Twenty-three years ago, she took her own life. But looking back isn’t about pain anymore. It’s about honoring the fact that this fine woman lived.
There’s a packet of letters tied with a ribbon in the bottom drawer of my dresser,” I tell my son on the phone, “under the quilted glove box.”
I am in San Francisco, the city where my best friend killed herself 23 years ago. It’s been almost a quarter of a century since then, but suddenly I want her old address. I want to see where it happened.
My friend is but a shadow now.
We met when we were 12, the year my family moved from New York City to the suburbs. We liked each other right away. Both of us annoyed people by always asking “Why?” We asked each other “Why?” a lot too. Our favorite sentence was: “What does it mean?” We were going to be painters.
WHEN SOMETHING TRULY TERRIBLE happens, the way you feel about it changes. It changes because you and the world around you change. Your feelings about it keep changing too. You go through phases. I didn’t know that when my friend died.
The call came at 5:30 on a Sunday morning. I was married and living in New York City, seven months into my first pregnancy.
“How?” I sobbed into the phone.
“Pills,” her half sister said from San Francisco. “There was a letter to you in the typewriter.”
“Did you read it?”
“Can I have it?”
I called my friend’s parents. If grief had weight, that conversation would have sunk us. Before we said good-bye, they asked me to tell anyone who asked that their daughter had died in a car accident. Whatever they wanted, anything, even if I had to lie.
After I hung up, my husband held me while I cried. I thought about a night when my friend and I were 13. Lost in one of our endless conversations, she had burned holes in my bedspread with the ash from her cigarette.
We’d never talk together in the dark again. We’d never talk about what things meant. I’d never see my friend again. She was gone.
FROM SEVENTH GRADE THROUGH twelfth, we lived two streets apart. During junior high, we rode our bikes to secret places–a haunted house, a beach paved with hermit crabs. We experimented with beauty rituals using styling gel and sliced cucumbers. On Saturdays, we’d head for a photo booth at Woolworth, posing and wondering why we hadn’t been discovered by a Hollywood talent scout. When she was 27, her parents retired to Los Angeles, and she decided to give San Francisco a try.
GRIEF IS A JOURNEY. AS I grappled with it, my initial sense of loss gave way to a new phase: guilt. What if I hadn’t listened to my friend? What if I’d betrayed her confidence and told her family that she was talking about suicide? Would she still be alive? What if I’d gone out to California to see her when she’d wanted me to?
We’d spoken on the phone every night for three months before she died. I knew she was depressed.
“I’m going to kill myself,” she had been saying in a dark, jokey way.
“Why?” I asked.
I attributed her depression to a busted romance. I could always make my friend laugh and, I reasoned, people who laugh don’t kill themselves, right?
“How are you going to do it?” I asked. Then she told me, and I told her why it wouldn’t work. Jump from the Golden Gate Bridge? You’ll mash your nose job. Gas? It can leave you even stupider. Guns? Suppose you live?
“What do your parents say?” I asked.
“I’m not telling them.”
“Then I will.”
“If you do, I’ll never speak to you again. I mean it.”
She was blowtorching relationships, furious at everyone. I thought I could be more helpful if I wasn’t exiled. So we talked and talked–as if talking about suicide could substitute for the act.
“Come to me,” she said.
“No, I’m pregnant,” I replied. “You come to me.”
Then her doctor admitted her to the hospital.
“But there’s really nothing wrong with me,” she explained over the phone. “I have hypoglycemia and thyroiditis. Mental wards are filled with people who really have hypoglycemia and thyroiditis.”
One night a friend of hers called to tell me he was worried. Then I got scared. I called my friend’s doctor. He said she was depressed and “difficult.” Against advice, she had signed herself out of the hospital.
“Come to me,” she said when she called.
“I can’t. You come to me.” TWENTY-THREE YEARS LATER, ON MY second day in San Francisco, I phone my son again. “Try looking in my sewing table. Maybe her letters are there. Her envelopes were airmail.”
He can’t find the old correspondence, and I can’t remember the name of my friend’s street. Lombard? Filbert? Clay? I walk around the city and wonder: What will I do if I find the building? Ring the bell and ask the super if he knew her? Why do I need to see where she lived and died?
When you learn about an unexpected death, it takes time for your brain to catch tip with the news. After the call about my friend, I kept thinking I saw her on the bus or walking toward me. She had a look. She’d bleached her hair to emulate Carol Lynley, a hot model of our youth. And she’d invented a way of walking, placing one foot directly in front of the other. She owned that walk. To her, it radiated grace.
I honored her parents’ request about how she died. Only my husband and parents knew the truth.
Three years after my friend’s suicide, I had another baby. A month later, I flew to Los Angeles on business. My friend’s mother did not want to see me, but her father agreed to meet me in a restaurant.
“We’ve stopped blaming you,” he said over salad.
“You blamed me?”
“You knew she was unhappy, and you didn’t call us.”
“She told me I couldn’t.”
From the moment I realized my friend’s family blamed me, I stopped blaming myself. Guilt peeled off me like a rubber glove. This is when I entered the next phase of my grief: resignation. My new way of looking at my friend’s suicide was: No one can stop anyone who really wants to do it.
The day after I had lunch with my friend’s father, her mother called and said she had decided to talk to me.
I remembered her as a woman who made Jell-O molds, wore her hair in a pixie, and served her guests on sleek teak trays. She’d drifted around the house in stenciled eyebrows with a drink in her hand and a cigarette bobbing between her lips. I thought she was wildly sophisticated.
“May I see the letter that was in the typewriter?” I asked. “It would mean so much to me.”
All I wanted was to see that letter, to know my friend’s last words to me. Was she loving? Angry? Did her family not want me to see the letter because she had blamed them? Were they protecting me because she’d blamed me?
AFTER MY VISIT TO LOS ANGELES, MY friend’s father and I corresponded for a while. He wasn’t feeling well. Then he went on dialysis. Then he stopped writing. Two years ago, I wrote to my friend’s mother at the old address. The letter came back RETURN TO SENDER. I tried to locate a new address, but there was no listing. I thought, I’ve kept their secret till now. My friend’s been dead longer than I knew her.
Here’s what I miss most: our easy, risk-free intimacy, having her know and love my kids, and seeing her married with her own children to love.
When someone you love dies, your shared past goes with them. Part of me is missing now.
WHEN I GET HOME FROM SAN FRANCISCO, I find the letters. She lived on Fillmore. I was on Fillmore. From her first letter after leaving New York for San Francisco: The phone just rang, a new friend. I’m meeting people more easily, liking them better, accepting them more, all, obviously, because I like and accept myself more than in years. It’s as though I’ve just recovered from a prolonged nervous breakdown … I feel well and whole again … I’m really happy to be here. Something or someone very good is going to happen. I feel it strongly.
And from the last one she mailed, two years later: This started out as a love letter and turned to confession and self-pity. Bear with me: I stopped my medication completely and now find myself totally exhausted by a burst of nervous energy, which doesn’t stop to let me sleep at night. And no matter how tired my body gets, I can’t shut off my mind.
And on (gratefully) to happier things.
HOW VALID IS MEMORY? NOT VERY. THE truth about my friend’s suicide keeps changing. With this writing, another phase has begun. I’m getting used to not knowing what I would like to know. I can’t know if flying out there would have made a difference. I can’t know if telling her family or consulting an expert would have either, though, God, I wish I had. And I can’t know what was in the letter. I fantasize that my friend’s half sister, whom I rarely saw but liked, will read this and find a way to contact me. I would love to talk to someone who loved my friend. I would love the chance to express the regret I feel because I wasn’t smart enough to help.
Meanwhile, accepting that I can’t have answers has begun to feel like an achievement. Resolved: I will never have resolution about my friend’s suicide, I’ll never know if things could have been different. Closure is not possible. So I’ll just take her suicide through life with me, turning it over the way a squirrel turns a nut. As I change, it will change. And in that odd way, my friend and I will grow old together. Remembering her isn’t about pain anymore. It’s about honoring the fact that she lived, and my luck in having had such a fine friend.
Weeks go by when I don’t think of her. But never years. Loss is like an old scar: It fades; you get used to it. Which is not to say it ever goes away.
See: American Association of Suicidology
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
The Link Counseling Center’s National Resource Center for Suicide Prevention and Aftercare