The first thing Mona usually did when she got home from work was to get out of her work clothes and into a comfortable old pair of shorts and a T-shirt. I was chief cook of the family for many years before she took over for the last six or seven. Rarely did we dish out each other’s food.
So the photo on the front page of the June 13, 2007, Citizen-Times always amused us. Mona’s quite prim and proper as she gets ready to ladle out spaghetti sauce, much like June Cleaver might serve Ward or Harriet might serve Ozzie. The photo accompanied an article on mental illness in the workplace, in which Mona talked about her own depression and the difference treatment made in her work and personal life.
With no photo to accompany a story slated to run the next day, the paper’s photographer called Mona and asked if he could run out and get some suppertime shots. Sure, she said, they’d just have to be at her mother’s, where we’d meet at least once or twice each week to eat, Mona coming directly from work. And so, the staged photo of Mona serving me my meal. I believe she had even worn heels that day.
What she was really doing, though, was serving her community. When a face was needed for workplace depression, she was there. When an accompanying photo was needed, she was there. When the legislative oversight committee on mental health met in Asheville, she was there with media packets and other information. She arranged radio interviews of local advocates and psychiatrists and set up community forums. She personally reached out to countless individuals with mental health diagnoses and family members to offer support, encouragement and hope.
While I’ll be forever proud of her role in brining Crisis Intervention Teams to our area — law enforcement officers trained to broker peaceful resolutions in incidents involving mental illness —I’m equally proud of the many behind the scenes things she did and the many acts of kindness, compassion and conviction I alone witnessed. She never saw a need and walked away and to those more self-centered, like her husband, it could be an irritating trait.
I remember one homeless man she befriended and helped get into treatment for his alcoholism. How elated she was when a couple of months later she visited him at the treatment facility to find her friend articulate, clean-shaven and on the mend. I remember how crushed she was a couple of months later when she saw him back on the streets. But if each of the people she tried to help fared no better, only death could, and did, keep her from trying to help.
Robin William’s death is a tragic reminder that as often than not, there’s no fairy tale ending when mental illness is involved. It certainly brought back memories of Mona and her own struggles with depression. And it can’t help but bring to mind Williams’ admonition as Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society to “Make your lives extraordinary.” While her husband only fully appreciates it in hindsight, Mona did just that.