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Guest Posts, motherhood, Tough Conversations

Motherhood (or Lack Thereof)

May 9, 2021
one

by  Maegan Gwaltney

My two small nephews and tiny niece climbed out of the couch cushion fortress on the bedroom floor. As the first sliver of sunlight whispered through the blinds, they jumped around me on the bed, shouting the details of their dreams. I was in my early twenties and loved my older sister’s kids- the weasels as I affectionately called them- with a fierceness I was unprepared for. It’s a testament to that love that I let them turn my bed into a bounce-house at the ass-crack of dawn, gladly trading sleep for the music of their laughter.

“I wish we lived here,” four-year-old Katie said as we sat eating breakfast.

“It wouldn’t be as fun if you lived here all the time,” I answered. “Because I’m your aunt, I don’t get to see you every day. So, when I do, we stay up late, have treasure hunts in the woods, and eat dessert pizza. If I was responsible for you all the time, you’d have homework, bedtimes, and healthy foods.”

“Like a mom,” she said, full mouth dripping milk. “When will you have kids so we can play with them?”

“Chew! You’re gonna choke,” I said.

“Cooousins!” her older brother Lee shouted.

“I don’t think that’s gonna be any time soon,” I said, thinking that no child should be born into the shitstorm that was my relationship with my Sort-of-Ex-Boyfriend.

“Mom says you’ll be forty before you have kids,” Lee smiled.

“What?” I laughed, nearly spraying the table with Cinnamon Life. “I’m going to ask your mom about that.”

Jake sandwiched between Lee and Katie in age, and always one step ahead, was quiet, pondering. As he took a bite of his cereal, I watched the thought arrive.

“Guys! If she has kids, she won’t have time for us!”

Their eyes grew wide.

“That’s not totally true,” I said. “I’ll always make time for you guys. But when I have my own kids, there will be fewer slumber parties.”

Not if. When. A word spent with unquestioning confidence. A safe and far away assumption, believing I’d have my own tribe to follow the paths worn in the woods by those around the table that morning, my first lessons in a love larger than I thought my heart could hold. My only lessons. Forty has come and gone, my empty arms proving my sister’s prediction wrong.

***

When I was 13, 14, 15 as my body began to curve and spread, I’d stand in front of the full-length mirror in my bedroom with a wadded-up shirt under the one I was wearing. T-shirt for the first, and second trimester. Sweatshirt for the third. I took the business of making it look realistic very seriously. Sculpting it into a perfect mound. When I was sure it was right, I’d step back from the mirror, discovering who I had become, a calm smile spreading across my face, butterflies releasing in my true tummy. I’d turn sideways and stare at the roundness, the size of it. I’d rub my hands over it, cupping them underneath as if the weight demanded more support. I’d stand there for the longest time, enchanted by my reflection, by how beautiful I felt. Unable to take my eyes off the woman waiting for me.

I had things I wanted to do first, acting, writing. It took me years to stabilize the overwhelming anxiety that limited me for most of my life, later diagnosed as OCD. I just assumed, despite my late start, I’d find the right person, the right time for children. Neither ever happened.

***

I lived in Los Angeles for eight years. I’d moved there to pursue acting, which mostly amounted to selling vitamins to the Rich and Angry in Beverly Hills. The winter before moving home, I had my thyroid removed due to cancer. Both of my sisters flew out to be with me. Two days after surgery, weak and emotional, a bandage over my open wound, I took them sightseeing.

We stood on the stairway of The Kodak Theater in Hollywood, home of the Oscars. I’d watched countless times as actresses climbed those steps, believing the view would one day be mine. That morning, hormones raging in the key of clear-eyed reality, I collapsed into my oldest sister’s arms on those stairs sobbing. This isn’t going to happen for me. I always thought it was. But it isn’t. This same truth finds me now.

My body’s turning the page. Nature, that unrelenting bitch, does not bargain for time.

***

Motherhood, or lack thereof, was never a choice I made. I suppose, in some way, it was a series of micro-decisions, so imperceptibly small that I barely noticed I was choosing one path by not choosing another. Still, there’s no moment in the road behind me that I look to and say I should’ve done it here or that man should’ve been the one. Perhaps it would be different if I were a woman who mapped her life instead of trusting the compass in her gut. But I’m a woman who wakes in the night, panicked by some tiny mistake, my mind punishing me for something that will be meaningless next month. So, I’m grateful not having children can’t be distilled down to one moment or choice because that’s a one-way ticket down a rabbit hole I can’t afford. I cling to the hope that there was a knowing in me, greater than the sum of my regret looking back, a wisdom in trusting the compass that led me here.

***

I always believed I’d have a son. His image was born with my Sort-of-Ex-Boyfriend. I could see this little boy clearly in my mind’s eye, dark hair and deep hazel eyes, a gentle, curious soul with a tiny smile that lit up his face, sitting on the kitchen counter as he asked me a question, reaching for my hand as we walk or melting his weight into my chest, the constant thrum of my heart his lullaby, as I carried him in my arms.  Everything about him felt familiar, this little loved one I hadn’t met waiting in the future, certain though far away.

The name came almost as sudden as the image, unique and beautiful, like music running through my mind. Though I sang it inside my head, practicing for Some Day, for a long time I wouldn’t say it out loud. I felt some strange superstition as if it were a magic spell I’d cast on my future, whose certainty lived in silence, a wish that if spoken wouldn’t come true. Over the years, the mythical fathers changed like a revolving cast of characters, but two things remained, belonging only to me, this sweet boy and his beautiful name. I’d search for it in baby books, excited to find it, annoyed when it was listed for girls and not boys. I’d judge the different spellings and never remember the meaning until I’d see it in print, discovering it again every time. Mighty warrior.

***

I meet my friend at a bar for wine and writing, which we both know will only ever turn into wine. She has notes for this essay.

“No writing advice, but you should definitely get knocked up,” she says refilling my glass.

I laugh at her certainty, knowing how simple it seems from the outside. With my obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression, the chaos in my head seems louder with each passing year. I’ve used every tool I have to fight my way to solid ground: therapy, medication, yoga, meditation. I need a certain amount of rest and peace to keep myself on an even keel. How fair would it be to add a child to that?

“You’re making excuses,” she says. “This sounds like something you really want, have always wanted. Life is short.”

In the week after that conversation, I sing the notes of his name in my mind. I lay down words in my laptop and discover the truth of what she’s said, somehow surprised by the depth and length of this want that’s been with me for so long. I visit the feeling of him, the weight and rhythm of his deep sleep breathing against my chest. I ask myself questions.

What is the difference between an excuse and a reason? Would a child give me incentive beyond myself, beyond my family to keep fighting the darkness in my mind? Or would it make it harder, swallowing, not only me but my innocent child? Is that just my OCD demanding the certainty of some perfect outcome before committing? Or is it logic, raising her voice above want?

***

I rush onto the train grabbing a seat, swinging my backpack onto my lap. A small voice floats over rows of winter hats to find me.

“What kind is this one, with the pointies?”

A father is reading a book about dinosaurs to his daughter, who is maybe five years old. I turn my head and watch them. I do this a lot lately, studying parents and children as if I’ve just landed on this planet, which in a way I have. I find myself staring at the way they interact, fascinated by this intimate verbal shorthand I will never speak. A language I knew once, years ago, but whose fluency has faded with lack of use.

***

“They are as much yours as mine,” my sister, Shannon, says of her children. She calls them Ours. A beautiful gift and powerful salve housed in this tiny word.

She keeps reminding me that it’s not too late for me to be a mother. Shannon had two kids by the time she was 20, her whole life built around these beautiful, needy creatures, shaped to fit their care before she’d run grooves of habit and preference into the surface of her life. I stand at the other end of this spectrum, a lifetime on my own, wondering when the grooves got so deep.

***

My dreams are haunted by the ghosts of Potential Father’s past, like some surreal Lifetime movie starring all the guys I’ve dated. My Sort-of-Ex-Boyfriend. The Good Guy, whose heart I dragged through the shitstorm relationship with my Sort-of-Ex-Boyfriend, like a selfish child clutching at both. The Republican, who I loved but wasn’t in love with, The Wine Guy, who followed me across the country to chase a dream that wasn’t his. In the dark chaos of these dreams, they are always leaving. I am on the outside, alone, soaked in sadness for what is no longer mine, unsure if my decision was the right one. One by one, night after night, they knock on the door of my subconscious, as if to ask, “Are you positive I wasn’t the one?” I wake disoriented and filled with the grief of being left behind. Still, the answer to their question is always yes.

***

I am a teacher’s assistant in a classroom of children with special needs. Before Covid remote learning, my heart would swell as I walked down the hallway, tiny bodies rushing past, loud, untamed, and excited. Everything about me vibrated to the frequency of their laughter.

I possess a strange confidence in working with kids, one I rarely allow myself elsewhere. I’m good at connecting with them, all the Auntie mojo in me finally being used again. I thought that this job was a beautiful solution, outsmarting the loss, filling the place in me that felt empty. But I slowly began realizing how wrong I was.

There was no distance to protect me. Jealousy tightened in my chest when my coworkers coddled my favorites. I’d push it down, but guilt flooded in to replace it. I interrogated my reactions. What’s wrong with me? In the halls where small bodies stampede, I felt joy lined with sadness. None of these little beings would ever be mine to build forts with or have treasure hunts. This was my job. I loved it, and I wanted that to be enough. But the place I hoped to fill only echoed louder with emptiness.

***

I spent eight years in Los Angeles torn between the future I imagined acting and the family I adored in Illinois. I always thought the decision to walk away would come to me suddenly, an undeniable mandate spoken in the deep voice of the gods. I never suspected it would bubble up from inside me, slowly melting my beliefs like ice, one quiet idea at a time.

When I think of motherhood, settling into the silence beneath thought, I feel a quiet certainty, rising up from a bone-tired body that has survived so much: autoimmune disease, thyroid cancer, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder. It whispers a truth that weighs more than words: I cannot do it alone.

Maybe the compass in my gut has been broken all along. But I’m choosing to listen to my body.

***

My nephew Jake, the little boy who sat in the kitchen so many years ago, took his own life at 22. In the months following, I’d look at babies, feeling a pull in the deepest part of my belly, some never-was umbilical cord tugging me towards a tiny soul I hoped to meet. Maybe it was the life force raging in me, or the echo of my best memories, longing to start again.

In sharing the devastating loss, I discovered something in the eyes of strangers, a sort of silent calculation of the amount of grief I was allowed, some strange hierarchy of mourning.

Who were you to him again?

I was his aunt. I am his aunt.

As I silently debate the correct tense for dead loved ones, the softness in their faces fades a fraction, relieved to not have to comfort his mother, sister, or wife. At least that’s how I interpret it, perhaps filtered through my own insecurity. Just the aunt. I wanted to download a lifetime of memories shared, to prove I’d earned the intensity of what I was feeling.

People forget that mother is not only a noun but a powerful verb, lifting trucks off babies, laying down lives to save them. I’m not a mother. I will never claim that noun. But I’ve mothered. A verb woven in my bones, called to life the first time I met my nephew’s eyes. If you say it’s not the same, you’re right. But my version of this verb, the only action I’ve ever been certain of, is no less real or fierce, or natural.

Ask the children. Search their eyes. Scan the molecules of their brightest moments. You’ll find me there, slowly arriving at a place where I understand how this verb shaped my life. Learning to let go of the noun that will never be mine, by recognizing the children who somehow still are.  

Ours.

***

It’s not a perfect process. I inch closer to acceptance by focusing on all I’ve been given. But the truth is, I’m still floating in an ocean of ambivalence, the waves changing every day.

When I ache for the little voices that will never wake me for breakfast, I’m comforted by the ones that did so long ago, when I believed being an aunt was meant to prepare me for motherhood. It turns out, this was the journey I was built for, the privilege of watching these amazing beings change, their lives expanding, the root of our love reaching deeper than I thought possible. No longer the children who ran into my arms, they are still the core of everything I am, saving me from myself with every call, visit, text or memory.

Being an aunt changed me. It’s a love that hums in my blood, sewn into my soul, unchanged by time, space, and even death.  But there is an emptiness in me that sometimes aches for more, a loss no one else can see.

I’ve learned to mourn the past, the lives and seasons that altered and defined mine. But how do you grieve for something that never was? How much space is this invisible loss allowed? It’s a familiar hymn on the lips of so many people reaching this season of their lives, the sun setting on Someday, the Far Away Future suddenly tomorrow, then yesterday, then out of reach.

  We can make space for that. Or we can run from it. With alcohol, sex, drama, or drugs, tangling ourselves in regret, missing chances to change the moment we’re living. I’ve done a lot of running in my life. Now I’m searching for the courage to be still and level my face at the reflection of the life I’ve created.

***

Lately, I stand in front of the mirror, staring at the naked length of myself, changed by time, gravity, cellulite, and weight. I rub my hands over my belly, a place never occupied, smooth and unstretched. My eyes follow the gentle curve of my hips, unwidened by birth. I don’t know one mother who’d trade her child for the stretch marks they caused. Still, I cling to this bikini season consolation prize, my shallow insurance against regret.

As I take in the naked truth of who I’ve become, this body home to the choices I’ve made, I search for her, beyond the shape I thought she’d carry. Meeting her eyes, I offer a soft smile, opening my empty arms to this woman waiting for me.

***

Digging through closets on a recent visit to my mom’s, I discovered a baby name book I bought years ago. The blue eyes of the plump diapered boy on the cover tucked safely away through all my moves. I turned the pages, landing quickly on the one with the corner bent, marked by my younger self as if I might need a map to find my way back. In the middle of the page, the spelling I chose for him glows bright highlighter yellow. It’s meaning below, new again. Mighty warrior.

I hear the music of his name in my head, then softly say it out loud.

Kaelan.

I would’ve named him Kaelan.

 Maegan Gwaltney is a Chicago writer, storyteller, and reigning World’s Greatest Aunt (with the t-shirt to back that up). She’s working on a memoir about family, grief, and coming to terms with her own mental health after losing two beloved nephews to suicide. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @MaeG765.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

.

Megan Galbraith is a writer we keep our eye on, in part because she does amazing work with found objects, and in part because she is fearless in her writing. Her debut memoir-in-essays, The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book , is everything we hoped for from this creative artist. Born in a charity hospital in Hell’s Kitchen four years before Governor Rockefeller legalized abortion in New York. Galbraith’s birth mother was sent away to The Guild of the Infant Saviour––a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Manhattan––to give birth in secret. On the eve of becoming a mother herself, Galbraith began a search for the truth about her past, which led to a realization of her two identities and three mothers.

This is a remarkable book. The writing is steller, the visual art is effective, and the story itself is important.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon and let us know what you think!

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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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 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 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.

Guest Posts, suicide

Chester Bennington is Dead

August 19, 2019

benningtonCW: This essay discusses ideation and/or suicide. If you or someone you know needs immediate help, please call 911. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. The world needs you.

By Nikki A. Sambitsky

“Just ‘cause you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it, isn’t there.”
-Lyrics taken from “One More Light” as performed by Chester Charles Bennington,
 March 20, 1976-June 20, 2017

Chester Bennington is Dead.

Chester Bennington is dead; I sit struggling with my feelings, knowing what it feels like to reside in that same dark space, grateful to that angelic light, that blessed essence, for guiding me out.

Chester Bennington is dead; his family, bandmates, fans, the world, and I mourn a life who departed this earthly plane too soon. Forsaken youth around the world, in their disbelief and sorrow, crafted makeshift memorials. Some stood singing, some stood in silence, all held slim, white candles that glowed and flickered through the night’s shadowy shroud during poignant vigils.

Chester Bennington is dead; the sadness is all balled up inside my chest, knotted, tangled, coiled, yet, still tethered to my own demons, my own depression that lingers within me. Continue Reading…

Grief, Guest Posts, Surviving

Stonehenge, Survival, and Me

January 23, 2019

By Angela M Giles

Today is the day of my father’s death.  He was a successful suicide, which is to say my father failed at living. The loss of him, his choice not to stay with us, hurts, badly. This is something I have to carry, and it is a permanent wound that is deep and open. My body has been carrying so much, for so long.
 
I have been in London over the past days and it has been a satisfying and humbling trip. Satisfying because the time here has been utterly, fantastically delightful. Humbling, because this was a trip that was cancelled after a car accident that I was lucky to survive.

Continue Reading…

depression, Guest Posts

When Depression Gets Too Heavy

November 5, 2018
depression

CW: This essay discusses ideation and/or suicide. If you or someone you know needs immediate help, please call 911. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. The world needs you.

By Kari O’Driscoll

There’s a reason darkness is used as a metaphor for depression. In my worst moments, I felt as though there was a black spot in my head spreading like an oil spill, creeping outward, sinking in to the valleys and crevices of my brain and obliterating any possibility of light permeating. Perhaps the most shocking thing about it was how tired it made me. Never had I known that depression was so exhausting.

There is a television advertisement for an antidepressant medication whose tagline is “Depression Hurts.” The first time I saw it I felt right, like the ad writers had seen me in my natural habitat and sussed out something nobody else had noticed. I remember curling myself into a fetal position, rocking back and forth, feeling a weight and a soreness in my ribs – between them, an accordioning of my chest around my heart and lungs. My limbs ached as though I’d just climbed 4000 steps, my head hung low with fatigue. A fog settled over the top half of my brain that made focusing a chore. Depression was heavy. It was effort. It was draining, physically, mentally and spiritually. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, suicide, Surviving

Depression is Still A Duplicitous Asshole

August 12, 2018

CW: This essay discusses suicide. If you or someone you know needs immediate help, please call 911. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. The world needs you.

By Angela M Giles

This weekend marks the four year anniversary of Robin Willam’s suicide. I still cannot watch anything with him in it, it makes my heart hurt too much. I know this is irrational. But it is real. Perhaps it is my fear of seeing a flicker of darkness cross his face, or perhaps it is hearing him say something that hits too close to his end that prevents me. I know how his story finishes, I want to remember enjoying his work.

Suicide is a complicated act, its shroud is depression and it is often accompanied by something else, another disease that really gives ideation heft. In the case of Robin Williams it was Parkinson’s disease, in the case of my father it was alcoholism. In my case it was a combination of diagnosed issues, packed in trauma, tied up in emotional abuse, both at the hands of a lover. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Mental Health

The Howling Wounded Thing

June 11, 2018
howling

CW: This essay discusses suicide. If you or someone you know needs immediate help, please call 911. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. The world needs you.

By Beth Cartino

“I just want to get really high and then go to sleep forever.” They sits across from me in a dreary, unadorned office, knees tucked under their chin, arms hugging their legs tight to their chest, eyes peering out at me from behind a veil of midnight blue hair. This is the pose they adopt when they’re feeling exposed and vulnerable. They are in middle school, but they have the experience of someone twice their age, and right now, at this moment, they look painfully young.

“Have you been thinking about suicide?” My voice is even, my eyes unflinching. I notice a physical urge, like the one you get when you want to scratch your nose, to mirror their posture. I don’t. I ask myself a question I frequently ask when working with a kid who is thinking about suicide. What could somebody have said to me when I was twelve that would have stopped me from trying to kill myself?  I never can come up with an answer but this is the message I try to convey, not only with my words, but with every cell in my body: “You are loved. I see you. I will not judge you. I am here with you.  I am not going anywhere. You are not broken. You are not a problem that needs fixing.”

*** Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Mental Health

Promises and Lies

March 7, 2018
manuals

CW: This essay discusses suicide. If you or someone you know needs immediate help, please call 911. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting CONNECT to 74174. The world needs you.

By Jen Soong

In a cramped motel room, I stared silently into the dark, lying still as a corpse. Until recently, I had been studying at a prestigious university, my future beckoning brightly. My father kept vigil over me, still his little girl. The distance separating us — a few feet, at most — felt like an unbridgeable gulf.

Jen-ni-fer, he said, his once-steady voice cracking as he broke the silence. Promise me you’ll never try that again.

I promise, I lied softly, knowing those were the words he needed to hear. Lying proved to be easier than living. No, I’m not having any thoughts of harming myself. I lied to the clinician to gain my release from the locked hospital ward after my dad arrived. Yes, I will seek help if I have those thoughts again.

The next day, I repeated those lies to a disinterested psychiatrist in a drab beige office, tuning out his line of inquiry about my ethnicity. A verbal no-harm agreement. Like a security blanket, it generally works only if the child tucked underneath believes it. Let’s play pretend. I knew my lines to deliver, even if they weren’t completely honest.

I took too many sleeping pills. Truth is a slippery slope. I just wanted to sleep. If I never spoke the words out loud—that I was tired of living—was I technically lying? If the bitter truth, a suicide attempt, is never examined in the light of day, then it can stay buried in the past, like the ghosts of my ancestors.

We don’t talk about these things.

Earlier that day, my dad questioned why I had run away when I was a kid, a time I could still cry out for help. He was desperate to connect the dots and reach a logical conclusion. My father, armed with a PhD in electrical engineering, will read a manual from beginning to end before attempting to fiddle with anything.

Daughters don’t come with manuals. My dad was my protector; once he scolded the boy who crashed a bike that caused my skinned knees. Dirt and tears, these could be wiped away with his pocket handkerchief. Protecting me from myself was not a formula he could solve.

Depression runs in my family. My dad’s mother committed suicide when she was 59. The last time he saw her alive was 1956, before he boarded a freight ship from Taiwan to study in America. Thirteen years later, he flew back to his homeland for her funeral. After the service, he learned she killed herself. His sister had discovered her body in the bathroom along with a suicide note.

We don’t talk about these things.

Late at night during family gatherings when I was still young, adults whispered in hushed tones in the kitchen, usually with fruit — likely oranges or Asian pears — peels and peanut shells littered on paper plates at the table. The secrets swirled in the air, sucking the oxygen out of the room. When I entered, my body immediately tensed, torn between wanting to know and needing to escape.

Often, I would descend into the basement to play mah-jong with my cousins, shuffling tiles and competing for red and blue poker chips, never revealing what lay behind our tile walls. It was easier to hide our hurts, mask our missteps, swallow our pride. If we never questioned our elders, then perhaps we would take home the greatest jackpot.

This unwritten bargain will be familiar to immigrant children, whispered softly like a mother’s lullaby. We will make unimaginable sacrifices to raise you in America, land of riches, and you will play the role of the dutiful daughter, living a life of immeasurable happiness.

Lying in bed that night, I couldn’t find the words to explain to my dad how lost I felt. Depression had stolen my voice, betrayed my mind and filled my soul with an insidious darkness. No map could lead me out of this bleak, nameless place. Instead, I lay in wait, knowing my dad, my hero, would sacrifice his life to light the way home.

Jen Soong is a writer and brand strategist with more than two decades of media and marketing experience. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she grew up in a small town in New Jersey, lived in NYC, Boston and London before moving to Atlanta in 2005. A graduate of Cornell University, Jen is working on a memoir about one woman’s struggle to understand her depression and her family’s history of suicide.

Donate to the Aleksander Fund today. Click the photo read about Julia, who lost her baby, and what the fund is.

Guest Posts, Mental Health

MY MOTHER IS CRAZY

January 24, 2018
crazy

By Leslie Lindsay

My mother is crazy. This is no lie.

She is not fun-day-at-the-mall-get-whatever-you-want crazy; she is flaming-crimson-I’m-going-to-kill-you-because-you-are-the-devil-crazy. Her eyes are glassy and bright, pockets of sunshine reflecting in the darkness. They dart from side to side, to side. She lifts her cigarette, inspects it like a specimen then plunges it into her mouth. There’s a pop as she pulls it out, rimmed with bold berry lipstick, then shakes off the ashes.

My mother is crazy.

She thinks she killed the postman. This comes out in puffs of gray, a frenzy of words not connecting. I’m sorry. I didn’t. Mean. Tokillthepostman.

Dust motes dance in the sunlight peering from the gauzy drapes. She reaches out; her slim, menthol-smelling fingers attempt to pinch the flakes of dead skin cells, bug fragments, and sparkles of emptiness. Diamonds, she says. She throws her head back, cackles, then reaches for her mug of hot tea. Steam rims the cup, hot and life-giving. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, suicide, Surviving

Life After Death: A Year Later

November 17, 2017

*Skyler with his beloved books

CW: This essay discusses suicide. If you or someone you know needs immediate help, please call 911. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting CONNECT to 74174. The world need you.

By Cati Porter

 

 

I am trying to remember the first time I met you, Skyler. Instead, images of you float up out of random events:

— Sitting on our bench swing in front of the house, texting Jacob to tell him you were there, because, well, teenagers.

— Both of your arms in casts, broken from leaping down a flight of stairs.

— In our living room, rocking chair, holding a book from our bookshelf.

I so loved that you loved to read. The Beat writers you loved best. We would talk about Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I loaned you my copy of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. You were already thinking about dropping acid? I didn’t yet know you loved the Grateful Dead.

You were the kind of teenager I had imagined my own son would be, but Jacob was different. He had sworn off books. But with you, your influence, that seemed to be changing.

It’s been almost a year, to the day. Every story has a beginning, middle, and end. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell one from the other, right?

I am a writer. It is how I make sense of things. Please be patient with me.

 

 

*

 

I had just walked in the door after hosting an event for writers. It was a Thursday night in May.

“Mom — Don’t freak out. Skyler took all his pills and he’s on Target Hill.”

Jacob rushed down the hallway toward me. I hadn’t yet put my purse down. It was dark outside – 9 pm. Bedtime. His hand was on the knob at the front door, knit cap pulled low over a mess of knotted curls. He was looking at me for — permission?

I was immobile. My chest. My legs. My face. I did not cry, not yet, though suddenly it felt as if I were behind a wall of plaster. I was moving inside a plaster cast, heavy and numb, like those dreams where you can’t move fast enough. Without thinking, I told him, “Run!”

I pulled the door in behind him as he took off and I dialed 911. It rang. I could hear a woman’s voice:

“Please state the nature of the emergency.

 

I could already hear the sirens. I drove recklessly. I’ve never before heard sirens and knew so achingly, precisely, where they were going. I pulled up behind the ambulance, threw it in park, jumped out. Normal things like careful parking, lipstick, proper shoes, became trivial, as they still are. Sometimes it takes something jarring to shake you loose.

Though I could not see you, I knew Jacob must be sprinting up the brush-covered hillside in the dark, no flashlight.

At the base of the hill, I could see the fire engine and ambulance that arrived before me. There was a gurney waiting. Two paramedics on the sidewalk, dark suited, faced the hill, watching the brush for movement.

And then, after forever, I could see Jacob leading you down the hillside. Relief rose in me against the panic of what I realized I might have sent Jacob to find.

Another car careened around the bend, at a strange confluence of streets: Dominion Ave and Division Street. The car slammed into park. It was your dad.

Car door swung wide, he got out and began to pace. I had never met him in person before. He was so wiry, tense; intense. Every muscle in his body seemed clenched, his face drawn, hands in fists. All I knew of him was through you, what you had told me. He stood facing me, waiting for me to speak.

“He’s alive,” I said, pointing to where you and Jacob were just reaching the road.

Your dad and I watched the both of you in silhouette against the night sky, gingerly descending. It looked like Jacob was holding you up, the two of you navigating the loose brush and rock. It was then that I put my arms around the neck of this man, your father, a stranger I have only ever spoken to over the phone. I held him as he cried, this tough ex-soldier. He was not at all how I had imagined him.

Jacob walked you over to the paramedics. By now, you could hardly stand. The paramedics lifted you onto the gurney like a loose, sleepy child into bed. I don’t imagine you could remember that. I leaned down to kiss your faded pink fluffy hair. You looked stoned, wasted, delirious. I said, I love you, Skyler, and meant it. Your eyes were open but you were non-responsive. I had never said anything like this to you before, and never since.

Jacob tells me that he had pulled you to standing, too weak to object. He had found you sitting on a rocky outcropping, woozy. You said something like, “It’s okay. Sit with me,” patting the stone. Jacob told me later that he had said no, that he wouldn’t let you die there. That if you were going to die you would have to get down and do it in the ambulance.

At that point, you were moments away from a series of seizures that would require an induced coma to keep you safe for the next few days. What was it like, to be unconscious for days? A little like death? Did you dream?

Jacob, your dad, and I stood by the side of the road for a little while after they had gotten you into the ambulance. Jacob was quiet and seemingly calm though I knew his pulse must have been racing. The ambulance started to pull away. As I said goodbye to your dad, ready to follow, I implored him, this time, no tough love; this time, please: Only love.

 

 

*

The last time you attempted suicide, your girlfriend had just broken up with you. Wasn’t it on Valentine’s Day? I wish we had been able to talk about it at the time. It’s never easy to get your heart broken.

I didn’t learn about it for three days. All I knew was that you had been throwing up, and that Jacob hadn’t heard from you, which struck me as odd considering how close you were. Later, Jacob told me that you had said over the group chat that you’d taken some pills and were throwing up. I’m glad Aaron had the presence of mind to call your dad, and 911. Did they pump your stomach? I think they did. And you were held for observation. On the third day, your dad called all of your friends together after school, huddled up on the sidewalk of the neighborhood by the high school. I had a horrible sense that something was wrong. I pulled up just far enough to be out of sight but I watched them squirm, listening to your dad, in the rearview mirror.

What I didn’t learn until later was that you had given notes for all of your friends, including your girlfriend, that began, “If you’re reading this now….”

*

This time, rather than seven pills, you have taken seventy-something. All of your anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications.

In the ICU, before you completely lose consciousness, you send Jacob a loopy string of text messages. You say that you want to have a cheeseburger with Jimi Hendrix. You say that since you are still here, you must be here for something. You say that you want to be a crazy writer. Like Ken Kesey. Hunter S. Thompson. And I think, maybe you’ll be okay.

Then, the texts stopped.

The next day, Friday, Jacob says he can’t go to school. I let him stay home and together we wait for news of you.

They keep you in the coma all that day. On the surface, I am keeping my shit together. Beneath the surface every worst thought.

That space of not-knowing, it is excruciating. I leave Jacob at home and go to my office, but I can’t focus. I go into the storage room out back to call my friend Gayle, where I cry hard and long, my face smeared with snot and tears. Her mother had committed suicide by hanging. My problems felt trivial but I knew if there were anyone who would understand what I was going through, it would be her. You weren’t my son, but it crushed me.

I needed something to focus on, something to give me to do while we waited to hear news of you, so she and I hatched a plan. I knew it might sound crazy, or stupid, or useless, but I decided that whatever the outcome, I must do it. She said she would help.

Do you know that there is a high correlation between writers and depression, writers and suicide? I thought you might appreciate that.

 

*

 

Over the weekend, I receive regular text updates and phone calls from your family. By Saturday, the seizures taper off, so they bring you up, but, they say, you may or may not have sustained brain damage.

When you wake up, you tell us you can’t remember anything of the days before, but remarkably you seem intact.

You relay to us some of the things you thought you saw while you were out: You believed it that if you stared at the clock long enough, that it would turn back time. The nurses faces melted and morphed into demonic faces.

You seem bemused as the events of the past few days are relayed to you, like you are listening to funny anecdotes about strangers. By Sunday, still in the ICU, your dad says you are ready for visitors. He adds us to the list of family allowed in to the hospital room. If we weren’t family before, we are now. Your sisters keep telling us how Jacob had saved your life. For all the times you have complained about them, I think they idolize you. You are their big brother and they are glad to have you back.

Jacob and I plan our trip to Riverside Community Hospital. Remembering the cheeseburger, I call the nurses’ station to get their okay. We drive through Jack in the Box. Jacob of course knew just what you’d want. When we arrive, you are sitting up in the hospital bed, and your sisters are around you. Your pink hair is disheveled. They have assigned you a “watcher”, someone to be with you in the room at all times, making sure you don’t try to hurt yourself again.

You are elated by the cheeseburger & root beer. Jacob sits across from you and you talk as though nothing has happened. You want to know what’s been going on outside, what your friends have been up to.

When I ask you – we all ask you – if you are going to try this again, you tells us that you are taking it “twenty-four hours in a day”; a puzzling response. It sounds equivocal, but we accept it.

After a little while of sitting and watching these friends, I pull out the book I’ve compiled and carefully bound: Letters to Skyler from Fellow Writers.

In the past twenty-four hours, I have called upon friends and strangers, all writers, to send notes of encouragement and hope — depressed writers, suicidal writers, writers who have suffered through suicide loss. Jacob thought it was a dumb idea but as he watched you page through it, the look on your face, he later said that it was, in fact, a good thing.

They move you from ICU to a regular hospital room, then from there to a mental health facility for adults, because while you’re still only a junior in high school, you are eighteen. I am told that it is a section 5150 hold, aka the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, followed by a 5350, an involuntary hold for those with a mental disorder who are a danger to themselves or others. These are not unfamiliar terms. Jacob’s uncle, my husband’s brother, also struggled with many of the same issues that haunt you.

There, Jacob tells me, you took up smoking, and kept a journal: “Diary of Mad Man.” Though your dad didn’t want you to have any contact with your friends, we encouraged Jacob to call you, which he did. When the high school released you for the year, we were glad, so close to the end of the school year, and with your ex-girlfriend there, we weren’t sure what you’d do.

When you finally go home, as promised, I give you my old typewriter. I bring you enough ink & correction tape to last the rest of high school.

Over the summer, things get better. You read a lot, and even write. This makes me happy. Old out-of-state friends come to see you. You took a trip to Venice beach. I am glad when you accept our invitation to go with us on our family vacation to San Diego. You bring your roller blades, Hawaiian shirt, and the Nixon mask. When we talk about the future, you give me hope.

Everything is fine now.

Summer passes. It is time for you to register for senior year. On a Monday morning, Freshman registration, when I registered Bradley, Jacob tells me you registered early. In fact, you tell Jacob you shouldn’t have registered at all.

Wednesday night, you go to the drive-in with your dad and sisters. Late that night, you pull the cans to the curb for trash night, say goodnight,I love you, to your dad.

Thursday morning, August 25, 2016, is the official registration day for seniors. Jacob and Bradley are sleeping in and I am speaking with a landscaper on my front lawn, discussing tree removal and grading and water-wise gardening.

Then, my phone rings. I let it go to voicemail. It rings again.

It is your dad. “He’s gone.”

I don’t have words to describe how it feels to hear those words. He tells me you have hung yourself in the bedroom closet sometime during the night.

Playing in the background, The Grateful Dead: “If I Had the World to Give”, on loop, the same song playing over and over and over.

There in my front yard, in front of this stranger who hugs me and holds me as I curse and cry, I fall apart.

At that moment, I can’t imagine going in the house and waking Jacob to tell him. But I do.

Your dad tells me that when the coroner and sheriff arrived, they found no foul play; of course not. None of us had any doubts. It was awful to think of them using your lifeless finger to unlock your phone, search for “clues.” Of course, we immediately drive to your house. Jacob and I sat on either side of your dad on the couch, arms over his shoulders, the three of us sobbing. If you had been there — you were there? — we would have been a sight.

Sometime during that final night, we learn that you had messaged Penny in Seattle: “Are you awake?” No response. That was the last word from you to anyone.

Later, Penny messages the instructions you had messaged her. She honored your wishes to send it to Jacob, “should I lose this battle.” Penny kept her promise. It detailed who should get what, including that Jacob should get some of your ashes: “Put them in a pipe and smoke it or I will haunt your ass.”

In the days following your death, I learn that together you and Jacob have tried LSD, sitting on that same rocky outcropping where he found you that night.

When your dad reads the note, it is only then that we all realize that you have been planning this all summer. All of your friends seemed to feel your death was “inevitable”. They knew the end was coming. Jacob knew. But they kept your secrets. I want to hug them. I want to slap them. I want to stare at that clock until the hands spin back to before.

Your dad says that Jacob can smoke your ashes, but only if he wants to, and only in your bedroom, with him, while telling him stories about you.

Instead, Jacob orders a pendant — an eagle, to match your dangling sterling silver earrings. The day before your death, we learn that you’ve lost one of them, walking through our neighborhood. In the days after, we walk for hours, scouring every glint in the dust. Later, we learn that the mortuary has misplaced the other. This is a blow. This feels like metaphor.

The last time we see you alive, we are driving past, headed elsewhere, always in a hurry. Jacob stuck his head out the window and shouted. You waved goodbye. The next morning, you were gone.

Now, Jacob carries a small piece of you around his neck. You went to his graduation — wherever he goes, there you’ll be.

The other night, I asked Jacob if he still thinks about you. He says every day. That you come to him in his dreams every night.

Your dad thanks me, because he thinks those letters gave you two one last summer.

I thought words could save you. But maybe, in some small way, these words are saving me.

Cati Porter is a writer, editor, mother, and arts administrator living and working in inland southern California. Her third poetry collection, The Body at a Loss, is forthcoming from CavanKerry Press. She is founder and editor of Poemeleon: A Journal of Poetry and Executive Director of the Inlandia Institute. Find her on the web at www.catiporter.com

We are proud to have founded the Aleksander Fund. To learn more or to donate please click here. To sign up for On being Human Tuscany Sep 5-18, 2018 please email jenniferpastiloffyoga@gmail.com.

 

Join Jen at her On Being Human workshop in upcoming cities such as NYC, Ojai, Tampa, Ft Worth and more by clicking the image above.

 

Join Jen at Kripalu in The Berkshires of Massachusetts for her annual On Being Human retreat there by clicking the picture above. March 2-4, 2018.

 

Books I Will Read Again, Guest Posts

Books I Will Read Again: The Art of Misdiagnosis by Gayle Brandeis

November 15, 2017

When I finish a book, I do one of three things with it: donate it to a local book drive, pass it along to a friend, or keep it on my bookshelf to reference and read again. This space is filled with the books I keep. I hope you like this feature, and I hope you like Gayle’s book. -Angela

The Art of Misdiagnosis is out this week, buy it here, or at your favorite independent bookseller. 

By Angela M Giles

Gayle Brandeis is an amazing writer of poetry and prose and I have been waiting for this book from the moment she announced the project. Although I truly enjoy her writing and look forward to whatever she publishes, Gayle and I share a strange commonality that made me especially keen to read this- we both lost a parent to suicide. Our losses occurred under very circumstances to be sure, but she and I experience a type of grief that is still a bit shadowy in our culture, and it is a grief that is wildly complex. I was curious to see how she was approaching the subject and what she would make of the story of her mother’s suicide and of her own survival in the face of it. It’s a complicated emotional space to be sure, and in this book Gayle navigates it with grace and clarity and honesty. This is an important work, and not just in terms of grief literature. You can also read it for a discussion of family dynamics, or a discussion of mental illness…just read it.

I asked Gayle about her mother and what she would say to her if she could give her a copy of the book. What would she want her mother to understand about why she felt the need to write their story? This is her response: Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Shame, suicide

Sex, Guilt, and Suicide

October 29, 2017
suicide

CW: This essay discusses suicide. If you or someone you know needs immediate help, please call 911. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting CONNECT to 74174. The world need you.

By Donna Baier Stein

The first boy I fell in love with in college hung himself from a tree north of San Francisco, a short distance off the Pacific Coast Highway U.S. 101. I don’t know exactly how far up the highway from the Golden Gate Bridge or exactly what kind of tree. I do know at least one of the secrets that led him to take his life and how damaging long-lasting guilt can be.

Decades later, I decided to write a story in which he—let’s call him Don R.—was a character. I had to research “suicide by hanging.” The gruesome physical details I read made me regret confronting the painful memory. I realized that because I hadn’t seen Don’s body, part of the terrible impact of his act had bypassed me. But I also realized, after he appeared in a second story and a third, how much and for how long, his choice to end his life affected me.

When Don took his life, I—and his other friends and family—were halfway across the country in the Midwest. I was in Lawrence, Kansas—a listless undergrad who had returned, to my own and my parents’ dismay, from a semester at Bryn Mawr. I felt like a failure. My academic drive faltered, my mood plummeted. I found myself looking for any reason to affirm that life was really, really painful.

My first sight of Don R.’s high-voltage grin jolted me. His blue eyes sparkled, and he bounced as he walked around the K.U. campus—sometimes affectionately called “the Athens of the Midwest”—in his white leather Adidas Pro sneakers. We met through mutual friends, and when he asked if I’d like to go see Easy Rider with him, I grinned back an enthusiastic Yes. Continue Reading…

Grief, Guest Posts

Hang On Little Girl

October 20, 2017
girl

CW: This essay discusses suicide. If you or someone you know needs immediate help, please call 911. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting CONNECT to 74174. The world need you.

By Sara Bartosiewicz-Hamilton

Wouch…a cross between whoa and ouch.

 

I obviously don’t do this task often enough…but, as the queen of spreadsheets to keep myself organized, I’ve been working through some work that’s been patiently waiting. I’ve been working in the spreadsheet for almost an hour. My eyes just caught a glimpse…the last time I was in this spreadsheet: 8/29/16.

 

Whoa…almost a year ago…holy shit…quite literally, a week before my whole world would cave in…wouch…

 

I tried to remember what I would have been doing at that point last year…I stopped. Why relive the painful summer we had? To most people, the day they found out you killed yourself is the day of trauma for them. For us, it had been building up to your grand finale for a couple years – no one wants to acknowledge that…it’s easier to just embrace one single day of trauma and pretend we hadn’t been living in hell long before.

  Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, suicide

Mental Illness is a Terminal Disease

October 8, 2017
suicide

CW: This essay discusses suicide. If you or someone you know needs immediate help, please call 911. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting CONNECT to 74174. The world need you.

By Kellie Julia

The picture above is of three of my most favorite people, 2 are gone. My gram died at 93 of natural causes. My son died at 31 and there was nothing natural about it.

I gave my son’s phone away this week to someone who really needed it. It seems like an easy enough thing to do but I cried for hours after. I saved the last text message I had from him which said “I love you too”, that was 5 days before he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. That was 5 months ago.

I still wonder what would have happened if I had gotten to his house 5 hours earlier than I did, what if I would have begged him to please hold on just one more day. No matter what I did or said for many years I could not take his pain away. Believe me, I tried. Do I find comfort in knowing that he is free of pain, yes. Would I rather have him still in pain but here with me instead, yes. Do I feel that is selfish of me, yes. Many suicidal people believe that the world would be a better place without them. Is it? No! Mental illness is a terminal disease and it should be treated that way. Continue Reading…