Helen waits until the door latches behind her. Then tears stream down her face. She leans against the wall. I stand inches away and powerless to help.
This is why she brought me here. To learn that she lived in a place beyond the help of strangers. No fund, no story, no amount of understanding from the outside could touch this.
I don’t check the time. I have no idea how long we stay. Do I reach out to her? Do I offer words? No. I do nothing, the only thing I can do.
Without a word, Helen mops her face with a handkerchief. I can’t recall ever seeing a person in real life with a handkerchief. The sight puts me off my guard. When she shakes her head and walks away, I am not prepared.
“I’m sorry,” I say when we are soundly in the car.
“Drive,” Helen says.
Only directions mar the silence of our return trip. I opt to let her be the next to speak. I park in the gravel in front of her house. We sit a moment more.
“She was sixteen when we found out. The first episode was the worst, but only because her dad and I had no earthly idea what was going on.” Helen pauses. I need more words to fully understand, though I accept that I have no right to either more words or greater understanding.
“Before that, our little Virginia…why! You’d never met a sweeter girl. She made good marks at school. Always studied hard. She had friends by the wagonful ever since kindergarten.
“One morning nearly two months after her sixteenth birthday – sweet sixteen, you know how those are – she didn’t come down for breakfast. I was in a hurry and hollered for her. My anger was hotter than it should have been. Well, she didn’t come down, so I went up after her.”
Helen grows increasingly animated as she speaks. She shifts to look straight at me. I shift too. I want her to continue. My motivation may be selfish, but I cling to some hope that Helen will also gain something of value from sharing.
“I found her naked sitting in the corner of her closet. She shook and babbled. I managed somehow to get her up and dressed. I shouldn’t have taken her to school that day.”
She drops her hands to her lap like all the power has left her body. I wait for a few minutes. As I swallow hard and search for words, she begins the next part of her story.
“They called me at ten-o-seven. Not the school but the hospital. Virginia had stabbed pencils through her own two hands. When the ambulance got to the school, Virginia had to be knocked out to be managed. Her dad left work and picked me up here at the house. Her principal was the first person we saw at the hospital.
“To see your little girl strapped at the wrists and ankles, screaming her head off, it cuts you. It cuts you deep.”