I am walking in The Jungle on a humid, early June day. I carry my mobile phone because it counts my steps, confirms that I am making progress of a sort.
As I round a curve of the rough path, it rings. I answer it because it is the director at the independent living residence where I hold weekly art programming that I hope to continue through the summer, if I get the KFW Art Meets Activism grant.
She says: “I wanted to make sure you knew about this before you came today.”
“Knew about what?”
She then tells the sad story of an eighty-five year old female resident who drove her car northbound on the twin bridges I travel back and forth on my teaching artist excursions, parked it on the shoulder, got out and clambered over the metal railing to fall fifty feet to her death.
“The executive director feels we should not encourage conversation about it”, she finishes. “Only if the residents bring it up.”
“Okay, whatever you say”, I agree. But after hanging up, I wonder why, and how I can keep silent while the woman’s absence screams the story.
I first meet her in the common room where I held my ArtSpark sessions. She was pushing a walker like most of her contemporaries. But she did not look or act like them. She wore her hair in a tidy gray bob, like many of the faculty wives I met and often scorned as a traditional academic as they always seemed mere appendages of their husbands’. It is– was — a behavior I never embraced, even after marrying an academic and pursuing non-academic arts activities. But I still saw some of myself in her. She was gregarious and talkative, articulate and obviously educated. She was also very nervous.
I quickly recognized her from the grainy, photocopied newspaper article prominently displayed in the residence lobby some weeks before. In it I learned that her husband was a doctor who initiated a ground-breaking medical/missionary project in a third world country. Her contributions, although different, were as valued as his. That was way back in the 1980s, however, thirty years ago. Now they were both retired and reduced to living in a small apartment in a high rise for elders needing assistance, because her husband suffered from Alzheimer’s. I had already heard she was his primary caregiver.
She said she came because the activity sounded fun. But she could not relax into it. The simple process of gluing a decorative paper to the cardboard cover frustrated her. She kept complaining it was not perfect, kept pulling it off and re-positioning it numerous times until the paper became damp, flimsy and fragile.
I restrained myself from helping. Instead, I reminded her that there was no right or wrong way to do it, and that wrinkles can look pretty interesting. But she kept peeling the paper off and exasperatingly exclaining “I just can’t seem to do this right!”
After a hour she finally glued the paper to her satisfaction. Then she stood and gathered up her imperfect journal, stating she had to relieve the person who was looking after her husband. She did not promise to return. She said so much depended on how he was doing.
“It’s a day by day thing”, she explained.
Then I invited her to write in the journal between now and the next time we met.
She waved a thin, dismissive hand at me, shook her gray head no, and said “You wouldn’t want to read what I write.”
“Why not?” I inquired.
“Because it would be too angry” she said, rattling her walker in the direction of the exit.
“There is nothing wrong in writing about anger…” I replied, but didn’t finish my sentence because she so swiftly left the room.
A couple weeks later I saw her at a special luncheon, where I was making a promotional speech about Life Stories Life Lessons.
The dining room was packed, of course. I’d already learned that the best method to gain elder participation was food. I wondered if this was because so many of the elderly have inflexible, fixed incomes. I also wondered if it was because food is one of the few pleasures left to the elderly.
She sat at the only table with available seats, so I asked if I could join her and the wheelchair-bound man whom she introduced as her husband. I hardly recognized him from the newspaper article, though. He looked considerably older than she, and much more diminished. His face was pale, thin and lined, his shoulders hunched, his eyes vague.
And she was not the same agitated, angry woman I met over the visual journaling project either. She was cheerful, calm and patient. She attended to her husband’s needs gently and lovingly, cut his food, managed his napkin, wiped his chin with hers. She also made several attempts to include him in our conversation. I was touched by this obvious love and attention.
During dessert, I worked the room. I dropped promotional postcards on each table, said a few words about Life Stories Life Lessons, asked if there were questions. There weren’t. There were, however, plenty of polite yet firm negatives and lots of uncomfortable laughter.
It made me think of high school girls succumbing to peer pressure.
One rolled her eyes at her tablemates and exclaimed: “Oh, no, I have nothing important to talk about.”
Another fidgeted in her chair, snorted and said: “Heavens, I stopped thinking about the past a long time ago.” …and I thought of my family of origin’s insistence that I dwell unhealthily on the past, and felt my stomach clench.
But I wanted to ask: What could possibly be the problem, the harm, the danger in sharing your life stories? And why do you so firmly believe your life stories not worth telling, not even to young people who might be encouraged or helped by them?
On the day after the elderly woman’s suicide, my ArtSpark group is subdued. No one seems particularly interested in working on visual journals. They fiddle with the supplies, flip blank pages, are distracted and quiet.
Then the PA system blares that the bus to the wake is leaving in ten minutes – and there is no avoiding the topic of the tragic death anymore.
I ask how everyone is feeling. I hear murmurs of “how shocking”, “she was so stressed, everyone knew it”, and “taking care of her husband was a full time job; she had no time to herself.”
I also hear guilt. “If I only knew how stressed she really was…” “If she would have just opened up to someone”, “if I had pressed her more about how it was going, how she was feeling”…
I hear everybody out. Only then are we able to work.
I see the helpful bereavement brochures too late to use them, at the end of the session while I am cleaning up. They are artfully fanned on nearby table, and look untouched. A social worker must have dropped them off, I supposed. Or perhaps the executive director had stacks of them in a file cabinet, just for this purpose.
But only one addresses the unique bereavement issues associated with a suicide. I take it home with me. That night, over a glass of wine, I read that memories of this person might be disturbing because of the nature of suicide — that it is a choice, a terrible one, but a choice nevertheless. It also tells me that the guilt, the “what ifs” of suicide bereaved, can be overwhelming, devastating, and haunting. For a lifetime.
A little over a year later, a chaplain at a small college many hours from where I once lived and worked with those elders hands me two flyers about grieving and bereavement. Neither of them focuses on bereaved of suicide. And O committed suicide.
A month into O’s untimely death I am just beginning to ask myself questions about that language. Committed makes suicide sound like a sin. Which it once was. Maybe still is.
I vow to never use that language again.
But I read the statements anyway. Some are helpful. But many are downright hurtful, like fatal stabs to my already broken heart.
Like: You have a right to a safe listener – when there is no one to listen, now that O, my best friend, my closest companion, is gone.
And: You may avoid thinking or feeling anything about the loss, or stop doing things that once gave you pleasure… And I think how impossible it is to even consider working on the final product of Life Stories/Life Lessons because it would mean revisiting life while O was alive. It would mean looking at photographs of O, working with the at-risk kids who also worked with the elders when I miss his physical self so badly it makes my whole body hurt.
But that isn’t all of it. Finishing something, anything, means progress. Progress is moving on. And moving on means moving on from O.
Five months later I am pulling up to an isolated retreat house where everything looks oddly the same, although I haven’t been in residence for five years. It makes me feel like a time traveler, and this is amplified as I get settled in the same bedroom, adjacent to the same glassed in studio where I last slept and worked. I wonder if I will be able to sleep, as a matter of fact. But I do.
The next morning I work on Life Stories/Life Lessons for the first time since O took his life. I set up the old computer from the farmhouse I no longer live in, pulling out the fat folders and notebooks filled with documentation of my efforts. And then I find two different composition books with entries on the days just before and after O’s death. And I weep, still fighting feelings that O would be alive now if not for me, my love of writing, my love of my work.
How O stared and glared at me from the unmade bed as I typed at the kitchen table. How committed I was that August morning to start taking better care of myself, which included regular time to write, doing whatever it took, rising at five, going to the library every weekday evening for an hour or two in spite of O’s anger and in order to get started on and finish this project – and within twenty-four hours O took his life. He took mine too, for months and months.
Until now. And I begin to write.