The girl on the bottom bunk
I have had a pen pal for 20 years. She and I met when we were teenagers, and we continued our friendship via letter writing. No matter where I lived or what I was doing, I could expect to find a letter from her in my mailbox.
Until one day, when it all stopped.
I sent more letters, and reached out via social media, to no avail. Then, the Christmas letter I wrote her last year was returned, saying it was undeliverable.
It wasn’t until I did a Google search of her name that I found the horrific explanation: My pen pal wasn’t responding because she was dead.
I met this woman, who I’ll call “Emma,” at camp when I was 16 years old. We were assigned to the same cabin, and she and I shared a bunk bed. She was on the bottom bunk, and I was on the top.
During our time at camp, we participated in a wide range of activities together. Our friendship, though, most memorably developed through the notes we clandestinely passed up and down to each other during our cabin’s required quiet times.
These notes covered a wide range of subjects, such as our camp activities, high schools, communities, sports, hobbies, friends, her boyfriend, the horses I worked with, and our families. What made these notes – and the overall nature of our friendship – unique was the frequency with which one of us would write something that would confuse the other person. I mean utterly confuse, to the point of there being an awkward pause before the flummoxed party would ask for clarification. These differing assumptions and cultural cues stemmed from our contrasting socio-economic, family, and geographical norms, and these distinctions would pop up in our written and verbal communications indefinitely.
For example, one time, she wrote me a note about an activity she liked to do, casually dropping the words “Cruiser” and “GSX-R1100.” I remember staring at the paper, having no idea what these things were, but trying to deduce. I finally gave up and wrote her a note back, confessing my ignorance. In her return note, she expressed shock. Then, in big, loopy handwriting, she listed some basic definitions and descriptions of the various types of motorcycles, jet skis, snow mobiles, and other fast sports she favored, commenting again on how she couldn’t believe I didn’t know them. I reacted with similar incredulity when, describing the coding I used for giving myself billions of unearned dollars for demolition and construction sprees in SimCity, she wrote back that she had little knowledge of computers and didn’t know what SimCity was.
At the end of camp, we exchanged addresses and became pen pals. Unsurprisingly, she was a faithful writer. The stream of questions we began on our bunk bed continued in our long letters. And with each page, she was endlessly supportive and interested, no matter how peculiar my pastimes seemed to her.
Several months – and letters – after camp, I was thrown for a loop when she wrote that she and her boyfriend were getting married that summer. We were 17 years old. He was 23. I thought this was odd and sudden; I could not fathom getting married, and felt like her news came from out of nowhere. I wrote to her with questions and, frankly, concerns. In her return letter, she streamlined all my questions into one, simple answer: That she knew we were young, but this was the step she wanted to take. She really did seem unphased, like this was the most normal thing in the world, and required no further explanation. She invited me to the wedding. I came. I met her family. They seemed lovely. We tripped the light fantastic. Then, 9 months later, Emma and her husband were separated.
Once again, she didn’t tell me the reason(s) in her letters. Instead, she asked questions about me. As time went on, I began university studies and she began gushing about another man. She moved into the trailer this man shared with his friend. Then she wrote about a car accident she was in later that same month that resulted in $3,000 worth of damages. This stressed her to no end. She wanted to visit me at school. But she was working so much, and money was tighter than ever, so she never made the trip.
Then she wrote that she was pregnant. She and this new man moved out of the trailer and into his parents’ house. Then she lost her job. Her father’s health began to fail. She and her mother were arguing. I would ask her questions about these situations. But again, she rarely said much about them after their initial mention. She would instead ask about me. My studies. My career goals. My romantic prospects. Where my travels were taking me.
As the years passed, her letters arrived less frequently, and her tone was often tired. She referred to herself as being old, and that her opportunities had passed. She didn’t mention long-term plans anymore, other than a trip to California she wanted to take one day. Not right now, but one day.
Then, she stopped responding to my letters and Direct Messages all together. I feared that I had unknowingly written something to offend or to hurt her, so I tried even harder to connect. After I discovered that she had died, I tracked down her mother and wrote to her. She wrote back saying that she remembered me and had unsuccessfully tried to locate me earlier. She wrote that Emma had taken her own life.
Emma’s eldest child and I later spoke on the phone. I felt my eyes widen with each detail relayed to me. There were swaths – horrible, horrible swaths – of life that Emma had never mentioned in our correspondences, and I had not fathomed.
After much contemplation, I decided to look into some of the details relayed to me. Some specific, pertinent details that confused Emma’s family and me, that I suspected could be answered through various primary and secondary sources, a heroic librarian, and strategic puzzle piecing. However, it would also mean digging into areas of a friend’s life that she never intended for me to know. (I had never built a dossier on a friend, for reasons I hope are obvious.)
I have debated what all to say about what I’ve learned about Emma in the last year, out of respect for her and her family. Ultimately, I decided that calling attention to even just a few of the myriad of challenges that contributed to her quiet despair is something I can do to honor her.
This steadfast, faithful camp friend I had for the better part of 20 years had been figuratively drowning for a long, long time. She worked hard. Multiple low-paying jobs in an economically depressed area. Her weight problems manifested larger health issues and immunosuppression. This led to an ever-growing pile of medical bills. She became financially dependent on boyfriends. The collective negative effect these realities had on her and her children was devastating. Emma was depleted, emotionally, physically, and mentally. Yet, the financial, medical, legal, and domestic problems continued to mount. Like small stones thrown one by one into a figurative bucket she lugged, she was slowly weighed down further and further by its increasing weight.
And I knew little to nothing about any of it while she lived.
That stings. I still have much to contemplate about what to do with that. What changes I can encourage, in my own life and that of my community. On a more subtle but personally significant level, I’m still accepting that there will never again be a letter from her in my mailbox. That as the holiday season gets into full swing, not a single one of the cards addressed to me are going to be from her. The support the girl on the bottom bunk generously, selflessly offered me the last 20 years will have no replacement, and I will regretfully, radically miss her.
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.