I am a registered nurse, reader, writer, and mother of three young men who have never caused me a moment of stress (wink).
My husband’s cell phone rings, his sister is calling, he doesn’t answer and tells me he’ll call her back later.
I am waist-deep in lime green pool water, that is so cloudy, my hand is no longer visible two inches below the surface.
“It’s alright,” laughs Aunt Diane, “it’s only green from all the rain we’ve had, it won’t kill you.”
We are on a family vacation at her home along the Virginia coastline. The temperature is a humid ninety-eight degrees, unbearably hot. I decide to believe the green water won’t kill me and I swim.
That day, years ago, is still so vivid even now. I see the deep laceration, my uncle sustained on his leg while working on his boat and the sunburns soothed with aloe. We are sitting beneath the shade of the marina gazebo and feeding our hungry children peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with shiny foil juice boxes, oblivious to the brewing storm about to change our lives forever.
My husband walks off to a quieter place to call his sister.
Later, when we have a moment alone, he tells me his sister isn’t feeling well. She tells him something vague about low energy and not enjoying things the way she usually does.
She is the pillar of the family. An amazing woman who volunteers for every cause within fifty miles. I cannot remember a time she isn’t helping someone. Without a doubt, she’s the kindest woman I’ve ever known. I wish now I didn’t know her that way, maybe then words and conversations would have caused alarm bells to ring. But they don’t. The rest of our trip is uneventful as we trek back to Georgia.
The first moments home from a long vacation bring a mixture of the blues and relief. Somehow, we feel the need for a vacation from the vacation. Sand and dirty laundry fill the house. I start sorting through a huge pile of mail and hit play on the answering machine.
“Hey there, hope all is okay with you. If you get a minute, give me a call, I wanted to talk to you about something. Love you. Bye.” End of message.
I glance at the clock, and it’s pretty late, so I decide to call the next day.
In the morning it is business as usual as my husband heads to work. First day back and he is flying to Europe for the annual company meeting. When the phone rings, I think it might be a quick call from the airport.
“Hi, there? I just tried calling your husband on his cell, no answer.”
“He’s traveling for work. Everything alright?” I already know something is wrong, and I’m not sure why I ask. It’s the oldest brother on the other end of the line, telling me their sister is missing. She had gone to her doctor, excused herself to use the restroom and walked right out the back door. My legs begin to shake and a surreal sense surrounds me. Missing?
Within hours there are search parties, police canine units, and media coverage. My husband flies home and then to New England to help the search. I follow the news as billboards with her picture are placed along the highway. I listen as the family teeters in and out of reality. They are desperate and hopeful. I am doubtful. There are times in life when you want to be wrong, but I wasn’t. We would never see her alive again.
I heard some of her story, and I wanted to believe that she ran off to clear her mind. Maybe she’d fallen in a river or a ravine and gotten injured. Three long anguish filled weeks pass before she is found.
Secrets are revealed. There had been a previous bout with depression when the youngest sibling died unexpectedly, but that was a decade earlier, and medication proved successful. The diagnosis of bipolar disorder, most of us were unaware of. I am not sure why. Mental illness is like that, debilitating in its wayward pride. It convinces you to keep things hush-hush to avoid stigmas. It will tell you that going to the hospital is a bad thing and that death would be better. Those are the irrational whispers she heard. We know this from her journal entries that were discovered as hundreds of people were searching for her. There were small signs, but nothing blatant. If you had asked me before this tragedy what the chance was of her committing suicide, I would have said zero percent. Zero. Ask me now and I’ll tell you, if it happened to her, it could happen to anyone.
I wore the grief miserably for months, even longer. What if I had called her back late that night? I’ll never know. I wished so much for a different ending, a chance to turn back time.
The loss of a loved one in such a tragic way changes you. You listen better and love harder. Always, always in the back of your mind are unanswered questions. There’s a sixth sense regarding others and what they might be going through.
Two years passed and I was still working as an Employee Health nurse in a busy pediatric hospital. One day near the end of my shift, an employee came to me requesting a blood pressure check. After determining a normal blood pressure, I began to dig a little deeper. She was quiet as tears welled in her eyes. As I began to ask more questions; she revealed her plan to end her life that day. Instead, we went together to a nearby facility. Willingly, she admitted herself, and I squeezed her hand as they led her away.
Many months later she appeared at my office door. She told me how well she was, happy and whole.
“You saved me,” she said hugging me tightly. “You saved me.”
“You saved yourself.”
Secretly I knew we had someone else to thank.