2020-04-29

A story from Courage Does Not Always Roar. (Excerpted from Chicken Soup for the Unsinkable Soul by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen and Heather McNamara.)

"When you are going through hell, keep going."

- Winston Churchill

"Mom, can I go see Luke now?" Arlyn asked, jangling her car keys in her hand.

Hmmm ... I thought. Since when had Arlyn asked for permission to go anywhere? She was eighteen; she had graduated from high school two months before.

"Of course," I replied. Maybe Arlyn wasn't eager to leave home after all. I worried about whether she would be strong enough to survive the rough, scary world outside our safe nest in rural Georgia. Sometimes she accused me of being overprotective. In two weeks, however, Arlyn would leave for college, whether she was ready or not.

But I was wrong. Very wrong. She did not wait two weeks to leave; she left that very afternoon.

Arlyn said good-bye and drove out into the country. She turned down a long, deserted dirt road and parked her car near a stream. She got out, took an old hunting rifle out of the trunk, placed its barrel into her mouth and pulled the trigger.

Around 3:30, I answered a knock on my door. A man identified himself as a deputy and walked in. He strode across the room to a large photograph hanging on the wall. "Is this your daughter?" he asked, as he glanced from the picture to me.

"Yes," I replied proudly, too surprised to realize that this was not a social call. "That's Arlyn."

He stared at the picture for a moment, then sat down in a chair near the door. He described Arlyn's car and I confirmed it was hers. Then he said, "Your daughter is dead." Just like that.

I wrote and gave the eulogy for my daughter's funeral. For a week, I had no time to think, no time to feel, just time to exist. I functioned as a wooden puppet whose jerky movements are the result of strings pulled by an invisible hand. Others quietly kept order in my surroundings.

Then my family and friends left, and I could feel the silence. I called my child's name aloud, over and over. The telephone rang; I picked it up and waited to hear her voice on the other end, but it was never her. I checked her bedroom a thousand times, hoping to see her, but all I saw was her worn stuffed bunny lying on her pillow. Her clothes hung in her closet and her acceptance letter to the university lay on the floor. When I heard the back door open, I would smile. I expected Arlyn, with her guitar slung over her should, to dance in and give me a hug. When someone else appeared, my smile faded and my heart went numb.

I held on to the fantasy that Arlyn would return. I sat in her car, breathing in her lingering scent. I listened to her music, and I wore some of her clothes.

One night, I drank tea at her favorite coffee shop. A tall, slender brunette with long hair walked in; I leaned forward to get a better look. I stood up, ready to dash across the room and throw my arms around her; but when she moved, I saw that she was not Arlyn. At night, I lay in bed stiffly, corpse-like. I stared blankly at the ceiling hour upon hour, until the morning light slipped through the blinds. Then I would get up; or I wouldn't.

Every minute of the day, I struggled desperately to understand what had happened. Arlyn would never have killed herself. My daughter found joy in living; she laughed, learned and loved. Arlyn was in tune with nature and peace. How could she have taken her own life?

I ransacked her bedroom, searching for clues. In her closet, in dresser drawers, under her bed and on shelves, I found several journals and dozens of pages of her writing. I collected them all into one mountainous pile. Then I sat down to read.

"I keep asking myself why. For my entire life, all I have ever wanted was to be dead, to not be. Why?" she had written.

"I don't know why I didn't kill myself in fifth grade when I had the chance," she had also written. I shook my head, confused. The handwriting was Arlyn's but these words could not be hers.

I thought back to when Arlyn was in sixth grade, ten years ago. One day, the school held a talent contest. Arlyn signed up to sing. She picked out a long, green, Victorian-style dress to wear, and I tied a matching bow in her hair.

When Arlyn stepped up in front of the crowd and took the microphone in her hand, she scanned the audience until she spotted me. Then she smiled. The students talked and laughed with each other, ignoring the shy little girl standing in front of them. I wanted to shout at them to pay attention, but I couldn't.

The music started, and Arlyn began to sing. Her song was "Wind Beneath My Wings," one popularized by Bette Middler.

After a moment, the students stopped chatting and noticed Arlyn. Her strong voice caressed them gently and they focused completely on her.

That afternoon as we drove home, I glanced at the small trophy in her lap. "When you sing," I asked, "do you think about the words?" Arlyn replied, "When I sing 'Wind Beneath My Wings,' I always think of you."

But now, Arlyn was dead, and I was in her bedroom, reading that she had wanted to kill herself in fifth grade. I could not comprehend. My husband and I turned her writing over to a psychiatrist. He said he would do a "psychological autopsy" (an evaluation of someone based on information from writings or other sources.) A few weeks later, he called us in.

He told us that Arlyn was manic-depressive. He said she knew "something" was not right, so she had been tormented by confusion and shame and fear. He explained that the chemicals in her mind were imbalanced and that they had altered her perception of reality. This chemical imbalance had also produced her thoughts of suicide.

The psychiatrist also told us that her brilliant mind made it possible for Arlyn to hide this part of herself from others. He insisted that she did not want to die.

I went home and devoured materials on manic depression (also called bipolar disorder) and on suicide. I began to understand that Arlyn may have viewed death as an escape from emotional pain. It was as though her heart was carrying a heavy weight, and it became unbearable.

So Arlyn, my sensitive, fragile child, carried this burden inside her for years; but one day, she simply could not carry it any more. She knew that if she just stopped walking, that if she closed her eyes and let go, the weight would go away forever. So she killed herself.

A common theme in science fiction is projecting ourselves into the future. Some of us visit psychics, in hopes of learning what tomorrow will bring. Of course, we only want to hear about the "good" things. We know bad things happen, but we generally don't expect them to happen to us.

If we really knew the future, we would alter our behavior profoundly. Since we don't however, we simply plod along, oblivious to the fact that disaster may happen at any moment.

If I had known Arlyn's last day alive would have been August 7, 1996, I would have focused on her exclusively. I would have quit my job to spend more time with her. I would have unplugged the telephone and television, so I could listen to her more carefully. I would not have let her out of my sight for even a nanosecond, so I could have savored her presence. Nothing else would have mattered. But I did not know.

One of the most profound lessons Arlyn's death has taught me is that the only guaranteed moment is this one; therefore, if we live our lives expecting a future that may not exist, we may regret our choices forever.

This knowledge should inspire us to change the way we interact with others. We may choose to treat those we care about with extra attention and sensitivity every moment of every day, or we may plod on about our lives, oblivious to the reality that each moment could be our last- or theirs.

It only takes a little more effort to listen carefully, to give an extra hug, to say kind words. A moment given now may prevent a lifetime of regret.

In closing, I'd like to offer you words from the author Harriet Beecher Stowe. She wrote, "The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deed left undone."

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