To Prevent a Suicide
“Look, Helen,” he said, drumming his fingers on the dining room table. “I understand where you’re coming from. You’re dedicated to your career. Fine. But you also have a family. That family never sees you anymore.”
The impatient woman, who he pleads with, was dashing around the house in a mad scramble to get ready for her evening work. “We’ve been through this before, dear,” she answered curtly. “I am not a puppet who answers to every one of your needs, or to the children’s, for that matter.” Helen stopped at the door that leads to the dining room, her hands on her hips as she tapped her toe. “I am a trained therapist and I am not going to waste my talents and education sitting at home every evening to watch television.”
The tall handsome woman stopped to check the time and then to straightened her dress. Helen, in her late thirties, looked a bit older because of her stressfully lifestyle. Long hours and deep commitment to her work have prematurely aged her. Her chestnut brown hair is streaked heavily with gray and her face is pale, showing signs of fatigue. She glares down at her husband, Jim, who is still hunched over the table. “I have a right to use my spare time as I wish,” she stated defiantly.
“Even when it hurts your family?” Jim snapped back at her, as aggressively as she is with him.
“Oh please,” she says with a laugh. ”Don’t be an old fool. It doesn’t hurt our family by working a double shift at the clinic. You and the children will have to adjust. In fact, that’s what I tell my patients at the office. We’re all living in a time of constant change and we must all learn to adjust to the changes.”
“Save your jargon for the crazies that call you tonight. I don’t want to hear it. What I’m telling you is that the kids miss and need you. You’re at the office all day with your patients then spend every evening at the suicide prevention center. It’s just too much!” Jim Kenner’s voice filled with emotion. But, he knew his words were bouncing off a stone, hard wall. “Go ahead and do what you want. I’m tired of fighting with you about it.”
Helen Kenner paused at the door and sighed as she looks back at her dejected husband. His head held in his hands as he stared at the table top. “If only you could see the good that I’m doing you wouldn’t be so hard on me,” she said. After a moment of silence, she leaves the room.
* * * *
Helen sat in the small cubical, waiting for her first call of the evening. Maxine, the day therapist, left the office a short time ago. She received only a hand-full of calls. That’s good news for a suicide prevention center, however, it makes for a boring evening.
Helen is the only therapist on duty for the next hour and she felt very much alone. She longed for someone to speak to. The small office can be so quiet when one is alone and waiting. Unfortunately, all she can do is stare around her bleak cubical and ponder about her argument with Jim. Had it really been all her fault that she is in a troubled marriage and have unresponsive children? Helen fiddled with the mouthpiece on her headset as her mind rushed to answers.
“No, it isn’t my fault!” she said out loud. “How can they misunderstand the importance of what I am doing?” Helen began tapping the eraser of the pencil in her hand on the desk. “I have a career, an extremely important career and I’m not giving it up to appease their trivial desires.” She then scolded herself, I had better start thinking more pleasant thoughts if I am to be of any use to my callers.
She hates the boredom and inactivity on slow nights. Even though a slow night means there’s no one contemplating suicide. She again starts fiddling with her pencil and flipped through the notepad in front of her. Helen’s eyes darted around the room. They stopped on the clock above her cubicle that reads half past six. Then her eyes travel to the door a few feet away, in hope of seeing the seven o’clock girl enter. She will have to bring a magazine or book to read in the future. Helen thought about the blank walls of the office when the phone rang.
“Hello, this is Helen, may I help you?” She said, with a smile in her voice.
“I need to speak to someone,” a trembling elderly ladies voice said.
“Well, that’s what I’m here for. Let’s start with your name, shall we? Helen continued to smile.
“Let’s just say it’s Betty. I don’t want to give out my real name, just yet,” the woman stuttered.
“That’s all right, Betty, we don’t need that right now. What is it you want to talk about?”
“I….I tried to kill myself a little while ago. I stopped myself, but, I still have the desire to try again.”
So she doesn’t really want to do it, or she wouldn’t have stopped herself. Helen thought about the statement Betty made. She said she would ‘try’ to do it again. She didn’t say she would do it. “You don’t really want to die, do you, Betty?”
“I don’t know what I want,” Betty cried. “I’m so confused and lonely. I don’t know what I want.” She began to start sobbing uncontrollably. All Helen could do is listen and wait. This reaction is typical of her callers. By the time the person is ready to call the center. They have been through hell. As a last resort, they call Helen. The sound of a kind, caring voice is sometimes all they need. But, Betty said she had already tried, so it may be a serious problem.
Finally, Betty stops crying, “I’m sorry I did that, dear. I generally have better self-control on my emotions.” Betty apologized through sniffles.
“No. No need for an apology. It is a healthy outpouring of the pain. If you feel like crying, go for it. Don’t be ashamed to show emotion.” Helen encouraged her and continued. “Tell me, Betty, what made you call me?”
“I just wanted to hear another voice, Someone to talk to.”
“Do you have a family member who you can confide in?” Helen probed, looking for the key to this ladies problem.
“No. I’m an old woman totally forgotten by my family,” Betty replied. “I’m living in this nice, brand new condo with no one to be with. Oh, Helen, the loneliness is unbearable!” she said with a heavy aching in her voice. “The worst part is that I brought this all on myself.”
“Now let’s not be too hard on ourselves, Betty. The dutiful mother, being neglected by her selfish children is not a new phenomenon.”
“Please, believe me, I am the one to blame for where I am,” Betty whispered into the phone. I could have had a loving husband and devoted children as well as grandchildren. I threw it all away years ago.” Betty began to sob again. Choking back the tears, she added, “I can’t talk about it anymore. Please, I’m sorry, goodbye.”
Helen became alarmed. “Hello, hello, Betty are you there?” she asked to no avail. “Nuts,” said, throwing down her pencil. Well if she wants to talk again, I’ll be here.” But, she didn’t call again that evening and, after a few calls from other people in need, Helen soon forgot about the old woman.
* * *
The next evening, under protests from her family, Helen was back at work at the center. It was a slow evening and she was just beginning to think about the open-house at her son’s school she was missing when her phone rang.
Helen heard the familiar voice from the night before and the memory of that call immediately sprang back into her mind. “Hello, is this Helen, the person I spoke to last night?” Betty asked.
“Oh, yes,” exclaimed Helen. “Please don’t hang up this time. I’d like to talk to you.”
“I’m sorry. I was so upset yesterday that I could barely speak about it anymore.”
Betty appeared to be in better control, Helen thought. Her stutter was gone and there was a certain sweetness to her voice. “How are you feeling today, Betty?” asked Helen cheerfully.
“Not much better, to be honest with you. I’m still depressed. I’m still at a point where I don’t care if I live or die. I hate just existing,” she said, her voice now dripping with pain.
“How long have you felt this way?”
“Off and on for about ten years. It’s been much more intense in the last few months,” Betty continued. “My daughter’s wedding was in July and I wasn’t invited. I didn’t even know she was engaged. I feel forgotten by everyone I ever knew.”
“Last night you said it was all your fault,” Helen reminded her. “Can you elaborate on that?”
There was a long pause from Betty’s end of the line. Helen heard a shuffling of clothes and felt an uneasy tension as Betty sighed deeply. “Where do I start?” she asked in a soft voice. “I suppose I have to give you a short history of my life. No,” she quickly corrected. “I’d bore you with that.”
“Tell me what caused the rift between you and your family,” Helen insisted, leaning back in her swivel chair.
“My family doesn’t care about me because I never cared about them when they needed me the most,” she said. “When my children were young and needed a mother, I was busy holding down two jobs. I didn’t have time for them. To make matters worse, we didn’t need the money. I wanted to promote my career.”
“How did your husband react to this?” Helen asked.
“I’m afraid he acted badly; not that I blame him, now. At the time we were constantly bickering. He wanted me to stay at home in the evenings and I thought he was being dictatorial. But, I was wrong. All he wanted was a normal family life.”
“He left you?”
“No, not at first,” Betty said, thoughtfully. “He stayed with me for some time. He then got to a point where he couldn’t deal with not having a wife home with him and the kids. That’s when I moved into this wretched condo.”
“Where is he now?”
“He died soon after our breakup. Before I came to my senses and realized what I had given up. I feel guilty over his death. I made such a mess out of my life,” she said, no longer sounding sweet. Her sadness over her loneliness turned to anger and self-hatred over what she thought she caused. I could feel a deep depression rolling over her and her self-loathing.
She developed the same trembling in her voice that she had the night before. She reluctantly continued. “My children blamed me for his death. They said he died from a broken heart brought on by my years of neglect as a wife and mother. I sometimes think they’re right.”
“You’re letting them get to you on that point. You feel guilty about the break up of your marriage and your children want you to feel worse. They have a power over you that’s causing the guilt. That’s too much of a burden for you to bear.” Helen wanted to console Betty as much as possible but Betty wouldn’t have it.
“Whatever the case, my husband died a broken man. My children disowned me, and I’m alone. I can’t stand living like this.” Betty’s voice was shrill and Helen could tell that the situation was getting out of hand. She’d heard the voice of despair before and Betty was at the abyss of no return.
You must calm down, dear,” Helen said in her most soothing tone. “You must let me help you.”
“You could come out and visit me,” Betty pleaded. “All I need is someone who cares to talk to me. I need to see a friendly face. I need to know that at least one person in this crazy world cares about me.”
“I wish I could, but it’s forbidden. We cannot leave the phones and visit a caller. I’m sorry, Betty,” Helen answered.
Betty began to sob, breaking Helen’s heart. “I’m so alone,” She wailed. “If you don’t come out here I might get desperate. And, don’t send out paramedics, I won’t let them in.”
Helen didn’t like being emotionally blackmailed like this, but what could she do? The old woman wouldn’t be a physical threat to her. She leaned back in her cubicle and glanced around the room listening to Betty sob. “All right, what’s your address? I’ll come for a short visit on my way home.”
“Oh, thank you, my dear,” she quickly regained her composure. My address is, 1221 W. Pico Street apartment 3D.” Betty hung-up before Helen had a chance to respond.
“What have I gotten into now?” She thought there would be no harm in breaking the rules, just this once.
At 11: pm Helen ripped off the sheet of paper with the address on it and dashed out. Helen knew the part of town Betty lived in, however, she couldn’t remember any condominiums on that street. She traveled west on Pico Street directly to the address where the condo was supposed to be. She couldn’t find it. She assumed she made a mistake so she did a U-turn and looked again. It was dark and hard to see the addresses. She slowed down and searched the address numbers on the curb. There it was, 1221 painted on the curb, but no condo. A chain link fence surrounded a large empty lot. Helen sat in her car and reread the address on the slip of paper and thought that she may have written the address wrong.
Across the street from the empty lot was a service station. It appeared to have no customers but it was open. She drove into the station to ask direction. She ventured into the office and found an old man sitting in a swivel chair behind a beat-up wooden desk. He looked up from his crumpled newspaper and stood as he saw Helen coming in. He was a short man in his sixties with gray hair and a short crop of whiskers.
“Can I help you, Ma’am?”
“I certainly hope so,” Helen said. “I seem to be lost. I’ve been looking for this address and can’t find it.” She handed the slip of paper to the old man. He took it from her and, after he put his glasses on, read the address.
“Why sure that’s easy to find,” he said, chuckling. “See that lot across the street,” he said while pointing. “That there used to be a grocery store with this address on it. About a year ago they tore it down and made plans to build condos on the land.” He smiled at Helen with a puzzled look.
Helen was indeed amazed at this information. “That can’t be,” she stuttered. “I’ve been speaking on the phone to a woman who lives there.”
The old man gave her a queer look and chuckled again, “It’s plain to see that there ain’t no building at all on the lot. In fact, there’s a sign on the property giving the address. You can check it yourself,” he advised her. “You probably got a wrong address.” He handed the slip of paper back to Helen and sat down picking up his newspaper again.
Helen quickly strutted out of the station, walked across the street, and found the sign. She found it facing towards a cross street and it did give the address, 1221 W. Pico Street. Under it, the sign read, ‘Future site of luxury condominiums.’
Helen stood, staring at the sign, totally confused. Why would she give me a wrong address if she was so desperate to see me, she thought. The question circled through her mind while she drove home.
* * *
The following evening was the same as the past two, slowing and boring. That was until the phone rang at 6;35 pm. Helen heard the indignant voice of Betty.
“Where were you last night? I waited up for you for hours. This is so important to us, why didn’t you come?” she asked, sadness dripping from her words.
“I did come,” Helen whispered, fearing the others in the office would overhear her, “There was no condo at the address you gave me.”
“Don’t talk nonsense, deary. It’s the condos on Pico Street. I’m there now, looking out the window at the gas station across the street. I’ve been here for years,” she lectured. “You must come, we need to get together.”
“I found the Chevron station with no problem,” Helen answered drily. “But there is no condo, just an empty lot.”
“Oh, please come,” she again pleaded with a shaky, pitiful voice. “We need to talk. It’s so important.” Betty hung up without warning again. Just as she had on the first night.
Helen began to think there was something fishy about these calls. She didn’t leave the office this time. She was angry at the way the old woman was trying to manipulate her. She decided to finish her tour at the center and try to forget about the incident. At 11:00 pm her curiosity got the best of her. Instead of driving straight home, she drove down Pico Street. However, there was no change. The empty lot stood at 1221 across from the Chevron station. Helen shrugged her shoulders and headed for home.
* * *
The next evening, and every evening for the next week, Bettys called continued. Always at 6:35 and always a desperate call for help. She continued to ask for a face to face meeting that would benefit both of them.
Helen began to mull over the unorthodox direction these calls were going. The same time, the same plea, the wrong address, why all the mystery? Helen had a close friend, Sergeant John Merlo, with the police department. Maybe he could help her find this woman. The next day she gave him a call and indicated that Betty was suicidal. She explained that it was of the utmost importance that she reach her.
On Monday evening, Helen and John showed up at the Suicide Prevention Center together. He brought along the equipment he needed to trace a call once Betty called in again. By 6:15 he was ready to go.
“This is really important to you, isn’t it Helen?” the sergeant asked, settling into the seat next to her.
“Yes it is, and I’m not sure why,” Helen said. “I’ve had callers refusing to reveal their identity before, and it was no problem. This woman has some kind of hold on me. There’s something about her that draws me to her. I can’t explain it, especially about the address. She insists she lives on an empty lot on Pico.”
Helen and John watched the clock tick by. The phone rang on schedule. It was 6:35. The policeman jumped up and ran to the machine he had waiting. And gestured to Helen to answer the phone.
“Hello, Helen deary is that you? Oh, of course, it is,” she said, coldly. “I think there’s someone else with you tonight. But, never mind that.”
“Betty, how are you tonight? I do want to see you. Can we talk about that?”
“No, Helen. It may be too late. This is my last call to you. I think I’ve given you enough time to think about who I am.”
“I don’t understand. I’ve been trying to help you through your prob…”
Betty didn’t give her a chance to finish before interrupting, My name is not Betty, you already know that. You must listen to me so that I may not exist. I do not want to be here, miserable and alone and the only way I can alter my life is if you listen. Jim is right, by working two jobs and staying away from the family will ruin your family life.
Bryan needed you at all the school open house that you shrugged off. All the baseball games you missed, the poor boy eyed the stands hoping to see you. You never showed up. Cindy needed you at the girl scout meetings and you weren’t there. Most important, you neglected you husband who loved you and so desperately needed you. Please go home and save us!”
“Don’t let her hang up,” John Merlo called to Helen. “There’s something strange happening with my equipment.
It may be too late. Was her final warning, she hung up. Helen stared blankly at the receiver for a minute before hanging up. John came back to her cubicle with a serious scowl on his face. “That was strange,” he said, loosening his tie. “The number she was calling from is nowhere near Pico.”
“Let me see that,” she insisted, pulling the slip of paper from his hand. “That, that’s impossible,” she stammered.
“That’s what I thought. The number she’s calling from is your second line right here in the cubicle,” he said. “Is there anyone else here?”
“No, I’m always alone when she calls. Or if someone is here, they don’t use that line,” she explained.
“Is there anything else I can do for you, Helen?”
“No, John, thank you for your help. I know who she is now,” Helen said, nodding at the piece of paper and smiling. She leaned back in her chair and quietly thought about what had happened. No matter how impossible it seemed, there was no other rational explanation.
“Now that I know who Betty is, we’ll both rest easy.”