My Turtle Buddy

Right: Nathan Phillips poses for a portrait as a toddler. He was always smiling mischievously and getting into trouble. Left: Phillips celebrating Christmas in 2012, almost a year before his suicide. Photos provided by Bek Phillips.
Right: Nathan Phillips poses for a portrait as a toddler. He was always smiling mischievously and getting into trouble. Left: Phillips celebrating Christmas in 2012, almost a year before his suicide. Photos provided by Bek Phillips.

Written by Bek Phillips

We were the Phillips Entourage. We were the lucky number seven, and all we had was each other.

During the days most siblings would go to their respective schools and say goodbye for the day, we were all crowded around a table learning and teaching each other in our garage — our mom overseeing the “Phillips Academy.” When most kids went to sleepovers and parties, we made forts out of pillows and had year-long wars with haphazardly made stick and paper flags. Sleepovers meant all of us huddled together in one big bed quietly telling stories and laughing ourselves to sleep. There was Shasta, Stephen, Zoey, Nathan, Joseph, Victor, and myself.

We were the Phillips Entourage, but now we are six.

Nathan was quiet, but only when he was not getting into trouble. Nathan was sensitive, but only when he was not punking his two younger brothers out of their toys and candy. Nathan was mischievous, funny, and had an assertive cockyness that made it seem as if he knew everything. He had a half-smile that you both loved and hated. He had that boyish charm that always promised to lead to heartbreak. He was so full of promise and life. Then, on December 3, 2013, Nathan went missing.

I got the call from my mom on December 4 while I was on my way to class. I was worried about final papers, word counts, and half a dozen other problems I cannot quite remember. But I remember the fear in my mom’s voice when she said, “Your dad called, he said Nathan has been missing since yesterday. They don’t know where he could be…”

My life changed that day. The seven siblings had been split up as the result of our parens’ divorce. With some in the Bay Area, and Stephen, Zoey and Nathan in Santa Cruz within minutes of mom’s first phone call, all of us were on the phone switching calls back and forth.

As the day went on, I thought of the baby I held in my clumsy five-year-old arms as we watched Winnie the Pooh. I remembered the turtle pins that were used on his cloth diapers, and how he was dubbed our turtle buddy. I thought of the way he sucked his two middle fingers all through his toddler days. Now, I remember the panic and the sinking feeling I had.

I told Mom not to worry, that I would call her back but that I had a few things to do first. I needed to find a picture of my brother. Almost desperately I combed through my photos on Facebook searching for the most recent one. The one I found was almost a year old, but it would do, and soon I was flooding people’s Facebook walls and Twitter feeds with my missing brother’s face.

Trembling, I stood in front of the class and made my plea.

“My brother has been missing since yesterday,” I said. “He is considered high risk. He is the last sibling to remain living with our father, and was last heard contemplating suicide. Please share his picture and if anyone has seen him, my number is on the post.”

My campaign had been started.

By day two, the Sherrif’s department said that the best thing to do to raise awareness would be to create a Facebook page, a way to post updates, pictures and information out quickly to the masses. I volunteered, and unbeknownst to me I began creating the community that would carry and support my family for months to come.

Within two days, the page —called Finding Nathan—had over one-thousand likes and double the amount of shares. By the time the search ended a week-and-a-half later, it had three-thousand likes and over twenty-thousand shares. I spent the next two days going to class and opening with a statement, asking classmates to like his page, and share it with all their friends. In the end, people from SF State made up about one-third of the support on the page.

People posted everyday, offering prayers, support, and asking for updated information. Running the page became my madness. I read posts and watched numbers until my eyes blurred. I fielded calls, responded to messages and dug through digital pictures till I would fall asleep.

On December 6th, I packed my bags to leave. Having done all I could from afar, I was desperate to join in the search. With well wishes from my growing community on Facebook, I packed my bags and waited anxiously for my brother to pick me up. My throat was dry, a headache set in between my eyes. Even so, when we got to Santa Cruz we started combing through areas. But where people were looking for a boy on the run looking for adventure, we were looking for a body.

Just in case, we had about fifty haphazard fliers made up, and as we combed the woods, cliffs, and overpasses we handed them out where we could. The last place we visited was the house where our family was last all together. Maybe he had gone back to where nostalgia ruled before ugly words and hurt dominated the different sides of the family.

Unbeknownst to me, standing on the cliffs by the house reminiscing  was the last calm moment I would have before the real madness hit. The next day led to press requests and the days after became a blur of arranging video interviews with the press and family members, managing the Facebook page, and passing out fliers. Coffee ruled every waking moment. Every phone call took my breath away. People flooded the Facebook wall with pictures, personal appeals to Nathan, and messages of hope and love for the family. It was going viral. Awareness expanding across multiple states, such as Arizona  and Texas, offers to spread the word and to post in various fire departments flooded the wall.

I was tired. I missed my fiance, I missed my step-daughter Lily. So I packed my bags back up to go home. It had been a week and a day since my brother had gone missing. I was tired, but the sleep was not restful. I was going to pick up Lily from school when I received the call. My hands were shaking as my mom told me that they found a body in the ocean. Unable to stop myself, I broke. My nose even started bleeding. Confirmation that it was Nathan would have to wait until the police and coroners office established his identity through comparing fingerprints to the ones inputted when he got his divers permit.

It was the most excrutiating three days of my life as we waited. But even before the confirmation came through, friends of Finding Nathan posted encouragement and heartfelt sympathies. My mom and I spent hours reading every comment and message. People shared memories. Nathan’s life, which I had not been much a part of for almost two years, was becoming more transparent.

It did not stop there. After final confirmation came, after we learned that it was our turtle buddy, the created Facebook community continued to show ever-growing support. Especially after the cause of death was determined as suicide.

The ultimate culmination of what happens when so many people come together occured when we were unable to finance Nathan’s cremation. Mom set up a Pay Pal account for donations, and after Christmas had passed I hesitantly reached out and asked for help. Within three hours we had all the money we needed, some people donating a thousand dollars. With that we were able to pay for the cremation as well as purchase an urn, small urn necklaces for everyone and partial financing split for tattoos or other desired memorabilia.

Some days are just as hard as the first week. Other days are better. But no matter what comes, the healing process continues with a group of over three thousand supporters. Nathan, our turtle buddy, is now the inspiration for everything I do. Nathan, the boy of contradictions, the boy so full of love, will always be my inspiration. And to the community that was created, they have all my love and gratitude. Thank you.

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call San Francisco’s 24-hour
suicide hotline at (415) 781-0500