Saturday, August 30, 2008

Fear of Flying

Six years ago, on August 30, 2002, I took my best friend Erin skydiving for her 30th birthday. When I had asked her what she planned to do for her 30th birthday, she said, "Crawl into my bed and cry."

I said, "Well, that's not very creative. Why don't we do something fun? Something exciting!"

"Like what?" she asked.

"I don't know. Something memorable," I replied.

I paused.

"Like . . . . skydiving."

Before it was out of my mouth, I already regretted it. Did I really want to do that? I had always planned to go skydiving someday, but was I ready for that kind of excitement? After all, I was afraid of heights. I hyperventilate standing at the edge of a movie theater balcony.

Erin's face lit up. "Skydiving?!!! YES! LET'S DO IT!"

At that point, there was no getting out of it. We were going skydiving.

Erin and I had met a few years prior in an adjunct faculty office at the community college where we both worked. She was stylish, intelligent, funny, and intimidating. The first time we talked, she asked, "Who's your favorite literary theorist?" as if there was a right answer. At first, I thought she might be a bit of a literary snob, a stuffy intellectual, but I soon realized she was just extremely bright--a brilliant novelist who had penned two novels--and a wealth of information about all things literary, historical, and political.

A week after we first met, she invited me to dinner. We found out that we had attended the same university and shared many of the same college friends. We soon became fast friends and spent most afternoons together, having coffee, grading papers, shopping, running, hiking, and gossiping about men, sex, and the sordid sex lives of our former university professors, who were in their 60s and sleeping with 20-something grad students that we knew.

Our friendship was full of laughter--both at others and at ourselves. One of our favorite daytime excursions was going to Nordstrom Rack, picking out the most hideous clothes we could find, forcing each other to try them on, then laughing at each other until we almost peed our pants as we emerged from the dressing room wearing full length Lycra "evening gowns" with glued-on glitter, studded and bejeweled "pleather" vests, mom jeans, or senior citizen cruise ship attire.

Weekends were spent drinking, salsa dancing, picking up men, and talking loudly in bars about inappropriate topics. We were always doing something together.

Our friendship, though close, wasn't without its flaws. Like a bad boyfriend, Erin would sometimes stand me up, leaving me sitting on my couch on a Saturday night in my over-the-top salsa dancing ensemble--a red and black short, flirty dress, darkly shadowed eyes, and glittery red toenail polish--without as much as a phone call. Sometimes she seemed irrational. We didn't fight much, but she began to disappoint me more and more frequently. I didn't quite understand what was going on, but it would soon become clear.

One day, I got a call from Erin's mom. Erin had been hospitalized with a nervous breakdown after trying to drive to Mexico to see the Virgin of Guadalupe. The police had found her wandering, confused and alone, in southern California. She didn't know who she was, but they were able to contact her parents after finding her driver's license. She just left work one day, got in her car, and tried to drive to Mexico. I was shocked. Who does that? Why would she do that?

Erin was upset that her mom had called me. She was embarrassed. Yet she called me from the local hospital where her parents had moved her and asked me to bring her yogurt-covered raisins. I obliged.

When I arrived at the hospital, I was buzzed into the psychiatric ward through a series of locked doors. One young man sat on a bench near the doors talking to himself. Others swatted at invisible insects and talked to invisible people. It was what you'd expect from a psychiatric ward: disturbing, hopeless, and crushingly sad.

I found Erin's room and walked in, not knowing what to expect. She was sitting in the dark, looking nervous and shaky.

"I can't believe my mom called you," she began, sounding somewhat like her normal self.

"I can't believe you didn't call me!" I said.

"I didn't want you to see me like this," she said, looking at the floor. "Did you bring the raisins?"

"Here they are," I said, handing them to her. She stuck her hand into the plastic sack and ate several handfuls as if she was starving. Then all semblance of normalcy disappeared, as a look of complete horror came over her face.

"They are wet! Why are they wet? Why are they wet?" She collapsed into tears, sobbing uncontrollably.

The raisins weren't wet. I didn't know what to say or what to do. She didn't want me to touch her. I didn't want to scare her. I didn't want to contradict her. I didn't know what to do, but I was there.

Before I left the hospital, I gave her a card that told her I loved her, and I would be there no matter what. And I was.

Erin was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and the last year or so of our friendship was peppered with all sorts of disturbing incidents: Erin's frequent drunk driving, hallucinations, and delusions. Voices in her head told her all sorts of things. One day she thought I had poisoned her food. We were eating at a restaurant when she suddenly looked at me in horror and spit her food back onto the plate. Months later, in one of her moments of clarity, she recalled that event and explained what had happened. Sometimes she lived in the reality that most of us do, but often she lived in a reality that was hers alone.

Along with her mother, I fought to find her some sort of treatment. First, she tried the various cocktails prescribed to her by traditional doctors. Some made her completely comatose. Some made her twitch and drool uncontrollably. One made her gain 20 pounds in two weeks.

Then, they took a trip to a specialist in Canada that I found via some internet research. This doctor put her on a wide range of natural treatments, and she actually improved quite a bit. Unfortunately, she only seemed to improve just enough to realize how terrible her life really was. She realized the seriousness of her illness, that she would probably never recover, that she would be tormented by voices and visions for the remainder of her life, that she would never be able to write, and that she would live with her parents and likely remain unmarried and childless.

That reality became too much for her to bear, and on one April night, a Good Friday, Erin committed suicide.

I received the news the next day from Nitin, an East Indian guy she and I were friends with. He arrived at my apartment shortly after I returned home from work. He had called to tell me that he needed to talk to me about Erin, which was unusual. Why did he need to talk to me in person? Why immediately? I had a sick feeling in my stomach.

After Nitin's phone call asking to meet me, I tried to call Erin's house. Cheryl, Erin's mom's best friend, answered their home phone, which was unusual. When she realized it was me, she spoke so gently and carefully it was if she was trying to wrap me in cotton. With a sweet, calm voice, she said, "Ohhhh, sweetie . . . . Judy needs to talk to you, honey, but she's not here right now. Will you be home, sweetheart?" There were condolences in her voice. At that moment, I knew for certain something was terribly wrong.

Then I got a call from my mom, who sounded panicked, though I could tell she was attempting to sound normal. She said, "Ummm, hi. Ummmm, your dad and I are coming down to Costco right now, so I just wanted to let you know that we are, ummmm, coming down there."

"Why are you coming to Costco?" I asked.

"We need to get . . . . water," she said.

An emergency trip to Costco to get water? My mom has never been a good liar. Too many odd things were lining up, and I knew Erin was gone before I even knew.

A few minutes later, I heard a knock on the door. Nitin walked in and he was unable to even talk to me or look at me. His face was full of anguish.

"Is it Erin?"

He shook his head yes.

I began crying. It was all too obvious. I didn't want to ask any more questions, but I forced myself.

"Is . . . . is she . . . . is she . . . alive?"

He shook his head no, and I began frantically pacing the floors and sobbing, then I completely collapsed.

Today, Erin would have been 36 years old.

Tonight I had dinner with Judy, Erin's mother; and Gretchen, Erin's other best friend. We met as we do every year to celebrate Erin's life, and over many glasses of wine, we shared our memories of Erin.

When I think of Erin, I like to remember that day when we went skydiving. We jumped from the plane only a few seconds apart, and I landed on the ground just shortly after she did. She ran to me, her face full of pure joy and exhilaration.

"That was AWESOME!" she screamed.

Every time I look up to see a sky of robin's egg blue dotted with handfuls of cotton-ball clouds, I remember Erin and that magical day we spent flying without fear.

1 comment:

Scott said...

What a cool epitath. The story is heartbreaking but the picture you paint of Erin is really neat. I got to feel sadness for the loss of someone I've never met and until an hour ago I had no reason to mourn. Well written!

Blog Archive