In Memory of Sonya Raymakers
To all who knew and loved Sonya,
My heart aches at her decision to leave us. I hope that I can find the words that might encourage others to stay... This has always been one of my favorite poems...
As every flower fades and as all youth departs,
So life at every stage,
So every virtue, so our grasp of truth,
Blooms in its day and may not last forever.
Since life may summon us at every age
Be ready, heart, for parting, new endeavor,
Be ready bravely and without remorse
To find new light that old ties cannot give.
In all beginnings dwells a magic force
For guarding us and helping us to live.
Serenely let us move to distant places
And let no sentiments of home detain us.
The Cosmic Spirit seeks not to restrain us
But lifts us stage by stage to wider spaces.
If we accept a home of our own making,
Familiar habit makes for indolence.
We must prepare for parting and leave-taking
Or else remain the slaves of permanence.
Even the hour of our death may send
Us speeding on to fresh and newer spaces,
And life may summon us to newer races
. So be it, heart: bid farewell without end.
- Hermann Hesse
At this point in my life, I believe that we are spiritual beings, having a physical experience, that our immortal souls continue to evolve, and do not "rest in peace." Sonya is not gone forever, and we all grieve her premature exit from our lives.
In this lifetime, I have experienced the loss of many people that I have known and loved. I have tried to learn from my experiences, and also I have encountered some remarkable spiritual teachers along my path. When I was 28 years old, I met a man who had the ability to describe "past lives" and the main purpose of our "current incarnation." What he told me, rung true, to me, and that is one reason why I was so moved by Sonya's life and death, my own failure to prevent it, and compelled to write about it.
I was told that in my "last life" that I was male, born in San Francisco, in the 1800's. I loved the sea and the sailing vessels, and as a young boy, I went to sea. More than that I loved the "idea of sailing, the companionship..." At some point though, I had a mental problem with my age, I was older than all the other sailors, and so decided to end that life. (He didn't describe the details- but I suspect suicide).
I was advised that in this lifetime, I would encounter a similar crisis over "my chronological age" and again the temptation to "move on..." and that what I needed to learn how to do was to share with others what I had learned before moving on...
I know that Sonya's family and friends loved Sonya, as did her mentors, Mr. Shelby and Hawkins. I love the people involved in the Theater Department at Gunn, and the families who contribute so much, to allow the kids to stretch their wings, exercise their talents, enact their magic upon the stage, enrich our lives by drawing us into the "drama of life" again and again.
I wrote this mainly for the kids who knew Sonya and were in the Theater Department. I wrote this before I met Sonya's loving family, who have since opened their hearts and home to me, and the Gunn Theater community. It contains some false assumptions and speculations, because when I wrote it- it was incomplete and I don't think my understanding will ever be complete. The tragedy of life is the "miscommunications, misunderstandings that often happen between people who love one another, particularly between parents and children, and between men and women." Sonya's great grammatical ability could have improved this flood of words into a more comprehensible, succinct form. My son informed me that he didn't learn of Sonya's Fair Trade Chocolate campaign until a week ago, when we gethered in the Little Theater to share our Sonya stories.
I offer this, with all its imperfections, out of love, and the belief that "the most personal is also the most universal," espeicially our experiences with birth, life, and death.
Why?My sons, Jeremy and Daniel Brouillet, are generous with their germs and I came down with the flu last Sunday. I wasn’t sure if I would be well enough to attend the Thespian Banquet, but when I heard the news about Sonya, I went into grief and shock. So I went to Gunn, with Jeremy and Jean-Luc, not for the canceled celebration, but for the community, the sharing, to hear one another’s stories of Sonya, feelings, and songs.
In Memory of Sonya Raymakers
I have great respect for the talented kids, and dedicated teachers in the Gunn Theater Department. Both Jeremy and Daniel have put in countless hours on numerous shows, and Jean-Luc and I have seen most of them, recognize most of the kids, and appreciate the enormous effort that they have put into their work, their talent, and their courage.
When I was young, I also loved theater. I wrote and directed plays when I was in elementary school and got involved in the Theater department in Junior High, High School, College, and later Community Theater in Crested Butte, Colorado. I was comfortable acting in plays, but I have a horror of public speaking, when I have to lay my heart and soul open to the public. I have had to mask my own fears, however, since my work since 1992 has been very public, and very political. I have been ignored and vilified by the press, and sometimes have received good coverage. What gives me the courage to speak out is the knowledge that no matter how badly I am attacked by the media, when I come home, my husband and kids will still love and accept me, even if they don’t agree with my political ideas and work.
As the kids came forward yesterday evening with their Sonya stories, again and again they painted a portrait of an incredibly wise, competent, calm woman, the anchor in the storm, the calm eye of the hurricane, the one to speak to for advice, help, appropriate remedy for any crisis, with a maturity well beyond her years.
Mr. Shelby opened the process by saying that we shouldn’t be asking, “Why?” We were in shock and needed time to grieve, to remember, to feel.
Sonya was an extremely talented woman, a gifted actress, but she was remembered most for her role as the costume designer, the stage manager, the problem solver, the wise-woman, a mask that she wore most of the time, but was cast away when she chose to end her life on the train tracks on Tuesday night. “Why?” was never addressed nor answered.
I remember meeting Sonya when I chauffeured Jeremy to San Francisco to interview for Carnegie Mellon. Sonya’s awesome portfolio got her accepted to Carnegie Mellon on the spot. Kanika (another tech head) and Jeremy were also accepted. The three of them flew together to Pittsburgh to check out the school, but all of them decided to go other schools.
When I last spoke with her (at the seat-warming party, celebrating the newly refurbished Little Theater seats), she sounded happy about going to NYU, and I had no inkling that anything could be wrong.
During One Acts, there was a great piece entitled “Overtones” of an encounter over tea between two women. In addition to the polite characters, there were two other characters representing their hidden emotional selves who dominated, bullied, and attacked the surface characters. How often do we reveal our emotional selves and deepest feelings, thoughts, beliefs in public?
Since my children were young, I have shared with them stories of my childhood and life. Unfortunately, the hardest, painful lessons are the ones that have taught me the most. I tell my stories, in hopes that my kids will learn the lessons without having to go through the same agonizing experiences that I went through.
The most important lesson I learned when I was twenty-two years old. My friend, Pierre, a very dramatic Frenchman with a large mustache, who had saved my life, threatened to commit suicide, if I walked out the door (which I intended to do) to end our friendship. The 45 second mystical revelation that I experienced, profoundly transformed my life. I ended up spending a year, writing a book (800 pages long), to share what I had learned with people of my generation. Actually, I learned a very simple lesson (the hard way), and it is a lesson that is at the heart of every major religion and philosophy, but it is more challenging for people to accept some lessons on an emotional level than an intellectual level; it is easier for us to control our thoughts than our emotions.
When I was young, I had two beautiful sisters, one a year older, and one a year and a half younger than me. I was an ugly, skinny little girl with very curly hair, glasses, and braces. I was particularly jealous of my younger sister, and we fought all the time.
I have three sons with a two and three year gap between them in age. The three of them shared a large bedroom (the oldest one is now away at college), but, as they were growing up, they fought a lot- very much like me and my sisters.
My parents also fought a lot. They fought so much that my mother decided to leave my father and get a divorce when I was fourteen years old. She packed up the four kids, a horse, pony, chickens, dog and we moved to a town about a hundred miles away from where I grew up in Woodland Hills, California.
Within ten days, I was in a bicycle accident, and my sister was in an accident riding on her pony. We were both taken to the Emergency Room of the local hospital. We were both sent home by the same physician. I had a broken jaw. I couldn’t put my teeth together properly- the alignment was gone. My mom said that if it really was broken that the orthodontist would see that and my grandmother took me with her back to Los Angeles for my scheduled orthodontist appointment. My sister’s accident happened when I was in Los Angeles. My sister’s injuries were more serious; she died from internal bleeding, a fractured pelvic bone had severed an artery and she bled to death at home. I received the news an hour after I was informed that my jaw was broken. I suspect that one reason I never did drugs or alcohol in High School, college or afterwards was because the day after my sister died, they wired my jaw shut and I was given a heavy drug which acted somewhat like truth serum. I relived all the battles I had with my sister, the intense emotions, the pain, my own murderous thoughts.
The last words I remember saying to my sister was, “I hate you. I hate you. I wish you were dead.” I felt like a murderer, so did my mom, so did my dad. It was terrible. The horse, the pony were sold. We moved back to live with my father. We never celebrated Christmas again. I think we all tortured ourselves with guilt to varying degrees.
When I was seventeen, I left home and went to college in Hawaii. The Vietnam War had just ended. One of my new classmates was from Vietnam, she was brilliant, beautiful, and all she wanted to do was die, but she didn’t because her parents were still alive, and she did not want to add to their grief. She had seen, and experienced, the horrors of war.
Kids sometimes try to realize dreams for their parents’ sake. My Vietnamese friend lived to realize her parents’ dream of a future for herself. My father’s dream was to sail around the world. He used to give me books on the subject. I adopted (to some degree) his dream and found a yacht bound for the South Pacific, before I finished my freshman year. I learned a lot about the disparities between our dreams, nightmares, reality, over the course of the next two years- sailing and traveling to Tahiti, Bora Bora, Rarotonga, New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, Mauritius, Africa, Brazil, up through the Caribbean, to Bermuda and back to the United States. At times, I was suicidal or depressed, but thoughts of my family and the desire to spare my mother more suffering kept me alive.
In Rio de Janeiro, members of the yacht, Dragon, stayed with the captain’s sister in one of the nicest parts of town. The family we stayed with was quite wealthy, intelligent, gifted, and they had a beautiful brilliant daughter, around my age, who was a student at Stanford University, and had just tried to commit suicide.
She had broken up with her boyfriend and was heartbroken. Fortunately, she botched her suicide attempt, and family and friends helped her through the very difficult period. Years later I saw her again, and she and her mother had just been diagnosed with cancer, and she was fighting for her life. She actually had more spirit, zest, and an appreciation for life than before. She eventually married and despite the health problems that she and her husband had, they adopted children and she developed a powerful appreciation for life.
I’d rather not describe in detail what I went through romantically, when I was sailing, travelling, returned to college, and went to Europe to study, other than to say it was painfully dramatic, traumatic, heartbreaking, and sometimes joyous. I experienced a wide range of emotions, including feeling horrifically betrayed and guilty. No one, however, could torture me more ruthlessly than I could torture myself, blaming myself for my sister’s death, and every wound that I inflicted on those who “loved me.” I felt most comfortable with my family with an ocean between us, communicating through pen and paper, avoiding the physical proximity which evoked challenging, painful emotions in me.
I went to France to study French, painting, art, and I also learned how to ski for the first time. I had never lived in a cold country before. I was also kicked out of the room I was renting, in the middle of winter when my landlady sold her house. My art teacher generously allowed me to rent an extra room that she had in the ancient quarter of Grenoble, overlooking the river and the Alps. I loved the 16th century apartment, but it was very primitive with poor heating. I became seriously ill.
A French family, who had befriended me, insisted that I go with them to their apartment and get medical treatment. They literally saved my life. At the same time, my friendship with the father of the family, Pierre, became more and more intense and demanding emotionally. He wanted to take me away for a few days to the South of France to show me around (without his wife and kids). I didn’t really want to go, especially since I was expecting my American boyfriend to show up soon in Grenoble. I had written a letter to my artist friend and boyfriend explaining the situation, folded it, and placed it in an envelope.
That is when Pierre confronted me over the contents of the private letter which he should not have read, and having caught him in the act of blatantly lying to me, I was quite ready to end the friendship completely, and walk out the door.
Honesty was and is a huge issue with me. I don’t think there is any point in communication, if one is not honest. When people are honest, they learn from one another and their lives are enriched. We can discover our commonalities and differences and appreciate one another more. If I felt someone was lying to me, especially to trick me into doing something that I wouldn’t otherwise do, I would cease to trust or to have anything to do with that person. Sadly, some people cannot be honest with themselves. I have noticed children lie to their parents (including me) out of fear- fear of losing someone’s love, respect and trust. People are complex; feelings can be ambiguous; communication is generally a challenge, even between people who know one another well. Even with good intentions, we are sometimes our own worst critics and harshest judge. When we feel that we have been “betrayed” or lied to, it hurts on more than one level. We lose faith in our own judgment and capacity to trust ourselves, as well as others.
When Pierre reacted to my announcement that the friendship was over and I was leaving, with a suicidal threat, a sudden wave of understanding hit me. I felt I understood why people commit suicide- because the pain of living becomes more than they can bear. And I could also understand why people shouldn’t commit suicide- because the joy of and life and love outweigh the pain and suffering, which are the shells which hold our understanding. I had to get past my mind and open my heart. To forgive Pierre, I had to first forgive myself, my parents, my family, my friends, the world. I had to accept myself, my parents, my family, my friends, the world, with all our shortcomings and imperfections, and I had to love myself, my parents, my family, my friends, the world for what we were, uncritically- for being, for living, for trying, for loving. It sounds so easy- forgive, accept, love… but for me to actually do it, at the heart level, was a monumental epiphany. I felt that I had learned life’s most important lesson and, surprisingly enough, I overcame my personal fear of death (which used to keep me awake at night when I was a kid). I felt that if my life suddenly ended; it would not be a great tragedy, because I had learned how to love and how to live in peace.
From that day onward, people could not manipulate me with guilt. As a child, I had craved my parents love, approval and affection and I generally felt criticized, repulsive and unlovable, but when I ceased to yearn and crave for love and simply was content to know that I loved them and they loved me and accept that we had different ways of communicating, suddenly they actually became affectionate and treated me more kindly. Love is really quite amazing, because we do have a tremendous capacity to love and communicate on so many levels. I still had my share of heartaches and challenges, but the inner peace that I found, nearly thirty years ago, has given me the strength and courage to live through and to overcome challenge after challenge, including the challenge to open my heart, to trust, to love people again and again, despite the risk and the pain.
Last night when people spoke about Sonya taking on political issues- such as fair trade chocolate, I was surprised; because that was the first time I had heard about it. They mentioned that she had created a website- fairchocolate.org and had persuaded many of the students to actually stop eating chocolate produced by child and slave labor. I baked a lot of cookies, particularly for the tech crew, and I was often requested to bake cookies without chocolate, but I hadn’t realized the specific reason until last night.
I didn’t become a political activist until I was 34 years old. When I started doing research and realized the depth and magnitude of the problems facing humanity, I felt a tremendous responsibility to do something, especially since I had worked successfully in public relations before I was married. It was a challenge balancing the needs of the kids and family with the political work. My friends who were life long activists encouraged me, but also cautioned me to not burn myself out. I remember hearing about people working in refugee camps in Central America, on the frontlines of the most vital work, helping people in dire need. Most would burn out in a year or two, but the ones who didn’t were the ones who took time to play with the children each day.
I believe that Sonya did know how to play, loved life and cared deeply for people and the world. I do not know when, why or how, she made a bad decision, and thought she could not bear the pain she felt for her own shortcomings, or the shortcomings of those she loved, or the world’s shortcomings. I believe she deeply desired to be the wise, calm person that could solve any problem, any time, and if she had worn that mask long enough, she might have grown into that role. I suspect that she was harder on herself, than anyone could have imagined. The world saw her successes; she saw her flaws and human weaknesses and inability, alone, to right all the world’s injustices.
I wish she was still alive. I wish I could have known her better and helped her through Tuesday night. Tuesday was a rough day, not just for Sonya, but I think for all the kids at Gunn High School. Jeremy and Daniel had been sick with the flu and Jeremy had missed several days of school. Both kids were overwhelmed with work, studying for tests, final projects. I had the flu and stayed in bed most of the day, until Jeremy needed to be rescued, and I drove across town to pick him up. I remember how stunningly beautiful the clouds and sky were and there was an incredible rainbow to the south.
That evening, I watched the award winning documentary film Nanking, based on the best selling book by Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking, the moving story of the Japanese invasion of China in 1937. It was the heart breaking story of war, the murder of hundreds of thousands of civilians, as well as the heroic rescue of thousands of people by a handful of foreigners, including the American missionary, Minnie Vautrin. While all the official embassy personnel evacuated, those who remained tried to create a safety zone for the patients at the hospital, those who could not flee, the poor. They could not save everyone and witnessed and chronicled terrible atrocities, but their moral fiber and courage allowed them to stand up to the Japanese military, provide a safe haven for, it is estimated 250,000 people, and eventually carry the story of what happened in Nanking to the rest of the world. Their efforts, however, did cost them dearly. Minnie Vautrin broke down, returned to the U.S. and eventually committed suicide. Late that night, the rain started falling, and Jeremy worked until past 5 am. It was a long difficult night.
On Wednesday morning, I was reading an article entitled Historian Iris Chang won many battles -The war she lost raged within about Iris who committed suicide in 2004 when her son was only two years old. That is when I received the email from Amy about Sonya’s death. Too many sensitive, courageous women have found life too painful to bear. It is not just Sonya, there is too much injustice, and not enough shoulders to bear it or to rectify the situation. Those who do try to do the work, need more support, and need to learn to not be so hard on themselves.
Perhaps it is the most difficult lesson to learn, and maybe people can only learn it the hard way, through painful heart wrenching experience, rather than from the gospel, religion, wise women, the intellect, or the written word, but I would encourage any person young or old, contemplating suicide, or wondering whether it worth the effort to go on living, to go within and find room in your heart to forgive, accept and love yourself, your family, your friends, the world.
If you can find inner peace, I can also guarantee that you will be easier to love, and you will find it easier to live in harmony with others and to work with others, especially in the world of activism, social justice, non-profit endeavors, and probably in the theater, as well.
Addendum - August 23, 2009
Since I wrote this, I have spent more time with Sonya's family and friends in my quest to understand "Why?" I also went through my own period of mourning and depression. I think sensitive people, who do feel the pain of the world, or are especially hard on themselves, often do throw themselves into creative activity to bring joy and meaning into their lives and hold off despair.
Ella and Chloe performed a beautiful song on the day that we learned that Sonya died. I had hoped that they would perform the song at tthe Memorial Service (I know music helped me and my family when my sister died). Unfortunately there is no recording of that performance, but here are the words to the song, which I can't help, but think of as "The Butterfly Song". The actual title is- All My Little Words
Lyrics to - All My Little Words
By The Magnetic Fields
You are a splendid butterfly
It is your wings that make you beautiful
And I could make you fly away
But I could never make you stay
You said you were in love with me
Both of us know that that's impossible
And I could make you rue the day
But I could never make you stay
Not for all the tea in China
Not if I could sing like a bird
Not for all North Carolina
Not for all my little words
Not if I could write for you
The sweetest song you ever heard
It doesn't matter what I'll do
Not for all my little words
Now that you've made me want to die
You tell me that you're unboyfriendable
And I could make you pay and pay
But I could never make you stay
People are putting together a patchwork quilt, in memory of Sonya,
and renaming the Costume Loft at Gunn High School "Sonya's Costume Loft."
Here is the patch that I made for the quilt, if you look closely, you can see the butterfly.
Return to- Questioning the War on Terrorism