Thomasson: A living loss

Maya Tanaka Hanway stepped off the roof of the Art and Architecture building on Jan. 12, 1982. This is the irreversible fact that is as hard for me to grasp today as it was 30 years ago.

As I walked across the Silliman courtyard, a friend said, “I’m so sorry about your suitemate.” I had no idea what he was talking about. I was living in a single. When he saw my confusion, he took my hand. “God, you don’t know yet. Go to the Dean’s office right now.”

I walked into the dean’s office and there was Lisa, my roommate from the year before. Lisa had graduated but was working in New Haven. Our third suitemate, Jill, had been notified and was on her way. The fourth person from our junior suite, Maya, had committed suicide.

That night, those of us who knew Maya gathered around a table in the Silliman dining hall. For the most part, we were silent. No one ate. One of her closest friends said that on the night of Maya’s death, he dreamed he was falling. Now we were all falling, all of us in mute grief.

Maya was lovely, gentle and fierce. She was a gifted artist, a painter. Her life was a performance piece, a beautiful, provocative work in progress. She had knowing brown eyes and wore John Lennon glasses. Her voice was soft; her wit was incisive. We loved to hear her sing.

We were a quartet of women embracing life with open arms and no caution. I loved and admired my roomies. We could talk about anything — and we did — late into the night. We danced with abandon, we smelled like a campfire (our flue was faulty but not as faulty as the stone-cold steam heaters), and we lived by an unspoken code. The code was this: there would be no judgment or criticism among us.

When Maya decided to walk to supper in her silk slip, I complimented her garment, and didn’t suggest she might be more self-protective. When Maya told me about an unhappy experience with a guy on campus, I listened empathetically, but never suggested that she see a counselor. When, at the end of the year, her open-hearted experimentation seemed to veer toward self-destructive, I never thought to call her parents.

Maya took some time off. Jill and Lisa graduated. I moved into a single room and wrestled with my senior essay. Maya came to visit me once in the fall. It was awkward. She seemed to want to tell me something, but didn’t. I didn’t want to pry. We hugged and said goodbye.

When they found Maya’s body, her hands were in her pockets. She fell to her death without struggle, without flailing. Many of us knew she was struggling in life — struggling in her inimitable, beautiful way. And so were we all. None of us knew how to ask for help — for ourselves or for others.

It snowed on the day of Maya’s funeral. Bird gave a beautiful eulogy. Jill, Lisa and I carried Maya’s large painting of mushrooms down four flights of stairs — it was still on the wall of our former suite — to her parents’ car. I will never forget her father standing in the snow.

That evening, I sat on the edge of my bed in the dark. There were other people in my senior entryway who didn’t sleep that night. Some of us were connected by an escape stairwell. We never thought to grieve together.

Thirty years later, I walk around campus, and see young women and men who have no idea how beautiful they are. They are beautiful in their newness, their idealism, and their open hearts.

If there is one thing I would say to them it is this: ask for help when you need it. Ask for help when you’re uncertain. Ask for help — for yourself and for the people living with you. Reach out and choose not to be alone.

Camille Thomasson is a 1982 graduate of Silliman College.

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    Depression is the disease that tells you “things will never get better.” Under such a cloud, asking for help seems futile.

  • JBL

    Thank you for this important essay and advice !