The young woman, Caroline, was not a friend of mine. I don’t know if she played an instrument, or whether she had ever visited South America. I don’t know if she liked country music, or simply tolerated it as something endemic to this area. I don’t know if she liked KU basketball, or if she preferred bicycling on the shores of a lake in Ontario. I had never met her, nor her family, nor her friends.
In fact, I only know one thing about her. That thing is something I learned today.
Caroline committed suicide. A certain stillness, if not peace.
I learned this fact in a roundabout way earlier this afternoon. A teacher friend posted a link to an appeal for funds. A family was asking for help with funeral expenses. The picture was young. Too young. I followed the link. Was it cancer? One of those rare blood diseases that seems to prey on the young? A traffic accident?
The page did not give any detail. Only that the young woman -- Caroline -- was nineteen. It listed the dates:
June 5, 1997. Gosh. I was just finishing my first year at college. She could have been my daughter’s age, had I taken different paths. And yesterday was her birthday.
June 6, 2016. But… but that’s today.
The immediacy of death strikes me when it has happened *now*. It makes death solid, in some way that turns “your uncle died last week” into a lesser consideration. “Oh, that’s too bad,” I would say of my uncle.
But directly to Caroline, I say, “I’m sorry.”
And half of my brain tells me that’s completely and utterly ridiculous.
It’s ridiculous because I didn’t even know she existed until after she was dead. It’s preposterous because I (hopefully) wouldn’t have been able to do or say anything that her family hasn’t done. That her friends have said. That her partner (had she someone) would have said.
And yet I feel bad, the hollow kind of bad. How could we -- the colossal and universal “we” -- how could we have failed this woman? Her sister’s page has a post that offers a little more information: “She has had a lot of issues lately regarding drugs, depression, and anxiety.”
In truth, I’m worked up about this because I see it in my friends. People I actually have met. People I like a lot. People I’ve known for years. And people whom I also cannot help. The frustration claws at my head, because there is nothing that I can do. Nothing I can say.
All I’m able to do is what they ask for. A ride to this appointment here. A night at a concert there. Watering the plants while they’re away.
And all I try to do is hold myself back from screaming. From railing at the massive injustice and impersonal randomness of it all. Hold myself back from suffocating them by hugging them to shield the body from… whatever this is.
But always, in the end… useless. The assault doesn’t come from without. None of the skills I possess or the attributes I have can... make it right.
The strength in my hands and body is considerable. And yet nothing moves.
The alacrity and flexibility of my intuition is mighty. But my preparations are fruitless.
My knowledge, my cogitation, and my reason are thought by many to be my best qualities. Feckless, all of this mechanical turning.
In the end, all I get to do is sit. Thinking in circles and nearly ready to say, “What about…?” But I know from years of doing just that, that it is not helpful. So I sit, in stillness, if not peace.
I do possess one thing. More powerful than my hands, my cogitations, or my analysis.
Sometimes, the only thing is my compassion. If someone actually asks for help, I’m there. I will do anything. Everything. Something that needs to be done.
Dirty dishes? I’ll lay into them with a speed that my own dirty plates never see.
Broken car? Of course I’ll drive to the thing and pick up the thing.
Conversation? All night.
Quiet time, but someone nearby? I’ll be at the library, coincidentally. All day.
Can you? Yes. I can.
Sorry to inconvenience…. Not to worry.
So much of these internal struggles are cut off from my assistance. I’m going to be damn sure that I’m there for anything I can actually do. And even if it only helps 0.001 percent, I would lose a night’s sleep for it. Because while I can’t make it right, maybe I can support.
And among friends there is no owing.
*** *** ***
Caroline’s story is over. She will become someone who was only nineteen. Her family now spends the rest of their lives with her death. Were there signs? What if a turn to the left, not the right? What happened to the smiling person in old photographs?
Being around children (most recently, my turned-one nephew), it’s easy to gaze into the infinite opportunities tableau. Astronaut? Programmer? Butcher, Baker, Candlestick maker? Murderer? Library worker? Garbage engineer? Airline steward? Senator? Soldier?
And when such a baby mostly smiles, is occasionally fussy, and likes raisins, we try to read the tea leaves. “Baby has such strong arms. Maybe a wrestler?” “Baby likes to babble at the news anchors. Perhaps a correspondent?” “Baby likes to pick up food from the dog’s dish? Hopefully a veterinarian.”
But, at the age of “one day into being nineteen,” Caroline’s tale is told. Caroline is no longer. Caroline was. And who do we, the living, now blame for the too-short life? Society? Family? Peers? Friends? Drugs? Caroline herself?
What I know is that there may be no version of The Reason Why. We attempt to draw the positives from adversity we feel are meaningful, incorporate them, and attempt to apply them to the next time, but there is no certainty they will be applicable. Next time will be a different The Reason Why.
And so my concern and emotion for the life of the young woman, Caroline, who laughs in her photo, her eyes squinted shut, cheeks filled with merriment. It does her a grievous wrong to not use her name, to allow her to recede into being one more on the ghastly scales of teen suicide.
Because every individual -- every Tom, every Erica, every Sable, every John, every Caroline -- has a struggle for how they get to the place where suicide is the way.
Thinking of those people, I meditate on what it means to “help” or to be “available.” I try to be who the world needs me to be, even if just for moments when it matters. It comes to me in moments of stillness, if not peace.