Friday, January 27, 2012

The Hurting

"History repeats itself..." is a phrase I first remember seeing in an Anne book (one of the Anne of Green Gables books, I think Gilbert Blythe says it in Anne's House of Dreams) and then was amused to see evidently sort of originated with Karl Marx by way (in theory) of Hegel, possibly by way of Santayana. History repeats itself. Maybe it does. But I hope not.

Look at these chimes, then press play below and enjoy for a bit:

video by kwachula

The sound of wind chimes are sounds rooted deep in my memory. I used to associate glass chimes with my maternal grandparents' house. They had a simple set of chimes hanging outside near the back door. (Which everyone always treated as the front door of the house, because it was nearer my grandfather's garage workshop, wherein he created wondrous circuit boards.) I have many memories of falling asleep to the sound of those chimes on hot summer afternoons in a Barcalounger, in their Florida room, which had a wide spanse of jalousie windows, and through which the same welcome breeze that stirred those chimes would occasionally waft. Those lazy summer afternoons, wedged into the recliner with a cat or two, with my grandparents' dog Jeteye close at hand, listening to those chimes while my grandmother hummed as she did her crossword puzzle, defined my memories of chimes, and possibly a sort of bliss, for quite some time. But the association forever changed on April 28, 1997.

I first met my friend Cindy in 1988. We took a microbiology class together. Early in the semester, exiting the second floor of the building, she stumbled on the stairs, dropping a few items. I helped her up and when I asked her if she was okay, she replied in perfectly droll  British accent, "I'm not dead yet." I burst out laughing at the reference to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. And thus a friendship was born. On the surface, beyond just the shared love of Monty Python, we had a lot in common. We were both significantly older than our peers in our classes. I was 27 and she was 29. As I look back, it's really hard to capture how engaging Cindy was. She had a marvelous sense of humor, a quick mind and a warm heart. She was a great animal lover, an avid reader and loved science with a passion. We became fast friends and I really adored her. But it became evident, over the next three years as we shared various classes, that she was troubled. Deeply troubled. 

Cindy was open about the fact that she was a recovering alcoholic, and that she struggled with depression. She was tall, about 5' 10", and somewhat heavyset. She struggled with a bad knee, and with limited financial options for surgery, was frequently battling pain. She felt bad about her weight, her body and was depressed that it was hard to exercise because of her discomfort. A string of painful personal relationships, strained family relationships with her father, brother and sister seemed to conspire against her. Her mother, almost a mythical figure in her mind, had died when she was a teen. All of it made her sad and made holidays, and any event you'd normally want to share with loved ones, painful for her. She spent a lot of time with me and my mom. After several years of being friends, she confided darker things, buried in her past. She battled personal demons, who gnawed at her self-esteem, her happiness and eventually her sanity. She told me about several years of her being committed, as a teenager, in a well known mental institution, for what first appeared to have been rebellious behavior (a disturbingly common phenomenon in the 1970's and 1980's for teenagers) but then too, for what later was stated to have been about allegations of incest against her father. As in to shut her up. I never knew exactly what had happened to put her there, but I knew what it did to her.

We parted ways in 1991, to go to our respective graduate schools, planning to keep in touch. She headed off to medical school in South Carolina with her cats, Oscar and Keisha, and a Golden Retriever, Bacardi, who had been the beloved pet of a friend of mine who died of HIV in 1988. She had taken him in when I could not. In turn, I had taken in Tiffy, the kitty she couldn't afford to risk keeping because of cardiac problems (the problems were real but Tiffy lived to be 21 years old, so there, you EKG machine you, so there.) I visited Cindy in Columbia over a long weekend in the spring of 1992. She was stressed and agitated, but we hung out with her med school roommates, swilled down massive amounts of coffee and browsed in book and antique stores. That spring I had a setback with my health and returned from Texas to Miami, to restart my PhD. I was pretty shaken by the interruption of all my plans. I'd been very ill with severe allergies, battling unexplained giant hives and cold urticaria and then pneumonia due to immunosuppressing steroid treatments. But I came back to Miami, charged full ahead in an environment in which I'd been healthy, and resumed working on my PhD, trying not to be too downtrodden.

Less than a year later, Cindy's world fell apart, too. Whether due to the pressure of medical school or abuse of pills (all of it, all rolled into one?), she had a psychotic break that landed her in the hospital. Unlike my situation, however, it all but ruined her chances of finishing medical school. After refusing to let her return until she had a clean bill of mental health, the medical school discovered her prior mental health history, which she had not accurately reported. She was dismissed, with little ground, and no finances, with which to fight her dismissal. Being dismissed also left her with a year and a half of medical student loans to repay.

From that point on, there was a steep descent into a depression that was difficult, as a friend, to watch and deal with gracefully. Returning to Miami, she shifted from job to job, borrowing money from family, friends, moving from place to place. She finally landed, in late 1996, at a health insurance company, reviewing claims, specializing in diabetic patients' claims. She hated her job. She lived in a duplex up in Hollywood with her now four cats and Bacardi. We didn't see each other very often. I was busy and plus I felt awkward. She was out of her grad school. I was having success in my research. She loved to give gifts but giving gifts meant she was spending borrowed money on the wrong things, like funny tchotchkes instead of rent, etc. No matter how I insisted that we wouldn't exchange gifts, there she was, Christmas 1996, with presents for me, for my stepchildren, for my cats. I remember feeling like I was contributing to her problem and had increased difficulty dealing with her moods and demands. I felt bad for her but frustrated by her. I was beginning to write my dissertation, with my PhD defense scheduled for mid-March and felt that between my research and my family responsibilities, I just couldn't deal with her. The months slid by and we'd chat by phone but I brushed off getting together. Just about every moment was going to writing my dissertation and preparing my dissertation seminar. By mid-March I was the proud possessor of a 300+ page dissertation and a shiny new PhD. My friend, who had gotten her undergraduate degree at the same time I'd earned mine, sent me an email congratulating me and telling me how lucky I was because she hated her job, her life. It made me sad and I didn't exactly know how to reply. We made tentative plans to get together to celebrate (she insisted celebration was in order) but they got postponed. I went up a week later, though, and we laughed as watched a series of Monty Python skits (Dead Parrot and Cheese Shop were our faves) on videotape for about the thousandth time, went out for Thai food and played with Bacardi. She seemed more upbeat than she had in recent weeks, I thought. But we didn't chat much in the weeks that followed.

On Saturday April 27, 1997 there was terrible weather in Miami. The typical windy spring weather, but heavy rain accompanied it. In the late afternoon, I cryptically received a call at home from Cindy's father, who said that he had received a message from her, asking him to call me, to ask me check on her pets. Why didn't she call me herself, I asked him? He didn't know. I told him I had no idea what that was about but that I'd try to go first thing in the morning, because it was still such bad weather and I didn't want to make a half-hour drive in the dark when it was raining so hard. He said that was probably fine. I slept that night fitfully, wondering if I'd somehow forgotten that she was going out of town and trying to remember where she'd told me she left a spare key.

Bright and early Sunday morning, my husband and I drove up to Hollywood. I walked up the path to the small, white duplex in which she lived and figured I'd start with a knock, since the windows were open. I thought there was no way she'd have left town without locking up better. I knocked but there was no answer. I called out, but still nothing. And then, without looking for that spare key, I put my hand on that aluminum door knob and turned. As it opened, I just... knew. I walked inside, asking my husband to wait outside, in case she wasn't dressed or something. The pets, even Bacardi, were all in the living room and seemed oddly disengaged, barely noticing me. I walked to the right, to the bedroom and there I found her. She'd rolled off the bed, onto the floor, and seemed as if she must have thrashed a bit. Her eyes still open, mouth gaping, it was pure, unadulterated awful. She'd clearly been dead for more than 24 hours. The room smelled of death, a scent as real as roses or toast, if you've ever been around people who have died. The evidence of her quite effective means, which I won't get into because I'm not handing out ideas on the subject, were neatly organized on her bedside table. It was a method I'd discussed with my friend who was dying of HIV, but a toxoplasmosis infection in his brain robbed him of any choice in the manner of his death. She knew about it. She'd used it. And with some care, evidently.

Her brief note was a statement to her family that I was the only person she trusted to take care of her pets. In the weeks that followed, I understood why she'd left a stern note. Though I knew her father to be a rather irascible man, her siblings were something of an unknown quantity to me. They proceeded to tell me every bad thing they could about Cindy. That she was a liar and had borderline personality disorder and that she was a nut job and it was so selfish and it was so typical that she'd done this to them. They were glad I was taking the pets so they didn't have to deal with that on top of everything else. My poor friend. Her broken, unhappy life, finally gone and yet still being ripped apart. I wanted to remember the wonderful woman I met on the stairs in 1988. But all they did was rage on. I heard all of it as I helped them go through her things, as I found good homes for her pets, especially for poor Bacardi, who had lost a second owner. But during those weeks and hours that I helped them with her things, I kept living in that moment of discovery, that awful moment, in her room. I don't think I'll ever be able to forget that moment. The image, the scent, the sound. Ah... the sound...

Through the open bedroom window, I could see, could hear, a glass wind chime tinkling in the still brisk wind. It was one of those Chinese ones, with the painted glass. Very reminiscent of the one my grandparents had. For years afterward, I would hear chimes like that and smell death, or at least relive the moment of smelling death. I used to love those chimes. They were like shattered glass in that moment.

It's taken almost fifteen years to get a glass wind chime, the one you see above, which is called "Ice". Of course, I haven't hung it yet. (That's why you get sound from someone else's chimes.) But I am reclaiming glass wind chimes. I need them in my life. They remind me of my grandmother and grandfather and Jeteye and the cats and those languorous afternoons long ago, in spite of all odds. Well, after much reconsideration, let's say. They were a sound of deep comfort in my memory. 

Maybe I need comfort, because in the most bizarre way, history is pretty much repeating itself, in a fashion so eerie, it's déjà vu all over again. Because what are the odds that another friend I met in the same year, 1988, at the same university, in another class, would also have lost her mother, been committed for three years as a teenager for her willfulness, damaged horribly, have a strained relationship with her father, brother and sister, have a nervous breakdown in graduate school a year ago, and now be on the brink of the same choices as was Cindy? Only my family and Les Comtesses have heard this sad story because it is just so achingly painful. My friend is so private. There will be no names that sound like her name. No greater detail provided. But here I sit, writing this at 4 am in the morning, sleepless, wondering if any day now, when I go by her tiny efficiency, if this is going to be the time. Her kitty seems to be her sole reason for continuing with her life and I'm constantly talking her out of putting her cat, who is old but otherwise just fine, to sleep. Every day I talk to her, it's about why she should just take one day at a time. 

I like to think I'm doing better this time, both with her and with how I'm feeling about the whole thing as a very real and painful sort of déjà vu. I like to think it's not going to end the same way. But as time moves on, less and less of my beautiful friend is there. It's like a lathe is stripping away layer after layer of the person I've known for so long now. She is barely recognizable as the beautiful young woman I met in 1988, who had such brio. But it's more than just that. Tonight when I got there and called out her name, through her open windows, she started awake and said weakly, "The door's unlocked. Just come in."

I froze for a moment, with my hand on another aluminum door knob, twisting, twisting open.

Well, this time, the chimes are mine.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2012

No comments:

Post a Comment