She was calling from a rat-infested motel room somewhere in Montana, two states away, a .38 caliber revolver clenched in her hand. She had one thing left to do before she planned to press the barrel against her temple and pull the trigger: to thank me.
Geez, I thought, what am I supposed to do?
I had never talked a person back from the edge of a cliff before. I was, after all, only 19 years old. But I had heard stories about how my father, John E. Valusek, a clinical psychologist, had intervened in the middle of the night to save suicidal patients. Dozens of them. Always scared the crap out of me, just listening to his tales. Thankfully, I had been listening. I remembered what he always asked first.
“Kelly,” I said, after affirming I still cared, despite the time and distance. “Why now? Why kill yourself tonight? You can always kill yourself next week. Why not come see me first? Say a proper goodbye. Bring your gun. I promise I won’t stop you.”
There was a long pause.
“That’d be ridiculous,” she said finally, making a sharp little barking sound. Did she just laugh? Maybe there was hope. “Besides, I’m flat-ass broke. I’m sick. And I’m starving to death. I’m not going anywhere. Except the morgue.”
“What if I send you some cash for food and a bus ticket to St. Paul first thing tomorrow morning, when Western Union opens?” I waited, teeth and gut clenched, barely breathing.
Another long pause. “You would do that?”
“Of course I would,” I replied, picking up momentum. “But don’t get me wrong. I’m being totally selfish here. If you blow your head off tonight, I’ll get depressed, fall apart for a couple weeks, probably, and lose my job. I won’t be able to pay the rent, so my roommates will throw my ass out on the street, and I’ll end up suicidal, trying to figure out who the hell to call in the middle of the night. But, hey, you’ll be dead. So I won’t be able to call you.”
This time, she laughed out loud.
Two days later, I met her at the bus station in downtown St. Paul, drove her back to my apartment where my two, very kind and caring roommates and I made her cook and clean and generally serve as free, personal slave labor until she dried out, returned to the land of the living, found a job, and slowly learned how to smile again.
Nine years later, Kelly called me again, from the other side of the country.
She had a beautiful son, she said. She had become a Buddhist. And, she added nonchalantly, she was going into the federal witness protection program, so I would never hear from her again.
Never a dull moment, I thought.
Before she vanished, of course, she wanted to thank me again for saving her life. In turn, I thanked her for having chosen life, that cold dark night so long ago when things appeared utterly hopeless. It meant a lot to me. What’s more, I had discovered something about my own strength and the depth of my capacity to love, which I might never have learned any other way. By this point, we were both in tears. After we hung up, I stared at the phone for a long time.
I’ve never forgotten Kelly. Periodically, I go searching for some trace of her on the internet. Decades later, I still feel a subtle yet powerful connection with that young woman. Our lives touched, parted, touched again, parted again, and went their separate ways. But we remain mysteriously bound to one another at a level that’s difficult to fully comprehend.
“Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood,” writes Mary Oliver in her poem “Mysteries, Yes” (Evidence, 2009). “. . . How two hands touch and the bonds will never be broken.”
Last month, when 14 of us contemplated this poem one Sunday morning for Lectio Poetica, as I read that line aloud, I thought first of my aging mother and father, whose health is in decline. I thought of the bonds that will never be broken, even when our hands can no longer touch.
A few weeks later, as Barbara and I sat down with my father in his living room in Wichita, Kansas, I thought, too, of Kelly.
Throughout his long career, my father had talked some 240 suicidal men and women back from the brink, many with guns, knives, ropes or pills in hand, ready to end the suffering that very night. In each case, no matter how dangerous, he had affirmed their right to choose, even to end their own lives. He had never tried to take away what Victor Frankl called “the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.”
Today, at 84, his emotional state appears fragile and precarious, as he spends his days and nights caring for my ailing step-mother, the two of them knocking around alone in that big house. And just before we arrived for Christmas, he received a new and terrifying diagnosis. I worry sometimes about his will to live.
But he continues to surprise me.
As we sat together that day, he recounted the story of a young man who recently attempted suicide by shotgun—and failed. The man’s grandmother, who knew of my father’s legendary ability to reach the most unreachable souls, begged him to come out of retirement and talk with her grandson. He agreed.
“I haven’t lost one yet,” he said, a wry smile at the corner of his mouth. “Maybe this kid will be the first. Who knows?” But I noticed his tired eyes had come alive again, as he told us the story. For a few minutes, he no longer looked old and exhausted.
That’s when I told him about Kelly. I told him it was what I had learned from him, back when I was just a teenager, that ultimately saved her life. “Dad, that’s two hundred forty one people who owe their lives to you.”
It occurs to me today, as I write, that if he had somehow managed to save several hundred people all at once, say, from a terrorist attack or a plane crash, the media would undoubtedly call him a hero. Instead, he touched one hand at a time. I wonder, though, how many could ever forget? I wonder how many others they touched, in their own ways, in the years that followed? Finally, I wonder how far all those men, women and children could reach, if they all joined hands?
When two hands touch, who knows what can happen? Certainly not me.
“Let me keep my distance, always, from those / who think they have the answers,” Mary Oliver concludes. “Let me keep company always with those who say / ‘Look!’ and laugh in astonishment, / and bow their heads.”
As I look at the far-reaching impact of my father’s life, I laugh in astonishment. And, yes, I bow my head.
—Jay E. Valusek