Gail and I shared high school teachers, high school friends, and over thirty years of experiences. We both started our married lives in 1975. Babies arrived in each of our families in 1976, 1978, 1980, and 1982. As our similar troops of four little ones grew, our families met often. While the children played, the four parents enjoyed some much-needed adult time. We discussed our busy lives and the challenges that came with parenting four young children. We shared laughter, exchanged stories, parenting tips, and partied with mutual friends. But, in 2011, a calendar date became the most important thing that we shared.
July 11, 2011. Sleep had eluded me in the early morning hours, despite my efforts to turn off my brain and rest. I tried my usual trick – I turned on the television, the DVD player, and popped in a movie I’d watched so many times I knew it by heart. Most nights this routine lulled me back to sleep. But that night, my method of insomnia management didn’t work. So, I went to my desk, turned on my computer, and decided to reminisce about another sleepless July 11, thirty-one years earlier.
As the memories tumbled from my brain to my computer screen, I smiled. That morning, I couldn’t sleep during in the early hours, either. Overdue with my third child, I counted the minutes between contractions. I remembered the painless labor, and the quick delivery less than thirty minutes after our arrival at the hospital that gave us our only daughter, Amber.
But, I also thought about the many challenges we (Amber, her dad and I) faced together. In 2004, Amber, stricken with the brain disorder, schizophrenia, moved home with us at the age of twenty-four. Together, Roy, Amber, and I battled against the nasty symptoms schizophrenia imposed on her. After four years, with the help of doctors, therapists, medication, plus Amber’s desire to recover, she resumed an independent lifestyle. I felt so proud of her and her determination to regain her health despite those difficult years when the symptoms had tried to beat her down.
Usually, I did my best to dwell on the positive changes and not the heartache that came with her illness, but sometimes it crept in just the same.
On July 11, 2011, I concentrated on the good memories. As I wrote that morning, I recalled the joy of her birth, and how bright her future looked now that she lived in recovery. Once I felt satisfied with my piece, I settled on the couch in the living room for a quick nap. Success. When I woke, I felt refreshed and ready to take on my day.
After my coffee, devotions, breakfast, and a shower, I walked to the addition of my house where I operated my home embroidery business. I planned to call Amber during her lunch break and sing Happy Birthday to her. My employee arrived around nine o’clock and together we worked on a stack of embroidery orders. We chatted as we worked. Around ten o’clock, the phone rang. I snatched the phone from the wall cradle.
“Good morning. This is Virginia. How may I help you today?”
“Virginia. This is Gloria, Gail’s sister.”
“Oh, hey, Gloria! How’ya doin?” I said excitedly to hear from her and ready to take an order.
“Not good. I’ve got bad news this morning.” She paused. I heard her heavy breaths. “Amanda took her life last night. Gail called me a few minutes ago. Andy found her this morning when he got up to leave for work.”
I felt like someone had kicked me in the stomach. I don’t know if I gasped out loud, but the joy I had earlier evaporated as I inhaled the horrible news,
Amanda, the daughter of my good friend, Gail. Amanda, the same age as Amber. Amanda, my daughter’s playmate from years ago when our two families met for picnics and parties. Amanda, beautiful Amanda, with her ringlets of walnut brown hair, her crystal blue eyes, and a wide smile with perfect teeth was gone. Beneath her striking exterior lurked an unseen invader. A demon that we couldn’t see; one that doctors couldn’t find with a simple blood test, but it picked away at her ability to cope. Hidden from the visible eye lurked the gnarled fingers of mental illness. It had snaked its way through her personality until most of the Amanda we knew had disappeared. Amanda wanted to fit in, to be a good mom and a trusted employee, but her brain disorder gnawed at her strength. Now, a husband, a daughter, a son, a mother, a father, a sister, two brothers, and more broken hearts than I could count mourned her exit from this world.
Amanda died after a long battle with mental illness, not just another suicide statistic, but the daughter of a good friend. I don’t remember exactly what I said. I imagine I said a hollow remark like, “I’m so sorry,” or “Let me know what I can do.”
I hung up the phone and attempted to work. I planned to go to Gail and her husband, Nick after I finished work for the day. But, I had put an unrealistic expectation on myself to think that I could concentrate on my job. I felt numb, and shaken, and devastated, and worried about Gail. Only a few hours earlier I had written about my daughter’s birth and rejoiced in her success while at the same time, my friend dealt with the horror of her daughter’s death.
Something that I had feared for my child had slammed into their world without mercy. I thought about the days when I lived in fear. I lived in a state of constant worry that Amber would take her life – that she would lose the battle against schizophrenia. I knew the high possibility. I knew that 50% of those stricken take their life. As she made small strides toward recovery, I worried even more. I had read this time was the most crucial. It was when the illness subsided, that people felt strongly enough to attempt suicide. I remembered the pain I had in my gut, along with the continual fretful feelings as I scrutinized her every move.
I thought about Amanda and Gail. Guilt set in. Why? Why did my child live and thrive while her child left this world because she couldn’t find the help she desperately wanted and needed? I tried to put myself in Gail’s shoes. I imagined my reaction if it had been Amber instead of Amanda. My stomach churned as the feelings assaulted me over and over. “It could’ve been you. It could’ve been Amber.”
I couldn’t handle my worry and dread for Gail any longer. I sent my employee home, shut off my machines, locked my shop door, flipped the sign to CLOSED, and rushed to the side of Gail and Nick.
The pain in my chest that had been there all day exploded when Gail fell into my arms as I walked into their home. She sobbed as if she’d never stop, and I unleashed my pent-up emotions and joined her. Our anguish mingled through our tears. I wanted my arms to absorb some of her pain. I knew they couldn’t, so I just held her as we cried.
I listened as she shared feelings that no parent should have to face. I knew I had similar thoughts at times in my life, too. They seemed to come with a diagnosis of mental illness.
“You’re not alone with those feelings,” I assured her. The tears that followed didn’t wash away her grief, or my feelings of guilt as we wept together.
Why did my child dwell in recovery, while her child lost her battle? Why did we, two ordinary women get one-way tickets into the world of mental illness? We didn’t want those passports into the heartache. Our daughters didn’t want those badges of pain, so why?
Questions with no answers pounded in my mind and threatened to overtake my resolve to support my life-long friend. I pushed them aside as I chose to concentrate on the grief before me. For the next several hours, I listened and allowed Gail’s memories of Amanda, both painful and beautiful, to flow and seep into an untouchable corner in my heart. I knew that nothing out of my mouth could ease her agony. So, I listened, held her hand, wrapped my arms around her when sorrow, remorse, anger, and the torment of Amanda’s death by suicide sliced at her. As I listened, I picked up the bitter morsels of raw desolation that scattered around Gail.
And then I returned home. I had to allow her private time to grieve in a way that worked for her. I tried to keep in touch after the services for Amanda, but she wanted time to mourn alone. So, I stepped back. It slashed at my contentment to watch from a distance as she withdrew from activities such as weddings, anniversaries, and other joyous occasions. I’m guessing the pain paralyzed her, so I just made sure she knew I cared. I left the door open and kept her in my heart and prayers. I sent her notes on the anniversary date of Amanda’s death, and Christmas cards to try and leave the doorway of comfort ajar for her. But, that doorway didn’t open wide enough for me to come in for a long time.
One summer morning, after several years of almost zero communication, I called her and invited her to meet me. “I plan to take my granddaughters to the aquatic center after lunch. Would you like to join me, bring your grandchildren, and we can catch up?”
My heart leaped when she said, “Yes,” and a few hours later we sat, sipped cool drinks, as we watched as Amanda’s son and my granddaughters splashed in the water. We talked non-stop. Time had allowed her grief to form a scab, but she told me that she kept it guarded – she kept hidden it from most of the world. People that she thought she could trust didn’t understand. They pointed the finger of blame: “You should’ve…” “Why didn’t you…?” “It happened because…” Terrible words that did nothing to alleviate her pain. It only exposed her wound and broke it open again and again. Before long, Gail refused to talk about Amanda.
That afternoon, friend to friend, we compared our scars as we talked about our faith, our trust in God and that one day we will both understand. We shared our hope that Amanda is with our Savior who saw her agony and gathered her to himself. We held hands as we basked in our love for our daughters. We remembered the date we’ll forever share – July 11 – the date when I celebrate the birth of my daughter while she mourns the death of hers. We parted with a hug of support and a promise to meet again. My spirits swelled with gratitude for our friendship and for the chance to talk about Amanda with Gail.
I still don’t understand the why, nor do I expect I will this side of heaven. I healed a little more that afternoon. I know I can’t bring back those who lose their battle with mental illness, but I can walk beside their survivors as they navigate their path of desolation. I can try to fulfill a promise I made myself years ago – to react as the Bible verse Romans 12:15 states.
“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”