Photo Credit: Clip Art
Cheryl A. Bates
The beauty of your spirit will always be in my heart.
Like the joy a rose brings to a sullen mind,
your love and friendship brought out the joy in mine.
No longer are you bound by earthly toils.
Thus, I pray you soar now upon lofty wings
resolving your quest towards the freedom you so desired.
Sing to me of your happiness through the cardinal’s song
and I will sing you mine as you left me behind.
Although I know nothing about writing poetry, I wrote this poem about a dear friend I lost to suicide.
A few years ago I was very excited to accept my first social work faculty appointment at a mid-west university where they claimed to embrace and welcome diversity. It didn’t take long for me to realize that what the university and department said about diversity and how they behaved were two very different things. Although the university had just opened up an LGBT resource center and had active faculty and student support groups, the sexual minority community on campus suffered from competing loyalties, conflicts, and cliquishness, which I did not find particularly welcoming or supportive. My department, like the university and community still held strong anti-gay prejudices. Although I was assured during the interview that my openness about being gay was an important contribution to the diversity of the department, my colleagues were not particularly welcoming and remained distant.
They never reached out to include me in events, never stopped by to visit me in my office, and were always too busy to talk when I asked for assistance. Some were rather blatant. One Saturday I dropped by my office to do some tasks and ran into another colleague who had her daughter there with her. It was apparent that the child was familiar with the office setting and curiously said, “Who is the new professor?” This prompted me to introduce myself and engage in age-appropriate conversation with the child. However, when my colleague discovered who her child was talking to she immediately cut off the interaction and gently but forcefully moved the child towards the door and out of the office despite the child’s reluctance to abruptly end her conversation.
Unable to connect within the university setting, I looked to the local community for support and socialization. Through word of mouth, I found a “gay-friendly” bar where I could meet and socialize with other gay people. It wasn’t a particularly friendly place but I thought as time went on I might connect and begin to build a social life.
It was there that I met my friend. When she walked through the door and saw a new face, she came over and sat down, introduced herself, and began to share stories about herself, her husband, her family, growing up in the area, hunting, fishing, and on and on. Over the next four years, she shared her world with me in such a generous, genuine, and loving way.
As I endured increasingly isolating and hostile conditions at my job, my friend and her family provided a sanctuary for me. They made me feel welcomed and through their kindness and acceptance I experienced the best of the mid-west and learned how to have fun even during the long cold winters. Together we generated a lifetime of joyful memories — from funny camping escapades, fishing, four-wheeling, and even a polar bear plunge!
For her, I was a non-judgmental and supportive friend. Often she would drop in for coffee and seek refuge from the ever increasing challenges of attending to the demands of her family, a drinking husband, and delinquent son. She had been laid off from work she loved due to the company downsizing during a failing economy. Instead of doing a job she performed with pride and a sense of accomplishment, her days were now filled with countless errands, providing transportation for someone, providing care for someone, and always finishing up with dinner on the table.
She was unique in that she pushed against the boundaries of gender and sexuality. She was close to her father and learned to love the outdoors and hunting from him. For her, a visit from a cardinal was her father checking on her and sending his love. She played softball and was in three different leagues at the same time for most of her adult life. She struggled for both personal and public acceptance of her sexual identity. After a deeply romantic relationship with a woman she desperately longed for a connection within the gay community but was shunned because financially she was unable to break free from an unfulfilled, abusive marriage.
She loved country music and the words from a Rascall Flatts song expresses her situation more clearly: “I’ve lived in this place and I know all the faces. Each one is different but they’re always the same. They mean me no harm but it’s time that I face it, they’ll never allow me to change.”
Although I continually process my grief over her untimely death, I find consolation knowing that she has finally found freedom and escaped the bonds of her psychic pain. I grieve that the world lost someone who was truly giving to others even though she didn’t have much herself. And although she only had a high school education and perhaps some learning challenges, she was gifted with people. She understood people and knew how to engage them with kindness, courtesy, and respect. She was creative with the words known to her and would often speak at funerals for friends when their voices were silenced by grief. Her pain was so deep and yet she was viewed by others in the community as refreshing, funny, and engaging. No one was a stranger to her.
I would like to think that in that last moment when she walked from the garage to the basement where she ended her life, that she was making a conscious decision. That thought fills me with pain and anger only because it is a selfish thought centered how the emotions I feel over her death cause me deep hurt and sadness. But when I think about it from her point of view, I am exhilarated knowing that she no longer suffers as she did for such a very long time. She ended her life in the best way she knew how at that moment in time.
Who’s to say that someone who takes his/her own life is a coward, weak, or selfish? I have heard it said that suicide is a selfish act and in some ignorant way I bought into this way of thinking until my friend’s suicide. This July will be the second anniversary of her death and although I still struggle daily with the loss, I am a better person because of having known her.