Thursday, September 20, 2007

LONELINESS | Roy and Nelly

I'm not sure what precipitated the memories, but a few days ago, I was reminded of Roy ― he was a schoolmate who killed himself about 14 years ago.

Roy wasn't a friend. The sad part of this story is ― he wasn't anyone's friend.

Roy wasn't a bad guy. At least, he didn’t seem like a bad guy. I remember him as a nerdy little guy with glasses who told off-colour jokes. They weren't rude or offensive, and Roy probably thought they were funny. The jokes were just lame. Not funny at all.

Roy just seemed to have problem connecting with people.

Maybe we all remember someone like that in school ― the socially inept guy/girl who sat alone, who seem to have no friends. When they talk we wonder what they are going on about. We never really noticed them not because we dislike them, but because they just seem odd in an uninteresting manner.

It was ironic how I came to learn of Roy's death: I was 17, restless (and a little bored) in a lecture theatre waiting for the bitchy Math lecturer, when one of my classmates asked if I knew Roy from my alma matar. I shrugged, replied that, yes I do, but not very well.

"Did you know he killed himself?" my friend said immediately.

Roy killed himself on New Year's Eve. None of his friends or classmates showed up at the funeral, because he had no friends. When he didn't show up for class, no one missed him enough to call ― until the school administration did a routine follow-up on his absenteeism.

It was so sad, to be so alone that no one will even notice when you're not around. I was one of the many people who did not give a second's notice to Roy, too caught up in my own world. I wondered why he killed himself on New Year's Eve ― I could only guess at his reasons: that he must have truly felt alone, so alone that self-annihilation was the only escape from the utter despair. He was only 17 when he killed himself ― the same age as me. My life at 17 was selfish and frivolous ― but there was no doubt that I wanted to live.

I wondered how his mother must have felt, when no one showed up for his son's funeral. She loved her son, lost him, and no one in the world loved him back.

I consider myself socially inept, and anti-social to a certain degree, but I am still lucky enough to have people around me who cares if I'm not around. We all seek human connections, and some of us find it easier than others. I wonder why was it so easy for Roy to slip through the cracks?

I once read how Tori Amos said she was made Homecoming Queen at her high school only because she made it a point to talk to everyone she met. I was amazed when I read it, because it felt ― impossible. We ignore people, that is what most people do, especially if you live in a big city. We "filter" people, we block them off to keep some part of ourselves intact. We need that distance to stay sane, or otherwise we are at risk of being drained spiritually and emotionally. No one can be as open to people as Tori Amos seems to be.

So as we filter the important and insignificant people around us, people like Roy gets sifted out. We throw them into the bin labelled: "Not worthy of attention." We don't even notice when they are gone.

My mom had a friend, Nelly. What my mother told me about Nelly was that she could be "difficult", that she lived alone because she chose to cut off communication with her family. Nelly had few friends because of her temperament ― she drove people away. Yet by some miracle or karma, she got along with my mother.

One evening my mom made some soup. She made extra for Nelly but my mom felt ill that night. She spoke on the phone with Nelly, apologised for not being able to go over to Nelly's place as promised, and my mom stayed in.

A few days later ― I was brushing my teeth ― I was staying home to work on my thesis ― a neighbour come to our apartment looking for my mom.

The neighbour told my mom that Nelly was found dead in her apartment. She had been dead for a few days and the neighbours finally called the police because of the foul smell coming from her apartment.

The police would later reveal she had been dead approximately five days. Her body was found prostrated in front of the altar of the Virgin Mary. According to my mother Nelly had been having frequent black-outs for the past few months. She was probably saying her prayers when she blacked-out in front of the altar, and she hit her head, bled to death.

I helped my mother clean up Nelly's flat after the police released the place. I remember choosing the lemon-scented air-fresheners ― because of the smell of decomposition. We cleaned out her fridge and I remember there was fish in the freezer. My mother asked if we should bring the frozen fish home, to eat. I objected; it felt morbid. So we threw everything away.

One of the last thing Nelly bought was a pack of strawberry-flavoured Mentos sweets. It was on a table in her living room, with the receipt. She must have bought it on the way home from work.

When I saw the sweets with the receipt, I thought: She didn't know that day she was going to die. Now she will never get to eat the sweets. I never told my mom that I thought of taking the sweets home. I felt like having them, because Nelly would never have them.

Then the revelation: my mother apparently shared a joint bank account with Nelly ― there was $50,000, all of it Nelly's savings. Nelly trusted my mother that much, and with her death, the money now legally belonged to my mother.

Maybe that was why my mom felt such tremendous guilt for Nelly's death. If the time of death was right, my mom was probably the last person who spoke to Nelly. My mom believed if only she had gone over to Nelly's place, then someone would be with Nelly that fateful night. Then she might not have bled to death alone in her apartment.

If only. If only. These are the guilt of all the things we could not have known yet hindsight makes them so terrible and unforgiveable.

I think about people like Roy and Nelly, alone, disconnected in their different ways, for different reasons. We ignore Roy, and Nelly pushed people away from her. Their deaths are just so sad. So terribly alone. It scares me.

But maybe Nelly wasn't that alone, even if she did die badly. She had a good friend in my mom.

From the $50,000 in Nelly's joint account with my mom, my mom paid for all funeral expenses and all outstanding bills. Whatever was left, my mom donated it to charity, in Nelly's name. Every single cent of it. If you know the kind of person my mom is, you wouldn't be surprised either.

Sometimes I do wonder about the friendship between Nelly and my mom. I think a big part of their connection was their mutual loneliness. Caring for Nelly helped my mom feel needed, an active participant in someone else's life; everyone else in her family had a larger external life that excluded her. Especially me.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing these thoughts. I feel sad for Roy for he has been forgotten and he is just been himself. The sense of that depth of loneliness to the extent that he choose to end his life is so deafening sad. I feel for Nelly for the kind of disappointments or experiences she might have to the point that she will drive people away. I don’t think she is ‘difficult’; she is ‘protecting’ herself and it is a kind of shield. People behave in certain way for a reason. They (Nelly and your mother) have a very special beautiful friendship for the bond they share, care and supported each other. Both Roy and Nelly are been thought of, for different reasons.

Sometimes I wonder if it is so important for people to remember us. Do we only know of our own existence through other people’s recognition and acknowledgement. True to some extent, we crave for human connections.

Sometimes I wonder why we are here.

Anonymous said...

May Roy find peace and happiness in the other world. Thank you for sharing these special patches of your life. Roy's story is especially poignant and touches my heart chord. In a way I can relate to Roy as a teenage who didn't have many friends. Socially inept individuals often withdraw to their own world in which they gratify themselves by excelling in activities (could be thinking, reading, writing, playing music...) that are often not shared by common run of men. It's a way to protecting themselves from being emotionally hurt, especially if they have bad experiences with relationship in the past. Their instinct self-protection urge them not to imperil their being contented alone by any action that will lead to sorrow.

We all sift people and mentally mark those whom we wish to associate with while reject others. But I find it more important to extend our friendship to those who don't seem to have anybody in their life. Human connections are what make and prune who we are. You mother seems to understand the gift of friendship to cultivate and embrace Nelly.

Anonymous said...

To a certain extent, most of us are socially inept and / or anti social at some point in life or during certain situations. I too, am such a person to a certain degree.

My mum calls me anti social. I call it being prudent and selective about who i associate myself with.

But you know, sometimes we just categorise people and at times, we just don't make enough effort to know people well enough or to even bother knowing them at all.

And some poor fella just happens to fit into the kind of category that people dismiss.


Off to Ho Chi Minh tomorrow. Need anything? Just sms me.

Anonymous said...

What sad and touching stories. Thank you for sharing them.

darkorpheus said...

quietletters I think you're right about Nelly "pushing" people away just to protect herself. That she bonded with my mom says something.

It's sad, isn't it -- the way we can only see ourselves through reflections? So many of us can't believe we deserve to be loved for ourselves -- that we are real, only if someone else love us in return.

Matt Roy's story struck a chord with the socially inept teenager (now adult) in me. A reminder, maybe, of how powerful it can be just to be noticed, to be seen. I could have been him -- I was just lucky.

Ah Leng Yeah, I noticed you are selective about whom you associate with -- which is why it's still a wonder to me how we become friends.

My Nemesis tries so hard to earn your friendship, more than I did -- and at the end we ended up as friends, while my Nemesis just ended up -- oh well.

Stefanie You're welcome. :)

Anonymous said...

I can see myself fitting in the same shoe. I don't easily warm up to people's company unless there is a very promising ice breaker.

I delved in books so much to eradicate that lonely feeling when I was a teenager.

I couldn't claim to have any heart-t0-heart friends until I went to college, which, partly out of bore and partly out of a true desire to get to know people, I connected with some of my closest friends.