One thing I am sure of
'God is not less kind, less committed, or less merciful than a Maine game warden.'
Warden Don Carpenter, along with Wardens Alex Hatch and Hannah Robitaille, went to the body. They began taking photographs of it in situ, in case the medical examiner or state police detectives would need them later.
Lieutenant Fritz Trisdale and I walked down the road through relentless sleet to keep a rendezvous with Betsy’s brother at an intersection where the road was a little less treacherous and sloppy. We would be giving official notification right there.
As we walked, I fished my black clerical dickey out of my jacket pocket and fastened it around my neck. I tucked the edges under the lapels of my uniform coat.
“Do I look okay?” I asked Fritz, turning in the sleet to model for him.
“You look like the nuns who used to whack my knuckles with a ruler when I was in school. Listen, Reverend Mother, as long as you’re here, couldn’t you pray for it to stop raining?”
“I’m a Unitarian Universalist. We don’t do weather,” I said. The lieutenant snorted.
Fritz had Betsy’s diary in his hand. The last entry was her suicide note. The diary had a bright blue cover and a bunch of little bits and pieces of paper—envelopes and whatnot—tucked in here and there, and a pen stuck into the spiral binding.
The brother’s name was Dan. Dan and Betsy, Dan and Betsy, I repeated to myself. Remembering the names seems the least I can do in a situation like this, so I try a foolish mnemonic: Da[m]n the spot in the rainy woods where we found a bit of Betsy.
We spotted the car coming and stood waiting in the roadway. Dan drove up beside the lieutenant and stopped. He rolled down the window. Tilting slightly forward, one hand on the roof of the car, water dripping from the brim of his cap, Fritz said, “I’m sorry. We found Betsy’s body. I wish there was a way to make this easier for you, but she’s dead.”
Dan nodded calmly. He didn’t say anything.
“From the evidence we have so far, we think that after she dropped her son off at day care, she drove out here and parked at a turnout, just down this road. She had at least forty-five sleeping pills, according to the labels on the pill bottles, and if she took all of those, it would have been enough to kill her. We found pictures of the baby in the car, and we think she probably sat there for a little while, looking at the pictures, and maybe she got some comfort from that. Then she left the car, walked up the hill, lay down in the leaves, and went to sleep.”
Dan nodded. “Thank you,” he said.
“This is our chaplain, Reverend Kate Braestrup.”
I stepped forward, shook hands. “I’m so sorry, Dan,” I said.
Dan looked up at me. His eyes caught on the collar around my neck, and you could almost hear something break in him: his whole body gave a violent shudder and folded inward on itself.
Betsy had been suffering for a long time, Dan told me. I had gotten into the car by then. I was no longer a stranger—I had held him in my arms, had his snot on my lapels—so he spoke frankly. Their parents died in a car wreck when she was 17, and she never seemed to quite get over that, Dan said. She had a bad spell after the baby was born, and then her husband left, and there was this really messy divorce going on, and Betsy was trying, she really was. She was in therapy and on medication, but she just couldn’t seem to get herself together.
Dan asked me what was going to happen to the body. I told him the medical examiner would need to do an autopsy in Augusta and that the funeral home would transport the body there. When the medical examiner’s office released the body, the funeral home would retrieve it and would call him to make further arrangements. Yes, the funeral home had his phone number. And they were good guys; they would take good care of Betsy.
“Can the church bury her?” Dan asked me then.
It actually took him a few rephrasings to get the idea across to me, so strange and alien was it to my way of thinking: “Would a Christian church do a funeral for a suicide?”
Betsy had gone to a service at a church in Orrington the previous Sunday, Dan explained. He wasn’t sure what the denomination was, but it was a new church. Anyway, the gist of the pastor’s message, according to Betsy, was that suicide was the one sin that God never, ever forgave.
I pictured Betsy, her short dark hair neatly combed, alone in a pew. My chest tightened with a harsh, disorienting anger.
“So it seems like . . . I mean, that the church wouldn’t . . . might not let Betsy have a funeral there, or, you know, be buried in their graveyard.” Dan looked carefully at his hands in his lap, as if he were ashamed.
I hate my clerical collar, I thought.
I pictured Betsy at church with her blue diary, with her shameful, sinful despair exposed before the pastor and his pinched and stingy God.
“Um . . .” I said. And very carefully, after several deep and calming breaths: “I don’t know that pastor personally. I don’t know what he knows and doesn’t know about severe clinical depression. Which is what your sister died of.” I placed my authoritative hand on the console between our bucket seats as if it were a pulpit. “Dan,” I said. “Look around.” Obediently he peered through the rain-washed windshield, up the road toward the blurry outlines of half a dozen green trucks.
In lieu of righteous anger, I heard my voice take on the sure and certain cadences of preaching: “The game wardens have been walking in the rain all day, walking through the woods in the freezing rain trying to find your sister. They would have walked all day tomorrow, walked in the cold rain the rest of the week, searching for Betsy, so they could bring her home to you. And if there is one thing I am sure of—one thing I am very, very sure of, Dan—it is that God is not less kind, less committed, or less merciful than a Maine game warden.”
I paused, gazing sternly into his startled eyes. You got that, Brother Dan?
He was staring back. He didn’t say a word.
Oh dear. Maybe he thinks I’m nuts. Maybe he’s trying not to make any sudden moves.
“So I want you to know today, Dan, that there is no doubt in my mind, no doubt at all about where Betsy is right now. God is holding your sister close to His tender heart. Betsy is safe, she is forgiven, she is free at last from all her pain.”
“Oh,” Dan breathed. “Oh.”
“So . . . that’s that,” I finished, rather lamely. I took some more deep breaths to recover. “Would you like me to pray with you?”
“Yes I would,” he said eagerly, gripping my hands. So together, there in the car, we said the Twenty- third Psalm: “Love is my shepherd; I shall not want. Love makes me lie down in green pastures; love leads me beside still waters. Love restores my soul . . . Amen, amen.”
I tore a page from my notebook, borrowed Dan’s pen, and wrote down the names of ministers in and around Orrington, fairly conservative pastors who knew the earth was round and knew something too of the etiology and course of acute mental illness. Dan took the paper, folded it carefully into thirds, and placed it in his wallet.
When I got back to the scene, Warden Hannah Robitaille took one look at me and went off to find a big parka for me to wear on top of my wool jacket, since I had forgotten mine, and she was sure I was going to freeze to death.
“Have you eaten anything?” she asked severely, and when I looked guilty, she fetched me half a sandwich from her cooler.
While we waited for the funeral parlor guys, we rehashed the previous week’s search for a missing hunter over in Kingfield. Up on the hill, Betsy’s body waited in its saffron-colored bed.
At last the funeral parlor van came skidding through the mud. The funeral directors were wearing suits and ties and oxford shoes and purple surgical gloves, surreally bright against the vivid yellow leaves. They offered to climb the hill to help get the body, but the wardens told them to stay where they were. “We’ll take care of it.”
And I suppose I could have stayed by the van with them. I am the chaplain, after all, and a middle-aged mother of four. I pray, I give bad news, I hug, I counsel. No one expects me to lug the dead out of the woods.
But I had told Betsy’s brother, fiercely, that God would not abandon her. So I climbed the hill with Don and Hannah and Fritz, who had held Betsy’s blue diary in his gentle hand all afternoon.
I helped load Betsy into the body bag and onto the stretcher, helped with the clumsy work of buckling straps around her knees and torso. I put my hand on her cold foot, as if she could feel my touch through the body bag and be reassured. She was not ugly or sinful, just dead, and I shall carry forever the image of her peaceful, bluish face, a few yellow leaves clinging to her short dark hair. She looked like she was sleeping as Don zipped the shroud around her, sleeping as we bore her safely down the hillside under the low, gray sky.
Photograph (above): The Rev. Kate Braestrup is the 2014 Minns Lecturer in Boston, November 7-9, 2014 (Marti Stone). Excerpted from Here If You Need Me, copyright © 2007 by Kate Braestrup. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved. Read UU World’s 2005 profile of the author.