Clean laundry

When I was little, my mom washed and hung our clothes outside on the clothesline to dry. We had a dryer but keeping costs down was important and our clothes smelled terrific afterward. Over the years, we lost grass in our backyard and the clothesline poles rusted. Using the dryer became more convenient. My parents also raised English Springer Spaniels so I imagine the dogs playing fetch with our clean clothes was an encouragement to bring the chore inside.

The Amish in Indiana still dry their clothes outside and I couldn’t help but take a picture because of the fond memories that surfaced. Seeing white and colored clothes, newly cleaned, flapping in the wind and summer sun for all to see.

There’s a transparency to hanging your clothes outside – passersby see overalls that have seen heavy, manual labor. Brightly colored baby clothes and blankets celebrate new life and growing families. One notices the difference between the children’s clothes, which are tiny renditions of what the adults wear – shorts, shirts, skirts and such. Everything is evident for the world to see, at least for a short period.

This week I found out that a close friend of mine committed suicide in 2006. Her name was Lorna. My husband and I moved from Colorado to Indiana in 2005 and I lost contact with her soon after. We’d been friends for about 20 years.

So, you’re probably wondering what laundry has to do with this story? I was reminded of the difficult things in our lives that we keep hidden. It’s only on those rare occasions, when we decide to hang out our laundry, that our lives are “open to the public.”

Lorna and I knew each other for almost 10 years before I found out that she was bi-polar. Was I that self-absorbed and uncaring, not to realize that she struggled with such a devastating disease?

She was one of the most creative, warm, funny, caring people I know. I knew she suffered from depression, but I didn’t know how badly it affected her until another friend, Lilly, and I were planning a trip with Lorna to Italy. We’d get together every Friday night and plan. She had entered a manic phase and I wasn’t very familiar with the disease. I just thought she had a lot more energy than usual.

We had dinner one night and she wore gloves. We asked her about her hands and she said they were dry and she’d put lotion on them. The gloves were to lock in the moisture. It seemed a bit strange but not impossible. We found out days later that she had boiled spaghetti noodles on the stove and stirred them with her bare hands, burning them. She hadn’t slept in days. She had trouble sitting still and moved from room to room, with us in tow. She had moments when she seemed fine, so we figured she just lacked sleep and was overdoing her work schedule.

She was hospitalized right before we were to leave on our trip and she couldn’t go. She was angry at us for not being able to come get her and angry with her family for admitting her. After we returned from Italy, she talked about it briefly. She didn’t like the medication they had given her and she discontinued it. She seemed to get better on her own for a period of time. She was a maid of honor at my wedding, although she hated fancy schmancy dresses. She remained a good friend and confidant.

She was a fiercely independent and exceptionally strong person. She successfully completed nursing school, working at a Chinese restaurant to fund her education, became an oncology nurse and saved up and bought a condo. Some of her nursing friends burnt out on the oncology wing because of the sad patient outcomes. Lorna became more steadfast in serving those going through diagnosis, treatment, remission and death. She’d share stories with us of the wonderful people she met. She had a great sense of humor which served her well with her patients. It also helped her hide her pain.

I was sad that I lost touch with her after the move. I Googled her every so often, trying to find an updated phone number, address or email. She wasn’t on social media. I left a voice mail for her mom but she never returned my call.

I can’t believe that her obituary showed up last week. Why hadn’t it pulled the other 50 times that I’d searched for her? I would have attended her memorial service if I had known. To show my love and respect for her, to celebrate her wonderful life with which she’d blessed others.

Twenty years ago, having a mental illness was something you kept under wraps. It wasn’t talked about in social circles – it was barely acknowledged by family members. I wonder if we had talked more openly about it, if she’d be alive today? If I had been in Denver, I’d like to think that I would have sought her out, stopped by her home and made her engage with me.

After I read her obituary, I still wasn’t able to find anyone that would talk about her passing, except my friend Lilly who was as surprised, and saddened, as I was to hear the news. I’ve wrestled with deep sadness and despair. How could someone I loved so much and felt so close to, not want to live anymore? Was there something more I could have done? Was I somehow complicit in helping her hide her pain?

Knowing Lorna and her strong resolve, if she didn’t want to live anymore, she would have ensured that she accomplished her goal.

Lorna was close to her grandmother who was a strong Christian. My prayer is that Lorna is with God, who created her just as she was and loved her more than anyone. I hope she’s reunited with all the people that she helped as a nurse and her loving cats.

I wasn’t going to publish her name but I didn’t want to shrink away from the real tragedy of mental illness. I’m not ashamed of her. She loved people and animals and would have done anything for anyone. I don’t want her life, and death, to be talked about in hushed whispers. She suffered from a devastating disease that finally took her life. A life well-lived in service to others.


  1. Reply

    It is sad to hear of the loss of your friend. Even if you had lost touch over the years that doesn’t take away the memories of friendship shared. Sounds like she had a good life when she was experiencing some “normalcy” and that she was a blessing to those she cared for. My brother was bi-polar. It was so wonderful when times were good for him and so awful when they were not. Knowing his suffering is over has eased the sadness of losing him.

  2. Reply

    I sit here on this Saturday morning with tears flowing down my face at the loss of your beautiful friend. What a loving moving tribute to your friend’s life and achievements. Her own suffering, I believe helped her know the needs of her oncology patients. She is at peace now maybe more than ever in her life.
    My wish is that those who do brain research can discover more about bipolar causes and lives so more can be done to eliminate or ease the lives of those with that condition. Becky and I had a twin aunt with bipolar illness, and that aunt told me the life expectancy of a person with bipolar conditions is a short one as suicides are more likely in persons who are bipolar. This aunt, 3 years older than me, died in her sleep according to her husband in January of 2013, 3 months before Becky’s death from cancer. That aunt will always be missed. A cousin (who is the daughter of the other twin aunt) also suffers from bipolar illness. She had to quit teaching and is now the full time caretaker of her husband paralyzed from a car accident. He also was a teacher.
    In my mother’s family in earlier generations there were several suicides. This is on both sides of Mom’s family. Some happened in the late 1800s and some in the early 1900s. NO one has any idea exactly why these early suicides happened. What was the reason or reasons so many were driven to ending their lives?
    In my lifetime my best friend’s father shot himself when I was in 5th grade and in the room just down the stairs from where Stanley took his life. I heard his wife holding their baby say, “Oh, Stanley, NO!” Then I heard the sound which I thought was a balloon popping. My 8th grade friend and Stanley’s older daughter was sobbing and I held on their front porch when I told her, “We need help.” I ran next door, caught my mother with my younger sister in the car, told her Stanley had shot himself, where upon she starting screaming for my Dad. Within a short time, my father’s older brother also committed suicide, and my Dad found him. My Dad talked with my Mom one morning as he and my mother had their coffee before work. “Why didn’t he (his brother) talk to me?”
    The bottom line is, most do not talk to anyone – family, friends, or ministers. I hope they talk with God who has to know of their suffering.
    I do not believe there was anything, Diane, you could have done that would have changed your friend’s suffering. I do not believe that you could have changed the ending of your friend’s life, even if like Stanley’s wife you were standing in the same room right beside her.

    I do believe her life was better because you were her friend, and many lives were better because she lived.
    I think all we can do is encourage people to work for better care of people with emotional or mental illnesses the same way we work so hard to end cancer or heart disease.

    Thank for sharing your friend’s story. I will pray today for her, her family and friends, and for those still living with bipolar disease.
    Diana Igo

  3. Reply

    You were the best friend that you could be. And, you’re right, people didn’t talk about mental illness, depression, or suicidal thoughts back then. They barely talk about them now. And, it is an illness. A brain and emotional illness. You have written a beautiful tribute to your friends. You have honored her and lifted her up. Her healing spirit lives on. Peace to you.
    Mary at Play off the Page

  4. Reply

    I’m sorry to hear about the lost of your friend. What-ifs and maybes will only hurt you unnecessarily. It sounds like you had a wonderful friendship and many memories to treasure.

  5. Reply

    Thank you so much for sharing this story, and may your friend Rest In Peace. I saw a clothesline this past weekend and thought of you and this story. Much love!

    1. Reply

      Thanks, Kristin!

  6. Reply

    That’s such a nice post you wrote. In a way, you are celebrating her life and your memories of her by posting about her. I’m sure she’s at peace now. It’s too bad there isn’t a cure for that type of illness.

    1. Reply

      I am surprised that there isn’t better treatment available for depression and bi-polar disorder. Especially because it’s not that uncommon today. What’s hard is that the treatment for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. Our brain chemistry is quite unique! Thanks for your comment. I really appreciate it!

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