Once when I was biking along a greenway in St. Charles, I happened upon a killdeer nest. Trying to get a better look, I upset the parent birds, one of whom did the oddest thing – it stood in my field of vision and started limping, extending its wing like it was broken in order to get me to follow an easy meal instead of investigating the nest. What a brave little bird. It broke my heart just a little bit… it was so beautiful.
I had the same reaction watching the chimpanzees at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. Most of them were running around, doing stereotypical monkey stuff on queue for the amusement of the “monkeys” on the other side of the glass…the exception being two who were tucked away in a corner…spooning. I’ve never been more keenly aware of how much DNA we share with other primates than I was in that moment.
A behavior I’ve never heard of other creatures engaging in is suicide. (PS – lemmings do not commit mass suicide as per popular belief borne of a migratory behavior which weeds out the weaklings…Darwinism at its finest.) This self-harm impulse seems to be exclusively human. Is it because, unlike most creatures, we are aware that our days are numbered that we are able to contemplate whether or not we want to continue living them? Is it because the level of intelligence we are blessed with comes with cognitive recognition that such a decision is even possible?
In the wee hours of July 5th – the day my father would have celebrated his 72nd birthday – my boyfriend and I were awakened by urgent knocking at the door. It was the police who needed my apartment window to do some surveillance in order to determine which apartment the young woman who lay dead on the ground had fallen from. As I offered a description of my next door neighbor, and the officers counted windows next to mine toward the open one, it became apparent to both the officers and myself that my neighbor was the girl on the pavement below.
I cannot possibly know what happened just a few yards and several inches of concrete and drywall away from me that night. What I do know is this…it would be very difficult to have accidentally fallen out of the windows in this building. I hate to speculate what happened to this person I barely knew other than as someone who always smiled, made pleasant conversation and enjoyed petting my dogs in the elevator. It is difficult to fathom this shy and cheerful young woman making this fatal choice of her own volition. Perhaps it was an accident. Unfortunately, it most likely was not.
Even before the tragic events of this week, death has been on my mind. In just about two weeks’ time, it will be the 10 year anniversary of the suicide death of one of the most beautiful and compassionate souls I’ve had the good fortune to know. Christine was my best friend from junior high through high school graduation and we remained close until the last 2 years of her life. I attributed her pulling away as two people drifting apart with age and distance. What I later learned is that her communications became less frequent at the same time her depression had her in a choke hold. This is the last email she sent to me before she died:
If you can start the day without caffeine,
If you can always be cheerful, ignoring aches and pains,
If you can resist complaining and boring people with your troubles,
If you can eat the same food every day and be grateful for it,
If you can understand when your loved ones are too busy to give you any time,
If you can take criticism and blame without resentment ,
If you can conquer tension without medical help,
If you can relax without liquor,
If you can sleep without the aid of drugs,
Then you are probably the family dog.
When her mother informed me what had happened, I was completely caught off guard. Unfortunately, many other people saw it coming…but no one could save her from herself. She, a dyed-in-the-wool pacifist, took a gun and shot herself in the head on July 23, 2002… just 13 days after her 35th birthday. I looked for answers in her last emails, not finding any solace. I’ve come to think of the above poem as her suicide note.
As I mentioned, July 5th would have been my father’s 72nd birthday. He only got to enjoy 38 years on the planet, due to cancer that took him away from us far too young. I sometimes wonder about the injustice of those like my father, whose will to live was strong but whose body was weak and others like Christine, whose body had many years of life left but whose mind tortured her to the point where she felt she couldn’t go on. It is an infuriating paradox and one I doubt I will ever understand.
One thing I do understand and which I know Christine battled (and I am guessing might have troubled my neighbor) is clinical depression. In 2011, I battled depression and what I can tell those of you who’ve never been there is this: it is not a “funk” you can snap out of. It compromises your sense of self-worth and your ability to think rationally. You ache both physically and emotionally with absolutely no idea how to fix yourself. It is an awful and dark place to be…and I understand how helpless one can feel in this place. I’ve been there…but fortunately never to the depths where I lost all faith and all hope.
Even when I felt like I was at the bottom of a well, I always had the will to dig myself out. What may sound weird is that I’m grateful for the sadness I went through. It makes the times when my life is really good – like right now – all the more special and sweet. And maybe that’s why I survived The Great Depression of 2011…I always believed there was something worth living for…there had to be. And I’m so damned grateful I have always been able to hold onto that.
All this thinking about death has led me towards thinking about that little killdeer with its fake-injured wing and the cuddling chimpanzees. The instinct to nurture, protect and care for those who are important to us isn’t just human…it seems to be an instinct all living creatures share at some level or another. Christine had many people in her life who wanted to help and protect her…and I’m certain my neighbor had that, too. I have always been able to lean on my family and a few select friends when things get difficult. It’s so deeply sad to think Christine and possibly my neighbor lost sight of their support networks…I cannot imagine how lonely a feeling that must be.
There is an utter sense of helplessness after someone you love commits suicide…how do you reconcile how much you would have done to save this person versus not being given the opportunity to help? Simple: you can’t. A devastating component to suicide is what happens to the loved ones left to wonder why. Christine’s suicide sent shockwaves through many lives, mine included. I’ve come to terms with her untimely and violent end…but I doubt I’ll ever make peace with it. And even though I didn’t know my neighbor very well, her death has impacted my life. The ripple effect is much greater than I think the victims of suicide can realize as they succumb to their own sadness and pain. If there is any justice in this universe, they have found the peace in the next life which eluded them in this world…but for those left behind, the unanswered questions and lingering absence will haunt us forever.
I spent last night at my boyfriend’s house because I didn’t want to be near the sadness and eerie silence that still hangs heavy in the halls of this tight-knit little building of artists and cultural workers. When I came home this morning, my neighbor’s door had notes and flowers…a little makeshift memorial for someone most of us barely knew. I can’t help but wonder if she had been able to see what effect her death would have — even in the lives of the people on the outskirts of her life — if it would have made a difference. But we’ll never know. The questions will go unanswered. And those of us left in the wake of the plunge she either intentionally or unintentionally took will carry on…because life goes on with or without us, regardless of when and how we all eventually draw that inescapably final breath.
I usually try to put a positive spin on these deep-thinky kind of posts, but there is no upside to suicide. It’s a final solution to seemingly insurmountable but ultimately temporary problems. The picture with this post is of Christine’s tombstone. Strangely, she lies buried only about 50 yards or so from my father’s grave. I wish they were here…I wish they’d made it past their 30’s into middle age and beyond. I miss them both. My neighbor will be missed as well…and my heart goes out to her family, her friends and the grief they will surely struggle with now and for many years to come. May they find peace in remembering the good times…that is where I’ve found my comfort in Christine’s life and death.