Browsing Tag

Kris Martinez

Guest Posts, healing, self-loathing

My Monster

April 10, 2022

I wasn’t always a monster, of course. I like to believe no one ever really sets out to become a monster, and I think most monsters are created by forces bigger than themselves, often in the murky darkness of childhood.

My sister Michele and I spent a lot of time on my family’s dairy farm as children. Our mother was the oldest of nine siblings, so my sister and I were delightful little playthings to the many aunts and uncles who still lived on the farm. We basked in their attention as they showered us with sleepovers and wagon rides and trips to the nearby lake.

There was a dangerous freedom to the barn, with the powerful hind legs of the massive cows that towered over our small selves as we ran down the center aisle, squealing to avoid a sudden discharge of liquid shit. Michele, the cherished first-born, was a tomboy who loved running around chasing cats by their tails and dodging in and out of the barn as our uncles and grandfather worked the cows on their rigorous milking schedule. My sister languished in the smells of summer hay being put up and danced in the swirls of dusty dry sunshine that accompanied all those animals.

But it was soon discovered that what seemed like wild, sweet freedom to one granddaughter was the very thing that threatened another. My grandmother never quite seemed to accept that I wasn’t just being stubborn or lazy when I stopped wanting to go to the barn. That, in fact, I had asthma. And all that dander from the cows whose milk was the sole source of the family’s income was cutting off my airways and strangling me.

But in the mid 1970’s, things like asthma and allergies weren’t well understood – at least, not in our neck of the woods in Wisconsin, America’s Dairyland, where my people lived and worked. Generations of my family were raised on milk: not just to nourish bodies, but to pay the bills. Going against the family farm in any way was akin to treason. My grandmother, in particular, had little tolerance for time-consuming things like asthma attacks. Sniffles? Quit all that snorting, Krissy. There’s work to be done. Stop bothering me.

So, every summer I tried in vain not to be a nuisance, to get out in the barn and help with chores like my good, big sister. And each time, I’d end up coughing and wheezing and back at the house, crying as I knew how much I’d disappointed my grandmother by being weak.

Crying only worsened my asthma attacks. I fled to the bathroom, closed the door, and ran a washcloth under cold water to wipe my face. I stood at the sink trying to calm down as aunts and uncles would bang on the door, saying they had to pee. Looking in the mirror, I watched my itchy and enflamed eyes as the whites turned an angry red and swelled over the green circles of my iris. For a few hours, my eyes took on the appearance of some swollen, sickly Christmas decorations in the middle of July.

My grandmother was a woman of efficiency whose nerves were worn thin by too many people needing too many things. What love she had in her heart was painfully and privately shrouded in vigil for her own long-dead mother who was cruelly taken from her by cancer when she was only sixteen. Unprocessed heartbreak with no place to go can get lodged on repeat in a cruel sort of rhythm that no amount of barking at sick children will unstick. Such is life for a generation with nowhere to place such cavernous grief.

But I didn’t know this as a child. Instead, I learned from a young age that there was something wrong with me. Something inside my body that was bad. Something shameful that didn’t allow me to participate in the regular work and play of the family like everyone else.

By the time I was five, I learned that my wheezing and gasping for air were something akin to a moral weakness – that if I would just toughen up a bit, I could get over it. Thus, I didn’t deserve to breathe like other people. I was five years old, and I didn’t deserve to breathe.

***

Sheila, my uncle Mitch’s wife, was a teacher who worked with special needs kids and took an interest in me. She loved my drawings and encouraged the stories I wrote. I relished the whirling worlds in the books we shared, one adventure weaving into another. We stayed inside her yellow brick house across the road from my grandmother’s, with air conditioning that insulated our activities from the farm’s threatening allergens.

Sleepovers at her house were a special treat for me and my sister with ice cream sundaes and buttered popcorn so rich it gave me a tummy ache. As the sun set through the white eyelet curtains of the yellow room with the shag carpeting, cool darkness fell over the house. We would lay our heads on embroidered pillows, knowing that she was safely nearby in the room she shared with Mitch, just on the other side of the closet door that secretly adjoined our room.

***

Years passed. I turned twelve before my mother finally took me to an allergist to treat my asthma. Several rounds of steroids to clear my lungs resulted in rapid weight gain and crushing depression, which perfectly coincided with the onset of puberty. It didn’t take long for my inner monster to latch on to my self-loathing. An eating disorder quickly took root, enabling me to lose fifty pounds in three months, and by the time I was seventeen, I had downed a bottle of pills in a botched suicide attempt and earned a month long stay in a mental hospital.

My psychiatrist found me to be a curious case. I’d landed a coveted spot on the high school pom-pon squad, and we had a somewhat stable, loving, upper middle class family. I had excellent grades, an artistic gift, and a boyfriend who was the running back on our school’s state-winning football team. Yet, my symptoms didn’t seem to add up. Debilitating depression. Self-loathing. Cutting. Looking at my chart, the doctor asked my mother: had I ever been sexually abused?

Goodness no, she said. Of course not.

***

It wouldn’t be long before I discovered the joys of alcohol. My Irish Catholic family was practically raised on beer, bourbon, and brats. When we weren’t floating in a lake drinking under the warm sun, we were at college football games, Summerfest, and family weddings. Life was one big celebration, and my monster loved to party.

It was at one such wedding where I met my future husband, a longtime friend of the groom. A few years older than me, he was a good Catholic farm boy from Iowa whose steadiness was the perfect counter to my volatile self. We married when I was just twenty-two, but it would be many years before I’d fully appreciate just what a fantastic sense of foresight God had in bringing us together.

We went on to have three children and life appeared to be good, but the darkness was always lurking just under the surface. My monster was often hiding in the corner, whispering that I wasn’t quite good enough. That I didn’t deserve to be happy. That there was no point in trying – I was just a sham. There were so many days when I didn’t know what would happen because I could never trust when my monster would demand to be fed next. Living with depression was like dragging myself through the day with a big boulder strapped on my back. Most days loomed dark, heavy, foreboding, as the weight threatened to crush me.

Alcohol has a cunning way of latching on to mental illness to create the perfect storm. I found that if I drank just enough, I could keep my darkness at bay. Wine had a way of blurring the edges of my anxiety, while vodka would obliterate them completely. To me, this was just the solution I needed.

Soon, I was waking up every day sick, parched, disgusted. I repeatedly told myself today would be the day I’d stop doing this. Today would be different. Knowing, even as I said it, that I was lying to myself. Just willing change into existence doesn’t make a damn difference if you don’t do anything to change. If your next move is to open up a bottle, you’ve already lost at your own game – and your only opponent is yourself.

My boogeyman never lurked around some dark corner. That bitch lived inside me. I opened the door and welcomed her to come right in and take a seat every time I bought a bottle. I thought I drank to quiet her down, hoping that the more I drank, the more likely I was to flood her out of her cave. What I didn’t know was that I had it all wrong. Alcohol didn’t put out my monster’s anger. Pouring alcohol on my monster only fed the flames, like gasoline on fire. My monster loved alcohol – thrived on it. More! More! She cried as she laughed, threw up all over the floor, then went on drinking.

With alcohol mixed into the equation, I had no chance against my monster. I hated myself when I drank. Everyone around me hated me when I drank. And even though I knew better and had everything going for me, I wasn’t smarter than alcohol; it had locked me in a vice grip that I couldn’t break. I no longer wanted to drink, but I could barely function without it.

I was circling the drain but instead of putting the cap back in the bottle, I was pouring my life away with every glass I emptied. That’s the way addiction works. Nobody wakes up one day and says they want to become an addict. It’s a slippery slope that seems to work just fine for a long time as it does what it promises to do: it takes the edge off. But after a while, it stops working. And you need more and more to get the same effect.

Twenty-five years after my first suicide attempt, I found myself with an Exacto knife in my hand, pulling it across my wrist and drawing blood. Another time, I stumbled into the middle of a country road and stared down a Mack truck that was barreling towards me. And it became commonplace for me to stand on the Metra platform in Chicago, willing my body to throw itself in front of the train. I told my doctor at the time that this was normal for me. Nothing to worry about here, folks.

But this time was different. I wasn’t just some dumb seventeen-year-old kid. I was married with three children. I owned a business with employees and was doing work I loved. I had everything. But I couldn’t see any of that when the monster came out of her cave. She was now a fire-breathing dragon, and she was going to burn down every last fucking thing that stood in her path.

The thing that wasn’t different this time was how I felt. The way I felt at seventeen was still the same way I felt again at forty-two. Twenty-five years later, and the pain inside me was exactly the same. No number of years or ounces of alcohol could drown the darkness that a lifetime of trauma had built. That powerful pull to finally give in and end it all – it was too big to resist, and I just wasn’t strong enough. And once I finally decided to kill myself, the decision was complete. Then, just like when I was seventeen, it came as a relief.

If I thought of my children at all in that moment, my only thought was: the kids are better off without me. They had my husband to take care of them. I was useless. Better off dead. And that logic made perfect sense to me. Perfect sense.

That’s what depression does. It’s a darkness that works on you from the inside out. It wears you down and pulls you in and wraps its tentacles around you and doesn’t let go until it sucks all the light from your soul. It squeezes the air out of your lungs until you’re gasping for breath. Until you can no longer breathe.

Because you don’t deserve to breathe.

***

I was surprised to find that my mental hospital had been locked in its own stagnant time capsule: faded floral artwork trapped behind plexiglass screwed to cinder block walls. A single caged lightbulb dimly casting shadow over moldy shower stalls. A wall-mounted telephone with a frayed eight-inch cord flanked by nefarious steel-barred windows. I snagged my color-coded socks on cracked and peeling linoleum as I learned that pink signified fall risk, blue for suicide watch. Mine were blue. I could have gone a lifetime without knowing any of this.

For five days, I walked up and down the stale hallway thinking of the many ways I’d changed in twenty-five years, and the many more parts of me, like this place, that were still the same. Those early days of padded, shaky steps in my fuzzy blue socks were the first of many in the tentative direction of eventual healing. It took a long time to realize that alcohol was a former friend that had turned on me a long time ago; I was just too sick to see it. Once I was able to get some clarity and distance from my old pal, I finally had a fighting chance.

I learned there were many root causes to my monster’s growth. Genetics played a part, such as living in a family with layers of madness and addiction. Ultimately, it didn’t matter why a monster had grown inside me like a cancerous tumor. The damage was done. But understanding where it came from was a way to help me untangle its interwoven grip on my life. And in order to extricate myself and live freely, I had to do the work.

I learned to separate the monster from myself. The monster lived inside me, but she was not me. In time, I could learn to tame her and live with her.

I learned that when I stopped drinking, I stopped being so afraid. And I was finally able to ask myself: what was I so afraid of? What was I trying to drink away?

My fears ran from broad and expansive to precisely imagined scenarios. Drinking had been a way to run from the fear of living in a violent and unpredictable society full of senseless acts and random school shootings. I found that I could alleviate the anxiety of not knowing if each morning’s goodbye kisses would be our last by turning to the bottle. But eventually, no amount of alcohol could keep the terror at bay; in spite of our country’s lavish thoughts and prayers, the shootings kept coming.

I was afraid of what would happen if my kids found out I was an alcoholic. But judging by the way they dumped out my wine, it was pretty clear they already knew.

I was terrified that my children were destined to live with the same madness that had hijacked my own brain from such a young age. That my daughters would develop eating disorders that would ravage them for decades. That my son would develop an addiction and attempt suicide. In sum, I was afraid of everything. Most of all: myself.

I finally had to admit to myself that I was afraid of saying I was an alcoholic, because I just didn’t want it to be true. I was afraid to stop drinking because I didn’t know how to live without it. And if I was really trying to be honest with myself, I just had to edit that last sentence a bit:

I was afraid to stop drinking because I was afraid to live.

I believed that addiction and mental illness and abuse and suicide attempts were all just a matter of time for my children, because that’s simply how it was. Because that’s what was passed down through generations of trauma in my family. Because it was destiny, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I kept continuing the cycle with every bottle I drained because I didn’t believe I had any power to stop it.

Until: I stopped.

When I learned to stop fearing my monster, I found that I was growing stronger and could finally start to face my fears. And I realized that my monster was really just a coward that hid in the darkness of her cave and thrived on alcohol, and bred depression and shame.

I learned that love is stronger than fear. Love is what breaks the cycle. Love is what cracks open the darkness and allows the light back in. And by coming back to love, one day at a time, I learned to start trusting myself again.

I remembered the ferocious love I felt for each of my children from the moment I was aware of their tiny sparks growing inside me. And I remembered the biggest love of all: God’s love. In beginning my recovery, I learned that though I never believed I was worthy of God’s love, that didn’t mean it wasn’t there. It was there all along, from the moment I was just a spark in my own mother’s womb. I just couldn’t see it through the darkness.

I finally learned to love myself.

And twenty-five years later, I would recall my psychiatrist’s question to my mother about whether I’d been sexually abused as a child. Memories would float back to me at random, like fireflies flickering in the night. The yellow room with the shag carpeting. The white eyelet curtain. The sleepovers that endured long after I wanted them to. I would remember my uncle, insistent that we keep up those overnight visits far after we felt comfortable. And when given the choice of any of the other rooms in the farmhouse, he would emphatically press on that my sister and I should stay in that room, the yellow room with the shag carpeting, the one that connected to theirs via secret passageway.

***

My monster’s fire-breathing roar has been replaced by the sounds of laughter that now fill our house. Our comings-together at the end of the day are reminders that we’ve survived something together. My children may carry the strains of mental illness; time will tell. But if that happens, we now have the tools to manage it. I’ve finally learned that dealing with mental illness and addiction is something I can control. At least now, we have a fighting chance.

My monster is still there. I see her sometimes, sleeping in the back of her cave. I like to think of her in a sort of permanent hibernation. To keep her there, I’ve learned to put a blanket over her when she’s cold. I’ve taken away her alcohol and replaced it with nutritious food that I put at the mouth of her cave, offering it to her if she ever gets hungry, too. I sometimes wave to her as I pass by on my daily walk, or during yoga. I see her sleeping and I think – oh yes, there she is. I remember her. I nod and respect her space. I let her sleep if she’s tired. And I pass by, thankful that she no longer has any power over me. I let her keep sleeping.

And then, I walk out into the light.

Kris Martinez been in marketing for over 25 years and has owned an award-winning digital creative agency near Chicago since 2004. Her work has been published in Entropy, The Manifest-Station, Literary Mama, Iris Literary Journal, and Enterprising Women Magazine where she was honored in 2018 as an Enterprising Woman of the Year. In 2020, Kris completed her MFA in Creative Nonfiction and Screenwriting from Antioch University Los Angeles. The essay “My Monster” is an excerpt from her memoir and first book, for which she is seeking representation. Kris lives near Chicago with her husband and their three teenage children.

***

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***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Grief, Guest Posts

Babyland

January 6, 2022
cemetery

By Kris Martinez

Though I’d barely known him, I’d thought about him off and on over the years. If anything, he came to me as a passing thought of the strange way seventh grade had begun with the announcement of our teacher’s death just after Labor Day. The memory was almost always accompanied by the vision of Joyce K. running around the playground at recess in her hand-me-down maroon plaid uniform, the warm September sun shining on her ratty reddish hair as she sang her song in soaring arcs. The old elastic of her graying white knee socks puddled down around her ankles and her arms spread wide as she flew across the blacktop and dashed over the lines of the basketball court, singing, “Mr. Le Vasseur is de-ad! Mr. Le Vasseur is de-ad!”

Every time his memory knocked at the door of my brain I tried to will it away, telling myself I barely had any right to remember him. I didn’t know this man. His story wasn’t mine to tell. And yet, the more I tried to ignore it, the more insistent it became.

When I finalKris Martinez has over twenty-five years of experience as a marketing and advertising professional and has owned a digital creative agency near Chicago for the past sixteen years. Her company’s work has been recognized with dozens of industry awards and she is a member of several professional organizations. Kris’s work has appeared in Enterprising Women Magazine where she was honored in 2018 as an Enterprising Woman of the Year and currently serves as a Board Member and writer. In addition to being a speaker for Crain’s Chicago Business on entrepreneurship and fostering growth among women-led businesses, she has been a guest lecturer at several Chicago-area universities and served as a judge in marketing and advertising competitions. In 2020, Kris will complete her MFA in Creative Nonfiction and Screenwriting from Antioch University Los Angeles. The essay Babyland is excerpted from Descent Into Light, her first book. She has also completed a feature-length screenplay of the same name. Kris and her husband live near Chicago with their three children.ly went looking for him after thirty-five years, there wasn’t much to find. He wasn’t married and didn’t have children. My research uncovered a brother, now deceased. He’d had a niece and nephew and was preceded in death by his parents. I’d long known he was from St. Charles, where we’d lived for the past fifteen years, which I considered a minor coincidence. But it never really occurred to me to look for his grave until the day I was suddenly consumed by the thought and couldn’t focus on anything else.

Union Cemetery on the east side of St. Charles was my destination, just north of town on Route 25, the north-south highway that runs adjacent to the Fox River, about thirty-five miles west of downtown Chicago. It would be impossible to count the times I’d driven past the cemetery, taking Harper to her Little Acorns program at the park district or picking up Maya from birthday parties and outings with the Girl Scouts. In the past thirty-five years that I’d been living my life, Mr. LeVasseur had been there in the ground.

As I drove north on Route 25, I passed the St. Charles Episcopal Church where I’d been to a few A.A. meetings early on in my recovery. On this day, I was happy to see they were proudly flying a rainbow flag with the words, “Everyone is Welcome.” It was a balm to see such an inviting message in a world that seemed to get more divisive by the day.

Across the street is Bethlehem Lutheran Church, where I’d desperately gone after I slipped up and drank again only to find that they were closed. As I dejectedly walked away from the locked doors that day, a woman in black glasses and grey sweatpants asked me if I was looking for a meeting. I said yes. She said it only took two people to meet, so we sat on a cement bench outside the closed doors of the church and she recited all the familiar words by heart. She said that alcoholics slip up all the time, but it’s getting back on the wagon and trying again that counts, so that’s what I did. It was one of the best meetings I’ve ever had.

As I drove past these two churches where I’d laid my sinful heart bare, I checked in with myself: it no longer hurt to remember these things. I needed every last drink to find my bottom. And it took every last meeting to get me on the path of recovery.

I arrived at Union Cemetery and pulled to the side of the paved lane to assess the grounds, not knowing where to begin. Fortunately, I had seen a photo of the headstone someone had posted online. It was a red granite stone, at a low angle to the ground. Newer, if thirty-five years is new. Which I guess it is in a cemetery.

It was a warm day, sunny and in the upper eighties with the humidity creeping towards one hundred percent. The grass was thick with moisture and clung to my flip-flopped feet as I worked my way methodically up and down the rows, training my eye on only the newer, red granite stones.

As I read name after name, the concept of a grave marker intrigued me. It contains only the barest of facts: a name, the dates of birth and death, and that’s usually about it. A veteran will typically have the details of his or her branch and years of service. Some people opt for a short poem or scripture passage, but not often.

I saw many headstones that had the word Mother or Father etched into them. The deceased’s children or family would have placed these stones and settled on this singular word to describe their loved one. But these people – they weren’t just Mother or Father. They were Son, Daughter. Friend. Sister. Aunt. Lover. At what point does one decide: now, forever more, she shall be known as Mother? Such a commitment to confining the dead to a single-word description in her relationship to others. How can one’s life be summed up on a single stone? And yet – isn’t it our relationships with others that matter most?

I came across several old St. Charles families I recognized, notable names like Baker, Anderson, and Norris. So many prominent people who’d had roads, parks, and hotels named after them like Beith, Farnsworth, and Dunham. These were distinguished people who’d made names for themselves in life and whose elaborate gravesites now served as permanent reminders of their lasting influence – or at least, their wealth. Now, they were all gone.

I thought of how all of these people had lived and died. What had their lives been like? Did they accomplish everything they wanted in whatever time they’d been given? What sort of pain and suffering had they gone through? How did they die? But more importantly: how had they lived?

I tried to peel my shirt away from the river of sweat that was now running down my back. The heat almost suffocated me as another elaborate stone jolted me with its familiar name: Swanberg, the country road near our home. It was to Swanberg Road I’d gone on the day I decided to end my life. After texting my husband and siblings goodbye and telling them to tell my kids I loved them, I’d planted my feet in the middle of Swanberg Road as a Mack truck barreled down on me, closing my eyes as I prepared for impact.

Swanberg Road was the site of my second suicide attempt, and I was here to visit the grave of my teacher who had died by suicide. I thought of this now as I stood looking at this headstone. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I listened to the insects buzzing nearby and felt the warm sun on my skin. I put my hand on my chest to feel my beating heart and the rise and fall of my breathing. I needed to remind myself that though these Swanbergs were gone, I was still here.

As I searched for my teacher, I thought of how he had lived. I realized again that though I knew nothing about this man, his death had continued to haunt me after all this time.

***

While I had been wandering through row after row trying to cover as much ground as possible, there was a young couple in the cemetery who had stayed in the same general area, hugging each other as they cried. I was mindful to keep my search at a respectful distance.

A groundskeeper walked over to talk to the couple. I overheard him telling them that he was a fourth generation caretaker: his great grandfather had been in the business, followed by his grandfather and father. Job stability, I thought. There’s always going to be death.

As my hunt through the headstones brought me closer to the couple, I realized the caretaker was consulting with them on different spaces that were available. The area they were standing in was edged by a well-manicured row of hedges, and the plots were much smaller and closer together than in the rest of the cemetery. Many of the gravesites had little toy cars or stuffed animals placed on them. One featured a blue ceramic Cookie Monster painted in a perpetual smile.

Unlike the headstones in the rest of the cemetery, many of these said “Our Baby” or “Infant Child.” These were people who would never have the chance to grow into or be defined by any other relationships; they would forever be Our Baby. Here, I had no need to be so judgmental of the choice of words selected by their loved ones. In almost all cases, these headstones had been chosen and purchased by the parents of a dead child.

I heard the caretaker say he had to head back to his office for a bit and told the couple they could stay as long as they liked. Realizing he could probably help me in my quest, I got back in my car and followed him to the old groundskeeper building.

“Can I help you find someone?” he said kindly. I noticed he didn’t ask if I was looking for a grave or a headstone. He didn’t even say just a generic, “Can I help you?” or, “Need some help?” He asked if he could help me find someone.

“I’m looking for a person who died in 1985,” I said, showing him the picture of the headstone on my phone.

“Aw that’s great someone posted a picture so you had something to go off of,” he said, looking at the photo. “I recognize him. Let me find him for you.”

I followed the lanky caretaker into his wood paneled office which was filled with a massive desk and a few folded American flags on a battered brown couch. I was thankful for the air conditioning unit that was trying mightily to battle the rising temperature outside; it felt good to catch a break from the heat.

He pulled a beat-up old map of the cemetery out of a closet cabinet. The ancient paper was mounted on a large board and protected under cracked plastic that curled at the edges. He opened a thick three-ring binder that listed the details of each burial plot and quickly turned to the L’s.

“LeVasseur…Delmar. There he is!” he said, marking a miniature map of the cemetery to help guide me in my search. “Looks like he’s in Babyland, right where we just were.” I was shocked to hear him use my teacher’s name, thinking, like a child, that teachers don’t have first names. It was uncomfortable to hear it; it felt too intimate. It made him human.

But it rattled me to hear him use the term “Babyland,” like it was an amusement park. It seemed too casual a name for the infant section, like the babies deserved something more respectful.

He pointed to the Babyland section on the map and I saw something that I hadn’t realized when I’d been standing there: the well-manicured row of hedges outlining the area was in the shape of a heart.

“Really? He was forty-two when he died,” I said, surprised that he’d be buried there.

He checked his log again. “Oh, I see what I did. No, Delmar’s over here,” he said, apologizing as he corrected my map for me. The grave I was looking for was on the other side of the cemetery and back toward the entrance; at the rate I’d been going, it would have taken me another two hours to find it. The whole process was so efficient, I wondered why I had let myself wander around for so long before asking for help.

“That couple I was just talking to? They had twins, and one didn’t make it,” he said, shaking his head. “Losing a child – that’s the worst way to go.”

My chest ached as I thought of the torment the parents of the deceased child must be going through. I’d been at the cemetery almost an hour, and they had been standing in the same place the entire time: under a tree near the manicured hedge as they tried to decide on the impossible.

“The man I’m looking for – he was a suicide,” I said. “Is he…I mean…you don’t have a separate area for suicides, do you?”

“No, no, we have them all over the place.” He laughed as he thought about how that sounded. “I just mean, they’re treated like anyone else. But that’s a terrible way to die. I mean, when someone’s in their eighties or whatever, that makes sense. But babies and suicides – that’s never good.”

I told him about the book I was reading on suicide and how not so very long ago, people who died by suicide weren’t allowed to be buried in a regular cemetery. In some societies, they often weren’t allowed to be buried within the city limits, and heinous things were often done to their bodies after death an in effort to shame them and make an example of them to everyone else.

“That’s terrible,” he said. “That’s a terrible way to treat people. It’s hard enough losing someone to suicide. Why would they put their families through that?” He went on to tell me that he’d lost two of his closest friends to suicide.

I thanked him for the map and his time and drove to the north end of the cemetery near the entrance, just on the other side of the golf course. I heard the thwack of a golf ball and saw golfers through the tree line making their way down the smooth, green course. It was a beautiful day for golf. A beautiful day to be alive.

I got out of my car and scanned the rows of headstones, my eyes now accustomed to searching out only red granite. I quickly zeroed in on two rows of red and made my way closer, but I was in no way prepared for how I would feel once I actually saw it: Delmar LeVassseur.

Seeing his name etched in red granite was so final. Reaching out to touch his headstone, I heaved as I traced with my fingers the year he had died: 1985. I pictured his brown corduroy jacket with the leather elbow patches, his neatly trimmed goatee. But it was his quiet demeanor and his kind, dark eyes that came to me now. I exploded in tears and collapsed to my knees as I cried in heavy, gasping sobs.

Embarrassed by my reaction, I chastised myself: why was I crying? I didn’t know this man. I didn’t know anything about him at all. Logic would say: move on. Forget it. It’s a non-thing.

But it wasn’t, to me. Something in me needed to understand what drove him to take his own life. After all these years, I needed to know more. I needed to know: what happened? What happened next? And here, finally, I had at least part of the answer.

What happened next was that his body was placed here in this cemetery, likely by his brother, and he’d been here ever since. What happened next was what happens after suicide: death. Forever.

I knew that he had been preceded in death by his parents not long before he had died, but his grave was alone, between two strangers. Where was his family? Why wasn’t he buried with them? I cried even harder realizing that he had been buried alone.

I knelt on the grass and cried as long as the tears would come, taking off my sunglasses to wipe my eyes. Streams of black mascara ran down my face and stained my white shirt.

After a time, I stood up to go and casually looked at the names on the surrounding graves and noticed two red granite headstones in the next row: Lee and Ann LeVasseur. I hadn’t seen them when I first found his grave; I’d been too overcome with emotion. I was relieved to see that he wasn’t alone after all.

I wanted to see his grave because I needed to know that he was real. He was more than just the way he died, more than just a troubled girl’s singsong hanging on the September sky.

He was a real human being who battled a lot of demons and lost. He mattered.

It wasn’t Mr. LeVasseur’s suicide that led to my first attempt to take my life five years later. Nor was it his fault when I made a second attempt twenty-five years after that. When I was seventeen, I’d already been living at the bottom of depression with notions of death for longer than I cared to remember. When I was forty-two, the same age he’d been, that same madness had returned, now compounded by addiction.

My seventh grade teacher wouldn’t be the last person I’d know to attempt or die by suicide, but he was the first. I didn’t know him, but I knew his pain.

As I got back in my car, I saw that the couple with the deceased twin was still standing under the tree, near the heart-shaped manicured hedge, putting off their agonizing decision as long as possible. My grief was no match against the awful reality of a dead baby; I could drive away, but for this couple, they would never escape the tortuous agony of losing a child.

And yet – grief is not a competition; we don’t need to compare. There is simply no limit to the amount of sorrow in this world. But allowing ourselves to feel what we feel is the only way to get through it and make our way back towards the light.

Kris’s work has appeared in Enterprising Women Magazine where she was honored in 2018 as an Enterprising Woman of the Year and currently serves as a Board Member and writer. In addition to being a speaker for Crain’s Chicago Business on entrepreneurship and fostering growth among women-led businesses, she has been a guest lecturer at several Chicago-area universities and served as a judge in marketing and advertising competitions. Kris completed her MFA in Creative Nonfiction and Screenwriting from Antioch University Los Angeles. The essay Babyland is excerpted from Descent Into Light, her first book. She has also completed a feature-length screenplay of the same name. Kris and her husband live near Chicago with their three children.

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Grief, Guest Posts

Babyland

January 27, 2021
cemetery

By Kris Martinez

Though I’d barely known him, I’d thought about him off and on over the years. If anything, he came to me as a passing thought of the strange way seventh grade had begun with the announcement of our teacher’s death just after Labor Day. The memory was almost always accompanied by the vision of Joyce K. running around the playground at recess in her hand-me-down maroon plaid uniform, the warm September sun shining on her ratty reddish hair as she sang her song in soaring arcs. The old elastic of her graying white knee socks puddled down around her ankles and her arms spread wide as she flew across the blacktop and dashed over the lines of the basketball court, singing, “Mr. Le Vasseur is de-ad! Mr. Le Vasseur is de-ad!”

Every time his memory knocked at the door of my brain I tried to will it away, telling myself I barely had any right to remember him. I didn’t know this man. His story wasn’t mine to tell. And yet, the more I tried to ignore it, the more insistent it became.

When I finally went looking for him after thirty-five years, there wasn’t much to find. He wasn’t married and didn’t have children. My research uncovered a brother, now deceased. He’d had a niece and nephew and was preceded in death by his parents. I’d long known he was from St. Charles, where we’d lived for the past fifteen years, which I considered a minor coincidence. But it never really occurred to me to look for his grave until the day I was suddenly consumed by the thought and couldn’t focus on anything else.

Union Cemetery on the east side of St. Charles was my destination, just north of town on Route 25, the north-south highway that runs adjacent to the Fox River, about thirty-five miles west of downtown Chicago. It would be impossible to count the times I’d driven past the cemetery, taking Harper to her Little Acorns program at the park district or picking up Maya from birthday parties and outings with the Girl Scouts. In the past thirty-five years that I’d been living my life, Mr. LeVasseur had been there in the ground.

As I drove north on Route 25, I passed the St. Charles Episcopal Church where I’d been to a few A.A. meetings early on in my recovery. On this day, I was happy to see they were proudly flying a rainbow flag with the words, “Everyone is Welcome.” It was a balm to see such an inviting message in a world that seemed to get more divisive by the day.

Across the street is Bethlehem Lutheran Church, where I’d desperately gone after I slipped up and drank again only to find that they were closed. As I dejectedly walked away from the locked doors that day, a woman in black glasses and grey sweatpants asked me if I was looking for a meeting. I said yes. She said it only took two people to meet, so we sat on a cement bench outside the closed doors of the church and she recited all the familiar words by heart. She said that alcoholics slip up all the time, but it’s getting back on the wagon and trying again that counts, so that’s what I did. It was one of the best meetings I’ve ever had.

As I drove past these two churches where I’d laid my sinful heart bare, I checked in with myself: it no longer hurt to remember these things. I needed every last drink to find my bottom. And it took every last meeting to get me on the path of recovery.

I arrived at Union Cemetery and pulled to the side of the paved lane to assess the grounds, not knowing where to begin. Fortunately, I had seen a photo of the headstone someone had posted online. It was a red granite stone, at a low angle to the ground. Newer, if thirty-five years is new. Which I guess it is in a cemetery.

It was a warm day, sunny and in the upper eighties with the humidity creeping towards one hundred percent. The grass was thick with moisture and clung to my flip-flopped feet as I worked my way methodically up and down the rows, training my eye on only the newer, red granite stones.

As I read name after name, the concept of a grave marker intrigued me. It contains only the barest of facts: a name, the dates of birth and death, and that’s usually about it. A veteran will typically have the details of his or her branch and years of service. Some people opt for a short poem or scripture passage, but not often.

I saw many headstones that had the word Mother or Father etched into them. The deceased’s children or family would have placed these stones and settled on this singular word to describe their loved one. But these people – they weren’t just Mother or Father. They were Son, Daughter. Friend. Sister. Aunt. Lover. At what point does one decide: now, forever more, she shall be known as Mother? Such a commitment to confining the dead to a single-word description in her relationship to others. How can one’s life be summed up on a single stone? And yet – isn’t it our relationships with others that matter most?

I came across several old St. Charles families I recognized, notable names like Baker, Anderson, and Norris. So many prominent people who’d had roads, parks, and hotels named after them like Beith, Farnsworth, and Dunham. These were distinguished people who’d made names for themselves in life and whose elaborate gravesites now served as permanent reminders of their lasting influence – or at least, their wealth. Now, they were all gone.

I thought of how all of these people had lived and died. What had their lives been like? Did they accomplish everything they wanted in whatever time they’d been given? What sort of pain and suffering had they gone through? How did they die? But more importantly: how had they lived?

I tried to peel my shirt away from the river of sweat that was now running down my back. The heat almost suffocated me as another elaborate stone jolted me with its familiar name: Swanberg, the country road near our home. It was to Swanberg Road I’d gone on the day I decided to end my life. After texting my husband and siblings goodbye and telling them to tell my kids I loved them, I’d planted my feet in the middle of Swanberg Road as a Mack truck barreled down on me, closing my eyes as I prepared for impact.

Swanberg Road was the site of my second suicide attempt, and I was here to visit the grave of my teacher who had died by suicide. I thought of this now as I stood looking at this headstone. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I listened to the insects buzzing nearby and felt the warm sun on my skin. I put my hand on my chest to feel my beating heart and the rise and fall of my breathing. I needed to remind myself that though these Swanbergs were gone, I was still here.

As I searched for my teacher, I thought of how he had lived. I realized again that though I knew nothing about this man, his death had continued to haunt me after all this time.

  • • •

While I had been wandering through row after row trying to cover as much ground as possible, there was a young couple in the cemetery who had stayed in the same general area, hugging each other as they cried. I was mindful to keep my search at a respectful distance.

A groundskeeper walked over to talk to the couple. I overheard him telling them that he was a fourth generation caretaker: his great grandfather had been in the business, followed by his grandfather and father. Job stability, I thought. There’s always going to be death.

As my hunt through the headstones brought me closer to the couple, I realized the caretaker was consulting with them on different spaces that were available. The area they were standing in was edged by a well-manicured row of hedges, and the plots were much smaller and closer together than in the rest of the cemetery. Many of the gravesites had little toy cars or stuffed animals placed on them. One featured a blue ceramic Cookie Monster painted in a perpetual smile.

Unlike the headstones in the rest of the cemetery, many of these said “Our Baby” or “Infant Child.” These were people who would never have the chance to grow into or be defined by any other relationships; they would forever be Our Baby. Here, I had no need to be so judgmental of the choice of words selected by their loved ones. In almost all cases, these headstones had been chosen and purchased by the parents of a dead child.

I heard the caretaker say he had to head back to his office for a bit and told the couple they could stay as long as they liked. Realizing he could probably help me in my quest, I got back in my car and followed him to the old groundskeeper building.

“Can I help you find someone?” he said kindly. I noticed he didn’t ask if I was looking for a grave or a headstone. He didn’t even say just a generic, “Can I help you?” or, “Need some help?” He asked if he could help me find someone.

“I’m looking for a person who died in 1985,” I said, showing him the picture of the headstone on my phone.

“Aw that’s great someone posted a picture so you had something to go off of,” he said, looking at the photo. “I recognize him. Let me find him for you.”

I followed the lanky caretaker into his wood paneled office which was filled with a massive desk and a few folded American flags on a battered brown couch. I was thankful for the air conditioning unit that was trying mightily to battle the rising temperature outside; it felt good to catch a break from the heat.

He pulled a beat-up old map of the cemetery out of a closet cabinet. The ancient paper was mounted on a large board and protected under cracked plastic that curled at the edges. He opened a thick three-ring binder that listed the details of each burial plot and quickly turned to the L’s.

“LeVasseur…Delmar. There he is!” he said, marking a miniature map of the cemetery to help guide me in my search. “Looks like he’s in Babyland, right where we just were.” I was shocked to hear him use my teacher’s name, thinking, like a child, that teachers don’t have first names. It was uncomfortable to hear it; it felt too intimate. It made him human.

But it rattled me to hear him use the term “Babyland,” like it was an amusement park. It seemed too casual a name for the infant section, like the babies deserved something more respectful.

He pointed to the Babyland section on the map and I saw something that I hadn’t realized when I’d been standing there: the well-manicured row of hedges outlining the area was in the shape of a heart.

“Really? He was forty-two when he died,” I said, surprised that he’d be buried there.

He checked his log again. “Oh, I see what I did. No, Delmar’s over here,” he said, apologizing as he corrected my map for me. The grave I was looking for was on the other side of the cemetery and back toward the entrance; at the rate I’d been going, it would have taken me another two hours to find it. The whole process was so efficient, I wondered why I had let myself wander around for so long before asking for help.

“That couple I was just talking to? They had twins, and one didn’t make it,” he said, shaking his head. “Losing a child – that’s the worst way to go.”

My chest ached as I thought of the torment the parents of the deceased child must be going through. I’d been at the cemetery almost an hour, and they had been standing in the same place the entire time: under a tree near the manicured hedge as they tried to decide on the impossible.

“The man I’m looking for – he was a suicide,” I said. “Is he…I mean…you don’t have a separate area for suicides, do you?”

“No, no, we have them all over the place.” He laughed as he thought about how that sounded. “I just mean, they’re treated like anyone else. But that’s a terrible way to die. I mean, when someone’s in their eighties or whatever, that makes sense. But babies and suicides – that’s never good.”

I told him about the book I was reading on suicide and how not so very long ago, people who died by suicide weren’t allowed to be buried in a regular cemetery. In some societies, they often weren’t allowed to be buried within the city limits, and heinous things were often done to their bodies after death an in effort to shame them and make an example of them to everyone else.

“That’s terrible,” he said. “That’s a terrible way to treat people. It’s hard enough losing someone to suicide. Why would they put their families through that?” He went on to tell me that he’d lost two of his closest friends to suicide.

I thanked him for the map and his time and drove to the north end of the cemetery near the entrance, just on the other side of the golf course. I heard the thwack of a golf ball and saw golfers through the tree line making their way down the smooth, green course. It was a beautiful day for golf. A beautiful day to be alive.

I got out of my car and scanned the rows of headstones, my eyes now accustomed to searching out only red granite. I quickly zeroed in on two rows of red and made my way closer, but I was in no way prepared for how I would feel once I actually saw it: Delmar LeVassseur.

Seeing his name etched in red granite was so final. Reaching out to touch his headstone, I heaved as I traced with my fingers the year he had died: 1985. I pictured his brown corduroy jacket with the leather elbow patches, his neatly trimmed goatee. But it was his quiet demeanor and his kind, dark eyes that came to me now. I exploded in tears and collapsed to my knees as I cried in heavy, gasping sobs.

Embarrassed by my reaction, I chastised myself: why was I crying? I didn’t know this man. I didn’t know anything about him at all. Logic would say: move on. Forget it. It’s a non-thing.

But it wasn’t, to me. Something in me needed to understand what drove him to take his own life. After all these years, I needed to know more. I needed to know: what happened? What happened next? And here, finally, I had at least part of the answer.

What happened next was that his body was placed here in this cemetery, likely by his brother, and he’d been here ever since. What happened next was what happens after suicide: death. Forever.

I knew that he had been preceded in death by his parents not long before he had died, but his grave was alone, between two strangers. Where was his family? Why wasn’t he buried with them? I cried even harder realizing that he had been buried alone.

I knelt on the grass and cried as long as the tears would come, taking off my sunglasses to wipe my eyes. Streams of black mascara ran down my face and stained my white shirt.

After a time, I stood up to go and casually looked at the names on the surrounding graves and noticed two red granite headstones in the next row: Lee and Ann LeVasseur. I hadn’t seen them when I first found his grave; I’d been too overcome with emotion. I was relieved to see that he wasn’t alone after all.

I wanted to see his grave because I needed to know that he was real. He was more than just the way he died, more than just a troubled girl’s singsong hanging on the September sky.

He was a real human being who battled a lot of demons and lost. He mattered.

It wasn’t Mr. LeVasseur’s suicide that led to my first attempt to take my life five years later. Nor was it his fault when I made a second attempt twenty-five years after that. When I was seventeen, I’d already been living at the bottom of depression with notions of death for longer than I cared to remember. When I was forty-two, the same age he’d been, that same madness had returned, now compounded by addiction.

My seventh grade teacher wouldn’t be the last person I’d know to attempt or die by suicide, but he was the first. I didn’t know him, but I knew his pain.

As I got back in my car, I saw that the couple with the deceased twin was still standing under the tree, near the heart-shaped manicured hedge, putting off their agonizing decision as long as possible. My grief was no match against the awful reality of a dead baby; I could drive away, but for this couple, they would never escape the tortuous agony of losing a child.

And yet – grief is not a competition; we don’t need to compare. There is simply no limit to the amount of sorrow in this world. But allowing ourselves to feel what we feel is the only way to get through it and make our way back towards the light.

Kris’s work has appeared in Enterprising Women Magazine where she was honored in 2018 as an Enterprising Woman of the Year and currently serves as a Board Member and writer. In addition to being a speaker for Crain’s Chicago Business on entrepreneurship and fostering growth among women-led businesses, she has been a guest lecturer at several Chicago-area universities and served as a judge in marketing and advertising competitions. In 2020, Kris will complete her MFA in Creative Nonfiction and Screenwriting from Antioch University Los Angeles. The essay Babyland is excerpted from Descent Into Light, her first book. She has also completed a feature-length screenplay of the same name. Kris and her husband live near Chicago with their three children.