I met Julia twenty years ago. I had left college after my junior year, found a job and a roommate, and taken a slight detour from the “chosen path.”
After a particularly horrendous Thanksgiving that included bounced checks, broken lamps, undercooked pumpkin bread and wretched food poisoning, I let my mom talk me into moving back to New England to share her house and start over.
My first weekend in town, I found myself at a matchbook-sized church with a tiny, round pastor and his tiny, round wife. They had heard from my mother that I could play piano, and without a pause to check the status of my soul, they ushered me to the front to coax “Amazing Grace” from the chilly keys.
Julia was there. We immediately hit it off, in spite of our 21 year age gap. We were both single, we were both starting over, we both enjoyed music. Julia played the flute and sang, and we would often sing/play duets for the church. We would go out for dinner and then chat for hours – both avoiding the lonely rooms at home.
Julia lived in a tiny apartment at the tip-top of an old Victorian house. It was barely 2 bedrooms, a napkin-sized kitchen, and a slanted hallway to a narrow bath. She had a roommate that seemed nice enough.
Julia helped me get a job. She worked in retail, I got a job at their corporate call center. Julia would have loved to work in the corporate call center, but she didn’t have the computer skills. I was able to juggle a full college schedule and work schedule. Julia would have loved to have gone back to college.
I got a promotion at work, and moved out on my own. Julia would have loved to move, but just couldn’t seem to land a job that paid her more.
I began dating and was soon engaged to be married. Julia started dating too. Fred was a very nice man, although a little bit of a fuddy duddy. But he loved Julia and she wasn’t as alone. They got engaged too.
I played the piano for her wedding in the tiny church where we had first met. I didn’t go there anymore, I’d outgrown it. But she didn’t seem to be able to let go.
Her roommate moved out and Fred moved in. She had hoped that they would be able to afford a bigger place together, but it just didn’t seem a good time.
I got married and moved in to a bigger apartment. Julia would often come to visit me – exclaiming over the room I had, and how comfortable my place was. She would often fall asleep sitting on my couch – the only place she said she could relax.
I’d try to help her make the changes she said she wanted. I tried to give her the courage to go out and get what she deserved. But the tiny pastor and the tiny church and the tiny apartment seemed to keep a tight grasp on her, and she couldn’t seem to break free.
My husband and I eventually bought a house – a cute little cottage at the bottom of a nicer-than-average street. Julia and Fred came to visit, although the drive took a little longer than normal. I’d make dinner, we’d sit and talk and have coffee, and Julia, relaxed, would fall asleep sitting on the couch with a smile on her face.
It was late August and Julia asked if she could come visit. She drove up and we had breakfast (pancakes) and then we just hung out all day – shopping, talking, laughing. She brought her flute and for the first time in a long time, we played and sang like we used to.
We chatted about our dreams – hers were the same as always: better job, bigger house, different life. I told her she just needed to go out and get it. She sighed and nodded, but didn’t seem so sure.
She napped on the couch while I did dishes, and then we had dinner and coffee and hugged and said we’d get together again soon.
Nine days later, her husband called me. Julia had strangled herself with a bungee cord in their tiny little apartment. He broke down in tears, and in his grief, blamed me for not being a better friend. I know he didn’t mean it. The family had decided to keep her suicide a secret, they felt she would not have wanted it known. I think for them it was just easier to pretend.
I went to her wake – but the body in the box was not my Julia. Her family had dressed her in this horrible outfit – the only one they could fit on her bloated body. She would have been mortified. And like the tiny apartment and tiny life she was trying to get free from, she seemed cramped in the coffin box they had put her in.
Her tiny pastor grasped my hands and asked me if I would play and sing for her funeral. I nodded my head yes, knowing that there was no one else to play. My husband couldn’t take the time off work, so the next day I drove alone down to the funeral.
Like a movie, it was rainy and dreary. The little church was full to capacity, although it didn’t take many people to fill it. I had practiced a song to sing for Julia, but when I told the pastor my selection he shook his head. “Fred wants you to sing the one you used to always perform together.”
How could I say no? Her grieving husband making a final request? I nodded my head yes. But there is nothing more depressing than a duet sung by only one.
As I made the way to the piano, I realized that they had to switch things around to make room. The piano, which usually faced the pulpit, now faced the wall. And Julia’s coffin was now directly behind me as I played.
Somehow I got through the playing and the singing, the people wanting to offer sorry and shock at her “sudden death” and not being able to tell them the real reason. I decided not to go the cemetery – I couldn’t stomach seeing my friend lowered in to the ground. I made the drive home wondering what I could have done differently, grieving the loss of a dear friend.
I felt sorry for Julia, and sorry for myself. The next day I called my assistant and told her I was not going in to work – and spent the morning restless in bed, all the memories flooding through my brain. I wanted to be angry at her for taking her life instead of taking the chance to improve it – but the grief and sorrow were too much.
I turned on the TV and watched in horror as the second plane crashed in to the World Trade Center.
The rest of the day was one lived in shock. One friend called to see if I had seen the news– and we sat in silence on the phone as we watched everything continue to unfold. Another friend buzzed in and asked if I had heard from my friend Beth, a flight attendant assigned to Flight 11. It took us over 13 hours to find out that she had been unexpectedly re-routed from her scheduled flight to have her air safety training certificate renewed and was driving back in a van from Oklahoma. My husband was evacuated from his office just outside Boston – they evacuated everyone who worked in a building with more than 4 floors, just in case. My church planned a candlelight vigil for later in the week. The phones and the television were not silent all day.
It was only later that night that I thought on Julia again. Although suicide is not something I agree with, I realized my anger had refocused. The juxtaposition of her decision to take her own life in contrast to the thousands who had that choice to live or die taken from them gave me perspective. I still miss her, I still wish things had happened differently, I still wish I could have helped her take that leap of faith to a better life and helped her not to choose death. But she did choose, and I had to let it go.
Every day we get to make choices is a day of freedom. Not having a choice is the biggest tragedy, and I am thankful for the right to choose.