Tuesday, January 24, 2012

COMMENTARY: RIP Cindy Heinrich

I was in the theater restroom washing my hands after a particularly traumatic movie about whistleblowers whose name I cannot recall now. I had to compose myself before I went outside.

The woman at the sink beside me glanced in my direction. She was in her forties with reddish blonde hair in a ponytail. Like me, she was dressed casually in jeans and a loose top.

I smiled. People raised in Oklahoma are friendly that way.

"Would you ever blow the whistle on someone?" The woman asked.

I paused for a second. I'd expected "hello" or maybe "it's really hot out there."

"I have," I answered honestly. "I was in a position where people I worked with were doing something illegal and I turned them in."

"Were you scared?"

"I was angry," I answered. "Sadly, nothing much came of it."

"At least you tried," she said. Then, she told me her name was Cindy Heinrich. I told her my name and that I was a transplant. We started talking in the lobby. Cindy told me she spent most of her time caring for an elderly grandmother with Alzheimer's, but she took a couple of days off per week to go see movies when her Grandma was with other family, etc.

I did something I've never done before. I made a date with a virtual stranger to see another film later that week. I had to escape the apartment, too. August 1998 was a record heat wave and our apartment didn't have air conditioning.

Throughout that winter, Cindy and I met at least once a week. She told me the good places to eat and shop in Beaverton. Slowly, we learned about each other. In a darkened theater with only the two of us waiting for a show, she confessed she'd been raped by her step-father at fifteen and couldn't tell anyone. She'd avoided the man after she left home only to return at his request to his deathbed to say goodbye.

His last words to her, "you're so beautiful, I'm going to have to get my rifle out to keep the boys away," sent her into a nervous breakdown. She'd already been teetering there. She'd been working as a Customer Service agent for an insurance company who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty. Her supervisor delayed far too many claims saying, "they'd settle themselves in a week or so." In that time, the patient often died.

Cindy had no place to go and no one she felt would help with either of her situations. And finally she broke. It took eighteen months in a mental hospital to put her back together and she still saw the therapist who did so occasionally just to be sure.

Despite everything she'd been through, Cindy turned her hardships into beauty. She wrote an amazing children's story for her beloved niece complete with illustrations. I tried hard to convince her to send it for publication, but she never did. She also painted. I was gifted with one of her paintings, which I treasure.

Her goal was to write a book about caring for people with Alzheimer's. She wanted very much to share what she'd learned from taking care of her Grandmother. I asked her once what one thing she'd tell people who were caretakers for Alzheimer's patients would be.

"I'd tell them to remember that they never learn," Cindy said. "They're about two forever and you've got to find it within yourself to be patient and try to treat them with respect, but like a happy child."

I honestly don't know how she did it day in and day out, but her grandparents practically raised her and helped her through her mental crisis--though neither knew the entire reason she'd had the breakdown. Cindy believed she owed them a great debt. This was the one way she knew she could repay that debt.

We had a lot of fun together, from chasing the elusive latest Beanie Baby to finding a new sci-fi and fantasy author to share. I got her into Jennifer Roberson's Cheysuli series, which she loved. She showed me the good places to shop and eat, which I shared with Tony.

When we moved downtown to Portland Center, Cindy confessed she wouldn't come visit me there. She was afraid of bridges and hadn't driven across one in years, but she said, "If you ever need me for an emergency--somehow, I will get there."

So, I took the Tigard bus or the MAX into Beaverton to meet her depending on what we were going to watch and where. We still met as often as we could, but her Grandmother was getting worse and 24-hour care was beginning to exhaust Cindy. I was worried about her, but the family didn't want to bring another caretaker in and nobody would send her Grandmother away.

Tony's job ended in October 1999. We looked for both a job and housing in Portland until the end, but Dell made an offer and we opted to go.

Cindy and I set a last date for the movies. Again, I can't remember the film, but we went to the theater in Tigard. I brought my film camera so I could get a photo of my friend. Cindy disliked having her picture taken as much as I do and it was a big sacrifice to get her to take one--but I agreed to let her take mine, too.

Unfortunately, it was 90 degrees out--in Oregon, in October--and I was not going to leave that camera in the car. I walked into the theater and got caught with it. I told the staff I couldn't take a photo of the film with this camera anyhow--I'd need a flash. Still, we spent a good long while arguing. I wasn't going to take the camera back to the car and get the film fried in the heat.

Finally, the manager came into play and said I could leave the camera in the ticket booth and come back for it at the end of the movie. So, that's what I did. I got back into line and told the ticket-taker who'd given me so much hell:

"I'd like my camera, please."

The ticket taker handed the camera over.

"Hey, she's getting a camera!" I heard a guy that I'd call a goat-roper in Oklahoma exclaim. "I didn't see anyone else get one."

And that's when I had a Very Evil Thought. I could tell Mr. Baseball Cap that Regal Cinemas were giving away free cameras, but you had to ask because they weren't advertising it. And if they said "no" you needed to get more emphatic.

Hey, why not--they'd given me enough hell. But I didn't do it for two reasons: 1. Cindy would have to come back to that theater and she'd be by herself. I didn't want her to have any trouble, and 2. I didn't know how she'd handle it.

When we got in the car, I told her what I'd been planning.

"You should have done it," Cindy said. "They deserved it for being such nitwits about the camera."

"But--I thought you'd freak."

"Oh heck no," Cindy was laughing. "I'd just tell the theater staff you just got out and you weren't quite used to your new meds."

We laughed so hard it was near impossible to cry even though we knew we might not see each other again.

We did stay in touch, though. We shared letters and phone calls. Cindy helped me through the grief of losing my Mom and coping with a father who was near as bad as her step-father. I listened to her problems with her Grandmother and her sorrow when her Grandmother passed. Then, the shock that her Grandfather was in the hospital with a stroke only a few days after. And finally his passing.

Cindy was forty-six and planning on re-starting her life. She had money to go back to college and take some computer courses. She was thinking about design and I was encouraging her to write that book. She'd injured her leg walking, but she was going to the doctor to get the bruise seen to.

Then, we got the call. Cindy died in her sleep. Apparently, there was a blood clot in that bruise on her leg that'd come loose and gotten to her heart.

I learned so much from Cindy--about both being brave and learning your limits, about seeing the beauty even in a gray day, and translating that beauty into the medium of your choice.

RIP Cindy Heinrich, you were a blessing and a beautiful friend.

Love, Becky

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