(Adapted from The Mending, a novel)
Years after the fact, I reconstructed Abagail Cushing’s (a pseudonym) mysterious passing as best I could. I freely acknowledge my report may not agree precisely with the recollections of others, or correspond neatly with acknowledged facts of her life and death, as amended and obscured over time. Her short life resonates still with many friends. Her passing remains a puzzlement.
Military service had drawn her parents to the valley before World War II, where they married and raised their children. They adored the city and suburbs, pressed, as they were, into the soaring mountains and breathtaking canyons, where an abundance of The Greatest Snow On Earth could be found six months of the year. Aba and her older brother Mark made good use of it some weekdays after school, on Saturdays and Sundays after church, occasionally in lieu of church.
They were acceptable outsiders. The Cushings fit in: all the right clubs, service organizations and associates. They did what any reasonably engaged Anglican, Presbyterian, Baptist or Catholic would do to sustain their spiritual bearings in sea of Mormons determined to convert the world.
Of course there were noticeable differences: skiing on the Sabbath for one. Alcoholic libations, coffee and tea in the pantry were others. Not so apparent tell-tales were private schools for her through ninth grade and her destiny to attend college "back East" (I was quite envious of that).
I was off handling my military obligation as best I could, which is to say badly. Early in the summer I'd sent her a vain, crude, arrhythmic stab at a Haiku explaining my distress: lost in Fort Ord fog/fed-up to my drab cunt cap/with Second Looies, First Sergeants and acting jacks. "Not to mention bayonets fixed to separate the quick from the dead.”
A week before she was to depart for college, Abagail responded, closing the letter with her own Haiku: “Relief is in sight/ Forward progress change is near/ Patience new start come Fall.” She added a postscript: “Meantime, don’t get your ass shot off,” and a hand drawn caricature of smiling face, the kind of line graphic the internet would popularize a half-century later.
At the time, I figured her haiku forecast the changes ahead – her off to college, me to advanced Army medic training, then the public university up the street, where most everyone from our high school went. In any event, I was having a sustained unholy out-body-experience being transformed into a trained killer. If I wasn’t careful, I could get my ass shot off low crawling beneath the razor wire, machine gun tracers whizzing overhead.
The voice on the phone was as soothing as the message was distressing: Abagail had suddenly passed away --“natural causes,” the newspaper later certified -- the day before she was to depart for college. It made no sense. She was strong: chiseled, tanned face, taut ski racer’s body. Something had gone wrong, seriously wrong.
Predictably, those that claimed to know the most, knew the least: they deemed Abagail’s demise willful. Suicide, willful? I thought not! But no one was talking. That was the way many traumas were dealt with then, perhaps now too. Her death remains a puzzle still.
Six years later as a young police reporter for the city’s leading newspaper, I searched for more information and found nothing: no police report, no autopsy. No nothing. My inquiries were answered with silence or dismissive responses: “what concern is it of yours?” The answer was simple: her life interrupted was worth honoring. Instead, it had been quickly sodded over. Obliterated from the public record. Oddly, there was not a single reference to her in either of her parents’ obituaries decades later.
Had Aba ever written those complex Haiku run-on sentences she often presented upside down. “This one,” I once observed, “was intended to be absorbed while standing on my head.” She dared and I took the taunt. Moments before I collapsed on the floor, she snapped the picture, proof positive, that I too was crazy and unbalanced.
The last sight of her was at graduation, in the wee small hours of the morning-after all night partying. I stumbled into her, swaddled, sleeping in a beige canvas hammock, strung between two Quaking Aspen, camouflaged by the pre-dawn darkness and dank summer mountain forest mist. The collision sent her sprawling, startled onto the spongy pine duff mattress. Apologies, embarrassment, then laughs ensued.
Where was her date? Inside the cabin! Had something gone awry? I should have asked; offered to warm her as only good friends can and often do in times of crisis. Had this presaged what lay ahead? Would a sustained embrace then have saved her from herself, salved chronic melancholia, preserved her joy and weirdness too? I was oblivious, caught-up in my own obligations and dilemmas.
My penance? A half-century dealing with misleading whispers. No, Aba was not a precocious student actress. She could have been a brilliant playwright. Yes, she had been buffeted by gospel variants! Had she grown partial to one strain or another? Or, had all forms strained her equally? Had religion provoked tensions at home and undercut her self-confidence? Was college in the “East” her preference or her parents attempt to extract her from the predominant religious culture of her hometown? Was she recovering from boy troubles, the kind that may have erupted graduation night? Or, troubled by other personal relationships? Or, a surprise pregnancy? Unlikely, but highly unlikely that any one of them, taken alone, would have provoked her final fatal act.
As I came to understand, suicides have many crushing enablers – fear, setbacks, failures, illnesses, thoughtless friends, romantic entanglements, coercive teachers and expectant relatives. Each sucks out a little life from the living, the little bits coagulate and accelerate the dying process.
What had gone so wrong for Abagail? Were people paying attention? She would want us to understand the enablers of her death so we could identify them early in the living.
There is no doubt in mind that she would be pleased to be finally remembered and honored with a Haiku:
Straight talk would likely
underscore this simple fact
Abagail was unforgettable.