I realize that you’re gone now---having passed away just days ago---and we’ll never be able to have this conversation. But here’s what I wish I could have said to you while you were still here.
You probably don’t remember me, but I babysat you and your brother, Alan, when you were kids. I think you were around the age of seven or eight when we first met. In fact, babysitting the two of you was one of my first jobs since I was only a few years older and we lived on the same street in Northeast Portland in the 1970’s. I can still picture you being full of life, a spark of energy wherever you went.
One memory that stands out to me is that of meeting your mom for the first time. Because I never saw your dad around, I initially thought she was a single parent. But then she explained that your dad was in the military so he had to be gone a great deal. I only met him once or twice and know that he sacrificed greatly for our country even though he must’ve desperately wanted to be home to be with you and your brother. Knowing what I know now, I wonder if his absence made life harder for you. I imagine it did even though you didn’t talk about it, to me anyway. And even though your amazing mom held down the fort, I know that daddies make little girls feel safe and have a way of providing a solid foundation under them as they mature.
When my family moved out of the neighborhood in 1978, we lost contact with everyone, including your family. Life seems to go that way sometimes. We all move on and make new friends and don’t necessarily keep the old. I assumed you were all grown up by now and had gone on to change the world with your effervescence and verve.
But this week, out of the blue, I felt gut punched.
I learned that you were the homeless woman who died of hypothermia in a downtown parking garage just two weeks ago. You were the one who froze to death all alone in the middle of a Saturday afternoon during a Portland snowstorm when the temperatures were below 20 degrees.
As I read your tragic story in the news, I sat and wept. Through my tears I wondered if you were terrified as your body shivered and slowly shut down. I wondered if you cried or if you were numb. I wondered if you felt angels gather around you to bring you comfort as you were ushered to heaven.
I was heartbroken to hear that you struggled with an eating disorder (as have I) from the time you were young, that you suffered from mental illness starting at an early age, and that you were then diagnosed with schizophrenia in your 30’s. These realities stand in stark contrast to your earlier years when you were a high school cheerleader, had lots of friends, designed some of your own clothes, were on the Rose Festival Court (at Grant High), and graduated with honors. Clearly you were a standout, marked for greatness as one with gifts of creativity and intelligence, notwithstanding your ability to both influence and connect with people. As if that wasn’t enough, you studied pre-dentistry in college and were setting out to make a difference in the world.
But then everything inside you started falling apart.
As your family tells it, your deteriorating mental state changed everything. You couldn’t hold down a steady job, you moved around a lot, your eating disorder continued to rear its ugly head, you struggled with drugs and alcohol, you couldn’t make it in rehab, and you pushed away your mom and brother despite their attempts to help you, isolating yourself in increasing ways as time passed. I imagine that as things inside your brain intensified, the only options that made you feel safe were isolation and shutting down because everything internally was imploding while the world outside you was completely terrifying and totally overwhelming.
I know that we can’t bring you back, but I want you to know, Karen, that even in death, your life has changed me. And not just me, but our whole city. Person after person has told me that they feel connected to your story and are looking differently at homelessness and its juxtaposition to mental illness.
The reason? Because now these two realities have gone from being a generalized community problem to that of a woman with a name and a story. You, Karen Batts, have led us as all to feel the impact your loss in the depths of our hearts and we don’t want anyone else to walk the same devastating road as you. We want to better understand what you needed and then hold that up against what we needed to have done to have better come alongside you.
I can only wonder, had you and I stayed in contact…if you might have listened to me while sharing stories of what I remembered about you, followed with my asking you what the little girl inside you needed to know in order to believe that she was valuable and worthy. I wonder if you would’ve believed me telling you that even with your mental health struggles that you have a unique purpose and innate gifts, starting with your beautiful gift of creativity. Because I, too, love crafts and sewing, I would have tried to connect with you through art, which could’ve been a way for your deepest self to find release. That place in you needed to be known, connected with, released, and celebrated.
I can only wonder, had you and I stayed in contact…if we could have connected over the fact that we both have had eating disorders. You would’ve then known that you weren’t alone and perhaps we could have shared our similar struggles. We could’ve talked about our real needs that underlie those destructive behaviors, and admitted that by focusing on controlling our food intake it became our way of trying to control our inner demons. And since we both spoke the secret language of eating disorders, I wonder if you'd have trusted me to share about yours.
I can only wonder, had you and I stayed in contact…if you would have let me ask you about your dad’s death and the impact it had on you. I find myself wondering if his leaving your life permanently when you were 34 years old had any bearing on your mental and emotional decline. It seems like there may have been an intersection between those series of events that steamrolled you in the years that followed, adding to your growing instability as time went on. I would’ve asked if you struggled to find your footing after he died.
I can only wonder, had you and I stayed in contact…if you would’ve joined me in singing songs like old times, the ones we used to sing at the Good News Club that my mom held in our home. I imagine those songs would be tucked deep down inside you, accessible if you ever wanted them for comfort. I wonder if you’d recall, “Stop, and let me tell you what the Lord has done for me” or “The Lord is my Shepherd, I’ll walk with Him always; He leads by still waters, I’ll walk with Him always.” I would sing them to you as a lullaby in hopes that it would soothe your distressed mind, body, and soul. Maybe, just maybe, they would remind you of truths that might not set you free right then, but perhaps could usher in peace, even for a few minutes, and help you feel less imprisoned inside your own mind.
I can only wonder, had you and I stayed in contact…if it would be of interest to you to know that I have a trauma history myself. Like you, I’ve had bruises and scars, mostly on the inside, from those who sought to overpower me and make me feel worthless as a result of their abuse. And then I would tell you that God has brought healing to the depths of my life and though the process to get from there to here is grueling, there is real hope for real healing. And because we all have an innate capacity to read people by looking at their eyes, I’d have let you look into mine to know that I am living proof that there can be a restored life even with a complex mental health diagnoses. I would want your heart to connect with mine as I would seek to give you some of my hope. I believe that you would be able to feel my love because love bypasses mental distress and has a miraculous way of settling into the deepest places inside us.
I can only wonder, had you and I stayed in contact…if I would’ve also shared a profound insight that one of my sisters recently confessed to me. Though she had planned to go to Switzerland this past summer and through assisted suicide, end her life, she decided against it at the last minute and is now thankful that she’s here. She told me that real love reached into her distress and kept her alive. I can assure you that her intense pain has given me more empathy and also more hope. I would’ve wanted you to know that about me…and her.
Karen, I wish I could have told you all these things while you were here--but since I cannot--in your honor I say these things to anyone in distress who is needing to hear it today:
- You are loved and loveable. There are no if’s, and’s, or but’s about it; this is a fact, plain and simple.
- You are valuable and worthy…always….and because you haven’t done anything to earn it, you can’t do anything to lose it.
- You are created for a purpose and even if you don’t know what it is right now, don’t give up until you’ve discovered it…or it’s discovered you.
- Even in the darkest night, God is near you because He promises to be close to the brokenhearted and to bind up their wounds. He says that even if one of his sheep is lost, he’ll leave the other 99 sheep and look for the one; He’ll never give up on you, precious lamb.
Dads, I trust that Karen’s story serves as a reminder that you never know when a day may be your last…or your daughter’s.
So why not take time right now to reach out to your daughter and:
- make a call
- pen a note
- send a text or
- write an email
- and if you need to make amends, do it today.
Don’t let this day pass by where you forgo investing in your daughter and miss saying the things you need to say and doing the things you need to do.
You only have today to give fathering your all; let it be one where your forever investment reaches her heart.