I met her at a birthday party once last fall, and I know I saw her at the pool with her son a few times. She most likely stood behind me in line at Baby Gap or the grocery store once or twice and odds are good we did a make up Little Gym or music class together on occasion, though I really don't recall. This town's not big enough, nor is the stay-at-home-Mommy circuit expansive enough, for us not to have come into contact on a few occasions.
On the surface, our lives looked similar. She and her husband moved to this idyllic suburban town the same year Paul and I did and their son is just a few months older than Julia. She left her career to stay home when he was born just like I did, and from what little interaction I had with her, seemed to approach the world with the same outgoing, confident persona I'd like to think I portray. Her son was in the same preschool class as one of Julia's friends and I remember one day last summer when she approached Anna's mother at the pool and suggested getting the kids together before school started and maybe even planning a mom's night out. "She's one of those
," my friend smiled. We laughed, both knowing full well that I'm one of those
, too. A month later, I stole her idea and organized a night out for the moms of Julia's classmates.
I know hundreds of Karens -- I chat with them at preschool pickup and playdates, I smile at them as we push adjoining swings on the playground and encourage my kids to share crayons with their kids at storyhour. Sometimes we'll get to talking about stuff that matters, occasionally we'll move beyond acquaintance to friend. That never happened with Karen. I didn't know her, not really. But I can't get her out of my mind.
Last week, Karen killed herself. She left behind a husband and a 3 year old son. When her son wakes up calling "Mommy," she won't be there any more. When he scores his first soccer goal or reads his first book, his father won't be able to smile proudly at Karen over his head. In time, her son probably won't remember her at all. The loss is horrible to contemplate, made 100 times worse by the fact that this was no accident. She was compelled to do this by something I'll never understand.
I can't stop thinking about her, about what must have been going on in her life to lead her to such a decision. I wonder what felt so unmanageable, so unfixable, that this felt like her only option. I wonder if she reached out for help first, if it wasn't there or if it simply wasn't enough. I wonder how long she contemplated the idea before she did it. Was it a spur of the moment decision? Or did she plan carefully, making sure first that her son would be taken care of? Did she kiss him goodbye? Tell him she loved him? Think about what it would be like for him when she was gone?
People talk frequently about these years being hard. I've mentioned it myself lately. But there's a world of difference between struggling through some hard days and what Karen must have been going through. It makes me wonder -- not only about her but also about the other people in my life. We all bitch on occasion, or talk about not being able to take it any more. But we're really just letting off steam most of the time. Would I know if a friend was sinking this low? Would I see the signs? Or would I listen with half an ear while I chased my children down and then mutter platitudes as I bundled my kids up to take them home?
Karen looked just like me -- not in the physical sense, but in the makeup of her life. The idea that someone in my shoes could end up in her shoes leaves me deeply shaken. Her story makes me want to do better. It makes me want to love my children better, be a better friend to the people I care about. It makes me want to appreciate all that I have and value the individual days as much as I value the big picture of the years. I know better, though. Despite my best intentions, I still won't be the world's best mother or friend or spouse. I'll be good enough -- sometimes great, other times just getting by. But to try to be more than I am, well, I'll never know for sure, but I can't help but wonder if that's what got Karen into trouble.
Karen's life touched mine in only the most peripheral way. Perhaps some day I'll meet her husband at a party or maybe her son will end up being Julia's prom date or Evan's math tutor. More likely, this will be the last I hear of her. It won't be the last I think of her, though. Not by a long shot.