Many people are trying to process the untimely death – the suicide – of Robin Williams. He is a legendary comedian and actor who I first knew as “Mork from Ork.” California law required a detailed release of how he died. Depression. Hanging. An as of then publicly undisclosed diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Husband. Father. Friend. Loved. I’m not sure it gets any easier with time or that questions are ever answered. I find I’m still in some stage of grieving the suicide of a childhood friend who took his own life just over three years ago.
Steve, Steven, or Stevie. Few were allowed to call him Stevie. I did. Our moms were best friends before we were born. I’m a few months older. His father was absent and therefore was raised only by his mom. Today I would say he was co-parented by my mom and dad. There were always behavioral issues. As children, mom kept a watch over me for his flying toys – hurled without warning. I recall hurling my own plastic bowling pins at him for something. We laughed about it years later. He was diagnosed as ADHD and was on Ritalin for most of his school years. He could be off the wall and very funny. Hyper-creative at times. His own Mork from Ork impersonations guaranteed a “nanu nanu” and a “shazbot” now and again.
On and off, he and his mom attended the same church with my family. He participated in Youth Group at church. Sometimes there were emotional outbursts with other kids and adult leaders. In the church parking lot, my parents thought once he tried to run me down with his car. On occasion he would drive circles around the block around my house. In later years, he always offered his opinion on anyone me or my sister dated – or married. He worked for some time in the Renaissance Festival circuit. But, he was mostly unemployed and on disability. Issues with authority figures. You never new what to expect. Confrontational at home throughout his life. Occasional threats to end his life.
He threw himself into working for the local historical society. One of my last memories is of helping him with an exhibit. The historical society came into possession of a few Gone With the Wind items of historical significance. Stevie called to ask if I would mind loaning some of my collection to fill out the exhibit for a weekend. Realizing I’d become detached from owning this collection, I quickly agreed to help him. I packed up some items and left them with him for a couple weeks. I attended the exhibit. It was very nice.
Mom called me at work one afternoon – “We have a problem. Stevie’s gone. He’s dead.” – she whispered the last two words. He had gone to the historical society alone with a researched plan. Plastic wrap and nitrous oxide. He didn’t come home when expected and another historical society member found him – seated on a sofa – gone. He had recently turned 45 years old. I remember scouring Facebook for his last posts and trying to remember our last interactions. I was thankful for the GWTW exhibit collaboration. His mother wanted my sister and I to speak at the grave side service. I remember looking out at people – relatives – many of whom had their own troublesome history with him. I wasn’t always kind to him. I was even hateful at times. I said I would miss him and I cried. I looked at his mom and I meant it – the words and the tears.
The last Christmas present I remember getting from him is “The Dedo” – a small replica of a sweet faced gargoyle from the top of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Legend has it that it was carved by the nun “Marie Therese” from Provence. She didn’t like the evil faced gargoyles and carved this one instead. She slipped into the Cathedral and placed on the highest point “closest to God.” The Little Way of love. Shortly after Stevie’s death, my parents, sister and I went to visit with his mom. It was my job to look around the house and the computer to see if there was anything left behind – perhaps a note. I slowly walked through the house. All the places he spent most of his time. The attic where he retreated to smoke. The computer desk. His room in disarray. Relics of the troubled spirit. As I looked around the house and the shelves, there among his collections was another Dedo – exactly like the one he’d given me. I picked it up and held it for a few moments. I left it there.
Sometimes I go through my shelves looking for chotskies I can give away. I pick up my little Dedo gargoyle and think of Stevie. I wonder why he didn’t call me or reach out in any way. I just wonder “why?”
I read the Diary of Anne Frank in a high school honors English class. The instructor expected more from our “honors” class and required us to act out a scene from the book. Myself and another classmate took the nightmare scene. Anne screams out in the night and her father rushes to her side. It was more to quiet her than for comfort. “We’ll be discovered hiding…” My classmates commented that I seemed to take the little classroom skit “seriously.” Perhaps the conviction in my scream and words. I was never sure if I was mocked, or genuinely praised. We went to see the stage production. Her last diary entry was written 70 years ago on August 1, 1944 from the attic hiding place.
I prepared a term paper on WWII concentration camps for a high school World History class. I can still see the desktop where I worked at my grandparents home. My papa was fighting a losing battle with cancer in another room. I was discovering the gas chamber horrors in the Encyclopedia books. Death was immanent on those pages and my Papa.
Eventually, I made my way to visit Israel on a Holy Land pilgrimage. I visited Yad Vashem – The Holocaust Museum. Halfway through I was smothering in raw images. The relics of so many lives lost.
This Summer I came full circle during a week of sightseeing in Poland. The last full day – Auschwitz-Birkenau. The image below is of the Death Block. Some 75 years ago that image would have shown people in their moments before death. We passed through and came out. We walked in the ‘showers’, passed the furnaces, and came out. If I thought Yad Vashem housed many human relics, this death camp far surpassed anything I’d ever seen or read. I bought a book there titled “Hope is the Last to Die” by Halina Birenbaum. She was 10 in 1939 and survived. This is her recollection of months hiding in attics in the Jewish Ghetto of Warsaw. The eventual capture of her family and years endured in torture are recounted up to the liberation in 1945. There are no chapter separations in the journal. This literary fact added to the endless misery as even I read along asking, “When will this end? Where are the Allied Forces? How did this ever happen in the world?” I cried and had some disturbed nights trying to sleep. I had finally left Anne Frank’s attic and walked the rest of the story – beyond her last page.
On the flight home, I watched the movie “The Book Thief” and cried some more. I just finished reading the book as well. A story of Liesel Meminger, a 9 year old girl whose German parents are “taken away” for being Communists. She gets new German foster parents – a foster father she calls Papa who doesn’t want to join “The Party.” Papa owes a great personal debt to a Jewish comrade from WWI. They hide his son in their basement. If you have seen the movie, by all means read the book. The book makes it clear that Death is the narrator. There are many victims in war.
My grandfather, who I call Papa, kept a journal. The first time I turned it page by page, I found it contained his official “Air Raid Warden” procedures. There were first aid procedures for poisonous gasses and fallout. Administering first aid to the injured. Instructions for shades to be drawn at night to block the light. I can now truly appreciate those pages.
I thought of the many who no longer cast a shadow at Auschwitz, but only in memory.
I thought of the many who no longer cast a shadow at Auschwitz but only in memory.
Recently our readings at church focused on the creation of Eve. God determined that it was not good for man to be alone. As Adam named the animals, he looked around and saw no mate for himself. As Adam slept, God reached down and fashioned Eve from one of his ribs. We consider many relationships in life — romantic, marital, parental, friend, coworker and acquaintance. The Old Testament scriptures tell of God’s relationship to the Hebrew people. In relationship, God comes to live with us in the person of his son Jesus. The New Testament Gospels engage us in the relationship of becoming adopted co-heirs with Jesus.
Pondering on God’s desire for relationship, I consider the idea of God authoring all the relationships in my life. I think of the times I prayed as a young person about what school to attend or what job to take — what career to pursue. I think about the answers to prayers of the past. Perhaps the answers were more about who God wanted me to meet. Rather than a path of education and career, it is God’s path of relationships for my life. Some relationships are only for a season and others for a lifetime.
My father almost died of meningitis when he was two. My parents had each considered marriage with other people. I think of the “what ifs…” in life. I was born and can’t imagine my life without the relationships that God has brought into my path. Relationship is God’s work — In as much as God brings others into our lives — God also brings us into the lives of others. In prayer, God helps us navigate and discern our way in all our relationships.
Today I enjoyed a rare Sunday afternoon relaxing in my sun room. I browsed through an old book, “Creating a Sense Sational Home” by Terry Willits (Atlanta area Interior Designer). I heard her speak as part of a Women of Faith conference in 1997. Her book speaks of “a woman’s touch” in the home and she says, “I am glad God made me a woman” and cites Genesis 2:18 where God says “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” Women and men are created to be a complement to one another. Her book then goes on to share about creating a warm and inviting home through our senses. She says,
“God has made us sensual beings. In his goodness and creativity, he has given us eyes to see, ears to hear, noses to smell, mouths to taste and talk, and bodies to feel. Each sense is a rich blessing that enhances our life in a unique way and can bring immense pleasure or pain. Though every sense is wonderful, we seldom encounter only one at a time. Instead, God has intricately wired them together to allow us to experience all dimensions of life as we take in the world around us.”
At the time I attended the women’s conference in 1997, my spiritual journey had asked me to look inward. For a time I put away the check list that women carry of the man they would like to marry. How often do singles ask themselves, “would I marry me?” I recall the presentation doing more to bare open my singleness in a painful way — what purpose do I have in my own home if not to nurture a family? In the years since that conference, I moved on with my life and have done big things on my own — travel, took my Christian journey into the Catholic Church — a big departure from my family origins. I even bought my own home.
When a person visits my home, I’ve always wanted them to come away knowing me better not so much by the things I say but by the things I choose to surround myself. My colors, textures, smells, religious art, nick knacks, and photos — what has prominence in my home? It is a conscious effort to find opportunities to share my home with family and friends. It is these times, when I’m not alone, that my house feels more like a home.
I look at the inscription to me that Terry made in my book, “…. may Christ’s love fill your heart and your home! Psalm 127:1”
“Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build…. Psalm 127:1”