I haven´t written in this gardening journal for quite a while. I went “underground” pardon the pun, due to the death of a dear friend and the final push toward achieving a Master’s Degree – research, thesis writing, proofs and revisions that took me through the first few months of 2014. But being busy with academics helped to distract me from grieving, for when I need a therapeutic lift, I turn to gardening. Graduating at the end of May, I now had the time to devote more hours to a neglected garden. I found myself reflecting on the renewal powers of nature, and remembered my friend more poignantly than I had in the past year. I saw death recycle into blooms. I looked for signs that she was speaking to me in the emerging, bashful blossoms. I planted a whole slew of sunflowers in her honor – her favorite flower.
My friend was always incredibly thoughtful and sensitive, a person who never forgot an occasion with a card or a phone call. She sought out reasons to connect – a local festival here and there. She didn’t appreciate alone time the way I could. Her sensitivity to all things was a blessing and a curse, deeply embedded into her psyche from her parents, particularly a father she felt had passed her over emotionally. She was easy to wound, easy to feel any hurt or slight. That fault, if you can call it that, was matched and exceeded by her capacity for kindness, and at times, an obsessive capacity for detail and attempted control of her surroundings. I suspect this was a reaction to her deep-seated pain. She knew what it felt like to suffer – so she went out of her way to make the lives of others brighter.
When news came out about Robin William’s suicide, my friend’s sudden death, now a year-ago-memory, washed all over me once again. They both died the same way, the same month, one year apart. My friend was no comedienne, but as I read about William’s near obsessive need to please people with comedic talents, the other quieter stories about him emerged as well. The private notes he sent people who he felt needed a lift, the gentle spirit that reached out in a quiet, almost whisper-like voice, to soothe. Robin Williams played a teacher/therapist many times, and those roles were his most profound, because. I think. his true essence emerged in those characters and resonated with his audience. And it was those descriptions of Robin Williams that I most recognized in my friend. They were talking about her too!
My friend was a teacher—she taught preschool for many years—and if you know any preschool, kindergarten or elementary school teachers, you will know what I mean when I say they have a unique way of talking—a melodic tone—balanced perfectly to attack childhood tears, scraped knees or reassure a young soul being bullied. Yes, Robin Williams and my friend shared a lot in common.
From reports, Williams faced a cancelled TV show, a career that slowed down (but surely only temporary) and a revelation of the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease. These were the obvious catalysts to his suicide. My friend faced a divorce, and the possibility of losing her home, which was never much of a reality. But she thought so and I am sure it terrified her. And so with these real and imagined terrors looming and Lord knows what else, they chose to leave this world behind. They chose to leave us. Me.
What the hell? Why they had everything to live for! This doesn’t make sense!
No it doesn’t. My reaction wasn’t unusual. But it was reactionary.
And as you know, the stories about Robin Williams were everywhere! Everywhere! They still are. I am glad it has started a conversation. I always read the online comments in these stories, from the fans, the trolls and the know-it-alls. Kind comments and hurtful comments. People who think before they write, and those that just shoot their mouths off. When they said hurtful things about Robin, they were saying them about my friend too.
And here’s the thing. We commentators, the audience, the friends, the family—we can be so shortsighted and so closed-minded.
The human brain is an organ. Just like our hearts, kidneys, lungs, liver, stomach and so on. Think about a friend or relative you know who has been handed a crappy biological hand out of life’s deck of cards. Go on, surely you know one person affected by a mainstream illness or disease. Perhaps it is someone with low kidney function, cancer, childhood diabetes, leukemia, heart conditions, etc. When we learn about those illnesses, or heaven forbid we develop something ourselves, what do we do? Why, we go to a doctor and get treatment! We hold each other’s hands. We send get well cards. We post on each other’s Facebook timelines. We ask what meds are prescribed. On some level or many, we understand. We become a cog in the support wheel. When some part of our physiology doesn’t work – we have this enormous capacity to be the most empathetic creatures toward each other. We send out thoughts and offer prayers. We visit in the hospital, we share and compare symptoms. We get it. We understand.We don’t say, “tell your knee to snap out of it,” or” Hey, you have a beautiful liver so knock it off and be happy!” There’s nothing wrong with advocating positive thinking, but most of us don’t expect a diseased organ to cure itself by sheer will. That would be ridiculous. Imagine telling someone to ignore those lungs, that weak heart, because life is good! We never expect the illness to reverse without some serious support systems in place. Most of us call upon our relationships, medical progress, technology and a higher power to all weigh in and collectively cure or soothe. We know their journey is complicated, biological, medical, perhaps genetic. We can conceptualize their disease or disorder. If they choose, the patient can talk freely about what is going on as we listen without judgment. We don’t fault them for getting sick, because we know parts in machines can go bad. Our compassion is all part of the therapy and the cure. We cheer them on as they pursue any remedy to ease their pain.
But when it comes to the brain, the organ that modulates our behavior and thinking process, there is a disconnect. Mental health treatment is still woefully limited. There is a stigma about mental illness, you see, so we don’t talk about it, not the way we do our other aches and pains. People suffering from a disorder of the mind —why, there is something “wrong with them” that makes them act funny, and makes us feel uncomfortable, and we don’t like that. We can handle organ failure or physical limitations. But if a person’s behavior or personality is altered—most of us can’t comprehend or deal what is going on. Sadly, it is often viewed as a personal fault. It is a perceived weakness that, if only the patient were stronger, they could control and keep in check. Self cure. Friends who see each other through “socially acceptable” physical illnesses might be be severely challenged when mental illness dares to surface within a circle of intimates. We expect the person to simply, “get with the program.” “C’mon, look around you and all that you have to live for!” “There is no reason to feel this way.” Try telling that to your heart, liver, lungs, pancreas when they don’t work right. But we say it or think it about people whose brains aren’t working right. We have no idea how insensitive we sound!
And when these individuals who suffer try to terminate the endless pain, and succeed, some of us call them “selfish.”
When I heard the news about my friend, my whole being exploded with every emotion imaginable. Guilt was high up on the list. If only I hadn’t been so busy. I thought about the family she had left behind. I knew how deeply she loved her children, so her suicide didn’t make any sense— why would she leave them like this, scar them with this memory, deal out to them what might appear as the ultimate rejection. I watched her raise her children and admired her thoughtful parenting. Knowing her childhood was troubled, I often told her the only good that came out of her experience was that it made her such a great mom. She appreciated that. She wanted to be a different kind of parent and she succeeded in my view. So her suicide was so hard to accept on that level. Mental illness and depression is so insidious. It might appear, as in my friend’s case, that divorce was the reason or the catalyst, but people get divorced all the time and rebuild their lives—why was my friend different? I really don’t know, but she was.
There were signs all throughout her life, a permeating uncertainty for which she sought relief and received years of treatment. I’ve seen other depressed people close up, temporary or chronic, and when people are in the bowels of depression, they do not see a way out. If a person is lucky, they will be surrounded by people and experts to see them through, but we can’t always live with an entourage and we can’t expect family to always be physically close by. In my friend’s case, her thought process was distorted by her disease. She raised two daughters, I raised one, and they all flew the nest, moved out of state. We had done a good job—they were all doing well and getting on with new young lives, to me, a measure of great success! In her empty nest, my friend might have incorrectly felt she was no longer needed. But those life events were just surface triggers upon which something deeper and more troubling rested. I only knew what she cared to share or what I took the time to observe. I will never know what exactly haunted her or why it did. I do know this. The woman who took her own life, and truly did have so much to live for, had a brain that wasn’t functioning correctly. It failed her. The treatments she sought failed her. There is no other explanation. Her brain didn’t ration the way we thought it should have. It led her to make a terrible, irreversible miscalculation. To paraphrase what Dr. Sean Maguire told his patient Will Hunting in the film Good Will Hunting,
It was not her fault. It was not her fault. It was not her fault.
I miss her. I miss her ungodly long phone calls to me (and I am sure her other friends got the same calls) where we would in the span of an hour or two, laugh, cry, plot, scheme, react, reason and come to a closure where we dared to assume we figured out what ever we started to try and figure out in the first place. The peace would last for a day or two, and then another crisis or insecurity would surface …not always on her side, mind you, she was a good listener too, and in fact, it is when I would need her the most—in those moments—is where she would always shine—always be there. She had, as I reflect, a fragile need to feel needed and be reassured of her value. It went beyond a normal craving and what any one person or group of people could ever satiate. An unexplainable void in her life that she was never able to fill. It was silly to those of us on the outside. She had everything, and then some. Our assumptions were off the mark. Her brain told her the void was there. Only she could feel it. Fix it.
A year has passed.
All my sunflowers came to boom in August. Right around the anniversary of her suicide. They emerged at first, bashful, then bold, and bright. A bad storm knocked them all over.I was able to right them up with some twine and they kept blooming and giving. I get some small satisfaction from that. I see her face in the large discs—the yellow petals remind me of her straight cornflower-color blonde hair— the bench she kept outside her porch had a sunflower carving…and always a sunflower or two, fake or real, could always be found in her home. Yep, she was a sunflower!
Before her services, I wrote to her daughters that I saw their mother as this beautiful, but fragile flower that struggled to emerge and show off her beauty and sense of style (admired by many), but the flower could not, and perhaps was not meant to endure the inclement weather and changing seasons. Just like flowers, our time with her beauty was fleeting. But we can talk about her, share the happy stories. We keep planting so we can relive the beauty. Our memories are the seeds. Our world is full of creatures weak and strong, some stay with us longer than others—so it is up to us to appreciate them while they here with us, stake them up if needed, and continue to replant them every year so we do not forget what they mean to us and how they brighten our lives.
I’ve chosen the sunflower to remember my friend. In my garden she is tall and strong. I can visit her anytime. She is close by. She feeds the birds. She is light. She brings JOY to all who see her. And like my sensitive, modest caring friend, she is blushing!