Another Day in Suburbia: A Childhood Story About Life’s Harsh Realities

“Look, mummy, the sun is following Claire*!” my five-year-old sister exclaims loudly; her relentless enthusiasm and appreciation of other people charms everyone she meets. Privately, I note that it does indeed appear the sun is following my neighbor Claire on her evening stroll through our slice of suburbia.

Claire doesn’t fit in here, and I mean that in the best way possible. The sun’s backlighting glow enhances Claire’s renaissance-like beauty, and her cascading mane of curly, red, elbow-length hair makes her look like the subject of a Rubens painting.

It’s not just her hair that stands out; Claire and her husband John* both work in mental health: she is a therapist, and he is a psychologist and a professor. Many of our neighbors had careers which were the target of envy and discussion amongst my family and the neighborhood at large. My parents were both polite to Claire and John, but privately, they considered them a bit odd.

Their jobs involved the discussion and expression of feelings, the exploration of human behavior, and the conduction of a significant amount of clinical research on aspects of consciousness and spirituality. Some of Claire’s work examined the effects of psychedelic or hallucinatory drugs on behavior. While clinical studies on things like microdosing are conducted by many reputable institutions today, during the late 1990s the work was regarded by people like my mother as inherently dangerous and potentially irresponsible on the part of the practitioner.

Drugs were bad with a capital B in my house, which was a real shame because my mother could have benefited greatly from the occasional puff of a joint.

Nevertheless, the fact that Claire conducted research involving drugs seemed to somehow mean that she also did drugs, according to my mother. This conclusion was supported by some additional damning evidence: Claire and John both explored different religious and spiritual belief systems, and traveled to exotic places to meditate, learn, and probably do a bunch of other cool stuff.

John seemed like a good old-fashioned straight edge—mild-mannered and academic. His ever-present professional wardrobe of a suit and tie was a source of comfort to the rest of our neighborhood. He was easy to pigeonhole. His eclectic, psychedelic wife was something else—her wardrobe was a glorious nod to what I imagined the hippy-dippy therapists of the 1970s wore. A substantial number of her ensembles featured loud patterns of paisleys. Her kind and extroverted nature meant she socialized with everyone, and she didn’t seem to care about what the neighbors thought of her.  

Claire liked my sisters and me a lot, and her genuine kindness towards us seemed to forgive her strange wardrobe and interest in spiritual studies in my mother’s eyes. “How are the three beautiful Earnshaw girls?” she’d cry out without fail whenever we crossed paths.

Claire was one of the few adults whom I secretly liked very much—she didn’t talk down to me, and she took my quiet, precocious nature in stride; she even seemed to get a kick out of me.

By the time I was in second grade, my teachers and parents noticed my frequent daydreaming and refusal to pay attention to subjects that bored me, and I spent a decent amount of time with our school shrink. While I liked that I got to get out of class to visit her, I felt the way she talked to me would have been better suited towards a younger child. “This woman thinks I’m an idiot!” I remember fuming silently, on more than one occasion.

Now, as an adult, I wonder if Claire had ever worked with children in a clinical setting. She was amazingly attuned to what I felt, for someone who was just a casual acquaintance. She could sense when I was feeling talkative or not in the mood to chat, just by looking at the way I walked down my driveway.

She loved children. I’m not sure if she and John had tried to have kids, but their house remained empty of children either way. John was more reserved, but looking back, he wasn’t aloof—he treated us very sweetly, and they both were incredibly tolerant of all the noise we must have made running around and playing in the pool in our backyard.

Claire’s walks around the block shortly after sunrise and before sunset were something of a ritual pattern. My sisters and I could only ride our bikes around the neighborhood if we all went together, so I tried to round them up shortly before her evening walks to better our chance of running into her. If Claire and John weren’t outside, a quick glance towards their massive glass windows showed exactly where they were. Whether making dinner in the kitchen or sitting in the living room, Claire would always extend a friendly wave as we gawked at their house on our speedy ride home.

Claire was sensitive, and there’s no doubt that that played a role in her ability to accurately sense and interpret my feelings. Her bubbly exterior and her adherence to strict schedules for work and walks would seem to suggest an unfailingly stable personality. At age seven, the subtle nuances in expressions of pain and unhappiness in adults were not things I thought about, as applied to Claire or most grownups.

It turns out that Claire was in a lot of pain for a long time. When I was in first or second grade, the accident happened.

Claire had gone hiking alone—not an unusual occurrence. I don’t know the specifics of how or when someone found her, but I know she had fallen from a cliff and was so severely injured that she’d been airlifted to the hospital. When I hadn’t seen any trace of her for a week or so, I asked my mom where she was. My mom said there had been an accident, but she was quick to emphasize that Claire was going to be okay and home soon; however, my mom cautioned that she might look different.

When she came back, Claire looked more like a Frida Kahlo painting than the Renaissance angel I’d grown so fond of. She was surrounded by metal scaffolding, which looked like a cage trapping her head and part of her torso. I was terrified. I don’t remember how many bones she’d broken, but it was clear that her fall had nearly killed her.

I felt sad whenever I saw her and tried not to show her how scared I was, but I’m sure my quietness belied my unspoken fear. As an adult, I feel awful and hope my fear and avoidance didn’t hurt her feelings. I was so young; I didn’t understand how to react appropriately. She had to wear the brace for a long time, but eventually, it came off. She looked happy again, but now whenever we saw her, John was by her side.

It reminded me of my mother walking me to my room for a timeout, like she couldn’t trust me to open a door and sit down by myself.

John had to travel frequently for work. By this point, Claire‘s walks were less routine now, and I didn’t see her in the kitchen or the living room when I biked past their house and peeked at the front windows. Early one morning, the summer before third grade, my sisters and I awoke to the pulsating flash of red and blue lights. We pulled our curtains open and saw police cars and a white van lining the sides of our street. My parents came in, pulled us away from the windows and told us to go watch TV.

I knew something awful had happened then—we were never allowed to watch TV for more than 30 minutes, and even then, it had to be something “educational” aka something on PBS. As the Saturday morning cartoons blared, I curiously peered out the window and watched as the coroner took Claire’s body away from her house. She’d taken her own life. She’d celebrated her 50th birthday just the week before.

Details of Claire’s life continued to emerge after her death. She was a lovely person, but her outer warmth concealed some deep, underlying pain. Her fall down the cliff hadn’t been an accident. My mother seemed to feel, on some level, that since John was away when she died, her death was somehow his fault.

I didn’t understand why she held him responsible for someone else’s behavior. Claire died a horrible and untimely death. I wish she hadn’t. I wish she had seen how much light she brought into other’s lives—even casual acquaintances. But for whatever reasons, she found herself feeling like death was her only option.

The action she took was not anyone’s “fault,” nor was anyone to “blame”—including Claire.

As an adult, I’ve come to understand pieces of the pain I imagine Claire probably felt. And though those times have felt unbearable, I’ve learned that they will have to pass at some point. My parent’s neighborhood has changed a lot since Claire’s death; most of the older residents moved out and new, young families have taken their place.

It wasn’t until a few months ago, when someone asked about my first experience with death, that I realized how much Claire’s death formed the framework for my view of death. I learned quickly after Claire’s passing to stop asking questions about how and why Claire was gone. “Stop it, Emma! You’re upsetting your sisters!” my mother snapped. Still, I found myself missing and thinking about someone I never really knew as a child, and at times, as an adult.

Claire’s death was just the end of her physical presence on this earth. I’m sure John, and many others, think about her daily. She, just like anyone else who passes, will never truly leave this Earth until we stop thinking about her. I’m writing about her nearly 18 years after her death, so, in some way—at least for me—she’s still here.

*Names changed to preserve privacy.

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Flexibly analytical. A paradox, but that's me. With an insatiable appetite for research and an equally deep yearning for connection through artistic expression, I'm frequently pulled in opposing directions. In an attempt to integrate both sides of my personality, I write. I explore topics​ others often​ ​find uncomfortable, those moments in life when we're expected to look or “move on from,” without pause. But sometimes we can’t, or we won’t. So let's not, let's talk.

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Another Day in Suburbia: A Childhood Story About Life’s Harsh Realities

“Look, mummy, the sun is following Claire*!” my five-year-old sister exclaims loudly; her relentless enthusiasm and appreciation of other people charms everyone she meets. Privately, I note that it does indeed appear the sun is following my neighbor Claire on her evening stroll through our slice of suburbia.

Claire doesn’t fit in here, and I mean that in the best way possible. The sun’s backlighting glow enhances Claire’s renaissance-like beauty, and her cascading mane of curly, red, elbow-length hair makes her look like the subject of a Rubens painting.

It’s not just her hair that stands out; Claire and her husband John* both work in mental health: she is a therapist, and he is a psychologist and a professor. Many of our neighbors had careers which were the target of envy and discussion amongst my family and the neighborhood at large. My parents were both polite to Claire and John, but privately, they considered them a bit odd.

Their jobs involved the discussion and expression of feelings, the exploration of human behavior, and the conduction of a significant amount of clinical research on aspects of consciousness and spirituality. Some of Claire’s work examined the effects of psychedelic or hallucinatory drugs on behavior. While clinical studies on things like microdosing are conducted by many reputable institutions today, during the late 1990s the work was regarded by people like my mother as inherently dangerous and potentially irresponsible on the part of the practitioner.

Drugs were bad with a capital B in my house, which was a real shame because my mother could have benefited greatly from the occasional puff of a joint.

Nevertheless, the fact that Claire conducted research involving drugs seemed to somehow mean that she also did drugs, according to my mother. This conclusion was supported by some additional damning evidence: Claire and John both explored different religious and spiritual belief systems, and traveled to exotic places to meditate, learn, and probably do a bunch of other cool stuff.

John seemed like a good old-fashioned straight edge—mild-mannered and academic. His ever-present professional wardrobe of a suit and tie was a source of comfort to the rest of our neighborhood. He was easy to pigeonhole. His eclectic, psychedelic wife was something else—her wardrobe was a glorious nod to what I imagined the hippy-dippy therapists of the 1970s wore. A substantial number of her ensembles featured loud patterns of paisleys. Her kind and extroverted nature meant she socialized with everyone, and she didn’t seem to care about what the neighbors thought of her.  

Claire liked my sisters and me a lot, and her genuine kindness towards us seemed to forgive her strange wardrobe and interest in spiritual studies in my mother’s eyes. “How are the three beautiful Earnshaw girls?” she’d cry out without fail whenever we crossed paths.

Claire was one of the few adults whom I secretly liked very much—she didn’t talk down to me, and she took my quiet, precocious nature in stride; she even seemed to get a kick out of me.

By the time I was in second grade, my teachers and parents noticed my frequent daydreaming and refusal to pay attention to subjects that bored me, and I spent a decent amount of time with our school shrink. While I liked that I got to get out of class to visit her, I felt the way she talked to me would have been better suited towards a younger child. “This woman thinks I’m an idiot!” I remember fuming silently, on more than one occasion.

Now, as an adult, I wonder if Claire had ever worked with children in a clinical setting. She was amazingly attuned to what I felt, for someone who was just a casual acquaintance. She could sense when I was feeling talkative or not in the mood to chat, just by looking at the way I walked down my driveway.

She loved children. I’m not sure if she and John had tried to have kids, but their house remained empty of children either way. John was more reserved, but looking back, he wasn’t aloof—he treated us very sweetly, and they both were incredibly tolerant of all the noise we must have made running around and playing in the pool in our backyard.

Claire’s walks around the block shortly after sunrise and before sunset were something of a ritual pattern. My sisters and I could only ride our bikes around the neighborhood if we all went together, so I tried to round them up shortly before her evening walks to better our chance of running into her. If Claire and John weren’t outside, a quick glance towards their massive glass windows showed exactly where they were. Whether making dinner in the kitchen or sitting in the living room, Claire would always extend a friendly wave as we gawked at their house on our speedy ride home.

Claire was sensitive, and there’s no doubt that that played a role in her ability to accurately sense and interpret my feelings. Her bubbly exterior and her adherence to strict schedules for work and walks would seem to suggest an unfailingly stable personality. At age seven, the subtle nuances in expressions of pain and unhappiness in adults were not things I thought about, as applied to Claire or most grownups.

It turns out that Claire was in a lot of pain for a long time. When I was in first or second grade, the accident happened.

Claire had gone hiking alone—not an unusual occurrence. I don’t know the specifics of how or when someone found her, but I know she had fallen from a cliff and was so severely injured that she’d been airlifted to the hospital. When I hadn’t seen any trace of her for a week or so, I asked my mom where she was. My mom said there had been an accident, but she was quick to emphasize that Claire was going to be okay and home soon; however, my mom cautioned that she might look different.

When she came back, Claire looked more like a Frida Kahlo painting than the Renaissance angel I’d grown so fond of. She was surrounded by metal scaffolding, which looked like a cage trapping her head and part of her torso. I was terrified. I don’t remember how many bones she’d broken, but it was clear that her fall had nearly killed her.

I felt sad whenever I saw her and tried not to show her how scared I was, but I’m sure my quietness belied my unspoken fear. As an adult, I feel awful and hope my fear and avoidance didn’t hurt her feelings. I was so young; I didn’t understand how to react appropriately. She had to wear the brace for a long time, but eventually, it came off. She looked happy again, but now whenever we saw her, John was by her side.

It reminded me of my mother walking me to my room for a timeout, like she couldn’t trust me to open a door and sit down by myself.

John had to travel frequently for work. By this point, Claire‘s walks were less routine now, and I didn’t see her in the kitchen or the living room when I biked past their house and peeked at the front windows. Early one morning, the summer before third grade, my sisters and I awoke to the pulsating flash of red and blue lights. We pulled our curtains open and saw police cars and a white van lining the sides of our street. My parents came in, pulled us away from the windows and told us to go watch TV.

I knew something awful had happened then—we were never allowed to watch TV for more than 30 minutes, and even then, it had to be something “educational” aka something on PBS. As the Saturday morning cartoons blared, I curiously peered out the window and watched as the coroner took Claire’s body away from her house. She’d taken her own life. She’d celebrated her 50th birthday just the week before.

Details of Claire’s life continued to emerge after her death. She was a lovely person, but her outer warmth concealed some deep, underlying pain. Her fall down the cliff hadn’t been an accident. My mother seemed to feel, on some level, that since John was away when she died, her death was somehow his fault.

I didn’t understand why she held him responsible for someone else’s behavior. Claire died a horrible and untimely death. I wish she hadn’t. I wish she had seen how much light she brought into other’s lives—even casual acquaintances. But for whatever reasons, she found herself feeling like death was her only option.

The action she took was not anyone’s “fault,” nor was anyone to “blame”—including Claire.

As an adult, I’ve come to understand pieces of the pain I imagine Claire probably felt. And though those times have felt unbearable, I’ve learned that they will have to pass at some point. My parent’s neighborhood has changed a lot since Claire’s death; most of the older residents moved out and new, young families have taken their place.

It wasn’t until a few months ago, when someone asked about my first experience with death, that I realized how much Claire’s death formed the framework for my view of death. I learned quickly after Claire’s passing to stop asking questions about how and why Claire was gone. “Stop it, Emma! You’re upsetting your sisters!” my mother snapped. Still, I found myself missing and thinking about someone I never really knew as a child, and at times, as an adult.

Claire’s death was just the end of her physical presence on this earth. I’m sure John, and many others, think about her daily. She, just like anyone else who passes, will never truly leave this Earth until we stop thinking about her. I’m writing about her nearly 18 years after her death, so, in some way—at least for me—she’s still here.

*Names changed to preserve privacy.
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