Nate was here ... but too briefly

Father vows to use his experiences to help other survivors of suicide.

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A photo of Nate Paulson, one of many framed photos, sits atop a table in his father, John Paulson's living room as John (background) talks about the life of his son before he died by suicide.

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John Paulson looks away into space as he reflects on the life of his son Nate Paulson.

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At his dining room table John Paulson lights up as he sifts through photo boards documenting his son's life. Paulson used the boards during his son Nate's celebration of life after Nate died by suicide last year.

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John Paulson sorts through his stack of books, printed out articles, newspaper clippings and other information all related to suicide, information he never thought he would need until his son, Nate Paulson, died by suicide last year.

"John, he's gone."

The words coming over the phone from his daughter-in-law a nation away were hardly comprehendible, John Paulson recalled. At that moment, he struggled to remember how to breathe.

It was July 20, three days before Nathanael Paulson would have blown out 34 candles on his birthday cake.

His adventurous, brilliant, charismatic son - Nate the Great, his family fondly dubbed him - had hung himself from a plumbing pipe in a storage closet at his home in New York state.

"Nate died by suicide," John said. "I don't like to say ‘committed.' Mental illness killed my son ... depression killed my son."

The minute after Laurie Paulson told her father-in-law what she had discovered, John and his family took the first step into the new version of normal. "I've joined a club I never wanted to belong to and now I have a lifetime membership," he said, "I entered a different life."

Left behind with Nate's death was a close-knit family of siblings, parents and stepparents, a vast network of friends and coworkers, and a promising career with the Patagonia outdoor wear company. Indeed, Nate labeled himself a "Patagoniac."

At the top of list was wife Laurie and their 15-month-old son, Dane - all left on Earth to live with the pain of great loss.

The hundreds of pictures of Nate in John's Walla Walla home hold no hint of any darkness to come. Here Nate is, tall, blond and bearded, holding a tiny Dane.

There's Nate at the World Series, in his office at Yellowstone National Park, where he directed the Youth Conservation Corps. At Disneyland as a kid ... posing proudly in his blue and red Superman underwear ... looking excited as a first-grader.

Nate, at 2 years old, is a delighted and naked cherub plunked in a washtub and flanked by his smiling parents. In another shot, the boy with the wide smile beams above 11 flaming candles on his birthday cake.

In the four chaotic days between his oldest son's death and the Celebration of Life service in White Plains, N.Y., John had the pictures printed from digital storage. His children assembled posters with the images in time for Nate's service.

"It was a terrific way to share Nate," John said.

In the majority of snapshots, his son is outdoors - on a mountain, at a lake, in a kayak, beside a river. Being immersed in nature was where Nate fit most comfortably in his own skin, John said.

"We started our kids hiking early," he said with a smile. "They wore a little backpack as soon as they could carry their own lunch in it."

Nate grew into that backpack and so much more. "He was extremely bright. He started reading early," John said. Nate was inquisitive, a trait that served well in his love of the outdoors.

In September of 2009, Nate climbed Mt. Rainier. Although bad weather kept him from the top, Nate loved the journey. In the video he shot, the young man can be heard saying - in a voice filled with strength and life - "It's a great day to be on the mountain."

Who could have guessed, John wondered aloud, "that nine months later he would kill himself."

Relationships were intuitive to Nate. His son was an "exceptional" big brother who became a wonderful husband and father, in addition to being a friend to multitudes.

"That was his life," John said. "He felt at ease with people."

The "Friends of Nate" Facebook page testifies to that, filled with post after post of remembrances, funny stories, deeply personal thoughts directed to Nate.

The loss is as great to others as it is to him, John said.

In the end, Nate's devotion to everyone else may have not served him best. With his ability to deflect attention from himself and focus like a laser on others, it was easy for Nate to keep his own issues bottled up.

In the fall of 2009, John noticed Nate seemed to "dip low" after a visit from his parents and step-parents. The man who was driven by his love of family began backing away from interactions.

"We used to talk five times a week," John said. "We were so close, we loved each other so much ... when those calls don't come ..."

As a former educator with a background in law and now a human resources director, John is highly attuned to details about people. He noticed Nate's withdrawal from the things he loved, he explained. His son would devour the New York Times, for example, then dissect the articles over the phone with John.

As well, Nate wasn't sleeping well, complained of not feeling good and was experiencing nausea.

It soon became clear his son was depressed, John said. "Very depressed."

True to form, however, Nate kept his "nightmare" to himself.

John became Nate's support team, talking to him about depression and its impact on spirit and body. It was important that Nate know his illness was chemical and that getting professional help was essential, John said. "With mental illness, your rational mind abdicates."

Last June, Nate came down with mononucleosis, adding another assault to his health.

"It slammed him pretty bad," John said. "He was off work ... he spent three or four weeks in bed. It reduced his body's defenses."

On June 29, John wrote Nate a letter in a father's attempt to bolster a son, offering comfort, understanding and concrete suggestions for seeking medical help.

The letter was found later in Nate's night stand, he said. "Nate did act on it. He had two or three visits with a psychiatrist and two visits with a psychologist." And at no time did he ever mention feeling suicidal.

Nate returned to work on July 19. "We had choreographed it," John recalled. "I encouraged him to do short days. But with Nate, it was all or nothing. He went to work for eight hours."

That evening, Nate called home. Distraught, he told his father he couldn't even make a decision where to put a rack of sales clothing.

"He cried," John said. "I knew he had to be anguished."

The two talked for more than an hour, John offering to fly to New York, Nate assuring him that wasn't necessary.

Then it was time for his family to come in the door, time to give Dane attention, and Nate said goodbye to his dad.

It would be the last time they spoke.

The next morning, July 20, Nate got up and took Dane to day care. Back at home, he put a sandwich for lunch in his backpack.

At 4:40 p.m. Eastern time, Laurie called John, asking if he knew where Nate could be. "He didn't go to work," she said.

John had no idea, but told her to check the car and to hang onto hope, "until we have something firm."

Laurie had found Nate's suicide note by the time she looked for his bike, kept in the family's storage unit located by the building's underground parking.

There was Nate, hung by his climbing rope from a cast iron pipe running along the ceiling. "Nate was a big guy, 190 something. You have to have something to support that if you are going to hang yourself."

Nate's death was not impulsive, John said. "Did he plan it? Absolutely."

His son was not a coward and he was not weak; he always did what he set out to do, he said. The suicide "was an act of misplaced courage." It was a way to kill off the host of the terrible pain that severe depression puts on the table.

Laurie's second call came at 5:20 p.m. "He's gone."

Nate had used the same rope he'd used to save his life on the Mt. Rainier climb, John said. "If only he could have tied a knot in it and hung on."

All of what came next - the shock, calls to the other children and Nate's mom, the service - is over.

The grief, though, is a constant, he explained. "You learn to live with the loss, but not in it."

With professional guidance and his own education through grief literature, John understands no one else is to blame for Nate's death. And he knows anger over it is poisonous, he said.

To the end, his son had a beautiful life. "Thirty four years of fabulous relations with a son is more than I could have dreamed of. I will not be shamed, nor will I allow myself to be destroyed by guilt. Otherwise, I become the next victim of Nate's suicide."

Depression can happen to anyone. It's a subtle, sneaky and misunderstood illness, taking over healthy and whole people, John said. It robbed his son of his life. "One moment in time he was there, the next morning it was over."

Nate's death will not be in vain, John has vowed. He knows there are other families in Walla Walla with pain equal to his own. Yet society has no idea how to react to these victims, he said. "It's hell for survivors. How do you not give up?"

John is willing to help teach that skill in a community that sorely needs it, he said.

"I'm not going to put it in a dark closet and forget it. I'm going to talk about it. Survivors need support. We move at our own pace, but we're not aliens that need to be avoided."

If one life can be changed and helped, then efforts will be worth it, he said. "There has to be a gift in this. This has been far too tragic, far too painful. I'm going to seek and find it."

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