Pick Up the Phone

Thursday night a good friend of mine experienced what I imagine is one of the most profoundly painful and tragic moments in her life. Her 30-year-old son murdered her husband at their home. Their tragedy played across the local news with photos of police officers entering the lobby of their condo, their son pinned to the floor, hands behind his back, an officer’s knee holding him in place, and finally his mug shot. One article tried to paint this in Middle Eastern tones: “the family of Middle-Eastern male descent.” (Last I checked, Algeria was in Africa, but hey we’re ‘Merica, we don’t do geography; we do sensationalism, and we do it well. I mean, let’s just ignore the bit that his mother is American; it’s not as interesting that way.) The truth of the story is it’s not about nationality; it’s a tragic story about mental illness.

For reference: This is the friend with whom I recently spent the evening painting a tilted Eiffel Tower while sipping wine with her a couple of weeks ago; she’s the reason you all got a blog entry and a photo of a terrible painting. She’s the person I’ve floated in a lake with laughing, stayed up with until all hours of the night watching movies, enjoyed countless meals and countless glasses of wine with. (There was the time I got completely tipsy with her sister, giggling madly in her kitchen.) We’ve shared a million stories, a few hardships, and we’ve laughed. (I mention this again, because it’s such a key component of who she is as a person.) Her laugh is the kind that lights up a room. Everything about her is open, welcoming, kind, and thoughtful. She’s exactly the person I would like to be when I grow up, and it’s why she has been my mentor for years.

She’s also the person who came over after Jay passed away to take care of our beagle, Sam, which allowed me to celebrate Jay’s mom’s 80th birthday. Jay, who was rarely one to say he enjoyed someone, really liked both her and her husband.

When I heard the news I was standing in our crowded cafeteria. My face crumpled, and I ended up in a ball in our lobby. I knew her husband; he was a beautiful person, the kind that exuded warmth, kindness, and genuine calm. He was brilliant, but quiet and self-assured. They had been together since college, had traveled the world together, and had been true partners who’d built an incredible life for themselves and their family.

That’s a small glimpse into my beautiful friend.

I hurt for her. Her life fractured into a million pieces Thursday night. I worry about who will be left behind as some lightness left my friend.

People say this a lot, and it always rings hollow, but realize I am sincere when I say: I wish I could take some of her burden. Because of Jay, I know what I can handle, and I can take on more and continue to move forward. I wish she could hand some of her pain over to me; I can shoulder it.

I’m going to switch gears here to talk about communication etiquette, because it has weighed on my mind the last couple of days, and I’m doubtlessly going to get a bit preachy. (Aside to my editor, David: David, you have my permission to slash/burn/fix/re-state what is about to come out, because I feel a wall of ranty little words are on their way, and they all want to explode out of my face and from my fingers simultaneously. My fear is they won’t make sense. So, would you kindly help me make sense?)

There have been some great/significant improvements in communication since the day Alexander Graham Bell first spoke the words, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.” We’ve gone from a reliance on messengers, to telegraph lines, to the point where now I have an English professor in Japan who, after waking up in several hours, will declare, “Oh crap, why doesn’t she warn me before she’s about to post?” And all of it is arguably great, especially since it’s a rare day that I want to have a full-blown conversation on the phone. The way I work, like many of you, is I have a thought bubble, I send it out, and in minutes I may or may not have a lunch date tomorrow. That’s what instant communication does well – the short, unimportant, day-to-day stuff. It tells my boss I’m going to be late, my friends I’m sitting in the back booth of a restaurant, links to an article I might find interesting, shares a playlist, or shows a photo of some place I wish I were standing and enjoying with you.

What it doesn’t do well? Important things like communicating a great tragedy has occurred that may deeply affect the recipient.

When I learned of the recent tragedy that befell my friend and her family, I sent out three text messages that basically read: “I need to talk to you, please let me know when you have some availability. I am ok.” (Long ago, a friend of mine and I agreed that any bad news should involve a statement of how you are so no one is unduly alarmed. Fun fact: If I don’t include the words, “I am ok,” then please feel free to worry. )

I needed to talk to these folks in person, because I was not about to do a disservice to the severity of this event by glibbly linking an article with a few words of, “Oh hey, FYI just letting you know my friend’s life fell apart.” <insert sad face emoji so you know I’m sad>

Pick up the phone. If you can type a text that is that important, you can pick up a phone. If you can’t, if you don’t want to deal with the reaction, it’s ok – call someone who can. You know your friends, you know their strengths, so find that person who is better at delivering news than you.

Where I Make This a Bit About Me

Most of you know how Jay died – maybe not the details, but you can probably imagine it was bad. (It was in fact bad.) You can imagine, or you have seen, the abject pain it inflicted and still inflicts. With that in mind, when you hear that someone I care deeply about suffered a traumatic/violent loss, take a few beats to think about what you’re going to say to me and how you’re going to deliver that news. Really think about whether sending a mugshot and a short text is the best way you can think to let me know. Think about your motive. Why is it important that you tell me, and that you tell me in this way? Are you truly affected or are you swept up in the excitement of the story where a person’s life not only fell apart, but it fell apart in such a big way that all of our big city news outlets are reporting on it? Are you telling me because you’re worried about me and how I’m handing it, or are you trying to suck a little more marrow from my own personal tragedy? Also, be thankful that beating up messengers has gone out of fashion (though probably not in Florida).

I received approximately five text messages that day, along the lines of “Hey, did you see what happened to Rita? It’s in the news. <story link><tear face>” And I received exactly one call outside of the three people I asked to speak with that day.

If you have bad news to deliver, pick up the phone. Don’t send me a text. If you must text, then please purchase two tickets – one for me, and one for you – to Florida. Let’s talk about it there. Once we’re done, you can Snap Chat, Tweet, FB, Instagram it all… if you’re able.

Join Me in Supporting the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

On July 9, 2016, while waiting to disembark from my plane, I turned off the “airplane mode” setting on my phone, and a text came through, “I won’t be able to pick you up today.” It was from my husband. I wasn’t alarmed; sometimes the world could be too much. Sometimes he couldn’t handle the cars darting about, the crowds of people; it could make him extremely anxious. It could be paralyzing. To me that text only meant I would have to take a taxi home. It’s just what it was. Then I walked onto the concourse, and my world started turning upside down. A voice over a loudspeaker summoned me to a white courtesy phone. From there I was met by a police officer who told me another officer, from the city where we lived, was en route to talk to me. That officer arrived, and I was informed that Jay had passed away. Impossible. He had just sent me a text. I was taken home to find my house surrounded in crime tape, and people from victim’s services waiting for me on my driveway. My husband, the person I had been with for 17 years, was now gone, and my home was a crime scene.

Not only had I lost my husband, my best-friend, my co-conspirator, and my favorite person; I had lost my identity. I was no longer a wife, a best-friend, the other half of the best part of us. I had lost purpose. The house had fallen silent.

It’s still silent…

There is a stigma associated with mental illness. A belief that if a person just tried harder, manned-up, not been a baby, they’d have been fine. A belief that a person is actively choosing to be miserable.

So, let me set the record straight. Jay didn’t die because he was weak. He didn’t die because he couldn’t “fake it till he made it;” a regimen of “more smiling” wasn’t the cure for his depression. Jay died because he felt hopeless. Jay died because he felt that seeing one more doctor to adjust his medication was pointless, and that it ultimately wouldn’t change how worthless he felt inside. He felt another appointment with an ENT still wouldn’t fix his untreated sleep apnea. He felt like a disappointment. And the depression combined with extreme fatigue made him feel like he was going insane. I cannot begin to imagine how his last day ultimately unfolded, but I do imagine he felt that he’d finally get some relief. I imagine he felt like he’d no longer disappoint everyone in his life. He would no longer disappoint me.

Let me say here what I had told him on many occasions: he was never a disappointment. He was beautiful.

There is a stigma associated with suicide. After a week of being gone, I returned to work braced to read the condolence cards that were doubtlessly waiting for me on my desk. There weren’t any. My desk was exactly the same as it had been before I’d left. No cards, no flowers, no acknowledgment. In fact, some people who knew Jay had died avoided me. We thrive in our communities, and to be denied this thing that is almost a given was traumatizing. No one did it to hurt me; for the most part they love me. It was that no one was quite sure what to do given the circumstances. Those who didn’t know would innocently drop by to cheerfully ask how my vacation went, and I got the unenviable task of explaining, “Jay died.” I finally had to ask people to spread that news, because I couldn’t cope with telling one more person and watching their faces fall.

If Jay had died of anything else, there would have been a card. I would have been embraced by my community. People would know what to say. They would know what to do.

And because of that same stigma, I wouldn’t tell people either, because I knew I’d be judged. I hadn’t kept my house in order. I hadn’t stopped him. What was so broken in our lives that my husband would choose suicide? What had Beth done to drive someone to make that choice? I kept silent to avoid whispers.

That stops now.

Next Saturday, on November 10th, I will walk in the Out of Darkness walk – a fundraiser for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. I will walk for my husband. I walk for my best friend. I walk for my favorite person. I will walk for me.

On November 10th, my team will walk for a lost brother, son, uncle, and friend. A few will walk for me – to hold my hand, to peer into my face and see if I’m ok, and they will keep me strong as they continue on this endless vigil – my protective vanguard.

Together we will walk to support the other survivors out there, the people who need strength, who need a reminder that despite the tragedy, they’re still here, and they’re still ok. We walk in the hopes that the funds we raise, the awareness this walk brings may prevent another family from joining us. We walk to help remove the stigma that surrounds depression and suicide.

So I ask you one final time: Won’t you please join us? Whether it’s by spending a couple of hours walking beside us on November 10th to walk around the state’s capitol, or through a gift to this organization? I strongly believe that what this organization is doing for survivors, and for those who struggle is important, and it is vital.

If you’re unable to give at this time, that’s ok. Share  a kind word, a show of support, a story, something about your love for Jay, for me, for this amazingly strong and resilient family; it means the world to us.

I think I can speak for everyone when I say that we love and appreciate each of you.

To make a donation, please click the link below:
Support the Out of Darkness Walk – For Jay

The Withered Leaf: An Ancestry Story

I met my mother’s father once. I was very small, he was very quiet and together we sat on a piano bench as he played a tune. I was told he was rather brilliant and could play multiple instruments. When we parted, I went back to my home where my parents watched over me and he went back to his home, where attendants and orderlies and case workers watched over him. He was institutionalized most of his adult life.

No one talked about him. No one really knew him.

I went looking for him.

On my journey I discovered his mother, her name was Ruth or maybe it was Katie Ruth or Catherine, but my guess is she was more commonly known as Ruth. I had always believed she died in North Carolina an elderly woman. In fact, I believed my grandfather and his siblings had moved to Dallas while their parents remained back in their home, several states away. I had it all wrong. Through a small amount of research, it turns out she was born in Texas, as were all her children, and she actually died a building or two away from a building I once worked in. I never had any idea she was in Austin. It was strange to think about. She spent her remaining 5 years here in an institution and died at the age of 49. Recently, I was on that campus for a meeting and my stomach flipped as I looked up at the windows wondering if she had ever looked down on the spot I stood on. In the 1930’s, was she ever allowed to walk where I walked?

I had been told no one in the family liked to talk about her. Not even her other children, so I know no stories other than what I can glean from a census or two.

I found her father’s, my great-great-grandfather’s, death certificate – also institutionalized. He died of exhaustion after a manic bout. Our history unfolds.

I grasped at the names of Ruth’s siblings and landed on Winnie. Oh dear Winnie! The newspaper articles my co-worker found chronicled her singing in the town’s glee club. She was an auditor at a hotel. Not a teacher or a secretary, which I would expect to find. Winnie. Doubtlessly smart and clearly talented. Finally, someone in this family was ok. Unfortunately, she died at 38, her death certificate said, a head injury sustained “in public”. A young divorcee dying “in public” had to be news worthy. I went searching for an article about it. This was 1935 when the paper seemed to think “Mrs. Miller was visited by her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Patterson” made for an interesting piece. Sadly, I couldn’t find one. This was probably a cold case! Before I could even begin to spin-up an amazing tale of murder, betrayal and likely choral glee jealousy, my co-worker came across her obituary. It said she had died in a sanitarium. My face fell when I heard the news. My only rational thought on the matter is that perhaps the head trauma lead to her being briefly in a hospital before she passed away, because it was the 1930’s, maybe it was just called a sanitarium.

(Around this time Jay asked me to see if he was related to Seco Smith. You know, good ol’ Seco. A pioneer’s pioneer. A real Texan whose adventures were chronicled repeatedly in the Frontier Times. I looked, and of course he’s a great-great-more greats nephew of this larger-than-life feller. I gave him the stink-eye. Ancestries are clearly not fair.)

I’m still trying to wrap my head around this awful legacy. These people we don’t talk about.

In this ancestry search, the kind they don’t show on the commercials, I’ve chatted with some of my third cousins on this side. They’re very polite and very curious. “We don’t know about your side, please share what you can.” To which I’ve honestly replied, “neither do I, but when I do I’ll be glad to pass on the information” knowing there’s some I never will.

So, last night, inspired by one of these third-ish cousins, I reached out to my second cousin – my grandfather’s sister’s granddaughter. I awkwardly explained who I was and told her I was researching our family. I asked if she’d be willing to share information. (I would just like to know what our great-grandmother’s full name was or even have a picture of my grandfather’s siblings.)

The only photo I have of this side of the family. Taken around 1900. The gentleman in the middle row, third from the right is my great-great-great grandfather, Daniel. His second wife sits before him and in front of her my great half aunts and uncles. His brothers, my great uncles are the two men that stand next to him.

I can’t possibly convey how that simple request has my stomach in knots knowing that my grandfather’s siblings, including her grandmother, did not like talking about my grandfather. His illness was an embarrassment to the family. And despite being cordial, they never had much to do with my mother or her sister. How do you bridge the shame? Do you say, “Hi, I’m Beth – Jim’s granddaughter, you know “that” Jim. So far I’m asymptomatic for crazy and am allowed to roam “mostly” unattended outside of the house. I even hold down a job! Please be nice to me and tell me what my great-grandmother’s full name is. Do you like hugs? I don’t. I was just curious. Is this weird for you? XXOO Beth”? (Ok, I may not have put it quite like that since I do actually want information.)

You see, I’m the family they don’t talk about trying to ask the “good” side if they’re willing to have a conversation. My pedigree, as it were, from the other sides of the family doesn’t matter. What apparently matters is that I’m descended from a crazy man, who was born to a crazy woman, who was born to a crazy father and because of a chemical imbalance, there are stories of how they damaged their families – stories I played no part in.

Each hour that she doesn’t respond heightens the anxiety. I want to know these people (within reason and that doesn’t involve a BBQ or slumber party), I want to see these people (a picture or two?), but I know I’m marked by this terrible stigma of insanity and it weighs heavily on me.