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Fall 2018: Nicholas Budler ’19

Shades of Blue

In April of 2018, I’d gone away for a weekend trip with a close friend to Daegu, a small city in the heart of South Korea—a few hours by train from Yonsei University in Seoul, where I was spending a semester abroad. 

It was a refreshing break from the hustle and bustle of a metropolitan area with 25 million people. We drank coffee, relaxed at brunch, ignored the essays we were supposed to write, and visited a night market. It was a normal Korean weekend for us. 

I had a trick to enjoying myself in South Korea: no cellular data. It was all part of the plan. Back home, I was almost always the responsible one; in Korea, I was the one who threw caution to the wind and did whatever I felt like. It allowed me to disconnect from the always-busy, constantly moving person I was at home and in college. I felt like I could breathe again in Daegu. And it backfired. 

When I got back to Yonsei and reliable Wi-Fi, I noticed I’d missed a call from my grandpa. With a 14-hour time difference, I was surprised he’d timed it so well. I’ve always enjoyed our talks—he keeps me grounded and honest—and I hadn’t been keeping in touch with him as much as I wanted to. It was late on Saturday night in Korea, we’d extended our Daegu trip as long as possible to avoid studying, but I settled in to ring him back. 

When he picked up the phone, I learned that my father had committed suicide. He drove himself into Lake Michigan. My heart skipped a beat. I felt like I was going to be sick. It rained all night. 

I HAD WITNESSED my father’s journey with depression—my whole family had— throughout my younger years living in the States and South Africa. I had experienced firsthand the challenges he was dealing with as a father. One of the most vivid memories I have of my dad is going into his room (I was about 14), dressed in my school uniform, realizing he wasn’t getting out of bed to take us to school. Again. 

I had seen the conflict in him as he tried to help others (as was his passion), while often neglecting to get the help he himself needed. It was part of the strain on our relationship. 

But he also had a quirky smile and a ridiculous laugh. He loved ice cream. He coached our baseball team when we were younger—he was great with kids. He would bounce up and down on his right heel, without even noticing it. We used to make fun of his singing. I see parts of him—some good, some not—in all of his sons. He certainly had a challenging task set before him in the four of us. 

My dad was well liked at Wabash, where he worked in admissions, and we played tennis there regularly. Occasionally we’d get together for lunch in the cafeteria or to share a beer. I talked to potential recruits for him. We just didn’t see eye to eye on almost anything, despite outward appearances. We had religious differences, different ideas about social issues, and a different understanding of the path I was on in life. 

I hesitated when asked if I was coming home for the wake. It seemed that I was lucky, being the only sibling who wasn’t in the States. I knew my ever-efficient family would handle everything and I would be spared from the pain of grieving. I thought I could just avoid it all by burying my head in my books. 

I didn’t shed a tear all week. There had to be something wrong with me. I was so far removed that my dad’s death felt like a hallucination, a phantom of my overactive imagination: I went to all my classes, I replied to all the messages, and I hugged a few friends. Part of me believed that if I went home, my dad would just be there. 

I also knew that I would never forgive myself if I wasn’t there for my family. My heart ached for my grandparents and my siblings. 

I decided to go home. 

MY FLIGHT TOOK OFF from Seoul on a beautiful evening. The sky was such a soft blue that it was hard to tell where it ended and the water began. When the plane banked left over the islands that dot the Korean coastline, they were bathed in the softest evening light. As we rose higher through the clouds, the sky changed shades and I was greeted by a much deeper blue. It contrasted sharply with the water I could still see through the clouds scattered below. 

That’s when I realized my dad and I were much like the sky and the sea: Most of the time we were misaligned like those different shades of blue. Once in a while, though, our colors aligned and we found peace— letting the horizon that too often separated us dissipate into a peaceful nothing, bathing everything in that soft light. You could see it in his eyes when he was helping others, or when his left-handed tennis serves left me stumped. You could see it when he talked to prospective students and when he smiled at my youngest brother. 

Although we didn’t meet as often in that liminal space as we should have, the rarity of those moments makes me appreciate them more. And it turned out I was right: He was actually there when I arrived. 

He was there in all my brothers. He was there in his wife and in my grandparents. He was there in the unbelievable number of people who came to pay their respects. 

UNFORTUNATELY, HE was also there in the casket. 

We went up together, his four sons. We were commended for sticking together, for looking out for each other. It didn’t feel that way as we stood, shoulder to shoulder, and looked down on our dad’s body. Who had looked out for him? Not me. 

Later, I knelt alone at the casket. I realized I’d needed to come home for myself too. I apologized to him. My knees hurt. I hated how he was dressed. It wasn’t his style. I told him I’d look out for everyone.

No matter what, he was still my dad. I understood that our relationship would always be frozen in time as a tumultuous mismatch of colors. And that’s OK. 

I don’t feel like he ever truly found peace on earth, although I know he searched hard—in religion, in altruism, and in being a good dad. I’m comforted to know he is no longer in pain, but I am haunted by thoughts of his death: Why the lake? Was he conscious of his actions? What was it like when water gushed into the car? Was he smiling? 

Falling asleep is hard.

Now that he’s at peace the tug-of-war between us is gone. In its place is the weight borne by others so that he may have his peace. For the time we had and the lessons he taught me—through the highs and lows—I carry that weight, and myself, with pride.

I believe he felt his work was done: He knew the trajectory of my life was something he could be proud of and confident in, despite its not being what he wanted. 

We had spent his last three years mostly apart, but every time we spoke, he echoed the same three sentiments: He was always proud of me. He always missed me. And he always loved me. No matter what happened, those three were always nonnegotiable for him.

Four days before he died I got a text saying exactly that. What I didn’t realize until we were all together at his wake is that he had texted all of his boys. He’d sent us each a different puzzle piece, each one echoing the blue that matched our own.

ON SUNDAY, less than 48 hours after returning home, I was on a plane back to Korea. The sky was different this time. There was no blue; there didn’t need to be. The distance between my father and me had changed. 

The closest I can get to him now is when a plane lets me rise above the clouds, up through the blue. Every time I travel, I know that it’s not only the ticket that carries me higher, but his trust as well. 

We’re all struggling with something. Sometimes getting together for a game of tennis or sharing a beer is exactly what we need. Sometimes it’s not enough. All we can do is try. Try for my dad, try for yours, try for someone you know is struggling, and keep trying even when it seems like your blues will never match. 

Nicholas Budler ’19 is a philosophy major and economics/German minor at Wabash, looking to study strategic and global communications in graduate school. His father, Mike, was Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at Wabash.