Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Friend, her Death, a Lesson

Susie D was my one longtime friend in high school, an all girls private day school in Connecticut. From 8th grade, when I started, through 11th, when she left for boarding school, she was the one person I could count on to be loyal and accepting, even in the dark days when my other classmates were beginning to laugh at me and dub me the zombie, because I stared blindly into space and would not respond to conversation, not even a direct question.

A tiny, birdlike thing, with pipe-stem limbs, an oval face, and thick wavy hair, Susie had large, dark, hyperopic eyes, magnified only the more by her thick lenses. She was by the far the smartest girl in my class, having skipped a grade in days when that was virtually unheard of, and was especially talented in music ñ composition, violin and piano and languages, though frankly she was good at everything she undertook. Even when, for unknown reasons except general disaffection and unhappiness, she refused to do any schoolwork and her motivation slipped, her grades plummeted, she still easily got into Columbia (Barnard in those days), and missed Harvard only by a hair.

Then, just before she turned 21, she took an overdose of pills and alcohol in her dorm room, and died, the first suicide at Barnard in nearly a decade. I know this because though Susie and I were only exchanging letters at the time, with rare phone calls in between, my father saw the article in the New York Times and announced -- to one and all, but his intentions directed at me, sitting as far away from him as possible in the dining room -- Guess who died!

Naturally I had no idea. Who? I grudgingly responded.

Susie D-- he said, with what seemed like a certain gloating satisfaction.

I felt my heart go cold and dead. Now what had I done? Why hadn’t I known she was in trouble? Why hadn’t I saved her? Hadn’t I walked by her house during school vacation only a few days earlier, or so it seemed, and not stopped to say hello, mostly because at 80 pounds I felt I was too fat to be acceptable? Iíd even crossed the street and hid my head lest her father, working in the pachysandra outside, recognize and invite me in.

In the days and weeks that followed, Susie was with me everywhere. In my dreams, in my fantasies, even seemingly in strangers I passed on the street. The pressure of my guilt kept me up at night, and during the day I saw everything with the eyes of the newly grieving. I never let an hour go by when I didn’t think of her, desperately afraid that were I to slip and forget her, even for a moment, that ultimate betrayal would push her away forever. I often woke from sleep thinking I could call her to chat or even just to get her expert help in solving the notoriously difficult Sunday Times doublecrostic. I forgot she was dead. It seemed to me that if I kept her in my thoughts, she was still truly and actually alive, and I did all I could to keep her that way, refusing to accept the stone-hard fact of her death.

One particularly troubled night, I went to bed late and when I dreamed I dreamed of Susie, as I so often did. I describe this episode in my book, and so won’t ruin the suspense by relating it here, except to say that I woke feeling better than I had in months, certain I’d had a visitation and had been advised by Susie herself to let go of my feelings of guilt and understand she’d chosen to do what she did. Most important of all was her “message” that I was not to follow her to the grave, but was to “join the party,” continue living my life.

I never forgot her, though she died over thirty years ago. And every so often late at night I’ll find myself writing a poem one yet again about her or to her. But this is not unhealthy. Susie was my friend. Why shouldn’t I still remember her, her wittiness and intelligence and loyalty, with fondness and affection? In some sense it *has* kept her alive, if only in my memory, and for that I am both glad and grateful.


No comments: