I feel it on my heart to put my memories to pen almost 40 years after my dear friend Maggie’s death. I want to reawaken my recollections, memories that have been dormant and ignored for a long time. I need to reflect on the impact this loss has had on me.
I had just graduated from Southern Seminary Junior College (not an actual seminary, but a very small junior college with 200 women). Working as a nanny (which back then was simply a “babysitter”) that summer of 1977 had been non-eventful. Then August approached…
A few weeks prior to attending Mary Baldwin College in Virginia, I was flying up to Portland, Maine, to meet my good friend Maggie. She had just graduated from Kents Hill Boarding School that May and had spent her summer working at a boys’ camp in Weld, Maine. She had driven her bright green Volkswagen Beetle up earlier that summer and I was flying up to drive back down to Ohio with her. Maggie’s parents were family friends and our fathers had attended The Columbus Academy together in the 1930s. Maggie’s mother had told me how glad she was that I was driving back to Ohio with Maggie. It made her feel safe knowing I would be accompanying her daughter. Those words would echo in my head for a very long time.
Maggie picked me up at the Portland airport and we then explored Portland. Lunch and shopping followed and I remember Maggie buying a very festive dress. On our way to Weld, we stopped at Kents Hill so she could show me her school. I was wearing a monogramed sweater and Maggie asked me to take it off. She wanted to introduce me as her sister to the teachers and staff she had grown fond of, and my monogram which ended with a “J” not a “B” would ruin her plan. I was flattered and almost 40 years later wonder about this more.
We then went on to Weld where I met Maggie’s good friend, whose name I can no longer remember. We were staying at a vacation home belonging to this friend’s family. Two other young women were visiting and we were all planning to stay together for a few days before Maggie and I would drive down to Nantucket to visit her old boyfriend. We talked about all of the lobster we would eat and the fun we would have. At that time in my life, I had never been to Nantucket and had only been to Maine twice before (once to Kennebunkport as a small child and the other as a teenager, actually visiting Maggie’s brother at the very same camp).
That evening we decided to go to the Chicken Coop in Rumford, which is a 30 minute drive south of Weld. I remember it as being casual and fun. Maggie’s friend (the one whose name I cannot recall) drove an MG and Maggie wanted to drive it very badly. On the way back from Rumford, her friend said “sure” and rode as a passenger while Maggie drove the MG. I was in Maggie’s car, in the back seat behind the driver, another nameless friend.
I had only been in the state of Maine for less than six hours. I really had no idea where I was or who I was with, except for Maggie.
We must have been traveling north on Route 142. It was a very dark night. The Beetle was following the MG and after coming around a big curve, we came upon the MG flipped over with billowing smoke rising above it! I do not remember much of what happened next and have been trying to recall as much as possible. 40 years ago seems like an eternity.
I remember seeing two figures lying in the middle of the dark deserted road. Nothing was around us whatsoever. Maggie was face down on the road and the friend was next to her. I knelt down next to Maggie and recall she looked so cold. I took off my monogramed sweater (for the second time that day) and put it over her body. I think I must have known she was dead, but am not 100% sure. The two other girls checked on their friend, who was conscious. One girl ran to find the nearest neighbor. I stayed by Maggie’s lifeless body, praying and praying and making all kinds of deals with God, if only He would let Maggie live. When the ambulance came, I went to the side of the road. I placed my fingers so tightly over my eyes and ears that I had red marks for days. I must have been in shock and deep denial. I was only 20 years old. Maggie was only 19.
I remember getting in a police car. It was as if I were there but not really there. No one knew what to do with me and I did not know what to do with myself. I kept hearing Maggie’s mother’s voice saying how glad she was that I was driving back to Ohio with Maggie, because she thought Maggie would be safe. I felt so badly and somewhat responsible. I thought it was my duty to call and tell Maggie’s parents of her death. Thank God I was wrong, but those thoughts haunted me. Inside the police car, I overheard the police speaking of a fatality. The driver had “over corrected” on a hairpin turn. I knew it was Maggie.
I was taken to the home of Maggie’s friend where I was to spend the night. I felt very alone and so incredibly sad. The next morning I was taken to the hospital to visit the friend, the survivor. It was so odd to be there without Maggie. Odder still that Maggie was actually dead. I went into the hospital chapel where I prayed. I had not shed a tear. I was given a phone to contact my mother. No answer (and definitely no cell phones). I then called my best friend Ellen (and also Maggie’s friend). Her mother answered, asking me about the weather in Maine, etc. etc. I could barely talk and she asked me if I had a bad cold. Ellen got on the phone and it was then that I let it all out. I fell apart and finally let my guard down, crying out to Ellen that Maggie was dead. Ellen dropped the phone in shock and her mother got back on the phone to pray with me.
Meanwhile, the news had reached our little suburb of Bexley, Ohio and the news spread fast. My mother was modeling at Lazarus Department Store and an acquaintance told her of Maggie’s death. My mother quickly made every attempt to get in touch with me and she arranged for a flight home. As I was flying south to Ohio, Maggie’s family was flying north to Maine. Before I left, someone asked me to find some clothes to put on Maggie’s body. I chose the festive dress Maggie had purchased in Portland less than 24 hours earlier. I also picked out a pair of red Ohio State University underwear for Maggie to wear. It is strange the things that I am able to recall.
That is all I can remember about that devastating night. I received no counseling, but a lot of tender loving care from family and friends. I still have a difficult time riding in the back seat of a car, behind the driver, at night. I have not been back to Maine since, but would like to visit one more time before I die.
Maggie’s parents were so good to me. The love they showed helped restore me tremendously. Maggie’s grandmother invited me for tea and to talk about the accident. As difficult as it must have been for her (as it was for me), it was healing to speak of it. No one else wanted to talk about it, especially me. Maggie’s mother offered me something of Maggie’s to remember her by. I declined, but wish I had accepted something as a keepsake. I do not know why I declined and I still wonder about this now. Did I feel unworthy? Did I feel I would be taking advantage of Maggie’s death? Did I feel responsible? Part of me will always feel responsible. I was there and I was the one who was supposed to drive back to Ohio with Maggie, keeping her safe.
In 2017, putting pen to paper, I could not remember which year Maggie had died. I tried to locate her obituary on line, to no avail. I called Ellen and she immediately knew it was 1977. She remembered my phone call vividly and how “horrific” the news was. Hearing her say “horrific,” I agreed and responded that no one said anything like that to me after Maggie died. Everyone was very careful not to talk about Maggie’s death around me. I needed to talk about it, but I did not know I needed to talk about it.
I went on to finish college and marry a year after graduation. At my wedding reception, I danced with Maggie’s father. He absolutely adored his daughter unconditionally. While we were dancing, I whispered in his ear that if I were blessed to have a daughter, I would name her Mary Landrum and call her Maggie. Tears were softly running down both our faces. It was a vow I meant with all of my heart and in 1994 (14 years later), I did just that. My Maggie came to me through adoption, just as Maggie had come to her parents many years before. Foreshadowing, ironic, similarities yet to unfold?
Married and living in Virginia, I would drive up to Ohio 4 to 6 times each year with my two children. We always visited Maggie’s parents. Maggie’s father had had a stroke which left him unable to care for himself. I would take my children to visit him in the nursing facility where he lived. My son Jake played the piano and my Maggie played the violin for him. They would sing and dance to entertain him. He left this world in 2005 and I hope those visits brought him some joy.
My relationship with Maggie’s mother continued. She was always positive, never complained of losing her daughter at such a young age. She was creative in her garden and kept an active life. I enjoyed watching her and interacting with her, yet I had no idea that I was learning from her to cope with the loss of a daughter. She had no idea that she was teaching. We talked about her Maggie and she loved that. It made me feel good too, to remember the fun-loving young woman Maggie was. We exchanged ideas on what Maggie would be doing now and how much we’d give to see what she would look like as she grew older.
My first memories of Maggie are as a little girl. The adults would speak about her great beauty. She was dressed in lovely clothes and would wear bonnets to church.
I actually met Maggie in junior high (now called middle school). She had a tandem bike (it was either yellow or red). Her long blond hair would fly behind her. She was so full of life! We became friends and she would spend a lot of time in my home. My family loved Maggie as she was fun and always entertaining.
Next to my bed, I keep a photo of Maggie and me taken in my mother’s living room in 1976, one year before she died at age 19. Right next to it is a beautiful photo taken of my Maggie, one week before she took her very own life, at age 17.
Watching Maggie’s mother cope and live with such loss was more revealing and instructive than I could ever imagine.
Since losing my Maggie 5 ½ years ago, I have been doing some writing. This has been healing to me. Similarities are apparent to me now regarding the deaths of both Maggie’s: sudden and shocking, to say the least. Maggie’s death by car accident and my Maggie’s death by suicide were tragic, “horrific,” untimely and unspeakable. Both are still the leading causes of death of adolescents in the United States.
More than just a footnote…
On Friday, May 11, 2012, I was in my hometown Bexley, Ohio. I had gone “home” to celebrate Mother’s Day with my mother and two sisters. It would be my first Mother’s Day without my precious daughter Maggie. I knew I would feel some peace with this plan. We would travel up to our family cottage in Lakeside on Lake Erie, where Maggie’s memory is still very much alive. I could concentrate on being a daughter honoring her mother and not a mother without her daughter.
Prior to our departure to Lakeside, my sister Mary and I had coffee with Ellen (the very same Ellen who I called after Maggie’s death in Maine many years before). Mary and I had just missed seeing Ellen’s younger son’s Matt’s smiling face, and we assumed he had gone to work. We sat on Ellen’s newly renovated porch, eating fresh fruit parfaits and blueberry muffins. It was delightful and brought me much joy. It had been 8 months since my Maggie had taken her own life.
Ellen asked me where I found my comfort and I read to her from Streams in the Desert, my most beloved devotional. She asked me for peace for her cousin whose husband was terminally ill. She wanted to be able to help her when the time came. I read my favorite passages and probably preached a bit. It was as if God directed me to the passages where I could share the most hope. I was so contented to share with Ellen what had comforted me. We had no way of knowing that God was using me to prepare Ellen for what would turn out to be the day her world turned upside down and her life would change forever.
That beautiful spring day, I hugged my dear Ellen goodbye and headed to Lakeside with my mother and sisters. We opened up our 150 year old cottage and relished seeing our beloved lake again. We walked through the little town, seeing shopkeepers we had not seen since the previous August. It was the first time for me to visit as a mother who had lost her daughter. Maggie treasured this place and her memorial was planned to be here.
When I opened my closet, there on the floor was the white bikini and white shorts Maggie lived in the summer before. Someone cleaning in the cottage must have found them in the bunk room (where Maggie and her cousins slept) and put them there thinking Maggie would jump back into them the following summer. It was such a bittersweet moment!
After a nice dinner and wine, my mother went up to bed and my sisters and I sat and caught up with one another. We each live in different parts of the country and do not have the chance to be together as much as we would like. We were relaxed and happy to be together. I felt as if I were back at the place holding my very best memories, the place where I spent every summer of my 55 years, that place where I raised my children in the most cherished spot.
Anne’s cell phone rang around 10:30pm and she answered it. It was Ellen. Anne looked very confused and handed the phone to me. Ellen kept repeating “Matthew is dead” over and over.
Eight months after my Maggie died, Ellen’s 21 year old son Matt died. Sudden, Shocking, “Horrific”…
What I did not know about Matt was that he had developed an addiction to heroin. I still cannot fathom this, just as I cannot comprehend that my precious little girl took her own life. These things do not happen to people like Ellen and me. I have since learned that heroin and suicide know no limits and cross over every boundary.
Ellen had planned to tell me that Matt had been in rehab when she flew down to Virginia to visit me in less than two weeks. She did not want to burden me with these troubles, as she felt I had enough on my emotional plate. Matt had requested to enter rehab and had revealed his addiction to his parents less than a month prior to his death. Ellen and Paul made the arrangements for Matt to enter rehab and fully supported his progress. They took the classes, met with the counselors and prepared for a life with a son with a serious addiction. They loved Matt and stood right by him.
Unbeknownst to me, just that morning, while we were enjoying coffee together, Matt had planned to attend an Addicts Recovery Group. He had just completed a three week stay at a rehab facility and been released the day before. After I left Ellen that morning, she had told a friend that she was full of hope and thought Matt might even become a drug counselor. This was the day Matt took a fatal dose of heroin and died.
Mother’s Day (the day I had planned so well to survive) was spent with Ellen and Paul and their older son Myles. Their friends came in and out of their home. Coolers were full of ice, bottled water, beer and wine. Platters of food were set on tables and filled the refrigerator. I knew this drill so very well and I could not believe it was happening again.
No one can avoid loss. We can not only acquire to manage it, but to learn something from it and even flourish as a result. I have heard that we write in order to understand, not for others to understand. I have found this to be very true.