August 16, 2014
Did you ever hear the story of the Fisher King? It begins with the king as a boy, having to spend the night alone in the forest to prove his courage so he can become king. Now while he is spending the night alone he’s visited by a sacred vision. Out of the fire appears the holy grail, symbol of God’s divine grace. And a voice said to the boy, “You shall be keeper of the grail so that it may heal the hearts of men.”
This and subsequent quotes from the Fisher King, spoken by Parry (Robin Williams) as he and Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) watch the stars from Central Park
Shortly after nightfall on August 11, 1993, my partner and I set up chairs in the backyard and began to watch for the Perseids, a late-summer meteor shower that was supposed to be brilliant that year. Well after midnight, having spotted nothing but the stars, I gave up, knowing I had to get ready for work in a few hours. I looked through the window one last time to say goodnight to my partner, and I witnessed one bright streak across the sky. I was grateful, and inexplicably sad.
At the time, I worked at an animal shelter, and summers were brutal. We were not yet ready to make the step to become a no-kill facility, and some nights during kitten season, we euthanized up to 40 cats. It was, without doubt, the most difficult job any of us have ever done. Knowing what was ahead of us, we often found it a challenge to start our shifts.
August 12th began like any other day, with cleaning and feeding and getting ready to open the shelter. About 9:30, right before we opened the doors to the public, we got word that one of our colleagues died early in the morning. He had injected himself with a carefully calculated does of euthanasia fluid, and in his last minutes, finally gave up the struggle he had waged for years against depression.
Scott Henry was the he meteor I had seen arching towards the heavens in the dark sky.
But the boy was blinded by greater visions of a life filled with power and glory and beauty. And in this state of radical amazement he felt for a brief moment not like a boy, but invincible, like God, so he reached into the fire to take the grail, and the grail vanished, leaving him with his hand in the fire to be terribly wounded.
Almost exactly 21 years later, Robin Williams’ bright spirit streaked across the night sky during this year’s Perseid showers. When I heard the news, the twin arrows of shock and grief felt familiar. My first response was, “Damn, damn, damn.” Mr. Williams’ talent and generosity touched so many of us, and it seemed we were all cheering him on as he openly challenged the demons of mental illness and addiction. He made it to 63, had his big heart fixed along the way, and we were all so sure he had finally made it through the woods.
Heartfelt and heart-rending eulogies from his many friends have been a comfort this week, as have some insightful articles about mental health. One in particular has helped me find new understanding, and the right words to use. The author asks us to stop saying that Robin Williams and countless others chose to take their lives. He points out it is sometimes mental illness that ends life, just as cancer or heart disease does. It is not a choice, or a selfish act, but the terminal point in a long term disease.
Along with the pleas from mental health professionals to start talking about mental illness and suicide, there have been the responses from people who see nothing but weakness or failure, who somehow take Robin Williams’ death personally, and are confused and angry. Others have written that disease of any kind is a manifestation of evil, proof that our world is heading into the apocalypse.
I, for one, can throw no stones.
Now as this boy grew older, his wound grew deeper. Until one day, life for him lost its reason. He had no faith in any man, not even himself. He couldn’t love or feel loved. He was sick with experience. He began to die.
By the time I was 19, I had attempted suicide twice. I knew that the third time would be successful unless I got help. And I was incredibly lucky to find a therapist who walked slowly with me as I began to reconcile the pain of the past, and see a slight ray of hope for the future. Some sessions we barely said a word, but instead drew, engaging in a dialog of lines and color. In time, the pictures became less dark and tormented, and occasionally, opened up to blue sky.
Depression has been a frequent visitor in my life, and there isn’t a day I don’t check in to see if it is at the door again. The right therapists have shown up when I’ve most needed them. And I was given the gift of words and art to help light the darkest corners of my mind.
Above all, I have had the companionship of animals throughout this journey. I’ve often said that they saved my life when I was young, and that is not a dramatic overstatement. Family dogs sat patiently as I buried my head in their fur and cried, and one in particular followed me to my room one awful night as I felt for broken ribs and tended to bruises on my head. I found great solace outdoors, high in a favorite tree in my grandparent’s garden, eye to eye with robins and squirrels. Cats came into my life later, and my first, a Maine Coon mix, demanded I stop spinning wildly through the past, ground myself in the present, and pay attention to what she needed. I will always be grateful to her, and to the dog who got me up and outside when I wanted to crawl into oblivion during a tenacious period of depression, and to the sweet gray cat who stayed up all night with me as I decided to leave a dangerous relationship.
My choice to work with, and on behalf of animals, is born of gratitude and hope.
One day a fool wandered into the castle and found the king alone. And being a fool, he was simple minded, he didn’t see a king. He only saw a man alone and in pain. And he asked the king, “What ails you friend?” The king replied, “I’m thirsty. I need some water to cool my throat”. So the fool took a cup from beside his bed, filled it with water and handed it to the king.
My friend Scott loved animals more than anyone I have ever known. In particular, he loved cats. When I first met him, I worked in the adjacent wildlife rehabilitation clinic. We often needed to get cat food from the main shelter, and I usually found a volunteer willing to fetch it. I hadn’t been to a shelter since adopting a cat decades before, and I could not bear the thought of seeing all those animals in cages, waiting to be adopted, or to be put on the euthanasia list. Closing my eyes, I could imagine their eyes, and I became too anxious to breathe.
One day, I had no choice. I had to go into the cat room myself, so I called Scott and asked him to meet me outside and walk me through. In his gentle manner, he agreed, and with his arm around me, he introduced me to every cat there. I cried. He held me closer, reminded me to breathe, and together, we made it to the pantry.
With his help, I crossed the threshold, and within a few months, was splitting my time between the wildlife center and the shelter. I can’t say that it was ever easy work for me, but it became a passion. I helped create a plan to reduce overpopulation enough for the shelter to become a no-kill facility. Part of that mission was to offer resources for people so they could keep their companions, and I was fortunate to train with a veterinarian so I could help set up the behavior helpline for cat owners.
We made a lot of progress during my time at the shelter. But still, we had to make daily decisions about space. Thinking about that even now, I feel my stomach knot, and my eyes brim with tears. We all had our own ways of dealing with the horrible reality of euthanasia. Not surprisingly, shelter workers struggle with disproportionate issues of addiction. At the end of the day, alcohol and other numbing substances temporarily erased the memories of so many last moments.
Depression is also the bane of many shelter workers, and Scott fought it mightily. And still, even on the most difficult days, he was always there for the cats he loved. In the euthanasia room, he kissed every one before he administered the injection. All those kisses took their toll.
Scott left the shelter a few months before he died. He moved north to a smaller community to start a new life. He stayed in touch, and we were all hopeful that things were working out for him, that he was finding some respite from haunting depression and maybe even happiness in a relationship. But like a moth to the flame, he was again drawn into shelter work. Depression and hopelessness crashed down one more time.
On the last night of his life, Scott baked a cake for a neighbor’s birthday. He returned from the celebration, wrote a note to his girlfriend asking her to take care of his beloved cats, and to send his body back to his parents. Then, at the tender and treacherous age of 30, Scott died and joined all the cats he had kissed as they took their last breaths.
As the king began to drink, he realized his wound was healed. He looked in his hands and there was the holy grail, that which he sought all of his life. And he turned to the fool and said with amazement, “How can you find that which my brightest and bravest could not?” And the fool replied, “I don’t know. I only knew that you were thirsty.”
It has been 21 years since Scott left this world. A Google search for his name yields nothing, but for each of us who remember this kind and gentle man, the month of August is full of memories. We desperately needed to have a grief counselor at the shelter after Scott’s death, but the administration at the time was unwilling to even talk about what had happened. In the dark of a late Saturday night, we broke rules and walked with candles into the woods behind the shelter to plant a young red cedar in Scott’s memory. We tried as best we could to support each other through this shared experience of grief and loss.
And now, in this season of the Perseids, another kind and gentle man has lit the night sky with the bright glow of his intensely lived life. If anything has changed in the last 20 years, it is that we are now willing to talk about mental illness, at least a little. Robin Williams famously said, “You’re only given one little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” I used to love that quote, but now, it stings. The madness that made Mr. Williams talented and brilliant was also his undoing. My friend Scott’s openness to the suffering of other beings, his greatest gift to the world, would not allow him to find peace in his time on earth.
In the memory of these men, and of every person who struggles in the darkness, let us begin a real discussion of what it means to be a feeling, awake person in a world that is filled with despair and hope, unthinkable horror and breathtaking beauty. And let us never forget the gifts of bright light in the night sky. May it make us more compassionate and understanding beings.