The Secret in the Shuttle

I’ll be the first person to admit that Vermont is a small state. Not just geographically speaking, but small in the sense that you can’t go into the corner store without running into five people you know. It’s the single greatest and worst part of living in Vermont. You never know who you’ll run into, or where…

I should have realized when the Hyundai shuttle picked me up yesterday I would know one of the passengers.

{Speaking of Hyundai, if you want to feel like royalty, buy a new car from them.  I get treated like gold every time I show up. Someone greets me outside, they drive me to and from work (even if the shuttle isn’t around), they take my car to the carwash and vacuum it out, and they leave me cookies in the car when I pick it up. I’m telling you. R.O.Y.A.L.T.Y.}

The Hyundai shuttle pulled up to my work around 4:30 that dark, Wednesday afternoon. It had been a long day, and I was looking forward to heading home to relax. I slid open the heavy white door, saying hello to the passenger in the front seat and the driver, and climbed my way into the back.

I immediately recognized the little old man driving. He’s this super-cute, super-opinionated, 70-year-old. During our last ride together, he managed to tell me his entire life story in a mere 15 minute commute. I guess you could say he’s a talker—one of those people that simply hates silence and feels the need to eliminate any gaps in a conversation.

“Hey, how you doin’ today?” he asked me. Before I could answer, he reached into the backseat and handed me a Burlington Hyundai reusable grocery bag. “There ya go. This is for you.”

“Thanks!” I replied, even though I had three at home and had yet to use a single one…but it’s the thought that counts.

Then, diving right into the personal, he asked me, “So. You work for THEM huh?”

Oh boy. Here we go, I thought to myself. I work for a well-known, reproductive health organization. In my experience, people either love us, or hate, and either way, most people aren’t afraid to let their opinion be known. It can make for some really wonderful, or really awkward conversations.

Taking a deep breath I replied, “Yes, yes I do,” and braced myself for his reaction and the reaction of the person in the front seat.

“Yeah…I’ve seen them people with signs outside your building in Burlington,” the old man told me. “I don’t see why they can’t just leave you all alone!” Annnnd breathe, I thought. He’s ok!

The little old man continued talking for some time about abortion and the issue of choice, saying he thinks people should just “do what they want.” Abortion didn’t become legal until 1973, so this man probably witnessed, or at least heard of the lengths to which women went to avoid unwanted pregnancies.  I respectively listened to him, decided to not say much–I still hadn’t heard from the front seat passenger, and for all I knew, she could be some crazy-religious nut-job.

Finally, in a thick, Russian accent she chimed in. “My grandmother once said, ‘Every baby should be wanted. And when you have that baby, love it and cherish it always.’”

As soon as she spoke, I realized I knew her. She was my neighbor growing up, and more importantly, was the mom to my high school friend A*** who took her own life. Her words had new meaning now.

As she and the old man continued their conversation, I was all in my own head about what to do and what to say. I hadn’t spoken with her mother since A*** was still alive, and due to the circumstances, I wasn’t sure I should bring it up in the freakin’ Hyundai shuttle. I asked myself a million questions: Should I admit who I am? Did she recognize me when I climbed into the shuttle? Should I bring up her daughter and how much I miss her? Or would that make it too hard? What should I do?

I ultimately decided I had to tell her who I was. “Ohh…hey…You live on P*** St., right?” I asked sheepishly. What a stupid question.

Turning around and looking me in the face, she said, “Yes! I thought that might be you. We are neighbors!” she proudly told the shuttle-driver. Yeah, neighbors, and I was also best friends with your now deceased daughter.

“Yes, exactly. You live three houses down from my parents. I was also friends with your daughter A***…” I said trailing off, trying to get a feel for how she’d react.

“Oh yes. Time goes by so quickly, doesn’t it? How are your parents?” she said without missing a beat.

I couldn’t believe it! She completely changed the subject. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.

I was a sophomore in college when I found out A*** had died. Long before the days of Facebook, I received a series of frantic IM’s from my friend Nick. He told me A*** had been found dead in her apartment and her parents were telling people she died of a heart attack. It doesn’t take a genius to realize a 22-year-old never dies of a heart attack.

Later the truth came out she had taken her own life by consuming a large amount of some pill. Even then, her parents continued to tell those who knew her the cause of death was cardiac arrest. The word “suicide” was too much for them. I don’t know if the word made them feel like failures as parents, or if it made them feel guilty because they couldn’t save her (a feeling I know all too well), or if they just refused to say it out of love and respect for their daughter. I guess I’ll never know.
I spent the rest of the shuttle ride honoring A***’s mom’s upspoken request–to keep my knowledge, my history with her daughter, swept under the dirty rug of that shuttle van. It seemed ironic that while I had worried what would be said about abortion, it was really her mom who had to worry about the secrets I would reveal. I guess there are still things in this world more stigmatized than abortion–suicide being one of them.

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