I first saw Liz–not her real name–from the pulpit. I had just begun my sermon when a slender female with shoulder-length hair came in and sat down on the floor with her back against the wall. After worship I did not see her at the exit, where people would always greet me and the rector. I had already forgotten about the woman at the back. But a few minutes later, coming out of the restroom, I saw a stranger looking at the bulletin board, and I said, “Hi, I’m Cynthia,” and before I could get out another word, Liz said, “Oh! I’m so glad to meet you. I loved your sermon. You mentioned having been depressed, and I am depressed now. I am getting a divorce and my daughter chose to stay with my husband…”
That was how it began. She was fragile, confused, depressed and delightful. She began attending church regularly. She went to Cursillo, a 3-day renewal weekend that leads to a weekly sharing, which she attended faithfully. Her spiritual life was good. Her laugh frequently fell on us like music. Her smile graced us all. Everyone loved Liz.
What I/we didn’t know is that she had severe depression, probably bipolar disease. She had “spells.” She began to lose her ability to work, to host her teenage daughter on weekends. She changed medications and became almost nonsensical. Then things looked up. She, a veterinarian, got a chance to go to North Carolina and be trained to work with service animals. She was excited. But that didn’t work out. She spent some time in a hospital. I talked to her a few times on the phone. She returned to her apartment. She was better. One Sunday as I put the bread into outstretched hands, I looked into the face holding out the hands–and it was Liz! I reached over the altar rail and held her. We went out to lunch after church. She stayed for a few days, visiting her church friends and daughter, then returned home.
But, faraway in North Carolina darkness was moving into Liz’s head.
A year after seeing her in church, I got an email from her distraught mother saying Liz had taken her life. For some reason it had never occurred to me that suicide was a possibility, with that radiant smile and cute laugh.
You just never know.
What we learned, later, was that Liz had carefully planned her death. She had gone to great lengths, setting the scene and leaving a note to explain to her mother and daughter that she could no longer bear the weight of her (mental) illness, and telling them that she loved them, nonetheless. She left a devotional book open to a page she wanted her mother to read. She used a means available to her as a veterinarian that left no horrid mess for her family and friends to clean up. In a way, her death was beautiful.
I watched her funeral on live streaming because by then my husband and I had moved to Michigan, and Covid was still rampaging through the world. I saw her daughter for the first time, speaking about her mother. I cried. But only for myself and Liz’s daughter and mother. I knew Liz was at peace.
Last week I went to the cabinet under the bookshelf by the fireplace, looking for a votive candle. I hadn’t seen the inside of that cabinet for months. There was a booklet of my writing, a photo album, and a deck of cards. There was a birthday card from Emma Jean that I had saved. Under it was another card that said on the front, “God Shines Through You.” I didn’t recognize it, so I opened it. Inside the card continued, “Asking Him to BLESS you Today.” And above those words was written the date, scrawled in ink, April 6, 2020, with a crabbed message written below, a long message. Who is this from? I wondered, turning over the card to look at the signature. I couldn’t read it. I turned back to the message and began to read. In the second sentence I read, “I found this card packing for NC! I bought it for your birthday and then forgot your birthday.” I looked again at the almost illegible signature. Liz. I dropped to the floor and read the entire note. In the card Liz thanked me for showing her that God loved her no matter what, for encouraging her, for showing her how much I loved her. She went on to say that she was trying to learn to love herself, and with God’s help, she would. I was undone because the first time I read it, she was optimistic. Now she was dead.
All day I was somber, but the next day I put that card where I would see it when I pray in the mornings. I marveled that Liz had spoken to me, again, and this time from beyond time. I had thought she was “gone,” and she is. But still, from across the thin veil she waves at me every morning from that bright, glittery card, saying “God Shines Through You.”
You just never know.