by Jay Shepherd, September 22, 2014
[This is the second in a series of stories about interesting people I’ve known, a series I’m calling “Lives”. I don’t know whether you would call it non-fiction, or fiction. I’ve changed the names, and some of the details, so that the individuals are not easily identifiable. However, I think I’ve stayed true to the essence of what really happened. The point is what can be drawn from the story, and at least that part is 100% true.]
Sally ended up telling her own story in her own unique way.
Sally was just a student in one of my classes, one of several hundred in a decade of teaching tax to law students. Until much later, I didn’t really know her that well, and now I wonder if that was an opportunity missed.
I came into contact with her because she needed help with the subject area. I was willing, but the problem was clear from the outset. A mature student who entered law school in her thirties after working as a paralegal, she was not a natural in tax, and the stuff was probably beyond her talents. Tax either suits you, or not. It wasn’t really for her.
She was determined to succeed, however, and give her credit. By the end of the year, she had earned a solid C through hard work and repetition. She would never be a tax lawyer, but in her mind she passed a course many other students saw as difficult. That’s what mattered.
After she graduated, she trained at a small law firm, but upon qualification immediately opened up a firm with four of her classmates. It was the classic case of “hanging out your shingle”, and then hustling to build a practice. From time to time, she would call me to ask for advice on a matter, or to get the name of a specialist for a referral.
It’s hard to start from scratch, but she appeared to be doing it. Three of the five lawyers in her firm had backgrounds from India, including Sally, and they tapped into that ethnic group to generate a young, upwardly mobile client base. From a distance (they were in Brampton, far from my office on Bay Street), I couldn’t tell if they were succeeding. I didn’t doubt her tenacity, though, so I assumed they were.
After she had been practising for a few years, I randomly noted, in a conversation about something else, that she had a fortieth birthday approaching. I offered to take her to dinner to celebrate, if she was not otherwise engaged. To my surprise, she accepted.
That dinner, on a patio by the waterfront, was our first really social interaction, and it led to a regular series of lunches, dinners, and other casual social encounters. I started to learn something about her personality, and her history.
From the outset, it was clear that there was no romantic chemistry between us. That appeared to suit both of us just fine, allowing a friendship free of sexual tension, in which we were both able to be ourselves. Still, it was also characterized – at least a bit – by a lack of engagement, a kind of standoffish contact that makes me immediately think of the term “desultory”. We were friends, but in the most casual sense of the word.
I did, however, hear Sally’s story.
Although she was born in Vancouver, she moved with her parents at the age of four to Toronto, and grew up here. Her parents were in their forties when Sally was born, and she had no siblings. Immigrants from India, they both worked hard, her father in a manufacturing company and her mother doing piecework at home. They expected a lot from Sally. She was the reason they came to Canada, they told her.
(Sally once speculated to me that she might be adopted. She had a convoluted logic for why that was probably true, but she had no evidence to support it. She only mentioned it once.)
The story of Sally’s “gap year”, which turned into three years, was one of the few times I saw her laugh about her own life. When she refused to go to university right away after high school, but instead took a job in a clothing store, her parents were alternately enraged and solicitous. Her mother, she said, once got so angry she forgot how to speak English, and could only express herself in the dialect she learned as a child. Sally could only understand a bit, but she wasn’t going to be swayed by her mother’s anger anyway. (An Indian mother, she once told me, is just a Chinese mother in a sari. Push, push, push.)
Three years of pressure eventually wore her down, and she went to university, taking anthropology because she thought it sounded interesting. As she said later, no-one warned her that it was so much like science. Still, having decided to do it, she did it, and graduated with solid marks.
Then she needed a career-type job (which clearly wasn’t going to be in anthropology), so she found a large law firm and started as a junior legal assistant. She was always looking to learn more, and within a couple of years she was a paralegal, processing motor vehicle accident claims for a team of personal injury lawyers. They kept increasing her salary, and by the age of thirty she was making decent money, and had just bought a house.
While she was working as a paralegal, she met a young lawyer, and had her first real romantic relationship. When she told me that, I expressed surprise. She was fairly intelligent, and quite good looking, with a calm, if a bit dour, personality. Despite her introverted nature, she should have had lots of opportunities. Her answer was that she did have opportunities, but most guys turned her off. They had no ambition, no drive. Until she met Dan, she felt that all the guys she knew were too weak for her.
What she got, instead, was what can only be described as an abusive relationship. She wouldn’t talk a lot about it, but it was clear that Dan wanted to dominate the relationship, and was not above yelling and screaming, and sometimes pushing and shoving, to maintain his dominant position. She was quick to emphasize that he never hit her, not once. His need to overpower psychologically was, however, always there.
She noted that Dan was a bit like her dad that way, so she was able to handle it for a while. Then…. she couldn’t any more. When she bought the house, intended to be for both of them, she put it in her name alone. It was an omen. Within a few months, they broke up.
At the same time, Sally was getting new pressure from her parents to “make something” of herself. They were in their seventies, still healthy but retired and focusing more on her. They concluded that the legal business was a good fit for her, but that she was wasted as a paralegal. She should become a lawyer. When that campaign started, she was twenty-seven. Shortly after, she met Dan.
She says that for three years she got it from both sides: her parents pushing her to succeed more, and Dan pushing her down. In one year, between the ages of thirty and thirty-one, she changed everything. She moved from her suburban apartment near her parents to the ratty old house she bought in the east end of Toronto. She terminated her relationship with Dan. And, she applied to enter law school the following year.
“And the rest,” she told me without a scrap of irony, “is history”.
It took me more than a year to hear the whole story, bit by bit. After that, we continued to see each other once a month or so.
Then, her father died. That affected her a lot. She withdrew to herself, not really willing to talk to anyone. I tried, but she was closed off. I couldn’t get her to engage.
When her forty-second birthday came up, I called her office, hoping that the occasion would be an excuse to bring her out of her self-imposed isolation. In a hushed voice, the receptionist put me on to one of the other partners, who said Sally was no longer with the firm. He refused to say more. I couldn’t get anything else from him, no matter what I said.
Sally didn’t have a cell phone, and her home phone kept going to an old answering machine message. The only email I had was her office.
On a whim, I drove by her house, which it turned out had a For Sale sign on the lawn. I called the real estate agent, who had nothing to tell me about the seller. He wasn’t even able – or willing, perhaps – to confirm her name.
It was a mystery, but a mystery with an apparent dead end. I resolved to just wait until Sally decided to resurface, and call me. It was still bugging me, though.
At least six months later, I found myself heading to a meeting in the same office building that housed her former firm. They were still there, but the firm name had changed: no more Sally. After my meeting, I sat in the coffee shop downstairs, thinking.
When I saw the receptionist from Sally’s firm sitting at another table, I didn’t really hesitate. I sat down across from her, asking “Why won’t anyone tell me where Sally has gone?”
The poor girl, all of twenty-one perhaps, burst into tears. “I’m not supposed to tell anyone,” she said. “Sally killed herself. In the office. I was the one who found her. Don’t tell anybody I told you.”
She wanted to leave, but I ended up getting her to tell me what she knew. Sally, notoriously early to the office every day, was in her office when this young woman arrived in the morning. Nothing unusual, but when she went in to find out if Sally needed anything, Sally was slumped over her desk. She tried to revive her, then called 911. As the office filled with lawyers, staff, paramedics and police, it became clear Sally had killed herself with a deliberate overdose of pain medication.
There was no note, but I didn’t really need one to understand.
Sally was never satisfied with her life. Every success was still not enough. Every situation should be better than it was. Every person was more flawed than she wanted them to be.
More than that, though, Sally was surrounded by people that expected things of her, and she expected a lot of others. In part because of that, she expected a lot of herself.
What she lacked, though, was someone to love her, just for who she was. In expecting so much from everyone else, and driving herself so hard, she pushed away everyone that might have loved her. The chances she did have, failed.
What Sally really needed – and what she was crying out for, not just to me, but to everyone around her – was to dial down her own striving and just get comfortable with who she was. She was never allowed to do that by the people close to her, and she never allowed herself to do that.
All she had was the struggle.
We have many opportunities in life to have a positive influence on the people around us. We only take up some of those opportunities, and even then only succeed some of the time. When we try, and fail, that lost opportunity is something to remember.
But, when we don’t try, or when we don’t even see the opportunity until it’s too late, that can haunt us for a long time. All we’re left with is telling the story.