A Cruel, Cruel Summer

People who are old enough to remember might associate 1984 with the novel that describes a  dystopian society.  However, for me, it symbolizes the worst year of my life.   When I was finally diagnosed with depression in 2001, the psychiatrist used the word “chronic.”  I looked it up.  Among other things, the word chronic means “(a problem) that is long-lasting and difficult to eradicate; unending, persisting, ceaseless, unabating…”  While depression is something that runs in my family, I think of 1984 as the year that my depression became chronic.  Unending. Ceaseless.  The time it drew its crevices in my skin where it made a home.

It was also the year that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom came out in theaters.  When I think of that summer almost 34 years ago, I recall the image of the “pagan” priest reaching into the chest of a live man and physically ripping out his heart.  That’s the image I have of 1984.  A permanent wounding.  Scarring.

When I went home that summer after my dramatic freshmen year of college, I was already bereft.  My faith was confused by the continuous judgment and correction of my classmates at college.   In addition, being led to believe Ed  a fraud was to also believe that Pennington was not what I thought it was.  If Ed was not trustworthy, then the love, grace and spiritual growth I experienced at camp was also false.  It was all a lie, I thought.  My mind worked continually and daily, in sorrow and anger, at having been duped.  My father made himself available to “counsel” me, offering sympathy and support in my profound grief.

Ed had made me feel loved by people and by God.  He made me believe that perhaps I had gifts to offer the world, that I was worthy of God’s love.  My faith took deep root at Pennington.  What now?  If Ed was the manipulator that my father made him out to be, then was anything of Pennington real?  I assumed not.  It was easy to believe the bad stuff.  Believing that I had any self-worth was more difficult.  Believing that I was stupid and easily conned made more sense.  Good stuff was nearly impossible for me to accept.

One of the two most important people in my life at that time allegedly betrayed me; so I was convinced.  And the other one… died.  Four months after that fateful snowy weekend when I said goodbye to Sandie in her hospital bed, she was dead.  Of a fast-growing cancer.  Melanoma.  She’d been clean for four years.  It came back with a vengeance and got her when she was 39.

C.S. Lewis wrote:  “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.  I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid.  The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning…” (From A Grief Observed)  It was like a baseball bat to the stomach, and then one to the back of the head.  I was in so much pain that summer, I didn’t want to get back up.  I couldn’t imagine ever having the physical energy to get up again.  Just leave me alone.

Two weeks after I returned home from ex-boyfriends with machetes, lovesick married men, and a barrage of hellfire and brimstone classmates, we got a phone call from Chet.  My parents said that Sandie’s cancer had “grown.”  At the time I knew little of what was going on with Sandie.  My parents were always vague when I asked, and Sandie’s letters to me were more about how she was taking care of herself.   I thought of a tumor in her abdomen that had been hurting her back in January.  So, a tumor grew.  Ok, we can still deal with this, I thought.  One tumor, just a bit bigger.

What my parents didn’t say, as we made our way north to Staatsburg, New York that weekend in May, was the word “metastasized.”  Spread.  

When we arrived at their house that Friday afternoon, I was anxious to embrace her.  To hold her, kiss her face, encourage her, as she’d done for me so many times.  As we pulled into the drive, I looked for Sandie to be on the porch, waving us in, as she always did.  She wasn’t there.  As we got out of the car, Chet came out of the back door and greeted us with hugs.  Andrea and Chip, ages 14 and 11, skipped down the steps behind him to greet us.  No Sandie.

After hugging Chet, I pushed past him and went through the door into the kitchen.  There she was,  wearing a nice black pantsuit, clutching  the kitchen chair for support.  Her face was blank, pale.  She showed no emotion.  Her eyes, staring down at a random spot on the floor, slowly turned to me.  She looked confused.

“What are you doing here?” she whispered.

Something seized in my chest.  “Uh,” I stumbled, “I was able to get off work after all!”  I’d been excited to surprise her, expecting her to be excited to see me, eagerly enfolding me in a hug.  Like usual.

It hit me in that moment that nothing was going to be as usual.

She just nodded slowly, moving her other hand to the chair to help hold herself up.  As I tentatively ebraced her, the others came spilling into the kitchen behind me. Chet, in his new role as host, dragged in some of our suitcases, talking excitedly and energetically.  Something was way off.  My parents joined in, greeting Sandie with hugs that she responded to with limp acknowledgement.  I hung back, watching the strange scene– people talking too much, laughing too loud.

She seemed like a zombie.  No one spoke directly to me, and it was as if we were all trying too hard to make things appear normal.  I felt like I was looking through a window watching the scenes play out.  Sandie hardly spoke.  She sat down, finally, as if she’d used up all her energy standing.  At supper– that my mother cooked– I sat next to her, holding her hand during the prayer, but it lay limp and lifeless in my own.  I squeezed her hand before letting go, but it just fell to her lap.

We played games, we chatted, speaking of everything but what seemed to permeate the air.  Sickness.  Weakness.  Doom.  Was she depressed?  It was like she was… gone.  Her body walking around impersonating a woman I loved, and not doing it well.

After supper that night, the kids went off to watch TV and the adults stayed at the table and talked.  Chet talked about “hospice” and nuns.  I didn’t know what hospice was, and no one explained.  Suddenly, Sandie’s face screwed up in unspeakable sorrow–the first sign of life I’d seen yet that day– and whispered, “I don’t want to die.”  She bent over and sobbed.  My mother reached over and rubbed her back.

My father immediately assured her, “You’re not going to die.”

I stared at her.  I couldn’t speak.  I couldn’t move.  I’d never seen Sandie… weak.  Afraid.  Helpless.  She was a fireball, a go-getter, a fighter, a joyful expression of life and fun and play.  She was silly, loving, hugging, giving, creating.  Her entire house was like an art project, an expression of the beauty of her soul.  I adored her.  She was crumbling in front of me.

Chet talked about an experimental treatment that the doctor suggested, which would require Sandie to travel out west.  They weren’t sure she was up to the trip, much less the aggressive treatment.  I was confused.  Why was she giving up?  When I cornered my mother later with questions, she brushed me off.  “She’s just worn out, poor thing.  The medications make her kind of out of it,” she smiled sadly, moving on to wipe the table or dry a dish.

I didn’t know where to stand, where to sit.  Nobody seemed to even realize I was there.  Sandie couldn’t seem to connect at all.  Chet was working hard to keep up a pleasant, upbeat mood in the role of host which was new to him.  Sandie used to do this.  Sandie used to run things; plan the meals, the activities, and make sure we all had what we needed.

It was as if all the air had been sucked out of the house.

The next day, we decided we all needed to get out of the house and we decided to go see a movie.  I don’t know who chose the new movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but we all piled into the car and got there about 45 minutes early.  We were all eager to get out.  As if we needed to be away from the house.  To breathe.

At the theater, I sat on the end of the row, next to my mother.  I was so anxious, feeling very lost and out of place.  I got up and went to the bathroom, and once in the stall by myself, I sobbed as quietly as I could.  I cried so hard that I could hardly breathe.  I prayed in whispers, asking God what the hell was going on.  What was wrong with her?  Why was Sandie giving up?  Why wouldn’t anyone tell me anything??  Finally, I got up and washed my face as best I could.  I’m a messy crier.  My eyes and nose were puffy and red.  I didn’t care.

When I returned to my seat, my mother was sitting in it.  She smiled up at me.  “Chet had us all move down a seat,” she explained.  I looked down the row, and the seat on the opposite aisle, next to Chet, was empty.  Chet waved and smiled, motioning me over.

When I gratefully sat down next to him, he pulled off his cap and set it playfully on my head.  “You and I haven’t had a chance to visit this weekend, Peggy Sue, so I figured now was a good time,”  he winked and leaned in, affectionately bumping me with his arm.

I wanted to weep with gratitude and joy, but I was all cried out.  I just smiled and nodded, my throat aching with emotion.

He asked about my life, my summer plans, my job.  He asked about school.  I answered the best I could, but left out most of the details of my year.  I was glad it was all behind me, and to tell of it would have taken more emotional energy than I had.  In light of what was happening, it all seemed so trivial anyway.

As I talked, Sandie peeked around Chet’s other shoulder, listening.  There was a weak smile on her face, and as our eyes met at last, I felt a sharp ache in my abdomen.  I blinked to keep from crying again.  I wanted to connect with her.

When the music started playing, Chet bopped me playfully on the rip of the cap I was still wearing.  “I’m glad we got a chance to visit, Peggy Sue,” he playfully nudged me. Me too.

I took a deep breath and tried to focus on the movie.  I was horrified at the scenes of the priest about to sacrifice the female lead to his pagan gods.  She was chained up in the cage that was lowered slowly into the fiery pit, as Indiana was controlled by some substance he was given.  After he snapped out of it and started fighting the priest and his minions, the cage holding the woman lowered toward the flames again.  Indiana tried to pull her back and she came back up, she was going to be saved.  Then something happened, and the cage fell again.  Up, down, up, down, she’s going to die… she’s going to live.. back and forth.  I was sinking into my seat and tears burned my eyes.  Please, don’t let her die!  Somebody save her!  I was not just talking about the actress in the movie.  I was so scared that Sandie was seeing this the way I was;  as a game between life and death, hope and despair.  I couldn’t see her face.  My eyes brimmed with tears as the scene went on for what seemed forever.  Any other time I would have known that the woman would of course be saved by the hero, but I wasn’t thinking or feeling clearly.  When she was finally snatched out of the pit, away from the flames of death into Indiana’s arms, I was glad it was dark.  Tears ran down my cheeks and I laughed out loud.

As we all filed out of the theater, I playfully put my arm around Sandie’s shoulders and said, “Well, that was relaxing, eh?”

She turned to me in a rare moment of joy and laughed out loud.  “I loved it!!”  I fell back behind her and glanced at my mother.  She rolled her eyes and let out a deep breath.  She’d felt the same way during the climactic scene.  We shared a moment, chuckling at ourselves.

On other visits, Sandie was up before everyone else, and when I came down to the kitchen, she’d be there starting breakfast.  She’d greet me with a hug and ask me how I slept and kid around with me.  But of course nothing was normal anymore.  My mother cooked breakfast that weekend, and Sandie showed up later in the morning, her hair wet from the shower.  She wore sweatpants and a T-shirt, no make up or jewelry.  She quietly took her seat at the table.

As we were getting ready to head home later on, I saw my parents in the hallway next to the stairs.  My mother was intense and angry.  “You need to say a prayer before we go! Please!”

My father looked helpless, shaking his head.  “No, I can’t. I just… can’t.”  I sneaked past them into the kitchen where we were getting ready to say goodbye.

“Rollo’s going to say a prayer before we go,” Mom announced as they entered the room, my father shot her a panicked look.

“Let’s pray.”

We got in a circle in the kitchen and held hands.  I intentionally slid in next to Sandie and clasped her hand.  As my father used his preacher’s voice and prayed for Sandie, for our journey home, etc., Sandie’s grip tightened on my hand.  By the time Dad finished, she was holding on so tight it almost hurt.

As the circle broke up, we began our goodbye hugs.  Sandie held onto my hand as she hugged my  mother and father each.  She had a strong hold on it.  As she turned to me, for the first time all weekend, she focused her eyes on me.  She hugged me with a strength that she must have summoned up for that moment and held me in front of her.  She held my face.

“I’m so sorry we didn’t get to visit this weekend…”

“It’s ok,” I said, of course, it hadn’t felt ok.

“No, I am sorry.  I want you to have a good summer, Peggy Sue.  Don’t let those people at work get you down.  You are so special, and you have a lot to give.  Don’t forget that.”

I couldn’t speak at first, trying to hold the moment, keep time from moving forward.  She was here.  She was looking at me.  She was with me.

“I love you so much,” I said to her in a trembling voice.

Her eyes filled with tears and she embraced me hard again.  “I know, kiddo, I do.  I love you so much too,” she said, holding on.  Then the moment was gone.  She’d spent what little she had.  She moved away from me and it was time to go.

“Hey, maybe you can get a bus down to New Jersey and you could stay with us.  We could take care of you,” my father said.  It felt awkward.  Sandie didn’t respond, she just looked at him.  She was gone again.  She’d used up her energy.

I didn’t look back as we moved through the door to the car.  Mom said that as we drove away, Sandie was at the window, looking at us, with no expression on her face, but it made Mom cry.  I laid down in the back seat and shut my eyes, trying to make the terror go away.

It had felt like Sandie was saying goodbye… for good.

Nobody spoke on the long drive home to New Jersey.  Two nights later, my parents called me into the living room.  “Sit down,” my father said, trying to appear casual.

I sat down.

“What would you do…” my father said as if he were just making conversation …”if Sandie died?”

What was he doing??  “That won’t happen.”  I shook my head, half laughing, half angry.  “God doesn’t let anything happen to us that we can’t handle.”  Where had I heard that?  Anyway, it had made it into my personal credo.  “And God knows I can’t handle … that.”   What was he trying to do?

She died that night.  Around midnight.  My parents told me when I got home from work.  They were waiting in the kitchen when I walked through the door.  My father pulled me into a hug, trying to comfort me, but I kept my hands at my side.  “Awwww…” he said.  It was awkward.

I didn’t cry.  It was like someone telling me that the sky was purple.  It didn’t make sense.  I couldn’t comprehend.  We weren’t good at talking about hard stuff in our family.  We usually tried to pretend bad things didn’t happen.  We didn’t share feelings.  In fact, we were trained to not feel emotions, especially “bad” ones.  I stared at my parents.

It took me a whole two days to cry.  Then it felt like I’d never stop.

Her funeral was exactly a week to the day that I’d last hugged her.  My father presided at the funeral at Chet and Sandie’s Episcopal Church.  For the two days leading up to the funeral, my own grief was on hold.  We had to take care of my father.  He was anxious and scared that he’d “break down” during the eulogy.  First of all, I’d never seen my father cry.  Second of all, I said, “so what if you do?  She was your friend, it’s appropriate!”

“I’m the pastor, it is not appropriate for me to break down.  I’m supposed to help everybody else!”  He was inconsolable, but for two days it was all about him.  Again.

We arrived at the beginning of the visitation time that lasted all afternoon.  When I saw Sandie’s body in the casket, it was like a baseball bat to the gut all over again.  I started shaking and crying.  We hugged Chet and the kids and my parents mingled.  I sat down by myself and just cried.  I cried till I was hiccuping and then cried some more.  I kept staring at her there in the casket, trying to imagine her alive, hugging me just a week ago.  Saying “I love you, Peggy Sue.”

After a while, my father sat down next to me.  He clasped his hands between his knees.  “Are you ok?”

I glared at him.  “No.”

He was quiet.  After a few minutes, he got up and walked away.

Stan’s wife Barbara came over right after that and put her arm around me.  “C’mon,” she said, “let’s get you out of here.”  She half-carried me to the bathroom.  She held me while I cried some more.  She knew how much I loved Sandie.  She knew how important she’d been to me.  She knew my heart was shredded.  She held me.

“It just sucks,” she said.  “She’s wearing the outfit she wore to our wedding last year.”  After a while, she pulled away and started washing my face, cleaning me up.  I was so grateful for her that day.  It was a rare moment of intimacy between us.  She understood.

It was the beginning of summer.  A summer of hell.  I was disoriented.  I visited Marlene for a few days, but she didn’t know how to relate to me as I’d burst into tears in the middle of conversations.  By the time she took me to the train to go back home, I felt sure I was crazy.  She was acting as if I were crazy.  Like she didn’t know me.

At home we didn’t talk about it.  Sometimes I had to leave the room and cry.  A TV show would be about death, or there was a funeral, and I had to leave.  Periodically, my father would say, “What’s wrong with you?”  or “You obviously haven’t gotten over Sandie’s death.”

I was completely alone.  My parents went to Switzerland for two weeks.  I went to work.  Came home.  Breathed in and out.  Reluctantly.

I wanted to die.  I had no idea a person could hurt this much.



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