One of the interesting things about being a writer is the way you’re always finding stuff. Stuff you wrote years or months or (as I get older) days ago that you don’t remember writing. Stuff you’ve hidden from yourself for whatever reason.
Not long ago I unearthed three pages that caused me to rewrite the entire manuscript of my newest novel. Today I stumbled upon this piece I wrote almost fifteen years ago after a dear friend attempted suicide. It brought back a lot of memories.
“I think it has something do to with knowing nothing is—or ever will be—perfect,” Jane sighs. “And there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Her eyes are at half mast, her chin sunk in her hands as she stares past me into the middle distance. She takes a sip of tea and leans back in her chair, rearranging her feet around Mocha, her chocolate lab dozing in a golden puddle of sun on the café patio.
It all seems very usual, Jane and Mocha and me. Same place—our favorite café in the village. Same time—late afternoon, midweek. Same occupation—chatting aimlessly or intensely. About why Mocha was born with one ear shorter than the other. About dreams we’ve had and their possible meanings. My new manuscript, her new painting. The on-again off-again romance of her son Josh. The latest endearing or annoying episode of one of our husbands.
It seems so usual, in fact, that there’s a huge disconnect when I remember the day less than two weeks ago…I see myself walking. Turning the corner onto her street, just like in a cop show on TV. The fire truck and the ambulance, lights flashing, a swarm of uniformed police, paramedics. Suddenly I’m running, each step sending shockwaves up through my knees, the rushing sound of my own breath like wind across the mouth of a cave. I recall the feeling of moving very fast but not moving at all, the street getting longer, the house smaller, the Ballerina roses along the fence seeming to recede into the distance, as if I’m looking through the wrong end of a telescope.
The emergency crew apparently preceded me only by minutes. Thank God.
What would I have done if I’d been the one to find her, half-conscious on the seat of her blue Toyota, engine running, garage door shut? Would I have found her? If she hadn’t answered the door would I have had the sense to look in the garage? Her husband Cliff had left a message on my machine from somewhere in the Midwest; I could hear the tension knotting his voice.
“Would you mind just checking on Jane? She doesn’t answer the phone, and I’m a bit worried. She’s been depressed…” His voice trailed off. Fortunately he also called the police.
She’d been depressed. Of course, I knew that. With the total recall of a guilty conscience, I see her standing on the sidewalk in front of my house after book club the day before “the incident,” as she now refers to it.
Her long, thick red hair flashed its gold highlights and she smiled when I asked if she wanted something cold to drink.
“All I really want,” she said, “is to go to sleep and never wake up.”
I’d gotten used to her saying those kinds of things. I’ve said them myself on occasion. Without thinking, without any real understanding of what they meant. Now I understand.
I most certainly do not want to go to sleep and never wake up. I am the sort of person who, at death’s door, will undoubtedly cling to the last flimsy shred of life, gulping my final breath. And I’m having a very hard time understanding the mindset that would cause my attractive, intelligent, wildly creative friend to turn her face to the dark.
When I first met Jane almost ten years ago, I was simultaneously attracted and repelled by her. She was honest and open. She was tactless and blunt. She put her whole being into everything, she was always on the verge of saying more than you were comfortable hearing.
She was idealistic, and annoyingly pragmatic at the same time. If I complained about the quality of schools, she would demand that I stop whining and become a classroom volunteer. When one of our friends grumbled about the panhandlers on the beach, she immediately challenged him to spend Thanksgiving Day serving dinner at the homeless shelter.
She was spontaneous and imaginative, whipping up a dinner party or replacing her lawn with a rock garden or painting a mural in her bathroom the way I would decide to change the radio station. If you were thinking about starting a scrapbook or making new curtains, you knew not to mention it till you had decided exactly what you wanted to do. Because given the slightest whiff of uncertainty, Jane would take over your project, spinning wild beauty from her paints, beads, baskets, ribbons, stones.
She loved her job as sales manager for an art magazine, thrived on the constant travel, the chaos of interacting with artists and designers, the pressure, the deadlines, the crises. She could still find time to jet up to San Francisco for the new Calder exhibit or to go hear Josh Redmond play the saxophone. She was perpetually in motion, searching for the ultimate in everything. Seeking perfection.
Which, I now suspect, she equated with peace.
I’ve always thought of myself as emotional, not cerebral. Not given to philosophical ramblings. I’m a baker of bread. I bake other things, too, but nothing else that I bake calms me or satisfies me the way bread does. Nothing else teaches me as much. This is one thing I’ve learned:
There is no such thing as perfect bread. Perfection implies static, inert, final. Dead. And bread is very much alive.
Every loaf has its own personality, its own resistance to the process. You can’t force it to your will; the best you can do is strike a bargain. Some days you settle for good bread, knowing the possibility exists for amazing bread tomorrow.
Sitting in the café that day, Jane confessed to me that this “incident” isn’t the first time she’s attempted suicide. And she refused to promise that it would be the last.
But now she laughs when I call her on the phone in the afternoons. When I knock on her door and say I just happened to be in the neighborhood, she pretends not to see through my white lie. She even seems grateful for my presence.
I suppose she could be just waiting for the right time, the right place, the opportunity. People who truly want to die can generally find a way. But she’s back at book club, back at making her jewelry, painting her pictures. Back at working and traveling. She’ll humor me by letting me take her shopping or out to lunch. She’s even mentioned that maybe we should go to Sedona, like we’ve been talking about for years. So I allow myself to hope. And hope, as the Tao reminds us, is saying yes when nobody asked.
Irony. Jane found a good therapist, got on the right cocktail of antidepressants and decided she wanted to live. She died of renal cancer in 2008 and is sorely missed by all of us who loved her.