like a burden.

"Nobody likes to hear that they seem really sad," Chris said. "Especially a guy."

Friends at school sometimes wondered if my relationship with Jared went beyond friendship. That subject never came up with Chris--he knew I loved Jared as a friend. So did he.

The summer before his senior year, Jared asked Chris and me to drive down to Virginia Tech to meet a woman he'd started dating. We didn't hesitate--seeing Jared excited was all we needed. We spent the weekend cooking out, playing board games, and chasing her golden retriever around the backyard. Jared was giddy.

His girlfriend shared his passion for the outdoors--hiking, camping, the water--and rekindled his interest in helping the less fortunate. He began to think about a career in economic development for Third World countries. He joined Amnesty International and looked into nonprofit opportunities for after college.

BUT HE'D NEVER DEALT WITH THE DEPRESSION. HE WOULD BLOW up over a minor argument with his girlfriend or get angry at himself for getting a grade lower than he expected.

One morning, he called home sobbing and told his parents that he didn't know why he felt so sad.

This was one of the few times Jared let his guard down--he usually put on an act to prevent his family from worrying. Since freshman year, his parents had called him several times a week and visited Blacksburg often. Jared would say he was fine, and his tone of voice made it seem that way.

But this time was different. Jared's parents insisted he go to Virginia Tech's health center, and they made arrangements to be in Blacksburg the next day. They'd bring him home if they had to--whatever it took.

Jared fended them off. He agreed to see a school psychologist but stopped after about a month. He'd had enough therapy. He convinced his parents and his girlfriend he was okay. He even convinced the therapist, who called to check on him when he stopped making appointments.

By his last semester of college, Jared and his girlfriend were inseparable. He stopped calling me as much, but I didn't mind. I felt better knowing that someone was there to comfort him, someone who could see through his "I'm okays."

In May 1998, Jared graduated with a double major in political science and economics.

"He'd had such a rough time, but he got through it," Greg says. "My parents and I were so happy that day."

JARED WENT HOME TO SILVER SPRING AND PLANNED A TRIP TO Europe with his girlfriend.

Three months after graduation, he took his first postcollege job as a research assistant with the International City/County Management Association in Northeast DC. He liked some of the responsibilities--editing Web-site documents and doing research for the USAID-funded Cities International newsletter--but he was unhappy with the low pay and grunt work.

I reminded Jared that grunt work was part of climbing the ladder, that we all had to do it. He worried he'd made the wrong career choice. His parents never minded, but Jared didn't want to depend on them for money.

His moods were as unpredictable as they'd been in college. He would back out of dinner plans at the last minute or just not show up. We'd be relaxing to Dave Matthews and talking about pains of the working world and he'd go into another room to lie down.

"I'm just tired" was his excuse.

As a group, we talked about Jared's depression only a few times. Not all of the guys knew as much as I did.

"It was just like 'Oh, that's Jared,' " says Russ.

WHENEVER WE ALL MADE PLANS TO GET TOGETHER, CHRIS AND I called Jared first. The good days were worth it. He hadn't lost his sense of humor. His jokes were like those of most twentysomething guys when they aren't around women--I didn't count--but I'd laugh. In the same evening, Jared could spark a conversation about the economic conditions in South America or Clinton's politics--things we didn't talk about on our own.

I went all out when Jared came over. I blended frozen margaritas and bought his favorite snacks like Tostitos, salsa, and Twizzlers. Occasionally I cooked. He thanked me more than once in an evening.

I still replay our heart-to-hearts, especially the ones I'd like to rewrite.

In August 1999, we took a weekend road trip to his family's cabin in Martinsburg, West Virginia. It was me and the guys, but I drove alone with Jared and his golden retriever, Cedar. He'd broken up with his girlfriend a few months earlier. It was a mutual decision, but I figured Jared was still reeling. This was my chance to find out how he was feeling.

He said he'd tried an antidepressant and talked to a couple of psychiatrists since the breakup. He couldn't find the right fit, so he stopped. I told him medicines don't work instantly and you don't always click with a doctor on the first visit. He was expecting too much too soon.

"I don't need that stuff," he said.

I don't know where it came from, but with Fleetwood Mac's "Rhiannon" playing on the stereo--it's funny what you remember--I asked him if he'd ever thought about killing himself. He glared at me with a clenched jaw and insulted eyes. At the time, that look felt good.

Sometimes we believe what we want to be true.

WHEN WE GOT BACK FROM WEST VIRGINIA, JARED MOVED INTO A one-bedroom apartment in Falls Church to be closer to his new job as a Web-site developer for Soza & Company, a consulting firm. He had decided he could make more money doing that kind of work and hoped to donate to charitable causes later in life. He wasn't abandoning his passion, just putting it on hold.

The guys wanted to get a house together in Bethesda, but they decided against it because they worked in different places.

"He started to live this solitary life--go to work and come home to nobody," Russ remembers.

Jared got bored with his job and left in December 1999 for a Web job with the Motley Fool, a finance company in Alexandria. There he'd get to combine his interests in financial management--which he'd been learning from his dad--and computer programming. He worked long hours in a cubicle, but he loved the perks--the on-site pool tables and video games.

"This place is so relaxed," he said. He started going to Friday happy hours with coworkers. I decided to lay off a little bit.

MY GROUP WAS NEVER INTO RITZY PARTIES OR THE club scene, so we decided to ring in the year 2000 at home with a few friends. Jared said he'd be there.

I found out at the last minute that I had to work at NBC that night. I got back around 12:30 AM to find Jared sitting alone at the edge of the couch staring at the muted television. He was wearing an oversize sombrero I'd gotten from a birthday dinner at Chevy's restaurant. I sat down next to him and asked what was wrong.

"Nothing," he said. "How was work?"

Typical Jared--turning the conversation back to me. I pushed a bit harder, but he didn't feel like talking. He walked upstairs and went to sleep.

Jared woke up in a good mood. He was throwing Christmas candy at Brad and talking about getting a dog for his apartment, since Cedar lived with his parents. He asked if Chris and I wanted to see a movie that night, but we couldn't.

Jared e-mailed me two days later to see if Chris and I could meet him and his coworkers in Old Town to watch Virginia Tech play in the Sugar Bowl. I was happy to see him psyched about the game, but we had made plans with my family.

"No big deal," he said. "I'll talk to you later."

The same week, he started ignoring most of my e-mails and all of my phone calls. This wasn't the first time--he'd lost contact for a couple of weeks when he had a girlfriend--but this time he didn't return consecutive messages. He replied to a few e-mails with only a sentence: "Sorry, just real busy" or "Kinda down." So I kept calling.

I started to worry but explained it away. Maybe he just needed a break from us. I knew work was keeping him busy and he'd made some new friends. Greg had told me a cousin was coming to town from Denmark, so Jared would be spending time sightseeing. I figured he'd start to miss us eventually and he'd call.

One night in late January, Chris and I were out at Hard Times Cafe with Brad and a friend from Virginia Tech, who also knew Jared. This friend had battled depression for years and had been suicidal.

"Has anyone gone to Jared's place?" he asked us. "Someone needs to check on him."

I was embarrassed to say we hadn't. Chris and I decided we'd show up that Saturday at Jared's apartment without calling. If he wanted to get rid of us, he could do it face to face.

We were too late. That Thursday it happened.

WE WEREN'T THE ONLY ONES with that plan. Jared's brother, Greg, called him that Thursday evening to ask if he could crash in Falls Church after a late night at the office. He was planning to confront Jared about the depression. Just a week before, Greg had talked to Jared about getting a place in DC with him and his wife.

Jared told Greg to come over, but Greg arrived to an unlocked door and an empty apartment. There was a half-eaten microwave meal on his bed, which Greg thought was a good sign. Maybe Jared had decided to go out with the gang for a night and forgot to call.

Jared had left the door unlocked for Greg, gotten in his car, and driven to a mountaintop in Luray. He stopped 100 yards short of the top in the middle of a rocky road. He had Sting's The Soul Cages in his CD player. He parked the car, put a gun to his head, and pulled the trigger.

Another driver pulled up behind Jared's car and notified police. A Virginia state trooper drove to Silver Spring and knocked on Jared's parents' door the next morning.

We're told Jared had bought the gun in Virginia a few weeks earlier.

AFTER JARED DIED, WE ALL WATCHED The Big Chill, a favorite among the guys. Watching that story of a group of college pals reuniting for the funeral of a friend who'd committed suicide, we felt like we'd crawled into the television.

Brad, Chris, and Tom's Gaithersburg townhouse became our sanctuary. We had four days until the funeral. Parents showed up with sandwich platters and desserts. We drank Bass ale and made toasts. It wasn't "cheers," it was "skoal!" because Jared had always been proud of his Danish heritage. Each day we went to see Jared's parents. Each time they hugged us and told us how much we had meant to their son.

That weekend we sifted through photos to make a collage for the wake. For years I'd carried a camera everywhere. I had pictures from every stage of our friendship--from sumo wrestling and karaoke at Einstein's senior-prom breakfast to weekends in Charlottesville and the guys belly-flopping into the lake at the cabin. I couldn't find a picture where Jared wasn't smiling.

Old friends stopped by and reminisced about how Jared always had some goo in his hair and rolled his pants legs so tight in junior high that they probably hurt. He'd always been a trendsetter.

Someone passed around a notebook to start an e-mail list. Nobody wanted to leave. When we went to sleep those first few nights, the guys said to one another, "I love you"--something I'd never heard them say.

I couldn't cry for three days, and it felt strange that everyone else could. The night before the funeral, Russ tried to make it real for me. He'd seen the blood on the car seat and the shattered window.

"He's gone, Cindy," he said. I remember Russ yelling and shaking me. I wanted to smack him, but I knew he meant well. "Jared is dead," he said. "I saw it."

Earlier that day, he, Chris, and Brad had driven to Luray to deal with Jared's Honda. They wouldn't let his brother or father go through that.

When Chris got back, he collapsed into a closet by the front door. He grabbed the rod where the coats hung and sobbed.

"I grew up in a matter of hours," he said later.

ON FEBRUARY 8, 2000, COLLINS FUNERal Home in Silver Spring was standing room only. The reverend opened the service with a request--that we all leave our guilt at the door.

Easy for you to say, I thought.

Brad read a letter we'd written to Jared the night before:

"Dear Jared, we are not mad at you, for anything. . . . Please know that wherever you are, we are thinking only good thoughts. Remember all those Whac-a-Mole challenges during Beach Week? Remember roughhousing with Cedar around your mom's valuable antiques? . . . We know your ultimate concern right now is the well-being of your family. Leave that to us."

The guys insisted on the ending:

"You have but one goal right now, and one goal only, Jared--find Chris Farley! Do whatever you have to--bribe Saint Peter, whatever it takes. Figure out Farley's hangouts. The only person that could rival your comedic genius is Tommy Boy himself."

Greg stood up and acknowledged the stigma against mental illness. He asked anyone who needed help to get it.

I don't think I knew the meaning of the word "nightmare" until I watched the guys carry Jared's casket up the hill to his gravesite. I knew they'd always carry each other, but never this way. Chris could barely take his eyes off the ground. I'd never seen him look so pale and helpless. I wanted to comfort him, but I couldn't even comfort myself.

My mother told me that Mrs. Jorgensen said Jared had thought of me like a sister. I finally broke down in my mom's arms.

JARED DIDN'T LEAVE A NOTE, SO WHEN I went back to work that week I obsessively checked my Yahoo account. Someone had told me about timed e-mail messages, which can be delayed to arrive at a specified time. Jared was computer-savvy enough to know how to do that. It gave me a glimmer of hope that I'd hear something. The message never came.

I don't think Jared intended to kill himself that night--maybe soon, but not that night. I think the phone call from Greg caught him off guard. I think he got scared that their conversation might change his mind or that one more night hanging out with his older brother would remind him what makes life worth living.

Greg went through Jared's computer hard drive a few weeks after he died. In his final days, Jared had gone to some search engines and typed in "How to commit suicide?" He'd also looked at guitars for sale on eBay.

JARED'S DEATH STARTED TO SINK IN WHENwe celebrated what would have been his 24th birthday in July 2000. I drove up to Greg's house on Chesapeake Beach and saw guests playing football and walking their dogs. From the outside this seemed like any other of our get-togethers. When I walked inside, a photo of Jared caught my eye.

In a momentary lapse of memory, I looked around for him. Then I noticed a small table off to the side, where a single candle burned. I picked up a copy of a letter his parents had written to all of the guests. A poem at the top read,

When I leave you, don't weep for me.

Pass the wine around and remember

how my laughing pleased you. . . .

It hit me hard. The birthday boy wasn't coming.

Jared's parents asked us to walk down to the bay so they could celebrate Jared's life in one of his favorite places. He had gone sailing with his dad and Greg whenever they had a free weekend. He'd pack up the car on a whim and take Cedar to Bethany in 40-degree weather. He'd set up tubing trips to Harpers Ferry. As wrong as it felt to be saying goodbye to Jared, it felt right to be standing in the sand feeling the cold bay water splash my feet.

His parents passed around a basket of pink and white rose petals and thanked us for being there. As I tossed the petals into the Chesapeake, I apologized to Jared for missing the signs. I wished him a happy birthday.

There were lessons in life we knew we'd have to learn, but this wasn't one of them. Walking back to the house, arm in arm with Chris and Russ, I felt relieved to feel what I had avoided for so long.

A month later, Greg, his wife, Marie, and Jared's former girlfriend joined us on a vacation to Skaneateles, New York. We spent five days lying out in the sun, water-skiing, and tubing. We spent the evenings on the dock reminiscing and listening to everything from '80s rap to Dire Straits. We even danced.

Greg's laughter told us it was okay to have fun again. Still, I couldn't help but think that if we'd taken that trip a year earlier, Jared might have chosen life. That he would have liked nothing more than to see his best friends and his big brother acting like idiots in the summer at the lake.

SINCE THEN, WE'VE CELEBRATED THE little things--birthdays, promotions, anniversaries--like they're huge. Part of it stems from that live-for-the-moment feeling you get when someone dies. Most of it is an excuse to check up on one another. We see Greg and Marie all the time--for barbecues, movies, bonfires at Chesapeake Beach--but we don't talk much about Jared. We don't have to.

Soon after Jared died, the Jorgensens sent Chris a card with a check enclosed. The money had been Jared's, and they wanted Chris to use it toward school. Greg set up Jared's computer in Chris's room.

Chris had struggled in college but was back on track, taking classes at Montgomery College. In the note, the Jorgensens wrote that Jared knew Chris would live up to his potential when he found the right path.

The semester Jared died, Chris threw himself into his classes. He got a 4.0 GPA and was accepted to the University of Maryland.

"Jared's still a silent inspiration," he says.

He's just graduated and will become a history teacher, possibly at Einstein High School.

WE ALL FEEL THE GUILT DIFFER-ently. I was Jared's confidante, but I missed the most obvious sign--the total loss of contact at the end.

Brad feels guilty for not knowing how bad the depression was back in college. I keep telling Brad he's lucky: A few weeks before Jared died, Brad mailed him a card, not for any special reason. "Just want you to know that no matter what happens over time, I've always cherished your friendship," he wrote. "You're my 'dawg.' " The open envelope was found on Jared's dresser after he died.

Russ feels bad about their last conversation. They hadn't spoken much since a beach trip we'd taken Memorial Day weekend 1999. He and Jared argued over who was a better driver--something dumb that you forget about the next day. This time they hadn't made up.

"I figured if he was annoying me, then I should just stay away for a while," Russ remembers. "Then we'd just start over like nothing happened. That kind of backfired on me."

None of us parts on bad terms anymore.

YOU DON'T REALLY SURVIVE A LOVED one's suicide--you go on, but you're different. At least I am.

I long for the past because I want to change it. I dwell on mistakes I made--like not calling Jared's parents because I didn't want to seem paranoid. And not pushing Jared for an answer when I asked if he'd had suicidal thoughts. He never said no that day.

I regret the conversations that never happened--like that New Year's Eve 1999, when I didn't follow Jared upstairs.

Besides Greg, none of the guys ever went to therapy, so some of the pain is still raw.

"You never know who you might set off by bringing it up--who might leave the room upset," Chris says.

We considered group counseling but never pursued it. We talk about Jared when it feels right. It might not be the right way to grieve, but it's our way.

THREE YEARS LATER, I STILL AGONIZE over the fact that Jared died because he wanted to--and how a part of me knew that. Over how I waited too long to step in. Over how I was able to finish my mom's sentence on the phone that night in February just by hearing her say, "It's Jared."

If Chris and I had knocked on Jared's door the night we discussed it--instead of just planning to do it that upcoming Saturday--he might be alive. Maybe Jared would have broken down and told us about his plan. Maybe Chris or I would have seen the gun.

I'm not sure the "what ifs" ever go away.

I picture the gun going off and want to scream at Jared for not telling me how bad it was and for not saying goodbye. Then I remind myself that if Jared had died of cancer, I wouldn't blame him. Although he couldn't see it that way, this was a disease.

Therapy helps. It's the only time I can talk about the guilt without feeling guilty. There are days when my mind gets trapped in thoughts of Jared. I visualize him walking toward me laughing, saying "Hey, Momma," and putting his arm around me.

One morning last winter, I watched a 50th-anniversary celebration on the Today show. Producers played a clip reel of shots from past shows, and I was so sure I'd seen a shot of Jared spinning a volleyball that I asked a friend from NBC to track down the tape. Maybe they'd sent a camera crew to one of his games at Virginia Tech. She checked, and it wasn't him.

WE HAVE OUR SHRINES. BRAD HAS a Danish flag and Jared's Virginia Tech hat on his wall next to a photo of him. I've got a framed photo collage hanging next to my bedroom window. Tom, a graphic artist, superimposed a high-school graduation photo over the lyrics to a Boyz II Men song, "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye." He gave it to Eddie to take back to Ohio after the funeral. It's still the first thing you notice in Eddie's room.

"That's Jared," Eddie tells people who see it. "One of my boys."

Tom was the first of our group to get married. It was a year and a half after Jared died, the first time since then that we had something significant to celebrate. Brad, the best man, waited until the morning of the wedding to write his toast. He'd known Tom since fourth grade. Worst case, he'd ad-lib.

". . . And on this special day," he said, no notes in sight, "we remember those that couldn't be here today--relatives, friends, and even best friends."

I raised my Champagne glass and realized that the happy occasions would be the hardest. Jared was missing the good stuff.

The next wedding Jared missed was Chris's and mine this fall. He wasn't there to help Chris pick out the tuxedos, to plan the bachelor weekend at Deep Creek Lake, to ask me to dance.

I think back and hear Jared counseling me through silly arguments with Chris in college, and I can't help but smile. Our chats usually ended with the same advice.

"Relax," he'd tell me. "You guys will be fine."