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.