Hmmm, I thought. Since when had Arlyn asked for permission to go anywhere? She was eighteen; she had graduated from high school two months before.
"Of course," I replied, pleased that she asked. Maybe Arlyn wasn't eager to leave home, after all. I worried about whether she would be strong enough to survive the rough, scary world outside our safe nest in rural Georgia. She sometimes accused me of being over-protective. In two weeks, however, I expected Arlyn would leave for college, whether she was ready or not.
But, I was wrong. Very wrong. She did not wait two weeks to leave; she left that very afternoon.
Arlyn walked out the door and got into her car. She drove several miles into the country, down a long, lonely dirt road. She parked her car near a stream, and she took an old hunting rifle out of the trunk. Next, she placed its barrel into her mouth, and pulled the trigger.
Around 3:30, I heard a knock on the front door. When I opened it, a man identified himself as a sheriff's deputy and walked in. He strode across the room to a large photograph hanging on the wall. "Is this your daughter?" he asked, as he glanced from the picture to me.
"Yes," I replied proudly, too surprised to realize that this was not a social call. "That's Arlyn."
He stared at the picture for a moment, then sat down in a chair near the door. He described Arlyn's car, and my husband confirmed it was hers. Then, he said, "Your daughter is dead." Just like that.
Even today as I write those words -your daughter is dead-- my hands begin to shake. No parent ever expects to receive such a message. Deep down inside, we know our children are fragile, that life is unpredictable, but of course, we believe we are immune to such tragedies. They happen on television, and to other people, but they cannot happen to us.
Within a split second, my world changed from one of light and peace and joy to one of darkness and despair and gloom. One pull of a trigger, and the reality I knew became a nightmare I never imagined. It was more than I could possibly comprehend.
During the first few days after I heard the news, I functioned much like a puppet whose strings are pulled by an invisible hand. I do not know how I did it.
I wrote and gave the eulogy for Arlyn's funeral. I did not mince words; her death was the tragic result of violence, and I would not pretend otherwise. Some people were appalled, but at that moment, pleasing others was not high on my list of priorities.
We buried our child at a private service a few days later. I wanted to fall into the hole with her as they covered the container holding her ashes with dirt. I did not want to let her go.
During the next week, I could not think, could not feel, just existed. I moved along robot-like, one tiny step at a time. Others quietly kept order in my surroundings.
Then my friends and family left, and Arlyn was missing. I called her name aloud, over and over. She did not answer. The telephone rang; I picked it up and waited to hear her voice on the other end, but it was never hers.
I checked her bedroom a thousand times, hoping to see her, but all I saw was an empty bed. Her stuffed animals were still perched on the shelf above it, as if they, too, wondered when she would come back for them, and her clothes still hung in her closet. A letter from the admission office of Tulane University she planned to attend was lying on the floor.
When I heard the back door open, I smiled, expecting Arlyn, with her guitar slung over her shoulder, to prance in and give me a hug.
I held on to the fantasy that Arlyn would return. I sat in her car, listened to her music, and wore some of her clothes. One night, I drank tea at her favorite coffee shop with John Ranney. A tall, slender girl with long, brown hair walked in; I stood up, ready to dash across the room and throw my arms around her; but then she moved, and I saw that she was not Arlyn.
At other times, I changed into a being that was not of this earth. Hour --after hour --after hour, I howled and wailed. The gutteral sounds that emanated from my shaking body could not have been mine, and yet I had no control over them.
Every minute of the day, I struggled desperately to understand what had happened. Arlyn would never have killed herself. My daughter found joy in living; she laughed, learned and loved. Arlyn was in tune with nature and peace. How she could have taken her own life?
I ransacked her bedroom, searching for clues. In her closet, in dresser drawers, under her bed, and on shelves, I found several journals and dozens of pages of her writing. I collected them all into one mountainous pile. Then, I sat down to read.
"I keep asking myself why. For my entire life, all I have ever wanted was to be dead, to not be. Why?" she wrote. "I don't know why I didn't kill myself in fifth grade when I had the chance," she also wrote.
I shook my head, confused. The handwriting was Arlyn's, but these words could not be hers. I thought back to when Arlyn was in sixth grade, eleven years old. One day, the student council held a talent contest. Arlyn signed up to sing. She picked out a long, green Victorian style dress to wear, and I tied a matching bow in her hair.
The music started, and Arlyn began to sing. Her song was "Wind Beneath My Wings," one popularized by Bette Midler. After a moment, the students stopped chatting and listened. Her strong voice caressed them gently.
You're everything I would like to be.
You are the wind beneath my wings."
Arlyn replied. "When I sing 'Wind Beneath My Wings,' I always think of you."
But now, Arlyn was dead, and I was in her bedroom, reading words that sent chills down my spine.
What happened to that innocent, trusting child who dreamed of winning the Miss America crown one day? What happened to cause a little girl who had a song in her heart stop singing?
Arlyn's death forced me to become a reluctant traveler on this road with other grieving parents, trying to find answers to the mystery of suicide. A million times, I ask why.
After Arlyn died, we had a psychological autopsy done on her. (That's when a psychiatrist studies personal writings and other information about someone who is not present in order to give an assessment of the person's mental state.)
What we learned that is that Arlyn was a victim of bipolar disorder, also called manic depression. Her death was the result of a chemical imbalance and the way it controlled her; it was not a rational choice. I learned that Arlyn, our fragile, gentle little girl struggled alone to deal with feelings she could not understand; she was confused and afraid for years before she finally gave in and ended her life.
There are no words to describe the profound and infinite sadness that has consumed me since Arlyn died. Multiply the most horrible pain you have ever experienced a thousand times and you may be close to understanding what each moment of my life is like.
In my saner moments, I know that Arlyn will not come back, no matter how much I want her here; it is in such moments that I know Arlyn's life must serve a purpose, and that it is up to me, her mother, to see that it does.
It is my sincere hope that everyone who learns about Arlyn will understand, first of all, that suicide is a tragedy, that it is not a sin or a crime, and that it is not cause for shame or embarrassment. Arlyn was the victim of a mental disease, and the cause of the disease has still not been identified.
It is also my hope that readers will learn that suicide is an external response to internal conditions, not something that should be blamed on anyone. The traditional views that someone else causes a person to lose the will to survive simply is not valid today with the increase in knowledge that exists.
It is also my hope that those who read or hear Arlyn's story will come away with the knowledge that many of our brightest young people today are responding to the overwhelming circumstances of life by suicide. This is a problem which will not go away as long as we attach a stigma to the victims or to those who love them, because in doing so, we close our minds and hearts to the search for acceptable solutions.
So, in memory of Arlyn, Darlin', my precious child, I live out loud; she is the wind beneath my wings.