Hey Dad & Mom!
I’m writing you from Lisbon, inside Castelo Sao Jorge on top of a huge hill overlooking the city. Seems pretty nice here, we almost didn’t make it. After sitting around the train station in Madrid for about 6 hours, we realized about 25 mins. before our train here was to depart that we were supposed to be getting it from a DIFFERENT station in Madrid, 15 minutes away. It was pretty terrifying, so we grabbed a train and hoped for the best. We ran through the 2nd train station as fast as we could and narrowly made it there with 3 minutes to spare…
So we are here and it’s pretty neat, when you look at some of the trees you realize how close you are to Africa, especially the ones outside the city that we saw on our way in this morning. I think you guys would really like it here, I think I’d like to be home with you pretty soon though. I miss you lots. Love you! – Alex
Mr. Chancellor, Madame President, Fellow Honorees, Faculty, Graduates, Guests. What I just read to you was taken from a postcard written in May, 2009, to myself and my husband Fred from our son Alex. I think that most of you know that Alex was a student here at King’s. He had just finished his third year and was on a month-long European backpacking tour with two very good friends also from King’s – Lachlan MacLeod, who graduated in 2010, and Ryan Allen, whom I believe will be graduating later this year. I think most of you also know that Alex passed away later that summer of 2009, three months after that European trip. Death by suicide. I never thought something like that could happen in my world. Not in my world. I’ve always had such goodness in my life – great parents, siblings who actually get along with each other, a husband with whom I am totally in love, children who have been an absolute delight and for me a privilege to be their Mother. Wonderful friends. Health. Financial stability. Opportunity. The ability together with Fred to make things happen, to hopefully make a difference in the lives of others. Suddenly I had the rug ripped out from underneath of me. One of my three most precious people in the world was inexplicably gone. Forever. How would I ever be able to move on?
It has been nearly three years now since Alex died. It has not been easy, but we’re still standing. And when I think of what is getting us through, it has pretty much boiled down to three things: truth, friendship, and helping others.
Right from the beginning, it was important to me and to Fred and to Alex’s sister Katharine to speak the truth about what happened to Alex. We didn’t consider that acknowledging that Alex died by suicide would be thought of as courageous – we simply wanted the truth of what happened to him to be stated by us. Because we didn’t want his friends to engage in blame or guilt or for there to be speculation and whispers. Because I knew that to be less than forthcoming about what had happened would surely destroy us. What we didn’t anticipate was the number of people who would feel safe to come to us to share their own stories of struggle with mental illness or suicide in their families or friends. And that has helped us to know that we are not alone.
I really do not know what we would have done without our friends and Alex’s friends. We have some truly amazing and wonderful friends – old and new – who wrapped their arms around us and brought us along. And continue to do so.
And we were very fortunate to have many ongoing projects and commitments, some big, some not so big, that have reinforced that we were not the only ones in the world to have tragedy strike or who needed the help of others.
So Graduates, you might be asking yourselves, “What has any of this to do with me?” Well, tonight and tomorrow you too are moving on from a life-altering experience – your years here at King’s – although I hope your experience has been a positive and fulfilling one. But I believe you too can always benefit from the three things that are helping me to move forward, to move on.
Cherish and work on your friendships. Don’t let them fade away or neglect them. Start right now. These people you’ve spent the last four (or more) years with. Make the effort to keep them in your lives. Your true friends will be there for you in the best of times, but more importantly they will be there for you in the worst of times.
Be truthful to others and to yourself. As corny as it may sound, the truth really can set you free. It doesn’t mean it’s not going to hurt. But the sooner you deal with a situation honestly, the sooner you’ll be able to move on. I have so much admiration for people who admit they are wrong, that they are the ones who have made a mistake, that the buck stops with them. Face the truth and move on.
Give back if you can. With your time, or your talent or your treasure. Or all three if possible. It doesn’t have to involve all of your time or your resources. Even a little bit helps. Helping others almost always gets you out of your head. It’s a win-win.
Alex loved King’s. Right from the day we drove him with his guitar and all of his clothes and books and dorm supplies through the entrance of the Quad. I can still hear the Frosh Welcoming Committee shouting Alex! Alex! Alex! And I can still see Alex grinning from ear to ear. Alex loved people. He wanted to include and to be included. I want to thank King’s, together with former President Bill Barker and Advancement Director Adriane Abbott, for allowing Fred and Katharine and me to create the Alex Fountain Memorial Lecture for the King’s students. We really think it is something of which Alex would have approved as it allows all of the students here to have a say about who they would like to hear speak. And open to anyone to attend, inside and outside the University. And as much as it is a gift from us to the University it is a gift back to us that the University allowed it to be created in his memory. I also want to thank the University for granting Alex his degree in 2010. And I want to thank King’s for considering me a worthy candidate for this Honorary Degree. I am truly humbled and amazed by this gift. And it will always be a very special connection between Alex and me that we both received degrees from King’s.
Remember that postcard from Alex I read to you at the top? Fred, Katharine and I just got back yesterday afternoon from a two-week trip to Europe (full disclosure – we were not on a backpacking tour!) We had the opportunity to visit Castelo de Sao Jorge in Lisbon, Portugal, just this past Sunday. I took Alex’s postcard with me. I don’t really know what I might have been looking for – some kind of vibe or feeling of his presence there. I didn’t find it and I guess I really didn’t expect to. The same thing happens to me when I visit Alex’s grave – I don’t really feel his presence there either – I just feel sad. It is here in this place he loved called King’s I am most likely to feel his presence – where a living and positive tribute to his memory was allowed to be created.
I can’t change what happened to Alex. What is – is. And I can’t stay in the past, although I miss him terribly. I have to move forward and celebrate and love the people who are still here and enjoy their dreams and accomplishments. And that is what you too should do – enjoy your life and the people you love and who love you. I know many of you are probably worried about how to pay off that student loan or what your next step from here will be. But remember to take a break from work and worry from time to time. Appreciate what you do have. Take moments to savour special moments. Tomorrow for example. At some point during the Encaenia celebrations take a moment to look around you and take it in. May 17, 2012. You’re 22 years old, about to receive your university degree. Surrounded by all the people with whom you’ve spent the last four years. Take it in, capture it, remember it, right in that moment.
And one last very important thing. I want to take this opportunity to say to everyone – if you are suffering from depression, as Alex did, or any type of mental illness, please, please, please, seek help, speak out, tell someone you trust. Being silent helps no one. And there are so many people out there who truly do care about you. We need you in this world.
Congratulations, Graduates. Well done. I am honoured to be a member of the Class of 2012.
Elizabeth G. Fountain
Speech Given at The President’s Dinner
University of King’s College
Halifax, Nova Scotia
May 16, 2012