A Sad Reminder

Image of Laurel Buck

From the Editor: All of us have had the painful experience of having someone dismiss us as unimportant or insignificant or incompetent simply because the person didn't bother to focus sufficient attention on us to see the truth. It happens to blind people all the time, but it occurs to other people as well. Because it is such a common experience for us, it seems to me that I should be less inclined to dismiss other people out of hand than those who rarely have to fight to be taken seriously themselves.

At last summer's convention I conducted several meetings in which a woman named Laurel Buck took part. Once she even called and left a message on my hotel room telephone, but I never returned the call. She spoke haltingly and with little inflection to her voice. I found it difficult to listen to her words long enough to catch her meaning. I knew nothing about her, not even where she came from, and I didn't take the time to find out or even answer her questions with attention.

As it happened, Laurel was dealing with massive problems stemming from head injuries she sustained in a car accident. She had already adjusted to losses I can't even conceive of, and just to go on with her life, she had to muster courage and determination every day that I can only imagine.

I did nothing to compound Laurel's problems, but neither did I extend myself to get to know her or offer her encouragement. Now it is too late to do so. But it is not too late to remember her whenever I meet someone else who is carrying a particularly heavy load. Laurel committed suicide on New Year's Eve. There are many others in our Federation family and beyond who deal with problems every day that would stagger me. I for one have been reminded to be more alert to both the needs and abilities of those I meet. Here is the moving story about Laurel Buck by Susan Levine that appeared in the February 4, 1998, edition of the Washington Post:

Ending the Struggle To Rebuild Her Dream

Laurel Buck Saw Life as an Adventure, But a Car Crash Forced an Uphill Journey
by Susan Levine

At 10:35 p.m. on New Year's Eve, miles away from the pricey hotel party for which she and her boyfriend had paid weeks before and an eternity away from the future that had held such promise, a Rockville woman named Laurel Buck was pronounced dead at Suburban Hospital. She was thirty-four.

On his report the medical examiner wrote "suicide." Sometime the previous day Buck had swallowed forty-five shiny blue-and-yellow capsules of Verapamil, a drug often used to lower blood pressure. Each was 240 milligrams strong and built to detonate round-the-clock. By the time she confessed her action and handed her boyfriend a note saying that "nothing particular happened," the pills had been in her body for hours.

Of course something had happened, although it had occurred nearly a decade earlier as Buck made an ill-timed left turn and was broadsided just two miles from her parents' home in Prince George's County. Those who knew her well wonder now if suicide was the inevitable, tragic consequence of that moment, which fractured her face, destroyed much of her vision, and led to major brain injury. At the least her overdose became the final chapter of her struggle to rebuild her damaged body, to prove she still had value.

"She really, really wanted to participate in society, and she wanted to be productive," said a friend, Judy Rasmussen. What Buck apparently saw as her inability to do so should be a lesson for others, her brother Rick believes.

"Society," he said, "must do more to let marginal people live non-marginal lives."

Once she had been far different, an independent, adventurous spirit who delighted in the experience of life. She spent her junior year of high school in Japan and scaled Mount Fuji. She moved on to Bryn Mawr College, tried her hand at both wrestling team statistician and radio deejay, and graduated as a smart but unfocused geology major.

In 1985 she joined the Peace Corps, teaching in the parched land of Botswana. For two years a hut was her home, a washtub turned upside down her table. When she wasn't with her students, she hitchhiked across that country and much of southern Africa, lugging a village chieftain's chair all the way to Cape Town so she could take it to her parents one Christmas. She laughed generously. She could tell a joke in four languages.

But on July 23, 1988, having finally returned from her far-flung wanderings, the world shattered as she turned her beloved '67 Mustang off Indian Head Highway on the way home from the library. With only a lap belt for protection, her head smashed violently against the dashboard. The damage would be tremendous and largely permanent.

There was the loss of her right eye, of any sense of smell and taste. She stumbled often with a badly unbalanced gait; her rapid-fire speech became laboriously slow and slurred.

And though she eventually recovered speed and clarity, unnatural pauses between her words prevented them from flowing smoothly, which many people took as a cue to finish sentences for her. Even worse was when they listened too briefly and, Buck felt, concluded that she was stupid. As a final cruelty last year the already minimal vision in her left eye began deteriorating rapidly.

Yet, through more than six months of hospitalization and nearly two years of special rehabilitation, her humor remained intact; her intellect survived; and, according to friends and family, so did her matter-of-fact way of dealing with adversity and her dogged determination to be part of life. In the early '90's, Buck pushed herself to move out on her own. She maneuvered the Metro alone and tried white water rafting and skiing. Despite her arrhythmic speech, she went with the local chapter of the Federation of the Blind to lobby legislators in Annapolis.

She also held a job as a computer assistant at the National Naval Medical Center, a position that meant much more to her than a paycheck—perhaps too much, as it turned out.

"She didn't let herself off the hook," Noreen O'Grady, a friend from Peace Corps days, reflected last week.

There'd been nothing dark or brooding about her before the crash, and until she came home from work on the afternoon of December 30, few saw any hint of a well of despair. "It's almost as if I had a daughter who was quite unique," said her mother, Nancy Buck, "and then I had another daughter who was also unusual. And now they're both gone."

Two memorial services were held in January for Laurel Susan Buck, one at a small country church not far from where her parents now live in Anne Arundel County, the other at the medical center chapel in Bethesda.

"It is not my place or yours to judge the heart of another person," the minister told her family and the nearly five dozen men and women gathered at the church service two Saturdays ago. They'd traveled from Vermont, California, Nebraska, and New York, friends from college, from the Peace Corps, from the Federation. Her Braille teacher came, as did another head-injury victim Buck had once encouraged.

The distance of time was reflected in the stories shared, but nobody appeared surprised by any of the tales. One person recalled how Buck had gotten her pilot's license and soloed over the Chesapeake Bay the summer after finishing college. Tina Vine drew laughter when she described Buck's sense of style in Botswana. "Who else would even think of taking fishnet stockings, lace gloves, and a clutch purse?" Vine asked.

Memories also were volunteered at the other service, but most people at the Naval Medical Information Management Center knew far less about the woman who had tried to work alongside them for nearly six years. They were not aware of Buck's deepening frustration over how little she seemed to be given to do. In the absence of other tasks she tried to take charge of certain responsibilities. Every morning in the kitchen for her section, she would practice making the coffee and refilling the ice trays.

She sensed that some employees shied away from her. Some were more polite than others. Lieutenant Commander Andrew Porter acknowledges painfully conflicted feelings about her extreme disabilities. He was the administrative officer whom Buck approached last fall for help in getting some computer equipment designed for the visually impaired. The order accidentally got set aside and then forgotten, and not until mid-December was it delivered to her office. It is unclear whether it was ever installed at her desk.

"I felt terribly guilty," Porter said last week. "In the back of my mind I'd like to think you have a chance to really change someone's life, to really give them hope, to really inspire them. I had that chance with Laurel, and through my...failure to take up her cause, I contributed to the mess."

Certainly she had several close colleagues, who were stunned by her suicide. Her supervisor, Zahur Alum, describes her as a "very special person." Her friend Alice Barkley says she misses Buck terribly. Nearly every morning Buck would stop by Barkley's cubicle for confirmation that her clothes looked all right. She joined Barkley's Wednesday lunchtime Bible study, and many evenings Barkley gave her a ride to her Grosvenor high-rise.

"She made me learn to listen," Barkley said. "I don't know of anyone who could have reconstructed her life as many times as she had." Maybe, Barkley suggests finally, "she just got tired of the fight and the battle."

In a corner near the front door of the condo Buck shared with Sean Sullivan, the long and slender opaque wand with which she made her way in the world still leans against the wall. On the floor, neatly paired, are her low black suede pumps, exactly where she put them when she walked in from work December 30.

"It's like I'm waiting for her to come home," he said.

The two had been together since 1992, and the forty-seven-year-old Sullivan, a country club groundskeeper, asked Buck to marry him on more than one occasion. As it was, they frequently struck friends as a comfortably married couple. He was solicitous, protective. "I accepted her for what she was," he explained. "To me she was complete."

Sullivan feels certain that suicide had been an option, however remote, for years. Although Buck never voiced any bitterness or complaints—no regrets about the Foreign Service career she might have pursued—"it was so painful and so difficult [for her] to accept what life had become," he said. At the same time he wants to believe that her overdose was a rash impulse and that a remark she made in the hospital emergency room about changing her mind meant, too late, that she wanted to pull back. If his crosscurrents of thought sound contradictory, he says, well, conflicting emotions and agendas run through many lives.

Still, like the others grieving Buck's death, he is haunted by questions. Why or, more specifically, why now? In the last few weeks she had seemed even more beaten down by day's end. She had worried aloud to her mother recently that her memory seemed shakier.

On the other hand, the night before she had gone shopping at White Flint Mall for a sweater to match jewelry that Sullivan had given her for Christmas. She was looking for something in green cashmere. She was excited about their New Year's Eve plans.

Then he picked her up at work that Tuesday, and within an hour the world collapsed.

"She kept on pushing and pushing and pushing." Richard Buck, a pleasant but reticent man, views the youngest of his three children as a kind of Sisyphus. "She kept on pushing the rock up the mountain...and the rock finally rolled back on her."

Ultimately his daughter must have assessed her limitations in similarly bleak terms. In the contents of her desk at work— five years of hopes and disappointments that were returned to her parents that afternoon of their memorial service for her—her mother found a poem. She is sure Laurel is its author.

I saw the end of the world

On my TV last night;

It preempted the National Anthem.

I watched it half dazed

Through popcorn and beer;

Stunned by the color of death unfurled.

When the time was over,

No announcer came on

To tell me what was not left to feel.

So I smiled a tear;

And saluted the heroes

Who evolved to make gods.

Jesus, why did You forsake me when the power went off?