On Sunday night, a young woman prominent in the punk music scene died. I did not know her personally, but we had many friends and acquaintances in common. All are grieving now, for her and for what they think they might have been able to do to prevent her death.
I’ve lost a lot of friends the past ten years. Just to name a few: my closest friend of over 20 years, my best friend from high school, a boy I dated in high school, two co-workers who were close friends, another one who was an occasional lunch buddy and valued colleague, the woman half of a couple who were our fellow newlywed pals back in the 1980s, a fellow writer I never met in person but who promised to take me to the Stardust for a beer if I ever came to Austin, Texas. This is in addition to a bunch of older relatives, of my parents’ generation, whose deaths were more expected.
The one that shook me most was the first one in that list. My longtime colleague and friend, June, was murdered in December 2008. I was already in the middle of what was my third lifetime major depressive episode when it happened. I did not know it was murder for five months. It was hard enough to get through what was initially ruled an accident, and I was not handling it especially well when the police called me in May 2009 and ordered me down to the station to tell me the death hadn’t been an accident, suicide, or a result of her ongoing cancer treatments. She had been bludgeoned, strangled, and drowned.
Just writing those words makes me think of how numb I went hearing them, how I put my head down on the table in that horrible little police interrogation room. My ex-boss was called in separately that same day, told the news in the same way, and we both had the same reaction: This is not happening. This is not real. Someone we know and care about does not get bludgeoned, strangled, and drowned.
Painful emotional experiences parallel painful physical ones. With some of them, no matter how completely awful, there comes a time when you look at the vanishing scar and while you remember the pain happening, you can’t re-create how it felt. It is distant, something you can look at with some degree of objectivity. If you’re lucky, maybe 80% of the time this is exactly how it is: a fading scar, something others might not even see, a degree of relief and pride in having survived the experience, a lesson learned perhaps.
But sometimes it’s more like something that comes and goes, an attack of some kind, like my dad having recurring malaria ten years after he served in the war. (Not to mention flashbacks and other sorts of PTSD symptoms he experienced for 40 YEARS before someone figured out to ASK HIM what was wrong and get him on his way to healing.) It’s like waking in the night to a searing pain, not sure at first what the hell happened, terrified that even if you made it through before you might not this time. Something triggered it and it could be anything: a date, a place, a similar occurrence, maybe nothing you’re immediately conscious of, but something.
Seeing the reactions of my friends to the young woman’s death has provoked the biggest flashback I’ve had in a while. They’re beating themselves up over not being there, not doing enough; or being there, working hard to do something, and their help being rejected. I think that’s what is triggering me more than the death itself. I want to sweep up all these people and assure them they WILL GET THROUGH THIS but also warn them honestly that the process will be grueling.
Getting back to June. The crime remains officially unsolved. The police think they know who did it, so do I. There is not enough evidence to prosecute. Because it looked so much like an accident, it probably wasn’t investigated properly at the beginning, and that limited what the police were able to do when the lab tests came back months later.
By talking to me and my ex-boss and other friends, the police hoped to piece something together. The killer was quite possibly abusing June emotionally. Like many narcissists and sociopaths, he is capable of charm, intelligence, and wit. Never, not in over 20 years, was I ever comfortable with him. But I never thought of him as a threat, except in retrospect. Neither did anyone else. Some of June’s other friends told the police OF COURSE he couldn’t have done it, and they believed this whole-heartedly. They had been married for decades. Over the years I had usually heard every detail of every mundane argument or rough patch, none of which had ever seemed remotely serious.
But, as I am trying to tell my guilty-feeling friends about this latest tragedy, sometimes people who are in peril, whether from others or from their own demons, won’t allow themselves to be helped, much less rescued. Depression (and June was suffering mightily from it at that time) can rob you of the ability to realize how much people care and what help is available. You actually believe you’re a burden. You don’t reach out, and you slap away the people who do. Depression shuts the door on the past and the future; all you have is the horrible here and now, which presents itself as the remainder of the road ahead rather than one rough stretch in the middle. You make stupid, life-altering or life-ending decisions and leave everyone torturing themselves about how they could “let” this happen.
In June’s case, she was aware of my own depression and the fact that I was devoting most of my time, to the detriment of my job and other parts of my life, to helping my mother through her fourth bout of cancer. Unlike June’s, my mother’s cancer wasn’t life-threatening, but the treatments were difficult and took place two hours from her home and an hour from mine in the opposite direction. Mom also was elderly, unhealthy, uncooperative, and well, seriously mentally ill. We’d never gotten along, and since my dad’s death a few years before all her rage, fury, resentment, regret, and blame had transferred from him to me. In short, she was a handful and June knew it. And in a final irony, the last day I saw June I was on my way to see about a cancer biopsy of my own. She knew that too.
Also, June and I had for many years been part of a close team of co-workers who became friends. Due to company mismanagement, many of us had left or been laid off. We all kept in touch as well as we could and re-united for occasional lunches and other occasions. But we didn’t see one another daily anymore.
In the time after June’s death, several of us realized that she had said some oblique things to each of us that may have been hints. Part of mental illness can be deliberately sabotaging yourself, not giving people information they need to possibly help you, but at the same time longing for them to know your pain. And it is possible she also feared the abuser too much to reveal enough for us to pick up that something was wrong. It was as if we each received a single piece of a jigsaw puzzle in the mail, anonymously. Had we still worked in the same office, we might have brought the pieces in to share, placed them on the conference table, and started to put them together. Even if we hadn’t had all the pieces to complete the picture, WE WOULD HAVE KNOWN THERE WAS A PICTURE that needed to be completed.
But with us scattered hither and yon, all busy with new jobs or searching for jobs or taking care of family problems or whatever, this didn’t happen.
I felt afterward like people blamed me for not knowing more. I know the police expected me to have some vital information or link to offer. But I didn’t.
My guilt, shame, whatever you want to call it, tore me apart for the next two years. I wanted to hire a private detective. I wanted to be Nancy Drew. I wanted to hold the abuser at gunpoint and make him confess. I cried almost daily, torturing myself thinking about those clues and how I could have, SHOULD have put them together. I cursed myself for 20 years of being too polite to mention, hey, your husband really is a jerk. I wondered how the hell June didn’t know that I or at least a half dozen other friends would have dropped everything we were doing, any time, to get her out of the situation and do whatever needed to be done to support her, and what the hell kind of friend was I that she didn’t realize that. And I couldn’t figure out why she had to die when clearly, depressed as I was, I deserved to and had less to offer the world than she did and if there was a God they made really stupid decisions.
On August 5, 2010, standing on a patch of asphalt with an old friend, surrounded by strangers, I watched a young man named Frank Turner stroll onto a stage in Asbury Park, New Jersey. By the end of his 40-minute set, I began to heal. That’s why I have a faded scar and occasional attacks now. That’s why I’m ALIVE to have them. The rest of the time, I can function. Because Frank told me that day, along with the rest of the crowd, that I have to. It was that simple and that complex.
Later, when the punk world lost another of its prominent members who was one of Frank’s close friends, he wrote another song that asks, “Why didn’t you call?” This time it was Frank asking the questions I had asked, interrogating the situation to figure out what could have been different and how he might have saved someone’s life.
So over the years, I lost those other friends. My high school friend I had lost track of and rediscovered, but her ongoing physical and mental health issues caused her to push me away again. So I feel guilty about that one, too. Maybe somehow I could have been a hard-ass and MADE her keep me in her life before her illness eventually killed her. But her sister told me it was Sandy’s way to push people aside sometimes, even ones she was close to, and that she lived her life on her own terms, full stop. My wanting to be there for her ultimately would have been more for me than for her. She had her own plans for coping.
My former co-worker, Lucy, and I emailed and talked often on Facebook. Her death was sudden. She too had health issues, but had been doing well. The death was a fluke. It was tragic. But there was literally nothing anyone could have done, she was on good terms and had recently been in touch with those of us who cared about her. She died peacefully after spending a day with friends. She knew she was loved.
My other co-worker, Susan, was more problematic. She was known to go underground for weeks or months at a time, surfacing only when she felt like it. During one of these times, she had moved from Virginia back to Delaware but hadn’t told me (or anyone else). At some point, she would have popped up again and we would have had lunch and everything would have been fine. But she died of complications from the flu, suddenly. So I didn’t get to say goodbye to her, but the vile cosmic joke was more on her than me. She ran out of time.
I can tell myself I’ll try to stay in constant touch with EVERYONE I know, but I know I won’t and even if I try some of them won’t cooperate.
There is a two-day stretch in December that will always be hard. It comprises Sandy’s birthday, the day June died, and the day of Lucy’s funeral. December is hard. My dad died the day after Christmas. My mother-in-law was diagnosed just before Christmas with the cancer that killed her a month later. My mother went into the hospital New Year’s Eve and never came home.
We want to save the people we care about. Technically we could always be doing more, but often nothing that makes a difference. How do we decide where to put our efforts? I neglected June because I was caring for my mother. Sometimes I regret that decision and wish I’d reversed it. But if I had, I might be having an entirely different set of regrets and a different kind of guilt. If I’d harassed Susan and Sandy more, they would have felt under attack and withdrawn further into their shells or even gotten angry and parted on bad terms.
Instead, I try to remember other deaths. The wonderful, memorable day I spent with my mother-in-law shortly before her diagnosis. A similar one with my grandmother (and a happy memory of her in her dying days still pulling a fast one on the daughters she felt were cramping her style). My dad and I spent his last full day on Earth going through photos together. My old high school boyfriend announced his terminal illness on Facebook, and we had a chance to converse about something he’d done that I’d totally forgotten about but that still bothered him, and I could assure him what a great guy he was and always had been. Even my mom and I spent a few hours in those last, horrible years bonding over one of the few things we had in common: our mutual hatred of Paul Ryan.
Death is peaceful for some, ugly for others. I mean this both for the dying person and those around them. We don’t always have control over how ugly it is.