Filling that Vase
Having taught college for over 33 years, I was blessed to teach many thousands of students. Most eventually faded from memory, but some are firmly ensconced in my mind forever. One is “Ashli” from a summer many, many years ago. She was a cute elf of a girl with a pretty face, short brown hair, and just enough freckles for a female Huck Finn. I envied her freedom to walk barefoot into the library holding a kitten and offering whatever she was eating to the librarian. She also didn’t hesitate to visit my office or even my house right across from hers just off campus to discuss anything.
I felt honored sitting on her porch in the evening as an audience of one while she strummed an original song on the guitar. Though obviously talented, when told so, she flashed an embarrassed grin before hiding her face in her arm. Similarly, when asked if she had left a small vase of marbles and wild flowers on my back porch, she gave her Stan Laurel smile and nodded. Another time she left a trail of bright red strawberry stickers on a few faculty office doors. I was delighted one graced mine.
But Ashli’s often joyful demeanor couldn’t conceal a desperate search to discern the beat of her own drummer. Her often impish spontaneity and warm open-heartedness were all the more remarkable in the face of her schizophrenia, depression, and vain attempts to hide from both amidst a haze of hallucinogenic drugs. Indeed, psychiatric hospitalizations, a suicide attempt, and plenty of other ordeals confirmed she had crammed way too much heartbreak into just 19 years.
As much as I prefer thinking of Ashli as a perpetually charming pixie, she more often exuded extreme anguish, loneliness, and despair. During class lectures, she was never out of my view. I don’t recall her ever taking notes, but on good days she maintained eye contact for the entire period. If she spoke up, it was likely an unintelligible remark that suddenly evaporated into a childish grin before she buried her head in her arm. “Well, that’s an interesting point,” I’d stammer above many students’ nervous smiles and shifting feet.
By July, Ashli began arriving to class late, if at all, and appeared almost like a somnambulist dragging a heavy load before collapsing in her seat. Then she would stare at the desk, doodle with artwork, or be absorbed in her blue toenails. She often left the classroom only to return 20 minutes later at the same slow pace, oblivious to all. When I once suggested we cut short the mid-class break since we were behind, Ashli tearfully cried out how unfair that was. Her obvious pain and my desire to avoid another outburst determined we would keep our intermission.
My relief at her somehow pulling a B on the first test was tempered by a growing concern about her increasingly aberrant behavior. I was especially fearful of her rising drug usage. Though keenly aware I had zero training as a therapist, I stepped up my efforts to encourage her -- albeit gently -- to restrict her “medicines” to those prescribed and seek professional help again. But no other course of conversation could prompt such an exasperated, defensive outburst. “You don’t understand, dude!” she’d wail before reciting a litany of failed psychiatric efforts and complaining “I can’t feel anything when I take my meds.” I balanced urging what I thought to be imperative with the very real possibility of losing what little influence I had. After all, I assumed Ashli sought my friendship precisely because I accepted her eccentricity and didn’t preach.
About the fifth week of the quarter, I learned she had just endured an especially bad reaction to some illegal mushrooms or LSD and had been put in a mental hospital 40 miles away. Reaching her by phone doused any lingering hope Ashli wasn’t a lost child, terribly alone. I tried repeatedly and just could not get through to her. It was as if she were teetering on the edge of a steep precipice, crying for help but unwilling or unable to grasp anyone’s hand. Not one to dwell on her own problems, she even put another patient on the line, wanting me to meet her newest friend. All Ashli asked for were candy and cigarettes. Always generous, she gave most of these away, according to “Bill,” a professor and close friend of mine who visited her at the hospital.
Perhaps in part because our school lacked a therapist, Bill’s and my offices had long been magnets for the emotionally fragile and lonely, either because we could recognize their favorite bands or were just willing to listen and offer advice free of finger-pointing. Ashli was our most frequent visitor that summer. Whereas her often bizarre comments and behavior startled some, we knew her to be a sweet soul merely attuned to another wavelength. But, though still often charming in her uniquely infectious way, her ever stranger ramblings left us drained and worried.
When she came back from the hospital a few weeks later, summer was waning and her spark, which had so often flickered before, had gone out. There was no more enthusiasm or silly fun. Having long withdrawn from her classes, Ashli slowly shuffled around like a ghostlike specter silently haunting the campus. Once, when I called to her from a distance, she actually jumped in fear before mustering a half-hearted grin. No longer did she visit the office or engage in conversation. She had even gently recoiled from my hug welcoming her back. She also began making dark religious allusions about the summer’s floods and showed me a hodge-podge of her writings which only confirmed my suspicion (and her ready admission) that the latest hospitalization had been another failure.
Shortly before moving away in August, she came by the office to announce, “I’m gonna’ go to California and be big and lead the revolution just like him,” pointing to a poster of John Lennon. Recalling how casually she had earlier spoken of a suicide attempt, I begged her again to promise calling if she felt suicidal. When asked if she needed my numbers again, her face lit up and she nodded eagerly before leaving with them. Feeling helpless, I simply prayed for her.
I didn’t see her again until the last pretty day of the year, in November, as I ran across campus to queue up in the school cafeteria’s dinner line. In front of the building, I suddenly heard a drawled but cheerful “Hey, Mr. Young.” There was Ashli, grinning and beautiful as never before in a charming black dress, standing atop a raised flower bed surrounded by several students, holding her perpetual cigarette. Not wanting to get stuck in the back of the line on “rib night,” I’m ashamed to admit I only managed a surprised “Hello” and resolved to speak with her after eating. But she was gone when I returned an hour later. How I’ve regretted not stopping to chat earlier.
The next April I was reading at the library late one afternoon when a staffer familiar with Ashli came over to get a paper.
“Hey, there’s a report on the Internet that that girl you tried to help last year just killed herself,” she informed me in a matter-of-fact, slightly gossipy tone.
A creeping chill started in my chest and made its way down to my stomach just like all the other times I’ve been truly scared. But this one produced an eerie sensation I’d not encountered before. I stared at the newspapers and felt as if time had suddenly stopped.
“And I think it’s true,” she declared.
In spite of all my dread that just such a nightmare would befall my friend, the thought of Ashli in the past tense felt absolutely alien. For several long minutes, it was difficult to think at all. Indeed, this was the first time I’d heard of trouble with Ashli without immediately proposing, “Oh, she needs to do this or that,” and then asking “How can I help?” Instead, I sat not knowing what to do or even think.
When my gaze finally met the paper I was holding, its news seemed trivial, and I couldn’t read anymore. To avoid feelings of despair, I resolved to throw myself full throttle into some kind of constructive task. My immediate obsession was to get to the office phone and find out the truth (this was years before we all got smart phones). But what I assumed would be easily acquired information turned into the investigative equivalent of starting a stalled car. Ashli’s hometown police department kept transferring my call to officers who said I needed to speak to someone else, who was invariably out. Each explained he couldn’t confirm such information anyway. Finally, a young lady at the bottom of the bureaucracy admitted that, although she couldn’t release the name, there had, in fact, been a local 20-year-old girl who had died over the weekend. She suggested I call the small town’s newspaper.
It was another nice lady working late that evening at the paper who buried any last hope it wasn’t Ashli. After reciting the pitiful little name-rank-and-serial-number obituary, we agreed it cried out for something, anything, to three-dimensionalize her. So I added some favorable quotes we hoped could comfort the family.
Because no one either knew or would say how she died, I contacted the funeral home the next day. Though it may have been morbid, I didn’t want any lingering questions about Ashli’s death marring my memories of her life. It was the mortician/coroner who reluctantly confirmed she had indeed killed herself at home while her parents were at an Easter Vigil Mass. She used one pistol shot. Hopefully she died instantly. And, yes, Ashli left a note.
When I got off the phone, I knew the first person to tell was Bill, the other professor who had befriended her. The last thing I wanted was for him to overhear the news via campus gossip. Since it was almost time for his 6 p.m. class, I figured he would be finishing dinner in the cafeteria. Walking briskly to join him, I resolved not to hint at the news yet or he’d be unable to lecture that evening. But, since the funeral was in just two days, I asked him to stop by the house after class. When he asked what was up, I just said I needed to talk about something.
When he arrived, we exchanged a few pleasantries before I asked him to take a seat. Suddenly too nervous to sit, he wanted to know what was wrong. Having rehearsed how best to break the news, I simply stated Ashli had committed suicide. Looking like all the air had just been sucked out of him, Bill leaned his head back, groaned, and started wandering about the house, finally putting his hand against a wall. He repeatedly asked if it could be someone else. But then I told him about her obituary.
Bill’s anguish was the more acute since he had been closer to Ashli and had continued to get calls from her since she moved -- not to the West Coast but to yet another institution. His grief was compounded by a fear he could have somehow helped avert her tragic fate. I kept trying to assure him he had done more than anyone on campus and was likely her best friend.
For the next couple of hours we sat on the front porch overlooking Ashli’s old house consoling each other. I recounted the day my brother and I were children riding home from visiting our maternal grandparents and our mother had started crying. When we asked Daddy what was wrong, he said she was sad Mamaw and Papa were now very old and sick. But years later she revealed the true source of those tears. She had an overwhelming sensation she had seen a close relation for the last time, since he was killing himself with drugs. Her intuition was soon proven correct. I implored my distraught friend to try to appreciate that if this successful man’s family couldn’t restrain him, how could he blame himself regarding Ashli? I unexpectedly ended up crying at the memory of my mother’s grief, but hoped Bill got the point.
I couldn’t bear to go to Ashli’s hometown funeral. Emotions were raw and, though I’d soldiered through a pair of grandparents’ funerals growing up, I doubted my stamina to get through this one. I also selfishly feared students seeing Mr. Young break down. Coming from an emotionally reserved family, I’d always had difficulty letting tears flow, especially in public.
Bill and three students did go to the memorial service. Upon hearing how terribly broken up everyone was, I was relieved not to have gone. Besides, I rationalized, the Ashli I knew was the troubled late adolescent from the college, not the hometown child I never met.
It was encouraging how so many faculty, staff, and students signed the sympathy card. No one who knew her was shocked, but it was moving to learn just how many people had been touched by Ashli, worried about her, tried to help, and wished her folks well.
It was a few months before a day slipped by without thinking of her at least once. There were so many daily reminders everywhere. A pair of her strawberry stickers still graced the office door. Gradually, I could remember happy moments with her. But, as inevitable as the night follows a pretty sunset, an emotional pallor would soon darken such musings. Dear God, the poor child. Her poor family. What should or could have been done to prevent this? Had we done enough?
Decades later, I occasionally think of Ashli, and can revive some pleasant memories without becoming sad. Though time soothes wounds and deepens our perspective on mortality, a premature death remains especially sad because of the permanent loss of so much unfulfilled potential. There’s also no forgetting how utterly miserable and hopeless Ashli must have felt for so long to resign herself to suicide.
How horrible for the survivors as well. I try to imagine her parents finding her, and still cannot finish the thought. How perfectly horrendous to find your daughter like that, to have to clean up the mess, and then later to dispose of her belongings. Ashli’s suffering may be over, but her family members have had to somehow continue to bear this shattering blow for the rest of their lives. There’s always an empty seat at the table and a vacant bedroom. Birthdays and holidays are forever marred. Will her mother and father always be second-guessing their actions? Are they angry at a never-ending anguish, God, or even Ashli? Or are they relieved her ordeal is over? Have they been able to let go and move forward with their lives? How differently have others treated them since the tragedy, and how differently have they treated each other? So many marriages fall apart after the death of a child.
I still sometimes ask if I could have done more for Ashli. After reviewing all the failed attempts to persuade her to ditch the dope, take her prescriptions, and get therapy, just the hours spent together as friends were likely my best efforts. I absolutely regret not hugging her tightly and telling her how wonderful she was and how much poorer the world would be without her.
Could others have done better by her? Certainly the “friends” who exploited her kindness and plied her with poison. Perhaps even worse were those in positions of responsibility who refrained from “getting too involved” in a clearly difficult case.
I’ve also struggled to sort out Ashli’s accountability. Was she the victim of defective brain chemistry? How much did all those professional therapists and expensive hospitalizations really help? Indeed, she bemoaned that their medicines drained the life out of her. At least her illicit substances may have eased some of the agony, at least briefly.
But did anyone insist Ashli ingest dangerous, illegal drugs with such plainly terrible consequences or include within her circle some bonafide deviant losers? Or worse, could suicide be construed as the ultimate selfish, narcissistic act, the greatest cop-out of all, going AWOL forever from all life’s ills? She likewise left her family -- who loved her and did more for her than anyone -- utterly devastated. It’s the survivors who must soldier on, permanently scarred.
But do I have the right to judge? I never felt Ashli’s emotional turmoil. What’s more, who among us has not at some low point considered, however fleetingly, the same recourse? How productive is such condemnation anyway?
Arguably, the worst aspect of a suicide is it taps open disturbing speculations regarding life’s most basic mysteries. How could a caring God permit this nightmare to befall such a gentle girl (and family) who meant no harm to anyone? Is life merely a genetic/environmental crapshoot in which poor Ashli lost out? With apologies to Einstein, maybe God really does play dice with the universe.
My deepest instinct says this view is an unduly bleak take on life fueling the very hopelessness that can spur a suicide. There’s far too much good, joy, love, art, and possibility in this world not to realize how cherished life should really be. Though there are still manifold afflictions and untold heartbreaks, modern medications have literally been life-savers for so many other Ashlis. Maybe they could have been for my little friend, too, had she only found the right ones and taken them diligently. How I wish she could have comprehended that death is forever. And, yet, I forgive her for potentially sparing herself another 60 years of torment.
In any event, I no longer assume suicide won’t intrude upon my acquaintances. After Ashli’s death, I referred far more students to counseling and have been increasingly inquisitive -- downright forward -- with anyone in my path appearing inordinately down. But I also appreciate just how remarkably well so many people conduct their lives despite being burdened with so much psychological baggage.
Much like when I walk through cemeteries, looking at Ashli’s empty vase impresses me with the urgency of not taking life for granted. As Gregg Allman sang just after his brother Duane’s untimely death, “Ain’t wastin’ time no more, ’cause time rolls by like hurricanes, chasing after subway trains.” Precisely because our existence is so difficult and short, I resolve to fill mine to capacity. No other day has more time than this one. How dead-on was Woody Allen’s declaration that “The saddest thing in life is a missed opportunity.” Now I try to tell loved ones how much they are cherished TODAY. Good intentions are nice, but only positive actions can make a difference -- and avert guilt.
At 59 (or, as I told classes, 49 plus interest), I’ve long been persuaded the only person who can finally transform my life is me. Period. But what about someone like Ashli with a major mental illness out of her control? When in the grip of delusions, can such a person be accountable for her actions? Perhaps she did the best she could. There’s a profound difference between emotional difficulty and major mental illness.
Ashli certainly personifies how vulnerable we are and how fleeting life is. For those of us blessed to have our sanity, how much greater is the imperative to do what’s best for ourselves AND our Ashlis. Precisely because life can become inundated with unhappiness and difficulty, we should make every effort to cherish what’s good and help each other from ever leaning too far over that occasionally tempting precipice. Exactly because, as novelist Harry Crews noted, “The world doesn’t work,” we should resolve to make it better. As Jack Kerouac wrote, “life is holy and every moment is precious.” The alternative is death -- which arrives too soon anyway. At least if we’ve given our best, matured to our fullest in the time allotted, and done all we can for others, it’s not a tragedy.