“Everything…affects everything”

Ralph the custodian at the library arrived for work on a chilly morning. He noticed another car at the back of the parking lot. “That’s odd,” he thought, “the library doesn’t open for another two hours.” He thought perhaps the owner had not been able to start it for some reason and left it there, but then he noticed the engine was running. Ralph walked over to see if the car’s owner had left a note on the windshield. It startled him to see that in the driver’s seat was a young woman, slumped over the steering wheel. He knocked on the window and got no response. The car door was locked.

By the time I pulled my car into the lot everything appeared as usual, Ralph was standing by the door waiting for me. He opened the door so that I would not have to use my key. His usually cheerful face was grave. Halting a bit, he explained the police had come and gone. As Ralph feared, the woman was dead. She had blocked the car’s exhaust pipe, turned on the car engine, locked the doors, and waited to die. If she had had any second thoughts later she would have been too paralyzed by the fumes to get out of the death trap she had constructed.

I had often thought of Ralph as our Tin Woodman, a man who was more comfortable building bookcases and taking care of people, than acknowledging his kind heartedness. He lowered his voice and said, “They took her body to the morgue and towed her car away.”

It was mid-morning when the police officer came to the library to say that they had identified the body. She was a college freshman. The officer told me her name, but I didn’t recognize it. Her name rippled from one staff member to another in hushed tones. Most shook their heads and said, “No I don’t remember her.” Murmurs of “How sad,” echoed each time another staff member came into work.

But Emily at the circulation desk said, “Oh yes, I remember her now. She was soft spoken, kind of shy. She probably used the college library most of the time, but she came here every once in a while.” 

Most of that day few people talked about it. The atmosphere was somber. At the staff meeting the next day, I asked everyone to say a few words about what they had felt when they learned of the suicide. Some librarians, who had children of their own, thought how the young woman’s parents must be grieving. Several people said that they wished they had known her better, known that she seemed withdrawn and anxious. Perhaps if they had taken the time, while checking out her books, to inquire how she was, they could have offered her some comfort. If she hadn’t felt so alone, could it have made a difference? Then Ralph spoke, “I thought I was the only one who thought perhaps I could have prevented this. I wondered if I had just arrived extra early to work, could I have saved her life.”

I think she would have been surprised that the town librarians sat together mourning her death. She may have been astounded to know that thirty years after her suicide, the director of the library still remembered her death as tragic.
“Everything…affects everything”
Jay Asher (Thirteen Reasons Why)

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