I can’t really say that I knew Celeste, not like everyone else did.
She was an old friend of Michael’s, of Jillian and Kimmay and their gang, and it was just really early on, and years back — the baby shower for Eliot, a night or two after — that I spent any time around her at all and always in a large group, and what I knew most of her then were outlandish, funny stories. And later, when Celeste took up with an unpleasant boyfriend and started alienating friends, what I heard were unkinder critiques. And later still, Celeste discovered Facebook, and cultivated a small number of friendships, of which I happened to be one, and this only in the casual style of a Facebook text-message friendship.
But along the way, while for the rest of us life chugged on with its manageable ups and downs, it was nothing of the sort for Celeste, and only because Celeste herself was not like the rest of us: she was profoundly clinically depressed, with a likely diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, frequently unable to work and bounced between psychiatrists and their varying prescribed psychotropic drug combinations, some of which worked for her and most of which failed to. And even with the tenuous tie of Facebook, she kept her demons to herself: the abusive ex-boyfriends, the destructive family relationships, the job troubles and crippling anxieties shielded behind colorful narratives and the myth of Never-A-Dull-Moment Celeste. . .
I can’t count the times we made plans with her — exclusively to see her, really — only to be left sitting at a bar with everyone but Celeste present, nor all the half-hearted excuses she made for her absences.
But I can say that in the last year, when Celeste made an excuse, it was painfully honest, and it moved me as only someone who’s known that kind of suffering can be moved. Because when Celeste said she was too depressed to leave the house — even just to join a few good friends, even to call to tell us so — it could’ve easily been my own excuse. And that’s when I opened up a vein to her; my own history of depression and anxiety were certainly mild by comparison, but the sadness and isolation were absolutely the same. Celeste and I traded many an email in which I reminded her that a depressive episode was like being planted in a strange culture and eventually forgetting your own: you withdraw from the things you enjoy and the people who love you in a kind of triage to simply do the day-to-day maintenance of yourself, when paradoxically everything and everyone that once nourished you is what you now need most. I encouraged her to come back out, just spend a few hours with friends, just give us a chance — and through all that, Celeste and I had formed a curious sort of friendship.
And we even got her out of the house — just one night, Jillian and Nancy and I, and she looked so like Celeste: beautiful and brazen and big and strong, and at the same time that other side of her, delicate as a tea rose, fragile as a parched leaf spiraling from a January oak. We took one picture of us all that night, and strangely, even smiling, Celeste was cast in shadow.
After then, she faded from Facebook, faded from most everywhere but my text messages, where she’d hint at getting together but never follow through, and I discerned a growing sadness in her, though tea leaves are perhaps simpler to divine than texts. In recent months, it seemed I was the only one I knew in contact with her, which troubled me — was she cutting herself off again? Had there been some fresh catalyst for her anxiety?
And then six weeks ago, I was sitting at home one evening when a text message came in: “I need help.” I repeatedly messaged her back, but she didn’t answer until the next day, when she told me she’d been in a really bad place, terribly lonely after yet another suicide attempt and a requisite stint in a psych ward, that she’d reached out because the night before she’d just felt “so helpless and alone.” And my initial response was deeply empathetic but brief — and she never responded. And as the days went by, I grew more and more troubled: why, of all the people who knew her infinitely better, had she reached out to me? Why had she cut off contact now? And worst of all, if I didn’t quickly do something — anything — what ominous news would my phone’s cheerful text message tone next bring about Celeste?
By the time a week had passed, her words lay on my heart like a stone, and I began to send the occasional text again, asking her to call me, to meet with me, to remind her that I was in that dark room with her — that all she needed to do was reach out. I called, but Celeste had always let my calls go to voicemail, and hadn’t returned a one. Wherever she was now, emotionally, it felt beyond my grasp; perhaps, I thought, I was pressing too hard, and needed to wait for Celeste to reach back out to me.
And then one evening last week it finally came, that happy jingle of the iPhone, the Grim Reaper’s tambourine.
Daron was playing with the girls in the living room while I made some dinner in the kitchen, a standard scene of everyday domesticity, and when I read the text (“Were you a friend of Celeste?”), all I needed to know was distilled in the word “were”. . . It was a new roommate of Celeste texting me from Celeste’s phone — apparently shortly after our last texts, she had left the area, telling no one. The roommate had been boxing up her things and found the phone, and mine was one of very few contacts in it, and she wanted to tell someone besides the family that Celeste had passed on: that she had rented a lakeside cabin for her birthday, and had overdosed.
I fell into a chair, breathless and ruined, and yet stricken by the inevitability of it. Then I called Jillian, who wept inconsolably, and we discussed a strategy to begin disseminating the news and organizing a memorial. And throughout and over the next few days, I stayed in contact with the roommate, who shed much light on Celeste’s state of mind in her final days, on her profound loneliness and despair, her certainty that her family and friends would find no loss in her absence.
And I felt grief, to be sure — that with so many people who truly loved Celeste, she had felt so very alone, and died so very alone — but more than this, I felt such a profound sense of SHAME: that I could know so intimately that black dog of depression, and not have done more to have helped her. What would it have taken for me to have simply shown up at her door one day, and insisted she come out for coffee? What were the right words to text, and why couldn’t I, the fucking writer, have sent them? All the invitations I could have extended that I didn’t, all the simple gifts of time or kindness left unshared, all came back to me now like accusations. Of all the people in her life — people who’d known her for years, people who knew her worlds better — Celeste had chosen to reach out to me, and I had failed her ruinously.
We held a friends’ remembrance service for her this week at the Old Pequliar, a favorite old Ballard haunt of hers for many years, and everyone took a few minutes to offer their favorite memories of Celeste and, given the circumstances, their naked regrets. And it struck me that night how much we believe in the importance of what we say to one another, while the things that go unsaid hold just as much power; had Celeste known how much love was infused in each of those statements about her Tuesday night — and had she told each of us how deeply she was suffering — I’ve no doubt she would’ve been with us at the OP that night, joining us in a round and dropping quarters in the jukebox and setting aside her many cares, if only for an hour or two.
Truly, summer feels over now, the joy of it abruptly ended with Celeste’s passing. I have so many regrets, but in her name, I resolve to be more conscious of telling people when I’m thinking about them, worrying for them, wishing them well. I plan to be more generous with compliments, with giving people my full attention and my time. I want to say everything that matters, and even the little things that might not matter much to me, but might mean a lot to someone else.
I think Celeste would have liked that.