This post is dedicated to “Us Four”. Always in my thoughts, forever in my heart.
Jennifer and I met in a small town in Texas and went to high school together. A class behind me, she was a talented artist, competitive runner and one of my best friends. She is frequently in my thoughts and came to mind on again on August 7th. That was her birthday. She would have been 42.
I left Texas soon after graduating and attended college on the east coast. Having made many fun memories as goofy teenagers, Jennifer and I weren’t going to let a little bit of distance end our friendship. In the early 1990s, we kept in touch through letters and phone calls. When I could, I would return to Texas to visit. I always enjoyed meeting up with Jennifer and another best friend of ours who was still in town. On those trips, for the week or so that we were back together, life was good. But, when I went back to college, I would get a nagging feeling.
That nagging feeling would oftentimes be correct. Jennifer revealed in letters that she’d slipped back into depression. She’d experienced bouts of heavy depression that would cripple her. Some bouts lasted a few days; others took weeks to overcome. In her letters Jennifer promised me that I shouldn’t worry. Of course I did—Jennifer had struggled with depression almost as long as I’d known her which included much of high school. I made sure to follow up with a phone call after receiving one of Jennifer’s depressing letters. Thankfully, she’d have bounced back by the time I’d called to check on her.
Over the next year or so, as fewer letters were written and shorter phone calls were made, distance had finally wedged itself in. I was busy with school projects, worked part-time and was involved in a new social scene. Life was in full swing for me. Sadly, it was plummeting in reverse for Jennifer. Unaware of what she was going through, a friend sent news that Jennifer had passed away. The news of her death came after the funeral. It was too late for me to help.
Jennifer’s death, one that was self-inflicted, haunted me for many years. I don’t know if it was shock, or that I refused to believe that she was gone, or if it was because I didn’t have closure to say good bye, but I had a hard time believing that her life was over. As hard as it was to accept that she was gone, part of me was not surprised though.
Jennifer’s depression was well known in our small circle of friends. She’d made other suicide attempts in high school, but they’d failed. As grown up as I thought I was at 16-years old, nothing prepared me to live through terrifying moments of finding a note telling us that life was not worth living. Three of us stayed close to Jennifer ready to catch her when she fell. We didn’t like to think about or talk about what Jennifer was going through, but I knew we should just in case more dark thoughts entered her mind. Thinking to myself, will she or won’t kill herself today became part of life.
Every one of my Jennifer’s suicide attempt rattled me to my core, but I always tried to remain strong on the outside even though I trembled like a small child on the inside. In reflecting on Jennifer’s death and why it took me so long to come to terms with it reminded me of other events in my life. Like how it took me so long to believe that my own child’s vaccine injury was real. That may not sound like it could be compared to suicide, but just like how I tried to understand why Jennifer’s depression racked her mentally, emotionally and physically, it took a great amount effort for me to understand, and accept, just how real and crippling vaccine injury could also be.
In the beginning, as I watched my son’s health decline, I didn’t want to believe that vaccine injury was real. I doubted it because how could it possibly be real? Vaccine injury? Not only that, but my child? No way! But, as I set out to prove that crazy idea wrong, I discovered that yes, vaccine injury—something that I did not want to believe, was in fact right. Vaccine injury does happen, and yes, it did happen to my child.
Making that What I learned rattled me, and still does when Ronan’s health takes a turn for the worse.
Much of what I read and learned took time to understand, but it was time that I knew would be worthwhile. That time did prove useful. I learned a lot from the reading I did. I learned more about myself too. I went from being a doubter to a fighter. I gained passion and zeal. I also learned that even though my heart still wanted to believe something different—that Ronan couldn’t be harmed by something our doctors insisted he get, my mind knew and believed the truth. At that point, when I finally understood what vaccine injury encompassed, after it rattled me to my core, I felt that I might be able to rally the strength I knew I’d need to try to reverse it. Creating and maintaining that strength took more time to achieve, but I did so while also relying on courage and faith. That courage, and a great deal of faith, have been helpful in reminding me that the mind sees what the heart will not.
Emotions end up ruling thoughts that we may not wish to think.
The emotional aspects that accompanied Ronan’s vaccine injury took time to get used it. It’s not that it took longer for them to appear—they’re capable of being readily displayed on any given day, but learning how to process them and move through them was, and some days remains to be, a challenge.
Those emotions, as necessary as they were in the discovery phase, gave me will power. How I needed that will power! It cleared my head and opened my eyes. I was able to see that vaccine injury happens. It made me also understand that I not only needed to see it but also had to believe that it happened to my son. It was only then that I was able to take a successful step and face it head on.
Unfortunately, as I have personally learned, unless one sees vaccine injury with their own eyes, the tiniest sliver of doubt will prevent them from believing the truth. On Thursday of last week, on the day that would have been Jennifer’s birthday, I recalled that thought—that some people need to see something in order to believe it. That thought brought me back to how I handled my friend’s death.
Similar to how I’d initially handled Ronan’s injury, I didn’t handle Jennifer’s death very well, or at all actually. I didn’t want to think that it was possible. I didn’t want to think it would really happen. Worse, I didn’t want to think that she’d eventually carry through with it. Jennifer’s suicide attempts were related to an internal pain that I may never fathom to completely comprehend. I may never understand that sort of pain, but I am eternally grateful that she thought I, and two of our very close friends, were strong enough to handle the repercussion of that pain and of her actions. It will forever sadden me to know that Jennifer’s pain, something I so desperately longed to take away, ultimately seized her will to live.
Cat comforting Jennifer after a cross country meet
I went back to Texas two months ago for a high school reunion. I had very limited time during that visit, but just as I had been determined to find out what had hurt Ronan, I was determined to find Jennifer’s gravestone that weekend. When I’d returned on previous trips, I hadn’t been able to do that. With help from information I’d gathered from the internet about the plots in the local cemetery, including an image of the gravestone, I set out and drove to the section where Jennifer was buried.
Walking in between the headstones, reading names and scanning birth dates and death dates, I tried to prepare myself for whatever emotions would come. Midway through my search I looked at the time and started to walk a bit faster. Time was ticking. I had a flight to catch.
Scan to the left. Scan to the right. Walk a few more steps.
Jennifer…August 7…where are you?
I walked down another row. More names to read. More headstones to check.
None of them were Jennifer’s.
I knew the gravestone was there though. I believed that because I’d seen a picture of it.
But I couldn’t find it.
Time was up. I had to leave, or I would miss my flight.
I headed back to the rental car and prayed: God, this is so hard. I don’t understand. I finally had all the information I needed. I looked and looked and looked trying to find Jennifer’s grave. But I saw nothing. I needed to see that. To know that she was in a final resting place. Next time, I will try again. Next time…I promise that I will.
I wasn’t able to pay my respects at the cemetery like I’d hoped. For a second, my heart still wanted to believe something different—that Jennifer’s attempts to die never happened and that her final attempt wasn’t fatal. My mind knew the truth, but my heart was having a hard time remembering it.
When I think of my friend, I get a flood of memories—good ones, ones without depression, razor blades, pills and sadness. I want to honor those memories and the life that Jennifer was able to live. In sharing those good memories with my children, I can sometimes feel a sense of peace. They hear me talking about how Mommy and her three best friends used to drive through that tiny Texas town singing Guns ‘N Roses at the top of our lungs while cruising to the video store to rent Goonies. I smile and stop the story before I remember the sad parts. I want to hold onto the good memories and make those last. Laughter and hope always make for a better ending.
I’ve gone through a lot in life, but not nearly what Jennifer must have endured. My struggles haven’t been easy, but unlike Jennifer’s they’ve always been temporary. I’ve found a way to deal with, to push through and to always promise to start over when I face my struggles. I’m honest is saying that living through some of them, including managing Ronan’s vaccine injury, can sometimes overwhelm me. But I know that it’s important that I keep going. Bad days, and the occasional very depressing ones, add a small burden, but in my mind I know that bad days end. That’s when another day starts and when I know that life can begin anew.
Cathy Jameson is a Contributing Editor for Age of Autism.