An Incomplete Life Story

by Susan Auerbach

Beginnings

Noah was born at home in Pasadena, California, on June 28, 1991, a few hours before the nearby 6.0 Sierra Madre earthquake. Quick birth shakes earth, Bryan and I wrote in the birth announcement. “Baby make house shake?” asked his two-year-old brother, Ben.

A few months later, we packed up our boys and possessions for Bryan’s year-long sabbatical in Cambridge, England. Baby Noah took his first steps teetering down the aisle on the plane ride back to the U.S. He was always at ease on the go, whether in the Galapagos, Norway, or Greece with his family, or later in Costa Rica, France, Italy, and Mexico on his own.

As a child, Noah was a daydreamer who could spend hours alone in his room or hunting for lizards and snails.

One of my first memories of Noah was sitting on the ground with him as toddler, playing with the pebbles, while everyone else was inside the train museum. He would pick up each pebble and look at it and feel it. (aunt Renée)

He loved playing dress up, decorating the house for Halloween, and setting up lemonade stands in the street.

Noah adored his brother, Ben, and followed his lead in playing Legos, building constructions in the yard, and, eventually, in convincing us to let the two of them pool their allowance to buy a used video game console—a coup in a non-TV household. With Wags, our big Lab mix, Noah ran crazy circles in the grass and lounged on the sofa, showering her with love.  He was fond of reading and quoting from Calvin and Hobbes cartoons; he had all the books, with post-it notes on practically every page. Maybe Calvin inspired one of Noah’s notes under the pillow to the Tooth Fairy: “2 dollars or leave it!”

Noah grew up in the warm embrace of a big extended Jewish family at home, on trips, and at each others’ bar and bat mitzvahs. His grandparents’ house was a hub for swim parties, Chanukah parties, and games. He learned from Nana how to crochet plastic bag hats and took her afghans with him when he left for college. He wrote in a high school essay that his grandfather was one of the five people he most admired in the world because he was a self-made man who enjoyed life despite surviving the Holocaust. Noah was always ready to go out to eat with Nana and Papa and proudly introduced them to his friends. He joined his grandfather, great-uncle Sam, and dad in Team Langholz for several marathons and half-marathons, as well as early morning hikes with schnapps and sardines for breakfast.

There were always cousins for playing cards, goofing off in the pool, or later, cruising around town. Noah doted on his younger cousins, Sasha and Bridget, giving them piggyback rides, letting them style his hair into funny ponytails or paint his toenails. He would crack up his cousin Shira pretending to be a New York Jewish grandma, pinching her cheeks and talking of “challah” in a fake Yiddish accent.  Noah learned to surf from his uncle Neal and older cousin Gabe and went on late night In-n-Out burger runs and other adventures with his cousin Jason.

Once were playing video games and he asked, ‘Hey, you wanna go on a bike ride?’ With Noah, it was never just a bike ride. We start riding, it’s nighttime, we hop this fence and walk up to the top of this water tower and Noah’s friend, Vasco, comes tromping up the hill. Noah was beat boxing and Vasco and I were freestyle rapping. I remember it being a moment where we all reached that trust, like a shared secret. (Jason)

Hobbies with Ben and his dad were a big part of Noah’s childhood and early adolescence. Bryan taught the boys how to use Xacto knives, the drill press, and other tools to build ever-bigger model rockets in the garage. They named the rockets and took them to launches in a dry lakebed, where they camped out with other fanatic families and spent hours scanning the sky. “Next up, Ballistic Missile from God by Noah Langholz,” the MC would announce; “and we have a launch!”

By age nine, Noah was determined to keep up with Ben and Bryan at the juggling club that they formed in South Pasadena, practicing with three balls until he could do it 100 times without drops. Not long after that, he could stand on the shoulders of his aunt Boehr while juggling.

Noah always liked the technical challenge and was never satisfied with things he could do easily. He would go to juggling festivals and would just be a sponge for learning new tricks! He tried everything with an obsessive passion.  Older jugglers loved to teach Noah stuff; he was so receptive to learning complex passing patterns. He wanted to be considered a good juggler by jugglers. He signed up for a workshop with a famous professional and learned spins and attitude. At our club performances, he would do quick routines like tossing the frying pan, raw egg, and flaming torch–fun to watch. He was also our MC for the ‘celery trick,’ and would make it fun, picking a ‘victim’ from the audience and handing them a ‘Celery Trick Certificate’ at the end. (Bryan)

Noah performed with the club at the South Pasadena 4th of July Parade for several years and juggled flaming torches at his bar mitzvah party. Though he stopped juggling in high school, the persistence he pursued in those early years became the theme of his college application essay.

Friends and Interests

As he grew up, Noah was an outwardly confident kid, running with a pack of boys at elementary school and shooting water balloons over the neighbors’ fence, not shy about talking to girls or arguing with teachers in middle school. He gravitated to friends who were athletic, charismatic, or liked to talk and debate, like his oldest friend, Sammy. As a teen, he hung out with pals at the homes of Vasco and Sadie, playing music and beer pong, watching movies, cooking, and shooting BB guns in the backyard.

Noah, Vasco and I became great friends that lasted through all of us going to different high schools, being in different countries, and going to college in different states. Every day a good memory pops into my head – things I haven’t thought about in years – that makes me smile as if it had just happened. (Sadie)

I know you knew how much I enjoyed having you around to laugh with, to discuss some political issue, criticize a film, to just hang out. You felt comfortable here because you knew that we loved you. (Rosa, Vasco’s mom, in message to Noah)

Noah and Vasco went to the Coachella Music Festival in the desert long before they could drive there; once he could drive, Noah took Annie and other friends for midnight rides on his funky, 60cc, 1986 motorcycle. Perched on that little thing with his knees stuck way out to either side, he looked like a giant bug.

Noah always had a plan or an idea of something fun or interesting to do. On our ski trips, Noah was not content just going down any of the skin runs. He would lead us off the groomed path, through the trees and around the backside of the mountain. (Sammy)

In the 10 years I’ve been friends with Noah, I don’t think I’ve met a single person as dedicated to living as Noah was. With the constant energy he put into engaging with everyone he met, he made people feel so comfortable and invited. (Annie)

Noah did the usual stints of soccer and basketball as a kid, then got serious about swimming when training for the high school water polo team. We were amazed to see him get up for 5am pool practice–part of a “get buff” project with Vasco. Overnight, it seemed, Noah went from skinny, gawky kid to ripped teenager. After two years of water polo, he got disillusioned with the rivalry and time demands of the sport. He was more at home with the laid-back vibe of surfing. Being out there with the force and immensity of the ocean, whether surfing or sailing, was maybe the closest he came to spiritual experience in his young life.

Water was Noah’s element. He felt relaxed and at peace with himself, freer and happier in the water. I remember sitting with him and waiting for waves to roll in—there was a connection to surfing and to each other and to our love of life and the ocean. (Gabe)

Some of Noah’s interests started in early adolescence, like cooking, film, photography, drumming, and backpacking. He began making inventive eggplant and pesto pizzas with Gabe, then moved on to French bread and tarts, frittatas and pasta dishes. “Noah was the kind of person who could make a gourmet meal out of two eggs and a potato,” his girlfriend, Anna, marvelled. With an earlier girlfriend, Ariel, he became a foodie and saved up to splurge on a $100 dinner at Chez Panisse in Berkeley–at age 16! He kept a running list of foreign and independent films he liked or wanted to see—The Sea Inside, The Best of Youth, Talk to Her, Third Man, Amelie, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, The Bicycle Thief, among others. He was a great fan of Borat and could do wicked imitations of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Kazakhstan accent and dirty jokes. Meanwhile, Noah summited Mount St. Helens with a youth wilderness program and went on backpacking trips in the Sierras and local mountains with Sammy and Bryan.

School was easy for Noah as a child but didn’t really grab his attention until the more challenging projects of a gifted class in 5th grade, like measuring space and putting up signs in the neighborhood to show the relative distances between planets. For a while, inspired by his dad and a funny middle school teacher, he was intrigued with math and later passed AP Calculus. He liked creative teachers who encouraged debate on current events and ideas and could appreciate his unconventional style—like using a fake Southern accent when asked to read aloud in class. He seemed to learn best from films, conversation, and a few favorite books, like anything by David Sedaris, Stephen Colbert, and, ironically, The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt. Feeling stifled by his traditional public high school, he made a convincing argument to us that a small, progressive private school would be a better fit. He spent a stimulating year at the Waverly School in seminar-like classes that gave him a taste for liberal arts college—and study abroad.

The French Connection

On his own initiative, Noah spent his senior year of high school as an AFS exchange student in France. He had the good fortune to live with the adventurous Carpène-Waisblat family on a péniche (barge converted into a houseboat) on the Marne River, 20 kilometers from Paris. He loved his host family and reinvented himself in a new language, even starting to look and sound French. He attended a French lycée, where he aced the literature-history track in his first trimester before he got too busy having fun with his host brother, Charlie, and best buddy, Filippo, an exchange student from Italy. Noah made forays into Paris to explore the city and eat street crepes. He reveled in all-night parties on a tiny island near the péniche and celebrations of Obama’s 2008 election with his host family and friends. He joined the school kayak team, took accordion lessons, and spent time trying to pick up girls.

We had a lot of fun and tried to get to know as many people and to have as  many experiences as possible. (Filippo)

We appreciated Noah’s company and his interest in everything we offered him. Noah, ready for all challenges, who was seeking the limits to explore life. (Veronique, host mother)

Your joie de vivre, your ability to bring friends together, your will to discover, your enthusiasm will always be with us. (Leo, host brother)

Despite his sometimes crazy jokes or quirky behavior, Noah also had great dignity and poise. He was a whole person—I mean that he had a great mind, a great heart, and was also at ease in his body. (Colette, exchange student coordinator)

College Days

Shortly after returning to the U.S., Noah left home again, this time for Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He quickly made friends with international students like Llama and Tom and others he met in his dorm and threw himself into the party scene. He took Arabic for two years and talked of doing study abroad in Syria, before that country imploded. He joined the sailing team, despite never having sailed before, and was quickly up to speed, relishing every chance he got to sail when back home. He worked as a campus tour guide, once leading a group of parents and prospective students solemnly into a section of the library where he had prearranged—carrying on a Wes tradition–for 100 students to be sitting around in their underwear. He enjoyed Wesleyan’s film series and world music classes but most of all, he loved its people.

Noah was a well-known figure on campus whose 6’4” frame could be spotted from a distance. They called him Daddy Longlegs. Here is what some of his college friends remembered about him:

When I think about why I decided to come to Wesleyan, it was in hope of meeting people like Noah. Smart, engaged, and flexible. Someone you could engage with about any topic. (Faisal)

The way you offered your friendship was an inspiration. (Cordelia)

Lessons from Noah: 1) Don’t take no for an answer. 5) Conversations are very important. 9.) Don’t sit around waiting for things to happen, do it yourself. (Isabel)

He always asked questions, like every person was a puzzle that he wanted to figure out. (Chachi)

He was a unifier of friends and he lived his life with remarkable intensity and curiosity. (Jaimie)

Sometimes people talk about ‘keeping Wesleyan weird.’ For Noah, it was daily practice. Whether posing as a pre-frosh and frightening tour groups with loud, inappropriate questions, or using his own position as a campus tour guide to get hundreds of people to undress in the library, Noah had an incredible, subversive sense of humor and the willingness to take action where others were all talk. (John)

I remember a restlessness that Noah channeled into a kind of generative energy. (Austen)

Noah was always the first to notice a friend (or a stranger) in need of comfort, and never hesitated to drop whatever he was doing and patiently listen, talk through a problem, or keep someone company. (Wesleyan Sailing Club friends)

When Noah spoke to you it was with undivided attention, and he had a way of melting reservations that made him an instant confidant. For Noah, every moment was an experience worth having and every person was worth sharing it with. (Daniele)

And from Anna, his girlfriend from back home: “His kindness, sense of humor, creativity, and wonderful spirit inspire me every day.”

 

 

 

 

Endings

At the start of his sophomore year at college, one of Noah’s close friends there took her life. Noah was completely blindsided. He spoke at the memorial and pushed through the rest of the academic year, but his life was never the same.

He began to struggle with major depression, anxiety attacks, and perhaps PTSD. Overwhelmed, he took a year off college to live in San Francisco, where he had an internship making models at an architectural firm for a while. He and Ben, who was already settled in the city, began bonding again over good food, movies, and music after going separate ways in their teens. Noah saw a therapist regularly and tried a few medications briefly without success. The light began to drain from his face, the wit from his conversation. He admitted he was having trouble reading and concentrating, but hid his worst symptoms from us and insisted that he wanted to return to his beloved Wesleyan.

Back at college in fall, 2012, and briefly in winter, 2013, Noah immersed himself in black-and-white photo shoots with friends, hoping to become a photography major.  Though his dream was to make films, he was put off by the pressure and competition of film programs and hoped photography could be his back door into filmmaking. “Noah was the kind of student that made teaching feel so thankful,” wrote his photo professor. “I saw and felt how important photography was to him, and he made that palpable to other students.” Meanwhile, Noah’s mental health continued to decline. He stopped seeking help or meds, even after a psychotic break that alarmed everyone when he was home on winter break. His once thriving social life at college shrank to a few trusted friends.

Finally, not unexpectedly, Noah told us he needed to leave college and I went to fetch him in late February, 2013. He told people he was going home to run the Los Angeles Marathon. Bryan and I felt he needed to rest at home, away from the stress of college, where he could have consistent psychiatric care—but again he refused help, saying he’d solve his problems on his own. He spent three weeks at home mostly watching TV, occasionally playing chess or going on a hike with Bryan. He was increasingly uncommunicative and isolated. He ran the marathon on March 17 in 4 hours and 50 minutes. Two days later, he hung himself in the garage.

We’ll never know the extent of Noah’s suffering or what prompted his suicide. What we do know is that he left behind many shocked, grieving family members and friends and that the love and support they offered us have been indispensable as we try to remember Noah and rebuild our lives.

Noah was a man who made things happen. It’s heartbreaking to imagine all he might have made happen—buildings designed, films directed, images created, friends touched, women and children loved. (Sam, college friend)

Noah Langholz

June 28, 1991 – March 19, 2013

So many gifts. Much loved. Sorely missed.

 

Note: I’ve written about the devastating loss of Noah on my blog, Walking the Mourner’s Path After a Child’s Suicide http://afterachildssuicide.blogspot.com  and in the memoir, I’ll Write Your Name on Every Beach: A Mother’s Quest for Comfort, Courage and Clarity After Suicide Loss (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2017). All proceeds from the book will go to the Noah Langholz Remembrance Fund to aid in suicide prevention.