It was the last gift she could give to her sister, and a way to keep her close just a little longer.
So when Eleni Pinnow sat down to write the obituary for her sister, Aletha, for the Duluth News Tribune, she thought of the way the police officers spoke to her when they told her of Aletha’s suicide.
“I was struck by how honest and candid they were,” Eleni said in a phone interview last week. “They didn’t use metaphors or say she was at peace with the angels or something. They said, ‘She’s dead.’ It meant a lot to me. It was a weird, lucid moment, and I started thinking that I have to be really open and honest about it.”
So she began the obituary, which ran online Wednesday and runs in the Duluth newspaper Sunday, directly: “Aletha Meyer Pinnow, 31, of Duluth, formerly of Oswego and Chicago, Ill., died from depression and suicide on Feb. 20, 2016.”
It was a rare, powerful opening to an obituary that is at turns sad, quirky and funny. Just like Aletha.
“If the family were to have a big pie in the sky dream, we would ask for a communitywide discussion about mental health and to pull the suffocating demon of depression and suicide into the bright light of day,” Eleni wrote. “It is impossible to sum up a woman so caring, genuine, vivacious, hilarious, and sparkly. She enriched the lives of countless colleagues and students. Unfortunately, a battle with depression made her innate glow invisible to her and she could not see how desperately loved and valued she was.”
Eleni and Aletha were practically inseparable. The spoke every day on the phone when they couldn’t get together in person. Aletha had even moved to the Duluth area last year to be with her sister, who works as an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. Their parents, Bonnie and Bryce, followed later so the family could all live in the same area. (The obituary even gave the nicknames for their parents: Momster and Dadzilla).
Aletha got a job at Stowe Elementary School, where she was a special education teacher, working with students who have autism. It’s a career she picked when she was in the fifth grade.
“She was passionate about disability rights,” said Eleni. “She called her kiddos ‘the great autismos.’ She loved them so much, and always talked about how smart they were and how much progress they were making. That’s the thing that gives me pause. She adored them. I didn’t think she’d ever leave them, or leave her dog.”
Eleni paused. “I’m kind of furious at her.”
Aletha was a terrific teacher, something she didn’t hesitate to tell others, according to her obituary. “She had infinite patience,” said Eleni.
The dog, a pit bull named Asta Louise, joined Aletha’s two cats, Fido and Ralphie. The dog was meant to help with her depression and give her some comfort, Eleni said. The family was aware Aletha suffered from depression, but didn’t have any idea it had gotten so bad. Not until the day they went to check on her and found a note on the door telling them to call 911 rather than enter the house.
The suicide has everyone who knew her questioning whether they should have seen the signs, or been able to do something.
“The perception of suicide is that it’s a selfish act, ”said Eleni. “But my sister was not selfish. She was very active in the deception. I didn’t know how much she didn’t like herself. It speaks to how much pain she must have been in.”
Aletha was prescribed antidepressants, but Eleni doesn’t know if she was actually taking her medication. “The past couple of months she was telling me her depression was better. There wasn’t a point where we went, ‘Oh, she’s slipping away.’ Looking back now, I wonder what part of her represented who my sister was, and what part was the depression.
“The most insidious part about depression is how thoroughly it lies to you, and how convinced you are that the lies are true,” Eleni said.
The response to the obituary has been amazing, Eleni said. Her school passed it out to faculty and staff and it has already generated much discussion. The Duluth paper wrote a story on the family’s desire to talk about depression. The obituary was the most read story the morning it was posted.
“It’s been like the last scene of “It’s a Wonderful Life, where they tell George that he’s the [richest] man in town,” Eleni said, her voice filling with emotion. “I just wish she could be here to see it, and know how much people loved her.
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin