No, No, No, No …
Those were the only words I could speak. She was a vibrant and passionate 28. It’s as if by saying the words, by defying life forcefully enough, by sheer will, you could change what had happened in it. It doesn’t take long before your mind unveils what a fool you must be, crying aloud such empty words at a time of total loss, but your first instinct is to try, you don’t even think about trying you just do it.
I’ve come to know those are common words when you unexpectedly lose a loved one – if there can be anything ‘common’ about that. Her death, just as she, was not in the least ‘common.’ She was my baby sister.
She’d transplanted herself from authoritarian over-protections of traditional Midwest upbringing into the 1970’s free spirited heart of San Francisco, California. That’s a long way to go to try to make yourself fit inside of who you are. Perhaps it mirrors how desperate she was. Though she sought freedoms with every fragment of her soul, ten-years later her new world of life-answers wasn’t gleaning any better clarity. Maybe displacing herself so far from what and who she knew contributed to an ultimate sense of overwhelming destitution.
We can run from a lot of things but we cannot run from what’s been etched into our souls.
Her hanging was an unusual, however a deliberate form of suicide: Autoerotic Asphyxia. That’s attributed mostly to men for reasons of name. Fully clothed, she’d placed books open to the technique in front of her, kneeling on a pile of others as she poised the loose noose around her neck. They say she lost consciousness right away and when she did her weight shifted. Within seconds the robust life that was her was gone.
Our Father went to his grave adamantly dismissing suicide, for what I assume were essential reasons of conscience. If a mishap, it was a knowledgeable one. She was well aware of the risks. Receiving some of her personal belongings months later I found a card to her lover adhered to the back of an earlier tender one, signed by her hand, “I hope you hurt as much as you have hurt.” As if to say, ‘here’s how much I loved you and here’s how much I hurt because of you.’ That was as close to a suicide note as I knew, be it one or not. Apparently he bore some guilt because within months he’d killed himself.
A most tragic ‘love’ story.
They say a tendency for suicide runs in families, or, maybe better said, that a family history makes it more likely. I presume that goes hand in hand with inherited genes and brain chemistries if not environmental similarities.
Mother made an attempt when we were kids and by her thirties had indulged a life of self-destruction, going downhill from there. Dad seemed to cope with his darkness, overcoming it with a strength of determination for control as he did in so many things. He’d relayed the story of his mother attempting suicide by shooting herself in the head, missing, the bullet going through a window and narrowly missing his brother. Knowing my grandmother well, she was the personification of drama so I’ve questioned logistics of the event (how do you miss your own head), but so goes the story and well it may be.
I suppose, based on a blend of those dynamics, my sister and I were destined to at least think about suicide at some point in our lives. I first attempted it at 15 with a light dose of pills. Typically, it wasn’t a serious gesture but it was definitely a cry for help. In those days the act was seen as a plea for attention with an attitude of “get over it.” I did – for a while. I tried more seriously at 19, but couldn’t bring myself to follow through. My wrist still bears the razor scars. If anyone knew about that the reaction was so slight I don’t recall there being any. About 25 I tried again with pills and was hospitalized, where I received harsh reprimand from an attending doctor. Some counseling followed to no real avail.
With my sister gone, in my late thirties I fashioned a noose in the closet thinking her method must surely be easier. By then I was rearing the remnants of grossly ingrate teenager who, until then, had seemed some reason to live. What I did know was that I never wanted to leave others with the loss and grief my sister’s death had left in me. Especially so if not solely for a Father who’d already lost one daughter that way. Better judgment prevailed.
I’d been in and out of counseling so much that I knew no one else had my answers. If I was to find them it was going to come from within me. That’s all counselors did anyway. I exercised objective self-analysis and I battled serious bouts of sincere desires to die. I’d learned to fight against it, to hang on one more day when things might look better. They usually did before I fell into another darkness, over time each seeming worse, more intolerable, more hopeless, than the one before. The development of better diagnosis and medication helped sustain me.
I don’t think of suicide so much anymore.
Suicide row. Somehow I’d gained reprieve.
Now I am consumed with thoughts of death through an aging mortality. I guess that’s a natural transition [laughing]. I live in this perpetual world of unawareness, so accustomed to the hopelessness that it’s my home, it’s what feels normal. It’s a comfortable place to be where even the discomfort of it is somehow comforting. Familiar. What I know best. Now enough life has passed that the broken spirit I live is preferable to living unpredictable disasters, which I’ve come to know with vivid recall can be so much worse.
Through all of this, on most days I manage to cling to a flicker of hope. It’s an inextinguishable pilot light deep inside my heart. The flame isn’t enough to change raw life into a fully cooked meal or to thaw a room from a dead winter’s freeze, but it flickers in the potential of me none the less. That flicker is my faith in God. He never fails me – He’s always there. He blesses me abundantly in spite of myself.
I wake each morning knowing that nothing about the condition of my life is likely to change, but I get out of bed anyway. My fragile, flickering flame burns with the leaking fuel of mere possibility that I could know the exuberance of happiness again, if I ever really did know it before. I go about my days in the same routines of solitude, only mildly disappointed each night when another day has passed and nothing has changed and, inexplicably, I wake up again the next morning with that glimmer of hope for a new day still twinkling.
Maybe I expect too much from life. I’ve learned to concentrate on moments of aloneness, absorbing sunshine or the cleansing calm of a rainstorm; tuning my ears to hear each bird song among many chirping at the same time outside my window; the sight of a squirrel or deer foraging nearby or a new season’s blooming of a dogwood tree; the mere pleasure of reasonably good health or solace taken from financial security or, simply, my vehicle starting without incident. It could surely be much worse. That I know.
Any change in my daily routine is in what order or whether or not I do it and, more and more lately, I realize I don’t have to do any so why do it at all. That frightens me. I envision being some cluttered life of a disheveled old woman who gave up a long time ago. I struggle against it, for I can’t imagine anything worse than living while not living at all, yet I am so drawn to it. It’s the last frontier of suicidal tendencies, when you’re finally too old for suicide to even make sense. All you have to do now is wait it out and it’ll happen on its own, any time, any day.
Just walking out the front door has become a masked ritual of over-preparedness for fear someone recognizes my darkness. It’s my life’s obligation to hide it. I go to bed at night pulling my gown down around my knees just in case that’s when I die, so I’m presentable, unashamed, if I do go in my sleep. At least when it does come let it be with dignity.
Every morning I take medication that keeps me alive, often contemplating how not taking it could be the best natural way to die. The prospect of living maimed in a care home, should dying from it not be the result, is an unbearable alternative. So I keep taking it while thinking about not taking it, not even brave enough anymore to risk changing my circumstances. Sometimes the preprinted pill boxes are the only indication I have of what day of the week it is. I watch myself empty them day after day, week after week, then refill them month after month … waiting aimlessly for the axis of my life to correct itself.
It would be easy for this flicker inside of me to gust into a robust roaring flame. I can’t find the bellow that would surge to ignite it and the longer this goes on the less I try. Maybe I need to stop trying. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve learned to be afraid of it. Sometimes I am ashamed of being so weak and, at others, afraid of being so strong. When did I commit to a life so undriven; at what moment did unmotivated withdrawal begin? Or is that melancholy calm the state of being I should’ve given into from the beginning, only now taking time – having time – being alone enough – to know the wisdom of it?
I wonder why God keeps these internal embers of hope radiating but surely there is a reason. There has to be a reason else its meager heartbeat would surely have ceased pumping by now. I have fought so hard to live. I am so tired. It’s okay to be tired. It’s not okay to give up.
This is the newest battlefield in the same old war that is me.