Sonya was my next door neighbor. When we met, we were both pregnant. I was nearly 37, she was 15. Her voice came to me from behind the screen of her kitchen window above my driveway, as I maneuvered my big belly into my compact car. “I’m going to have a baby too,” she said. I stood awkwardly, half in the car, half out, feeling old and large. What was the right thing to say? Not horror at another teen pregnancy, of course. I settled on, “Really? Wow,” or something equally lame. I couldn’t really see her face, but I felt her smile, her embrace of her impending motherhood. I drove off, with no inkling that this girl and her baby would have any effect at all on my life.
I didn’t notice Sonya or her baby for a long time. I had a busy life outside our neighborhood; I was finishing graduate school and looking for an academic job; I was in a mothers’ group with women from other parts of town. I remember seeing baby Sammy learning to walk with the help of her grandmother, a woman six months younger than me. Sammy had a small fluffy ponytail right on the top of her head, her top lip a bit misshapen from cleft palate surgery. We moved away when I got a job in another state, but by a weird fluke we moved back to the same house two years later. By this time our girls were 3 ½ and 4, Sammy with a little brother and my Lena with a new sister. Sammy’s hair had grown in thick and streaky blonde, and her smile had evened out sweetly. Suddenly the proximity of a little girl next door brought our families together. Sammy and Lena became fast friends, playing in each other’s yards every day. At first I arranged things through Sonya’s mother, Theresa, who was doing most of the childcare while Sonya was at community college. I found out that teen pregnancy wasn’t the end of having a life. Nor was being a grandmother before 40. I began to shed my preconceptions about their situation and get to know my neighbors.
The Willards’ was always a little wild, with loud music, beer can trash, and the whine of snowmobiles in the winter every afternoon, as the teenage boys went up and down and up and down the hill behind their house. Theresa and her husband Mike blended their five children, Mike’s two sons staying on with them well into their twenties. Everyone smoked. It was easy to dismiss them as low class, until I got to know them for myself.
Sonya had a sort of mesmerizing natural beauty. She had a round, symmetrical face, light brown hair, a slim figure. She wore her straight hair down, parted in the middle, or swept into a messy ponytail. Thick black lashes framed her clear blue eyes, which crinkled when she smiled. Her smile was usually close mouthed and tentative, holding back. When she flashed a full smile, showing her even white teeth, it felt like a gift. She wore sweats and t-shirts, and I never saw her wear a hint of make up, but she looked glamorous anyway. She had the Slavic looks of her mother and sister, but they were merely pretty—Sonya was spectacular. Theresa pronounced her daughter’s name with the first syllable rhyming with “on.” I constantly found myself wanting to pronounce it with a long O, and Sonya never corrected me, though I corrected myself. And when her eventual husband began calling her Sunny, I was better able to remember.
Sonya’s second child, Matt, spent about half his time with his father, but Sammy’s father was never mentioned. So Sammy was always around, much to Lena’s delight. She was a well loved child, sweet and sure of herself. Lena began kindergarten a year ahead of Sammy, expanding her social life outside the neighborhood, but on weekends they invariably had playdates and soon sleepovers. Matt and my younger daughter Eliza were often in on the fun, and for several years my husband and I answered to Lenadad and Lenamom from both Sammy and Matt. In the summers, skinny Matt would often appear at our screen door in just his shorts and ask, “Pop?” He would run out into the yard with four freezepops in his hands for himself and the three girls. We had a series of inflatable pools for the kids, and Sammy and Matt learned all our safety rules, teaching them to other neighborhood kids who occasionally joined the fun.
When Sammy started kindergarten, I began to know Sonya better. Theresa’s role as caregiver gave way to Sonya taking charge of her kids’ schedules. We never set up a schedule, but inevitably the girls wanted to ride to school together, and almost every morning the phone would ring and I would hear Sonya’s hesitant, polite voice asking if Lena wanted a ride, or if Sammy could ride with us. I sometimes beat her to the call, and wondered why we never formalized things, but our schedules changed enough with Eliza’s and Matt’s daycares and preschools that it never seemed like the right time to make a settled arrangement. So almost every morning I was tickled by Sonya’s ultrapolite, deferential voice asking to share a ride as if for the first time.
Sometimes after school or in the summer we would hang out in her yard, sitting on lawn chairs while the kids played. She would tell me haltingly about her life, seeming to feel a need to justify herself, to bridge the age gap that seemed less and less important to me. I began to simply like her, without thinking of her as a mother barely out of her teens, a mother more than 20 years younger than I was. She was smart and observant. She was loving and easy going with her kids. She seemed a little lost, switching from nursing to x-ray tech to English at community college, each time affirming that she’d finally found the right program. She was particularly animated talking to me about English, since I am an English professor, and I could tell she was an engaged, articulate student. For a while she talked about going on to get a PhD in English, and though I told her of my own struggles over six years in finding a steady job, I didn’t try to dissuade her, as I probably would have anyone else. I liked seeing her get excited about something, and I could tell she was an acute reader and writer.
But she didn’t stick with that either. When she was 21, she married Dave, a gentle guy about eight years older than she was. She laughingly told me how he’d been hanging around the house with her stepbrothers, and she finally approached him and asked if he wanted to go to the local hot tubs. I was impressed with her boldness, and I remembered how when she was 18 she’d bought a slinky dress from me at our moving away tag sale, a dress I recalled getting me into some trouble. A year later Matt was born. But with Dave, she seemed to have moved on from the bad boy type. Dave was solid, friendly, easy going. He wasn’t as sharp as Sonya, but he was thoroughly devoted. He legally adopted Sammy a year into their marriage, and Sammy and Sonya both took his last name. It seemed a little odd that he called her Sunny, a word that had never occurred to me as a way to describe Sonya. It felt as if he were willing her happy side to come to the surface. And she was happy, for a while, with Dave. She had security, a family of her own.
Halfway through Sammy’s first grade year, Sonya got Dave to move their little family to Florida. She had cousins down there whom she visited often, and she wanted to get away from the cold. Lena and Sammy had a tearful goodbye, though we figured we’d see them on visits to Theresa and Mike next door. A year later they were back, rather suddenly. Sonya had gained at least 50 pounds. Florida had not been good to Sunny. She and Dave and the kids moved back in with Theresa and Mike for a while, then found their own place a few neighborhoods over.
Sonya made no pretense of going back to school at this point. Dave worked and she stayed home. The neighborhood gossip mill circulated a few versions of the same story about why they came back—Sonya cheated on Dave. It was hard for me to believe this story. I wondered about Sonya’s weight gain, but we saw her family less and less once they left the neighborhood. Lena and Sammy had an occasional sleepover, and sometimes Eliza went along too. Sonya’s weight seemed to go up and down. I remembered our conversations about literature and writing, and I wondered where that passion had gone. But I didn’t pry.
My husband Scott recommended Dave for a job with a contractor he worked with, and Dave was hired. He was happy to have the stability of a regular paycheck; he was almost too good a worker, showing up half an hour early to start work at 7 am. At times Scott would end up working alongside Dave, and he heard a bare bones version of what had happened in Florida. Sonya had been drugged and sexually assaulted. Their sudden move back to Theresa and Mike’s had created tension; Sonya and Dave didn’t drink or do drugs, and moving back into a partying household was particularly hard on Dave. He didn’t want the kids to live around so much partying, and though he didn’t make much money, he initiated the move out of Theresa and Mike’s house. Dave took on the role of breadwinner of his adopted family with his usual magnanimity.
We, too, moved out of the neighborhood, one town over. Lena and Sammy were now in different school districts. Scott kept tabs on them through Dave at work, and Lena invited Sammy to her birthday party every year, but other than that we hardly saw each other. Our new house was right near where our local fireworks were set off, and one Fourth of July, Sammy and her family walked by our yard. It was like no time had passed. Sammy and Lena, now old enough to go off on their own, picked up right where they left off, walking through the little town fair set up for the fireworks. They arranged a sleepover, and later that summer Sammy came with us for a week on vacation. One night when bats got in the house and freaked out all the kids, Sammy got weepy and called her mom. We offered to drive her home the next day.
I remember talking to Sonya that night and being so moved by how in tune she was with her girl Sammy. Sonya may not have figured out a career, but she had no trouble loving her kids. I remembered picking my girls up from her house once, and they were watching the end of a movie about sled dogs abandoned in the Antarctic. Sammy was sobbing at the death of one of the dogs. Sonya held her, let her cry, let her be sad. It felt like something beautiful.
The Fourth of July became a time for our families to meet. In 2010 we hadn’t seen Sonya’s family in nearly a year, and Eliza reminded us to call them. We arranged to meet before dark, so the kids could enjoy the booths set up around the field, spend some time together.
It was shocking to see Sonya. She was larger than I’d ever seen her. Her face was still round and beautiful, but her body was even rounder. She wore old, frayed clothes, and her hands shook when she smoked. She seemed heavily medicated, and dozed off on the blanket while the kids were off at the fair and Scott and I chatted with Dave. But she was not completely gone. I was telling a story about getting Lena her first passport, and Sonya perked up a bit, asked where we were going that we needed passports. Her eyes sparkled a little when I told her about the conference I was attending in Paris that fall, apologizing a bit, explaining that my work was paying for nearly everything except Lena’s plane ticket. This sign of interest reassured me, but that night after the kids were in bed, Scott and I immediately talked about the shock of seeing Sonya so out of it. I had the urge to reach out to her, tell her how highly I regarded her, as a mother, as a thinker, but I couldn’t think of a way to do it.
We saw Sonya twice more that summer. Eliza and Lena had a sleepover with Sammy on a very hot night. The next day when I went to pick them up, I drove up and Sonya was smoking on the porch. I waved, but stayed in my air conditioned car. I felt ashamed that I didn’t go into the house, because Sonya came out to chat, sitting on the step next to the driveway, really making an effort to connect. She still seemed bloated and shaky, a tremor in her hand and in her voice, but she laughed as she told me about how she and Dave were squatters in their apartment because when the building was sold, the new owner never made arrangements for a new rental agreement. I allowed myself to be reassured, but still had it in my mind to reach out to her, tell her directly how highly I thought of her.
Later that summer, Dave was looking for some extra work, so Scott hired him to help paint a few rooms in our house. Sonya came along with Sammy and Matt, and took all four kids to a swimming hole. Again she seemed better, less shaky, more her sharp self, as we exchanged cell phone numbers and talked about what time they’d be back. She seemed huge in her bathing suit, but she was still so young, just 29, and her skin was so smooth. She could never not be beautiful, but it was clear to me that her beauty hadn’t done her any favors.
On my first day of work in September, Scott called me on my cell phone as I was driving home on I-91. “I got a call from Dave.” I had to think a minute. We knew several Daves. “Of Dave and Sonya.” Oh right. “Sonya’s dead.”
Suddenly I wasn’t only driving. I wailed in disbelief. Scott didn’t know many details, beyond the day of the funeral. I sobbed into the phone, still going 65 miles an hour, trying to figure out how to stop. Scott apologized, hadn’t known I’d take it so hard. He had pulled away from their melodrama, was watching it from afar. My exit came up and I slowed down, told Scott I was hanging up, and I sobbed convulsively as I pulled off the highway. Dead. Why? How? We wondered if it was suicide. We didn’t know. But in a way, it wasn’t a surprise. It had seemed like she had been dying in front of us the last few times we saw her.
We went to the wake. Matt was sitting on a couch right as we walked into the funeral home, and I rubbed his head, said, “I’m so sorry, buddy.” We found Sammy with a group of her friends, and I was glad to see how many were there. She asked if Lena was with us and we said no, and she said with too much maturity, in an almost light, philosophical tone, “I can understand that.” She and Matt were in the outer rooms of the funeral home, out of view of the open casket. We headed there next.
Dave headed the receiving line and I hugged him hard. I hardly glanced at Sonya, but the glance I took is seared in my memory. She seemed too large, and too young, with her smooth skin and thick black eyelashes. After Dave came Sonya’s sister Jessi, back from her home in Hawaii, and I felt a strong connection with the woman I’d mistaken for Sonya years before, when I’d said to her, “So, you’re having a baby?” and Jessi had vehemently corrected me. “No! That’s my sister! I’m only 13!” Jessi had the slim figure I associated with Sonya, and a pretty, open face. We didn’t have time to talk long, but I managed to say something about how much I cared about Sonya and loved seeing her with her kids. Scott and I made our way through the receiving line, Theresa, Mike, stepbrothers and stepsisters. We promised Dave we’d stay in touch.
Things move fast after tragedy. Scott and I both independently almost stopped by, but didn’t feel the timing was right. Then everything changed. I had become Facebook friends with Sammy, Jessi and Dave right after Sonya died. I even spent time on Sonya’s page, reading the messages she’d written to friends in her last days, before it was taken down. Her profile picture was true to who she was at the end—slit eyes, a wasted looking face. I admired the honesty of this choice of picture, but didn’t think this was the profile of a suicidal woman. A week before she died, she had comforted a struggling friend, encouraging him to look at his kids if he needed something to make him happy. She had joined a Facebook group called My Kids Are My Life. She had written a short I love you note to Sammy. Not a goodbye.
I longed to talk to Jessi, and by an amazing chance I ran into her in a store a few days before her return to Hawaii. Jessi had removed herself from the loving but dysfunctional home of her mother and stepfather right after high school, and after we talked a bit, I told her I didn’t know how Sonya had died.
“Oh! Well, the cause still hasn’t been officially determined. It could be a couple of weeks.” I had heard something about a mixture of over the counter and prescription drugs, and Jessi confirmed that this was the likely cause. I told Jessi about my last few encounters with Sonya and how concerned I’d been, and that I wished I had reached out to her. Jessi nodded, said she had talked to Sonya about her own worries, but that Sonya was determined to rely on her doctors for her treatment of PTSD and depression through various medications. “So Sonya is a victim of the pharmaceutical industry,” I offered. “Yes, I think so, yes.”
I wrote little Facebook notes to Sammy, to Jessi, even to Dave, who wasn’t much of a Facebooker. I saw the support Sammy got from aunts, her great-grandmother, her many friends. I felt the goodness of this girl, raised by a young mother who poured herself into loving her. I remembered losing my own mother when I was 45, and feeling 45 years of having a mother just wasn’t enough. Sammy only got 13.
Then everything changed. Sammy posted about moving, not wanting to move. Dave posted a new relationship status. Sammy posted that she had moved back to town. Scott ran into Theresa, who reported that Sammy and Matt were living with her and that Dave had moved away. Sammy changed her name on Facebook back to the name she’d had before Dave adopted her.
I follow Sammy on Facebook. She posts several times a day, often buoyant, but then dark and down. She has many friends. She broke up with her boyfriend of two years in August, fell in love and has a new boyfriend as of September. They post mushy I love you hearts just about daily. She posts about her mom, and about not seeing Matt, who spends more time at his dad’s now. She and Dave have made tentative steps back towards each other, even after Dave made plans to marry his new girlfriend.
I talk about Sammy with my daughters. She was at our house every day for a few summers, and many days several school years. She vacationed with us. I watch her life unfold, almost like a story, on Facebook. But her life is not a story. I am an onlooker, and I see her struggles with the adults in her life. I let her know I am around, that our family is still around. She has made plans with us and cancelled them twice, but writes us little notes with smiley faces. She changed her Facebook name again to Samantha Marie, her first and middle names.
I want to know about Sonya. What happened to her? Does the person who assaulted her in Florida know what harm was caused? Do her doctors know what harm was caused? Is there anyone to blame? Can statistics about sexual violence, about the dangers of prescription drugs, about teenage mothers, help explain Sonya’s story? I don’t know.
I know that a beautiful woman, who loved her two children so that they knew they were loved, rock solid, every day, has died. Her beauty did not serve her. I’m sure it contributed to her early pregnancies, and to her sexual assault. I do not know how she felt about her beauty, but I never saw her flaunt it. My only hint that she did was when she was 18 and bought a slinky dress for $3 at my tag sale. But she could not hide her beauty, under sloppy clothes, under a fattened body, in a safe marriage with an ordinary man.
There was always something poignant and a little sad about this beautiful young woman, from the time I first met her when she was 15, but there was also always something hopeful, even at the end, when her meds were slowly killing her. She loved her children, she was smart and interested in the world, but she was paralyzed by her trauma, and by the drugs that were supposed to help her cope with it. One day, maybe she could not sleep. Maybe she had a headache or stomach ache. She took something extra that mixed fatally with the cocktail of medications she was on. And then she died.