- This is my sister, Alexis. On May 23, 2016 she killed herself.
8 months and 4 days ago you took your life. I am astounded at the way that time keeps moving forward. I’ve come to think of the passage of time as one of life’s greatest gifts as well as its deepest cruelties.
During the week after you died, Dad and I stood out on the back deck of their townhouse. We were in the throes of planning your funeral, tending to the countless details that needed tending to. I’d been sitting out there paging through an old photo album when he’d come out. Ever since I became an adult, dad and I have had an easiness about our conversations, a flow that always made you jealous.
You and dad were foils to one another, oftentimes bringing out the worst in each other, despite (perhaps because of) the fierce love that you held for one another. You so desperately sought approval from him. I sometimes wanted to whisper my secret to you: you’ve got to stop caring so goddamned much what he thinks–just live your life and he’ll be proud.
Anyway, Dad and I stood out there leaning on the rail, looking out at the wooded stream that runs behind their place. Uncle Jim was out there somewhere taking a walk. He’d come to the house earlier to help collect some items from your room so that we could put them on display at your service. He’d absolutely reeked of marijuana and when I’d smelled it, I’d thought Jesus Christ, like we really need this added to everything. It was a quick, sharp thought. Later, I would step back and see that my uncle was reeling from the news of your death and that he was trying to care for himself, even if it was a fucked up way to do it. I think that he had felt a kinship with you for years. Maybe the news of your suicide scared him to the core. Maybe he’d considered suicide at some point.
“I wish I could go backwards,” Dad said.
I think he meant that he wanted more time with you, but I couldn’t help but think that would be futile unless he could take the feelings of that very moment back in time with him. Your loss had instantaneously washed away every ounce of anger and resentment that I’d ever felt toward you. I suspected that it had done the same for him. If I were able to go back in time and carry with me the knowledge of your loss, I’d go because I would be able to act differently toward you. But to go back without that? To live once again with a heart full of anger and cruel thoughts toward you? No. I’d rather have the now than have that again. I was not kind to you when you were alive. I tried the best I could, but I failed on that front.
January 28: 8 months 5 days
It seems like I hear more and more about people killing themselves. It’s as if I’ve learned a new vocabulary word and suddenly I notice it everywhere, but how did I not see it before? With you making so many attempts on your life that I literally lost count?
I just spent a half an hour or so reading one of your old journals. I have mixed feelings about reading them. Partially, it feels like an invasion of your privacy, but then I think that you always wanted them to be read when you were gone. In one of your suicide notes you wrote–Edit my journals, publish my poetry–but you did not die that time, and the only emotion I can remember feeling about that note was overwhelming anger at the fact that you didn’t even say that you loved us. Us, your family. Back then I thought you were an asshole for leaving a suicide note like that. Now, my anger is almost laughable.
In the support group that I go to for survivors of suicide, I’ve learned that more often than not, there is no note at alI and that when there is, they are usually very short, so I guess you are normal in that regard. You left your final note on a small square of paper. Fifteen words.
Anyway, the journals. Some of the entries make me blush and some just astound me. They are full of fear and panic and relentless negative thoughts. When I read them I have no idea how you survived to be 42. I feel certain that I would’ve ended my life sooner if I felt the way that you so often felt.
In one of the entries, you pondered different methods of suicide. You ruled out hanging or drinking Drano. You said that you could try overdosing again but you feared that it wouldn’t work, even though you’d researched about how many pills you would need, etc. You said that you didn’t know if you could press hard enough to slit your wrists. A gun? Maybe you could do that, but where to find one? You thought carbon monoxide would be a good way to go. You said you just wanted to fall asleep and never wake up, but that you hadn’t been able to “procure” a set of mom’s car keys when you had a long enough stretch of alone time.
I found it odd that you used the word procure. It seemed so out-of-place in that list of suicide considerations. So formal. I’m glad you wrote all of this stuff down, even though it is really difficult to read. I know it was nearly impossible to live.
January 29: 8 months 6 days
There was one part of the journal that made me happy. You wrote about the summer that you worked at Saint Joseph’s University as an assistant. The building where you worked backed up to The Barnes Foundation and since you were too shy to eat with your coworkers you found a small opening in the iron fence that surrounded the property and led into its famous garden. Here’s what you wrote:
So every day, I’d disappear at lunch, squeeze through the black iron fence to a virtual paradise. And the rose garden was mystifying. I think if you looked at it from above, it was in the shape of a star but I can’t be sure. It just seemed that way–wandering a dirt path to a point, accompanied on either side with rows and rows, shoulder to shoulder offering me a scent I cannot resist, the scent of a rose.
This was a thing you remembered doing years later and you thought back on it with a kind of nostalgia. You felt at peace there, surrounded by beauty.
I think that I will hold onto this memory of you. The you before so many things went sideways. I can see you squeezing through the fence, sitting on a warm stone bench in the sun, smelling the roses, bees buzzing about. I imaging that you felt like this was enough, if only for a moment, you sitting in your secret spot. You, with your kind heart and big dreams and deeply sensitive soul–a soul not built for this harsh world, but for worlds like that garden. I like to think that’s where you are now. Sitting in the sun, your demons finally at bay, breathing in the floral air.
January 30: 8 months 7 days
I talked to Uncle Bill yesterday. Uncle Bill, who lost his own son to an overdose. He said, “Boy, your mom is really having a hard time dealing with Alexis’s passing.” During one of their conversations she told him that she’d never go to Florida again. “I told her, ‘Clare this could’ve happened while you were at the store.”
He’s right and he’s wrong. I think you needed a chunk of time alone to do what you did. To really get ready, and a chunk of time for the pills to metabolize in your body and for your body to do what the pills told it to. You needed time. Your death was (I hope) peaceful, but it was not quick. But I suppose you could’ve done it while mom and dad were at work or at the beach. One thing I’ve learned from my Survivors of Suicide support group is that when people want to die, they find a way.
Mom blames herself, I think. Part of her believes that she could’ve kept you alive, but I could just as easily blame myself. What if I had called you that weekend? Reached out and told you that I loved you? Would you have changed your mind? But I didn’t call, and I didn’t tell you I loved you because I was tired of you. Tired of talking to you and worrying about you and listening to your paranoid delusions and your confusion over how wi-fi worked and whether people could hack it. I was tired of hearing how mom and dad bought a safe for your meds in a futile attempt to convince you that there was no way that “people” could be getting into your pill boxes, switching things around, hiding pills, swapping pills. Tired of watching the toll that your illness took on mom and dad.
But you were tired of all the same things. You, above all, were more tired than I could ever be.
January 31: 8 months 8 days
When I called mom last night, she was crying. I think she cries a lot when she’s in the car driving.
“I was just thinking about some of the things I said to her,” she told me. “I wish I could take them back.”
“I know mom.”
“Sometimes I was just mean.”
“Well, she wasn’t all roses and peaches either. She was hard to deal with.”
“But she wasn’t mean.”
“She could be mean, mom, just like everybody else. She had a big heart and a kind soul, but she could be mean.”
I keep thinking about what death does to memory. It distorts it. The dead person becomes canonized. Mom saying that you weren’t mean, bothers me. If I cannot remember who you were, how will I ever forgive myself for failing to love you?
Shortly after you died, I was having a conversation with Dad and he was feeling bad about how he sometimes treated you.
“Dad,” I said, “It’s really easy to love a dead person.” What I meant was that death instantaneously transforms infuriating characteristics into laughable little quirks.
When you were alive, there was this little metal heart that you pinned to the wall of their house right near the front door. Dad got mad that you were putting holes in the wall and he took it down. Maybe he was also mad that you didn’t bother to ask either of them whether they would mind if you hung up a decoration. He probably yelled at you. Of course, the next week the metal heart was pinned up again.
The heart was still on the wall the night they found your body and dad told that story and we all laughed. That was Alexis for you, I thought when I laughed. Poof, your stubbornness, your lack of consideration for mom and dad’s house had become a funny little story.
I keep trying to hold onto all of you and all of me. To allow myself to say out loud that you could be a real asshole, and that so could I, and that we both failed each other in different ways.
What eats me up is that you were mentally ill and I was not and I couldn’t separate you from your illness. Your illness was so large and you were just a scared girl stuck behind this hideous creature. I barely ever caught a glimpse of that girl–the girl I like to think of as the real you. I forgot all about you after years of staring at the snarling beast that blocked out your sun.
February 1: 8 months 9 days
Someone in my support group sent an email yesterday about going to lobby on behalf of suicide prevention. I’m not going because I feel so fucking overwhelmed with life lately, especially with the new administration and all the shitty executive orders that are being signed. I feel so much distress over the splintering of our country, over the way that there seems to be no meeting in the middle anymore, of the fact that my marriage could be undone. I’m trying to be more active politically while at the same time trying to prepare to be a mom/get the nursery ready/walk the dogs/shop for groceries/make dinner/clean/check in on mom and dad/find a daycare for a human being who hasn’t even been born and process my grief.
After I got the email I started thinking about suicide prevention and I got kind of angry about the idea of it. What a waste of time, I thought. Your suicide feels inevitable. There were ways to delay it, but not dodge it. Sometimes, when I think of the way you suffered, it makes sense. Our society is coming to the point where it’s seriously contemplating the right to die. I believe that death should be the decision of the individual, not of society. It seems blind for society to “value life” so much that a person’s well thought out wishes wouldn’t be followed simply because their wish was to depart this life.
When someone is diagnosed with a chronic illness, medical professionals try to treat them humanely, to manage their pain, even at the expense of their overall function. High doses of morphine are common. I see little difference when I think of you. You were dying a slow death for so long. Were you ever going to get better? Should we have whispered in your ear that it was okay to go or was the right thing to push you to keep living your goddamned miserable life? When I think of you dying alone, of the fact that you had to keep your plan a secret in order for it to work…I wonder if it wouldn’t have been kinder, more humane to sit with you and hold your hand and stroke you hair as you left this earth.
In my support group there are a lot of parents who have lost their children. Fifteen year olds who’ve hung themselves. Twenty year olds who shot themselves. And the parents were shocked beyond measure. Maybe for them, suicide prevention makes sense, but not for you.
February 2: 8 months 10 days
The other night was the first time that I forgot that you are dead. I was talking to mom and she was working the will call window at a basketball game. She told me dad was going to the game after work and, for a split second, I wondered what you were doing. It sort of blindsided me because I thought that since this sort of thing hadn’t happened to me prior to this, that it wasn’t going to happen. I’ve heard stories from people who have lost a loved one, of the way that they’ve gone to pick up the phone to call their loved one and tell them a funny story about something, but this hasn’t happened to me. Probably because I never called you to tell you a funny story or to share anything from my life.
Our phone conversations were formulaic: I would inquire about your health and you would tell me stories about the things you were going through and I would do my best to sound sympathetic, even when I felt angered by the things you told me. On the occasions where you were well enough to ask how I was doing, I would tell you some canned story about a funny thing the dogs did or something generic. I never let you see inside of my life or my heart. My body, during those calls, was tense, ever ready to spring to my own defense if attacked, ready to retreat if necessary.
When you first died, I had to remind myself every morning that you were gone, but it wasn’t because I’d forgotten, it was more of a reminder that this was real. All I kept thinking about back then was the way that we as humans are not equipped to process forever. Forever has to settle into you before you can understand. Time has to pass, seasons need to change, holidays need to go by before we can understand that this reality is here to stay, that this is what’s going to be from now on.
At the end of August, I turned 39. The first birthday without you here on this earth. I got a few cards in the mail in the days before and as usual, I waited to open them. One of them had no return address and I didn’t recognize the handwriting. This one piqued my curiosity.
On my birthday, I opened the cards. One from mom, one from Aunt Terry and then the mystery card. It was from you. I felt light-headed at the sight of your name. Stunned and swirling. Had you sent this before you died and somehow delayed its arrival? Were you back?
All of these thoughts flew through my brain, but of course, the truth was that Mom had sent it on your behalf. Mom had even gone to the trouble of disguising her handwriting. I know it was an act of deep love on her part, but it hit me in this really tender spot that I hadn’t even known that I had–a stab through a chink in my armor. Somewhere inside of me, a tiny part, was still expecting your return.
Excerpt from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it towards some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it, at all.”
February 3: 8 m0nths 11 days
I don’t know why I’m writing you these letters. It feels stupid sometimes, but it also feels important, so onward I go. The other night I had a dream and I was climbing a tree and there were decapitated ostrich heads in the branches. They were big and cartoonish, but creepy nonetheless.
I googled ostrich heads in the morning and the only connection I could make with the internet interpretation was that I wanted to bury my head in the sand. And this makes sense because I’ve been feeling emotionally overwhelmed lately–with politics and the direction of our country, getting ready for the baby, processing my grief, being a good daughter, etc. I find myself full of anxiety about what the future will hold. My mind wanders down these paths, worries that mom or dad will kill themselves, worries about which one of them will die first and how lonely the other will be, worries about what it will feel like to be the last of my immediate family. These are all things that I have no control over. I’ve gone to two al-anon meetings. They talk about the three c’s when it comes to a loved one who has an addiction: I didn’t cause the problem, I can’t control the problem, and I can’t cure the problem. I’m not even sure why I’m going to these meetings, but it feels like there is something I can learn there, especially in the realm of control.
Anyway, when I was looking for the meaning of the ostrich heads, I remembered one night when you were in high school you had a dream that you killed me. You woke up so upset and you were so relieved to see that I was okay. You got out your dream dictionary and frantically flipped through it. You found that murder meant something completely contrary to what you thought. I can’t remember what it was, but it was fairly benign and you were again relieved because you thought that the dream must’ve meant you were a terrible person.
February 4: 8 months 12 days
I haven’t been to your grave since the headstone arrived. Oh, how mom stressed out over that stone. I was at the cemetery when she and dad walked around looking at all the various options–colors and sizes and different ways/places they could be inscribed. They pointed at the ones they liked; they said “too big” or “too small” or “too shiny.” They decided on a mahogany. Mom ordered the stone.
Then, a few weeks later, maybe a month, she changed her mind. It had to be black. There was no question. Black. She called the company to change the order, but it was too late. The stone hadn’t been engraved yet, but it had been cut and polished. Mom didn’t care. “Well, just give the brown stone to a family that can’t afford one.” She ordered another one. Black.
Then she obsessed over what to have engraved–a butterfly here, a quote here. I suggested that we should choose a quote from a writer you liked, after all, you were a brilliant writer and an artist, so on a visit home I paged through the books of quotes that you liked to make and chose several options. Of those, mom made the final pick. Emerson.
Meanwhile, Dad fumed over the $2500 that they’d lost in the debacle over the first stone. Initially when mom had told him about it, he was at work and I think that he hung up on her. He got over it pretty quickly, but there were a few tense days.
I, of course, could see the whole thing from both sides. I definitely related more to dad’s perspective. I kind of felt like mom was being wasteful and ridiculous. I mean it was just a color of a stone and who really cared? Dead people didn’t have opinions about something that trivial, or at least that’s how I want to think of death–like you have no worries or cares about the affairs of the earth. Also, I think dad liked the mahogany color better and the stone was, after all, also going to be their stone when they died.
The whole conflict, brief as it was, had echoes of all the dynamics that had been present when you were alive–mom doing so much for you, to the point of enabling, and dad just along for the ride, quietly stewing in his anger and probably feeling unimportant. It felt a little like the whole world was revolving around you and placating you in the same way that it had when you were alive.
But I could also see that all of this was part of mom’s grieving process and I knew that it was important to her to feel like she got it right. I could see that all of her indecisiveness was centered around the fear of making a mistake or doing something that would be contrary to what you wanted.
When the stone finally came in, dad started worrying that it was too cold for them to set it on the concrete slab and he fretted over whether or not the installers would clean the slab and get a good seal with whatever adhesive they used. This is typical dad stuff. The kind of thing that he drives everybody crazy with because he’ll keep talking about it, but he won’t do anything to relieve his worry, like call the installers to tell them that they damn well better scrub the slab spic n’ span.
Anyway, you got a black stone installed just after your birthday. Mom emailed me a picture of it with the message, “What do you think?” I opened my email one day and there it was. Boom. Your name on a tombstone. 1973-2016. Their names were inscribed too.
I fucking hate it, I thought, but I wrote her back: It’s as nice as any stone with your names on it could be.
February 5: 8 months 13 days
Yesterday on the phone with dad I tried to check in with him: “How are you and mom doing?” I asked. “I’ve read in several places about how it’s common for parents who’ve lost a child to feel suicidal themselves.”
“I’m ok. I try to keep busy and I think I’m doing ok.”
Here is what he did not say: Whoa that’s crazy, I would never do that. I would never even think about that.
But even if he had said that, I’m not sure it would’ve made me feel any better. There are so many stories that I’ve heard/read from survivors of suicide where the loved one swore up and down that they’d never do that. There are so many stories in which the survivors are stunned that their brother/father/son/sister/mother/daughter committed suicide.
I know two different people who have each lost two siblings to suicide. One of them has a dad who says things like, “Sometimes I think of just driving off a bridge.”
When I hear this I find myself angry. I want to scream at the father: You still have a son who is alive. Why isn’t he enough?
I think that I’ve felt that in some ways with mom and dad–like I’m not enough. As we approached Christmas, mom kept saying that she didn’t even want to get out of bed on that day, and part of me felt hurt and angry. A couple of times, she apologized afterwards and I minimized the my feelings because they feel petty and small.
One of the moms in my group lost one of her sons. She has several other children who are in their teens and sometimes this mom talks about how the other kids are processing. One of them doesn’t want to talk about the dead brother and gets angry every time the mom cries.
When I sit listening to her stories about the kids, I empathize with the mother, but a bigger part of me identifies with the other children. I am thirty-nine years old and every once in a while I am overcome with anger at the way that your death has changed our parents. At the way that they are, in some ways, hollow shells. At the fact that you are the center of everything, the same way that you were when you were alive. I can only imagine how it would be to process all of this as a teenager, how difficult it would be to lose not only your brother, but to watch your mother and father recede into dots on the horizon while you stand on the shore helpless.
February 6: 8 months 14 days
I don’t know what to say this morning. I stayed up late watching the Super Bowl. Lady Gaga was amazing, except that I was hoping that she’d do something really over the top political. When she jumped off the side of the stadium, I was hoping that a banner would unfurl behind her like a cape and that it would say something like, Love Trumps Hate, but instead she just sang, “This Land is My Land” before she took the leap.
Remember back in the 80s when we got our picture taken with the Michael Jackson cutout on the boardwalk in Wildwood? We used to tell people that we met him. All of those Wildwood vacations blend together for me now–Marco Polo in the hotel pool, grandma winning me a Cabbage Patch doll on the boardwalk, you and Jimmy crazy gluing my hand to my water gun, playing WWF, imitating our favorite wrestler Jimmy “Superfly” Snooka, movies on rainy days, sleeping on rickety pull out sofa beds, grandmom bobbing in the shallow end, yelling at us not to splash her.
When I look at pictures of you from back then, I find myself searching your face for some sign of what was to come.
February 7: 8 months 15 days
When you were alive your illnesses took up so much space. For the last two years of your life you lived in near constant terror of the voices you heard and the paranoia you experienced. For the last two years you lived in a spare bedroom at mom and dad’s townhouse. Most of your belongings were in a storage unit: your meager furniture, your art, and your precious books. Mom and Dad weren’t equipped to take care of you. There were nights when they felt afraid of you. There was one occasion where you shared with them that the voices had told you to hurt them. They called your therapist after you’d told them this, and you know what happened? The therapist didn’t return their call. That is what our mental health system in this country is like.
I heard stories about how things were going during my phone conversations with mom and dad. Mom tended to keep the worst of it to herself, except on rare occasions when she couldn’t hold it in. She once told me about how you’d asked her whether or not she thought the second floor of their townhouse was a high enough perch to kill you if you jumped. After she told me she said, “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to upset you.” Dad was more likely to tell me the gritty details of the day to day–how many times you’d called them at work insisting that there were people in the house, how you’d closed your bank account again because you thought someone had hacked into it, how you insisted that someone was changing your meds, how after you’d called the police to the house several times they told him that they couldn’t admit you to a hospital, but that he needed to do something about you because they couldn’t keep responding to these 911 calls.
Dad also used to complain to me about how you weren’t doing anything to look for a place of your own. Mom and Dad wanted you to find an apartment near them. I was always astounded by these complaints. Did he really think you were going to find an apartment on your own? I used to say in my most patient voice, “Dad, if you want her to move out, you’re going to have to find a place for her.” Never mind that you were not equipped to live on your own. I didn’t care about that. Mom and Dad were drowning.
The only doctors you liked were the ones who would comply with your demands for certain meds like Adderall and Concerta. The whole thing was so fucked up. I used to go around and around in circles in my head over what to do.
There was talk at one point of buying you a condo. I was all for it. I could see the toll that living with you was taking on mom and dad. This was the thing that made me most angry–that I would lose my mother and father sooner because of you, that they were growing old before their time, that they were neglecting their own health because all of the energy they devoted to you.
Now that you are gone, aside from the normal ache and sadness over your absence, there is a huge void, a gulf that used to be occupied with worry over you, it’s as if our family has lost it’s sun. We are still stuck in the same orbit, but you are no longer there. We are orbiting your death.
February 8: 8 months 16 days
When you were hearing voices, I rarely felt sorry for you. I blamed you. I thought that you were taking too much Concerta and Adderall (you had somehow convinced your doctor that you needed both), and that you were experiencing drug induced psychosis. If you wanted the voices to stop, you were in control of that.
Now when I look back, I can see that this is what I needed to believe in order to maintain my anger. I needed my anger. It was a buttress against the sorrow that pressed down upon me. It was easier for me if it was your fault.
Addiction, of course, has always confounded me. How some people can stop and some can’t. How some recover and some die. How it is a disease just like mental illness. How those experiencing it deserve compassion not judgement.
For me, addiction has always elicited a wild, electric kind of anger. Especially when it came to you.
I still think you were abusing your meds. I think you binged on your amphetamines until you ran out, that they kept you up for days, and they contributed to your auditory hallucinations and your paranoia, but I can’t say they were the sole cause. I think your bipolar had gotten worse, that your depression had snowballed and picked up psychosis as it barreled down the hill, but even if that’s not the case, and the truth is that the voices you heard were a direct result of the drugs you abused, you still deserved to be loved. I am still struggling to get to that place, the place where I love you in the face of your addiction. I’m sorry.
February 9: 8 months 17 days
It’s snowing this morning and I’m all stressed out because two guys were supposed to come and start the demo on our bathroom, but one of them is sick so they had to cancel. I made coffee for them and cut up a few slices of banana nut bread. I even spent an hour last night covering the steps with foam and cardboard. Now I have to drive in the snow/rush hour forty minutes south to go look at some bathroom cabinets that I built out of quarter-sawn sycamore. The installer says the drawer fronts don’t line up and they are all different sizes. I have no idea how that is remotely possible, but as you can see, life goes on with all its stresses and anxieties and small, in the grand scheme of things, problems. And you are still dead. You will always be dead.
February 10: 8 months 18 days
You know how when you get a head cold and you are so congested that the pressure is actually painful, and then when things finally things start to break up, you are so relieved but also, you know that you are going to be a disgusting human for a few days as you expel what feels like impossible amounts of snot etc. from your body? I think I am starting to feel that way in my grief–like the things that have been sort of locked up in my head are starting to get knocked loose, which is probably, ultimately a sign of healing but is kind of shocking at the same time.
Last night I thought of you, of the last thing you said to dad before he and mom left on their trip to Florida. “Bring me back some seashells.” He did, but instead of giving them to you, we each put one on your grave at your funeral. I could hear your voice, could imagine just what you sounded like when you said this to him. I was overrun with emotion. I have been feeling a kind of yearning for you, which feels so very strange to me given what our relationship was like. Missing you doesn’t make sense. How can I miss someone I chose to not have a relationship with? How can I miss someone when I know that if the person were here on this earth right now, I wouldn’t pick up the phone to call? I wouldn’t pick up the phone to call you. I know that. But then there is your voice in my head, bring me back some seashells, and the expression that you would’ve had on your face and the childlike request and somewhere inside of me, I miss you even though I don’t deserve to miss you.
February 11: 8 months 19 days
The other day we had our 20 week ultrasound. Lindsay and I watched our child move around while the technician measured its head, its tibia, the chambers of its heart. So many measurements. I sent mom and dad a picture of the ultrasound and I thought that it would make them happy, that it would prop them up for the day, but when I called mom later to check in, she was crying. It kind of hurt my feelings in the moment, but thinking about it now, maybe all this baby stuff is bringing back memories of you being a baby. That must be impossibly sad.
I already feel so protective of this baby. I have hopes and dreams for it and I want, so badly for it to have a good life and for us to be good parents. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I have more of an understanding of the unimaginable grief that mom and dad are experiencing.
February 12: 8 months 20 days
In mom and dad’s house they have two spare bedrooms. One of those is your old room, the place where you died. We still call it Lex’s room, when we are talking about it. When you were alive, sometimes I felt mad about the fact that you had a room in both their townhouse and their beach house. It pissed me off, the way that you had staked a claim. But really, what a ridiculous thing to be jealous of! You weren’t well enough to live on your own. And yet, it was jealousy that catalyzed into lightning bolts of anger. Bolts that flew through me, breaking me into pieces.
I felt jealous, too, of the way that mom would climb into bed with you on really bad nights and hold you to make sure that you stayed safe. Like the night that you cut your wrist and woke me to show me what you’d done, and mom refused to call 911 because she was more afraid of the hospital you’d be taken to than she was of the slice on your wrist. She climbed into bed with you that night, even after you’d screamed at me and called me a “little bitch” over and over because you were angry with me for telling them what you’d done. Even then she climbed into bed with you. The sane part of me wanted to explain to the insane part, that this is not a thing to be jealous over, but the child inside of me wanted my mother; wanted her to tell me that she loved me.
Now that you are dead, sometimes I am jealous of the grief that mom and dad feel over losing you. I know that this is ridiculous, but some days when mom cries on the phone, I feel like I am not enough. I tuck that emotion away, tightly within the folds of my self, because the grown up part of me knows how childish it is. I am ashamed of it.
Anyway, I began writing this letter to say that next weekend Aunt Terry is coming down from New York to visit mom and dad and Lindsay and I are thinking about going up as well, which means that someone is going to have to stay in your old room. I don’t think that I can do it. I’ve been stressing out about this, not talking to anyone about it. Mom and dad have cleaned the room, all of your stuff is gone, and the rug where you laid while dying has been replaced with hardwood flooring. Still, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to sleep there. The grown up part of me knows that it’s just a room, but some other part of me knows that it’s your room and I’ll never be able to sleep there.
February 13th: 8 months 21 days
There are ways in which you being gone has made life simpler. It breaks my heart to say this because I know you believed that all of us would be better off without you; that this was one reason you killed yourself, but it is the truth. There are things that used to weigh on me, that no longer do. One of my biggest worries in life, for instance, was trying to figure out what would happen to you after mom and dad died and this worry vanished when you left us.
I used to tell mom and dad all of the time that I could not and would not take care of you the way that they took care of you. This was both a blustery shot across the bow as well as a desperate flare that I shot into the dark night sky from a ship adrift at sea. Do not count on me, it was meant to say, while simultaneously screaming, help me, I don’t want to be alone with her.
The way that mom and dad coddled and enabled you angered me. You didn’t have to do anything for yourself. You had no motivation to get better. You were a parasite living off of them. Now that you are gone, mom cries and says that you used to always do the laundry and part of me wonders if her memory hasn’t shifted, if grief has softened your sharp edges, filed them down to nothing. Or maybe it is just that I never heard about the ways you helped out.
All I know is that I was terrified at the prospect of your life becoming my responsibility and even more terrified that I’d come to deal with you the same way that mom and dad had–giving in, letting you run the show, letting things revolve around your moods and desires.
I don’t have to worry about this any more. Now I worry about other things, like whether mom and dad will be okay and what it will feel like if I am the last member of our family alive. I wonder how I will find the strength to stand at the grave of the three people who knew me the longest and loved me unconditionally.
February 14: 8 months 22 days
Today is Valentine’s Day. Yesterday mom left work early to go pick up Uncle Jim because he had to get a colonoscopy today, and he still cannot find his way to their house on his own. Anyway, it sounded like he was a bit of a pill after drinking the gross stuff they give you, which made him feel sick. Since he wasn’t allowed to eat for 24 hours, mom didn’t want to cook in front of him so she and dad went out to get something to eat.
So this morning she drove him to his appointment and waited while he got the procedure done and drove him home. Once he was finished, she said he was all smiles and that he told her over and over that he didn’t know what he would do without her.
Mom relayed all of this to me while she was driving home from work. She left early because she wanted to stop at your grave. I told her to tell you hello from me. It’s strange, the whole ritual of going to dead people’s graves, but I’ve been to your grave several times since you’ve been gone and I feel like it would make you happy to see me there, so I go.
Anyway, when mom was telling me the whole Uncle Jim saga, I thought, wow, she’s such a good sister, better than I ever was, and I felt kind of guilty but then I thought about how dependent he is on her and I wondered about love like that and wondered why mom is always the caretaker and never the one taken care of and I felt my old twinges of anger; felt my internal pendulum swinging away from guilt toward disdain, toward deep judgment on the dependence she allows. What does all of this mean? Which way is the right way to love another person?
February 15th: 8 months 23 days
Yesterday when I was walking the dogs, I scrolled through all of my deleted voicemail messages and “undeleted” three that are from you. I couldn’t bring myself to listen to them but I’m pretty sure that one of them is a long rambling message where you tell me you love me and you get really weepy. I remember when I listen to that message and my whole body clenched in response. It did nothing to break down any of my walls. If anything, it sent me scrambling for reinforcements.
It was a warm summer day when I first listened to it. I was working on an install and I took a break to check my messages and there was your voice and there was my anger, so familiar. Where was my compassion? My empathy? My heart? You were right about me being the Tin Man.
February 16th: 8 months 24 days
Lindsay and I were watching NCIS tonight and in one scene the medical examiner was standing in front of a body bag and he said, “I don’t want to know how much her liver weighs,” and suddenly you were in my mind. Your body, your liver. A flash of data from your autopsy report.
I have a copy of the report tucked at the bottom of my nightstand drawer, underneath pens and some photos and hair ties and other miscellaneous shit. I’ve only read it once. I thought that it would answer so many questions that I had about your death, but it didn’t. Instead, I learned things that I never wanted to know, like the weight of your liver and your brain.
February 17th: 8 months 25 days
Can you see us from wherever you are now? Do you see all the ways that our lives are going on without you and all the ways that our lives will never go on? When you first died, I kept telling myself that you could see everything now that you were dead. I told myself this so that I could believe that you’d be able to forgive me, like you would be able to understand why I’d been so angry with you while you were alive. Now, I think about you watching us mourn and I wonder if you can see how much pain your death has brought, and I wonder if you think that our pain is enough. Or maybe it is just my pain that I wonder about. Is my pain enough?
This morning mom called me while I was on my way to work. I said, “Hey Mom, how are you?” There was silence on the other end and then she broke into sobs. She wishes she could just hold you one more time. She misses you so much. Her voice, when she cries like that, goes through me, the way that yours used to, only now I feel strong enough to handle it. “I know mom, I know.” That’s all I can offer her. “I miss her too,” I said, but it felt disingenuous because I know I miss you in such a different way than mom does. Her missing is an ocean, mine is a drip leaking from a faucet–it would take a week to fill up a bucket.
February 18: 8 months 26 days
I am home visiting mom and dad. There are so many pictures of you. All of your art work is displayed on their mantle and bookshelf. The program from your funeral, the one that mom got laminated, sits on top of a bank of drawers next to the book of quotes that you made for mom. The garage is filled with things that belonged to you. Part of me is jealous. I will never be as big a presence as you are an absence.
Aunt Terry is here too. She is staying in your old room. The room where you died. I cannot sleep in there and I was nervous about what the sleeping arrangements were going to be and nervous that mom or dad wouldn’t be comfortable with someone staying in that room. I talked to mom about it before we came up and she said that it was okay with her if Terry wanted to stay there. “She’s in every room in that house,” mom said, referring to you.
February 19: 8 months 27 days
Your boxes fill about half of the garage at mom and dad’s. Yesterday when dad and I were out there for a moment, he said that mom can’t get rid of anything, even things that have no connection to you. They got a new table for the hall and dad wanted to get rid of the old one, but mom said, “No, I can give that to Jimmy.” But then dad says she never does. Dad sounded exasperated. I told him to try to focus on the things that have been accomplished–your old storage unit is empty, your old room is not filled to the brim. “Yeah,” he sighed.
Mom’s right, you really are everywhere in the house: in the basement, a pile of your clothes on the foundation ledge, at breakfast, your picture on the table, upstairs in the guest room, your old boots. When I see it all I think all of the things I will one day have to go through. When mom and dad are gone, your stuff will be mixed in with theirs and I can imagine feeling a desperation to hold onto it all.
February 20: 8 months 28 days
Where were all of these letters when you were alive? I write to you now, but you are not here. When you were here, I think that you thought I didn’t care about you, but if I hadn’t cared, I wouldn’t have felt so angry.
I wish I could ask you about your relationship with Dylan. Was he your boyfriend? Your lover? I wish I could ask you about some of the things you wrote in your journals from way back. You were so boy crazy. I can’t even guess how many times Brett DuBois’ name was mentioned. Remember him? I remember his blue eyes and his dimples. Is it just a coincidence that he killed himself too? So many years before you did.
Can you understand why I was so angry? I tell myself that your death brought with it an omniscience and that with that omniscience, understanding and forgiveness. I don’t know if that’s right. The truth is that you were suffering when you were here and I couldn’t allow myself to be sucked into it and I closed myself off to you, and you thought that I didn’t care, and I think that might be unforgivable.
February 21: 8 months 29 days
Last night Sully woke me up because he had to go to the bathroom. He does this funny little groan that starts off really low and short and then he works up to being louder and longer. So I let him out at 3:30 and then went back to bed, but I couldn’t fall asleep because my mind went to you. I used to think of your body on the floor every time I closed my eyes, but I do that less and less now. What I thought of last night was Thanksgiving at Aunt Nancy’s house– you with your big glass of red wine, coming out to the front porch where I was talking to Erica. You sat down next to me and tried to join in the conversation. I wish I could say that I was glad you’d joined us, but I wasn’t.
All I could think of was how to get away from you. By that point I’d set boundaries and one of those boundaries was that I refused to be around you while you were drinking, but I’d made an exception on this occasion because I didn’t want to miss this family event. Aunt Terry usually comes and Billy and Bonnie and our great Aunt Phyllis, who is getting frail. When you sat down I could tell that the wine had already lit you up, so all I could think about was how to protect myself, how to remove myself, how to take care of myself. There was a thought about hurting your feelings, but it was fleeting and I coached myself out of getting mired in worrying about you.
I got up and soon after, so did Erica and there you were alone on that bench on Nancy and Gene’s front porch, looking lost.
Last night this was the image that played in my mind. I could see your face in that moment, looking uncertain as to where to go next or who to try to talk to. I wonder what ran through your head. Did you think about me, about how your sister wanted nothing to do with you? Could you see how desperate I was to move away from you?
Kindness that seemed impossible when you were alive seems so easy now that you are gone, but I couldn’t figure it out while you were alive. I am left with this snapshot of your face filled with fear–you, uncomfortable in your own skin; you, wondering whether you’d be missed if you left this world.
February 22: 8 months 30 days
Last night I was at my support group and there was this young lady who reminded me of you, but not in a good way. Her behavior reminded me of the way you acted when you were either drunk or manic. She spoke too loudly, interrupted people, turned lines of conversation back to herself and kept repeating herself. My whole body felt like a hand clenching into a fist. I wanted her to shut up. I wanted her to not be there. The whole dynamic of the group was turned on its head because of this one young woman. The space felt less safe. I felt the same anger towards her that I felt towards you.
I wanted to wish away these ill feelings toward this young woman. I wanted to be filled with empathy for her. I worried for her mental health. What if she kills herself, I thought. She seemed so unstable.
I’d hoped that with your death, I would become more compassionate. Kinder. I have told myself over and over that I can’t go back and relive our relationship, but I can go forward in the world and be better. This is the closest thing to a second chance that I will get in this world, but as I sat across from this young lady, my body physically reacting to her, I felt like this was my chance to show that I have learned, that I have grown, that I have become more compassionate, but all of the old feelings were there, stronger than ever. It feels like I am failing at my opportunity for redemption.
February 23: 9 months
Nine months gone. Nine months, the amount of time it takes a life to form inside a human body. The life inside of my wife, growing each day, opening my eyes to the love a parent has for a child. Boundless. An understanding unfurls inside of me that if the love is boundless, so too is the grief at the loss of a child.
I hover over Lindsay sometimes because I worry about the baby inside of her. The other day, she had to do a field walk for work, and a streak of fear ran through me that she would lose her footing and fall. Reigning in fear is a struggle, like reeling in a giant fish that is full of life and of fight.
What is there to say on this day? Nine months you are gone. You will never be back. Never. It will be ten months and then a year and then, if life is generous with me, I will grow older than you ever got to be. Nine months.
The other night at my support group, a woman who lost her son said this: “When you lose a parent, you lose your past; when you lose a sibling, you lose your present; when you lose a child, you lose your future.” This woman had lost her brother to suicide as well, years before. Her statement feels inarguably true, but also something about it perhaps feels wrongheaded, as if it creates a hierarchy of grief. How can something be completely true and completely false at the same time? I loved you. I couldn’t stand to be around you.
Grief and joy can sit side by side: your death sits next to the possibility of me becoming a mother, and they don’t cancel one another out. They are each their own entity and no matter how large the joy swells inside of me, it cannot crowd out the grief. Nine months you are gone and you are not coming back. Time’s cruel march also brings relief.
February 24: 9 months 1 day
Yesterday mom went to see a psychic. Can you believe it? A psychic. Mom, who wraps her rosary beads around her wrist during mass and worries each bead between her fingertips as she says her Hail Mary’s, Our Father’s and Glory Be’s.
I’m skeptical of all of that stuff, but not to the point that I completely dismiss it, but damn do I want to believe the things that this woman told mom. She said that you were with someone who died of congestive heart failure, a person who spoke very loudly. She said that when you died, Nan came and took your hand to show you where to go. She said that you didn’t mean to die, but that you were messing with drugs and you just wanted to get higher and higher and so you kept taking more and more and then your heart gave out. She said you were above your body and you tried to go back into it, but when you touched your body it was cold and you thought, “Oh, now I’ve really done it.” You were upset because you didn’t want mom or dad to find your body. She said you waited with your body until they found you and you heard them scream and you felt so sorry. You didn’t want to hurt anyone.
She said that you had an addictive personality and that you stopped developing emotionally around the age of 19. You were stuck there. She said that you were a person who demanded that things be centered around you.
She said that you and I had a troubled relationship, but that things were okay now between us and that you were so proud of me.
She said that you are with us all of the time and that you like to sit in the car with mom and listen to the music. She said you love to sing, but that you aren’t great at it. She said that dad is grieving your loss and the when he is in the car by himself, he talks to you. Neither mom or I know whether this is true.
Mom wanted to know whether she’d said that she loved you the last time she spoke to you. “Yes, it was automatic,” the psychic told her. Mom asked if Michael was there with you and the psychic said, “Yes, he’s there. He says, ‘Yo’.” She said that you are at peace, that you are so, so at peace.
Is all of this true? Does it matter? How could she know some of the things she said? I like thinking of you in a room with Nan, Pop, Aunt Peg and Michael. I like thinking of you in the car next to mom listening to the music and most of all, I like thinking of you at peace.
February 25: 9 months 2 days
The psychic also asked mom if it was somebody’s birthday. Mom said that it was Aunt Bern’s birthday, your godmother and the psychic said, “No, someone else…a Margaret or a Maggie?” And mom said yes, it was Aunt Peg’s birthday, and the psychic told her that Aunt Peg was there with you, along with Nan and Pop and Michael and someone who was sitting in the corner knitting very quickly.
Did you mean to die? The psychic said that you didn’t. She said that you left that note because you felt a twinge of something and you wanted us all to know how much you loved us, but not because you were planning to kill yourself. I am wrestling with this.
Yesterday my coworker, Mychael, and I left work early to go for a hike. We’ve had a warm spell for a week now and the past two days reached into the 70s. Days like this make me think of you–the day before you died was a beautiful Spring day, full of so much promise. You sat on the back deck of mom and dad’s and snapped a selfie that you sent to Dylan. Anyway, as we walked I told him about mom’s visit to the psychic and we began talking about death and the afterlife. He shared an experience that he had with death.
One day in Louisiana, Mychael and two of his friends went to a park to hang out. They saw something splashing around in the water and one of his friends waded out into the water and used his sweatshirt as a makeshift net, casting it out while holding onto the sleeves. When he pulled it up, there was a baby nutria, a Louisiana pest that looks like a cross between a rat and a beaver.
It was struggling to breathe and none of them knew what to do for it. Really, there was nothing to be done, so they stood over it and witnessed as it stopped breathing. Mychael said he’d never thought of death as a quiet, small thing, but watching the nutria pass from being alive to not being alive, that was how the experience felt.
I like thinking of death this way, as a passing that occurs from one moment to the next; as the end of a struggle; as small and not frightening. But I still find myself pondering where you go. One moment alive, conscious, and the next, what? There and then not there. Alive and then dead. A passing. A movement from one thing to the next. A person and then a body. I can’t wrap my brain around that last one.
February 26: 9 months 3 days
Anybody who has lost someone they loved knows about the way that life changes after the loss. Sure, grief is different for everybody, but the thing that is universal is the shift in the way we measure time. One year gone, two, three. We grow older, while you always be the age you were at your death. We begin to see everything as ephemeral. We cannot look at anything we love without being split in two by joy and grief. Joy in the present and grief over the loss we’ve experienced and the future losses that we know will come. Life divides into before and after.
I look at mom and dad and wonder how I will be changed by their loss. I look at my wife and know that “we” will not be forever. I will die or she will die. One day there will only be longing for what was. Longing and memories.
And having a child, I already feel the urgent need to protect. When Lindsay and I walk across the street, I find myself wanting to hold her elbow, wanting to put my body between her and the cars. Last night, after we had dinner in Towson, we were walking back to the car and there was a large group of drunk looking college kids outside of a bar and I moved to put my body between her and the kids.
I can only imagine how fierce this urge will grow when our child is born and in understanding this, I begin to know the depths of mom and dad’s grief over losing you, the way that they will never be able to forgive themselves for not being able to save you, even if you were beyond saving, because once upon a time, they held you in their arms and they whispered promises to love and protect you. They had a world full of hope for what you would become. They would’ve given anything for you, including their lives. I think they did give their lives to you in the metaphorical sense. They watched you suffer and they could do nothing to ease your pain. They watched you devolve into madness, chased by threatening voices. They were in uncharted territory. The enemy was your own brain.
February 27: 9 months 4 days
Uncle Paul is dying. Mom called yesterday and said that he’d been in the hospital for a few days and they diagnosed him with end stage liver cancer. He has one month. One fucking month.
My first thoughts were of Aunt Bern and Kier, the people he will leave behind. Kier who had her baby only four months ago–Uncle Paul and Aunt Bern’s first grandchild. It seems so cruel, but life doles out great joys and great despair seemingly at random. Kierstan will watch her father die slowly each day and then she will have to go home to take care of her son.
Last night I had a dream. In it, dad was telling mom that she needed to learn to do some of the things that he normally does. “I worry about you being able to take care of yourself,” he told her. Though he didn’t say it, we all understood that he was talking about her ability take care of things after he died.
I feel like I am standing on the edge of a cliff and there’s a wave coming toward me. I am at the age where it is common for parents’ health to decline. Where children, perhaps, are a bit more likely to get news that their mother or father has one month to live. We call it the “natural order” when we talk about it in the abstract, but nothing about watching your mother or father die feels natural. Uncle Paul, and then who will be next? The wave is going to break over top of me and I don’t know how I will keep my footing, how I will be able to keep from going over the edge.
February 28: 9 months 5 days
Mom says that the psychic helped her a little bit, that it made her heart a little lighter when she heard her say that you are at peace, but it didn’t take away the longing she has to see you again.
The psychic also told mom that you and I had a hard relationship, but that everything is okay between us now. She said that you are so proud of me. I wept when I heard these words. I’d been too afraid to even ask mom whether I’d come up. I was afraid of how you’d react if I came up. Would you be angry? Would you want me to know that I failed you? Would you curse me? Of course not, you were always kinder towards me than I was towards you.
Mom said it made her feel good to give me news that helped me. She said that I don’t really talk about how I’m doing, which surprised me, but then I when I thought about it, I realized that she’s right. I’m so aware of how different our grief is, and mine feels insignificant.
March 1: 9 months 6 days
I don’t know how to grieve your loss. I don’t know how to talk about it with people. Every so often, I am able to open up and talk about things/you/my feelings with others but you are on my mind constantly and it feels impossible or futile to even talk about it. I am grieving you every minute of every day, all at the same time that I am living my life–doing my chores, cleaning the house, going to the grocery store. Grief splits a person in two. There is public face put forward into the world and then the actual emotional face that lives inside. It’s hard not to feel disconnected from people when you are living this split. How do you explain that you are grieving all of the time? That even the happiest of moments in your day and life are tinged with gray?
March 2: 9 months 7 days
When I began these letters I only intended to write them for one month, but I want to continue until I feel like I’m done and I don’t feel that way yet.
On the weekend that you killed yourself, mom and dad were in Florida visiting Aunt Patty. I knew you were by yourself that weekend, knew that you’d been struggling, that you’d been hearing voices, that you were probably afraid to be in that house by yourself. I knew all of that and I didn’t even text you to see if you were okay. I texted you on Monday to remind you that it was mom and dad’s anniversary, but you were already dead. I imagine my text reaching your phone, pinging its alert next to your body.
I blamed you for the voices that you heard. I thought that they were a product of you abusing your Adderal and Concerta. I suspected that you’d take a whole bunch, which would keep you up for days and then the voices would come. I couldn’t see that even if that was 100 percent true, you still deserved compassion.
Would it have mattered if I’d called you that weekend? Would it have changed your mind? And if it did, would that just mean that you would continue to suffer?
March 3: 9 months 8 days
The psychic also told mom that you didn’t mean to die. She said that you were drinking and taking a bunch of meds and that you just wanted to get higher and higher. You knew that if you stopped you would feel crappy, so you just kept taking more and then your heart gave out. She said that your spirit was above your body and that you tried to go back to your body but when you touched it, it was cold and you thought, “Oh no, I’ve really done it this time.”
You waited with your body until mom and dad got home and found it. You heard them scream and you felt so sorry that they had to find you like that. I guess that was when Nan came and took you by the hand to show you where to go.
Mom asked her about the note that you’d written and she said that you’d just felt a little down and that you wanted to make sure that everyone knew that you loved them.
The thing is, I don’t know how to believe some of what the psychic said but not all of it. You killed yourself, didn’t you? You meant to leave this world, right? You were ready to go, weren’t you?
I had the laziest day today. I sat in the recliner with my laptop and wrote for a while, then I got sleepy and took a nap. There’s so much that needs to get done and I spent the day snoozing in the sunshine. I’ve never been good at doing that. For a long time I couldn’t sit still because I was afraid that I’d turn into you. I was afraid of your illnesses, as if they were things that I could catch, which makes no sense at all, but then on the other hand, I think I always felt like those things were floating around in my blood and the tiniest thing could trigger them. My fears were a big part of why I had a hard time being around you. I’m so sorry for that.
Two years ago today my best friend’s mom died of cancer. Diagnosed in November and dead by March. In the time since my friend’s mom died, my friend has had a baby and moved into a new home. All of these beautiful, positive life changes. She is both the happiest and saddest I’ve ever seen her. When we are around each other, we still make each other laugh and she looks at her little girl with a sense of wonder just like every other mom, but I can see the flickering sadness in her eyes. The pain of moving on and continuing to be alive without her mom there to see it all. She doesn’t laugh with the same abandon that she once did.
I see this in mom and dad too. When I ask them how they are, it is understood that I mean: how are you aside from dealing with your pain over the loss of your daughter. Were you really there when they found you? Did you hear them screaming? Their screams haunt me and I never even heard them.
I know that this is stupid but I’ve been thinking about how in Harry Potter, only Luna and Harry can see the thestrals because they have both experienced the loss of a loved one. I think that this detail put in by Rowling is a bit of genius. Something shifts inside of you when you experience the loss of someone you love and it really gives you a new way of seeing the world. You see all sorts of things. Things you never knew about, but were right in front of you.
I’ve been debating whether or not I should keep writing these letters to you. It makes me a little sad to think about stopping and to be honest, there’s a small part of me that wonders if you’d be disappointed. This is probably ridiculous, but I believe that, wherever you are, you know about these letters and you’re happy that I’m writing them every day. I think that they let you know that I haven’t forgotten about you and I imagine that you like this. Nobody wants to be forgotten.
But I wonder whether these letters are just me lingering in my grief. Counting the days that you are gone, maybe that’s a bad idea. I heard somewhere that people who linger are less healthy than those who just sort of push on and kind of don’t think much about it. That’s how dad seems to handle things. The other day I was asking him how he is doing and lecturing him a bit on the importance of finding outlets for his feelings, whatever those outlets may be. He told me that he hasn’t been thinking much about his grief, that he is just trying to live his life.
I always thought that mom was the one who was closed off to her own emotions, except of course, her anger which is the way she expresses everything: sadness, fear, frustration, heartbreak. Since you died, I’ve seen flares of her anger–occasions where she has shaken her fist at your grave and asked you why you did this–but mostly it has dissipated. You’d be amazed.
Dad though, he’s hard to read. He keeps everything inside. He works and drinks his wine and falls asleep in the recliner where he snores loudly enough to wake himself up. I wonder whether he feels things that he doesn’t feel okay talking about? He wrote a chapter for the book I’m making about your life and in it he said that he wished he could trade places with you, that if you could still be alive, he would give his life. I worry that his grief is eating him up inside.
All of the stuff that the psychic told mom has me wondering about what the afterlife is like. I don’t really know what I believe. I think it’s just too vast of a thing to try to form a set of beliefs around, but if the psychic is right, then you’re still around, you ride in the car with mom listening to music, but you’re somewhere else too. Somewhere with Nan and Pop and Aunt Peg. I bet it feels good for you to not have a body anymore. Your body was this thing that you had to drag around and it seemed, at least for the last twenty years, to be a thing that was too heavy, a thing you could never get a handle on. I wish that things had been different for you.
Linds and I got in an argument this morning because she called to ask me what I thought about us splitting our Baltimore shower and having two showers instead of one. When I told her the idea of changing our plans at this point stressed me out, she got upset. I thought she was upset because I was being irrational/emotional, but she was actually upset, I found out later, because her sister had brought the idea up to her and she’d just gotten off the phone with her just before she’d called me and she’d been looking for support and she felt like I was shutting her down/out.
Anyway, all of that to say that tonight we talked through things and while we were talking I came to a couple of realizations about myself, namely that I have a hang up around having similarities to some of the traits in mom that I would rather not have, like her anger. Don’t get me wrong, there are things about mom that I completely admire and would love to emulate, like her giant heart, and then there are things that drive me crazy that I’d just as soon not be part of me, like the way that her giant heart seems to always require that she put herself last. It has just always seemed to me that maybe her anger is related to the way that she takes care of everyone else. Something about it feels out of balance to me.
Apparently Lindsay doesn’t have this sensitivity to being compared to her mother. She knows that there are traits of her mother that she has adopted and she just accepts that, even the ones that are not the most appealing. Hearing her talk about this different relationship to the way that we all become our parents, helped me to understand that I have a hang up. Until this revelation, I thought that everyone had the same complicated relationship with this subject, but lo and behold, this is my issue, not an issue common to all of humanity.
Why am I telling you all of this? Because when we were talking about this, I remembered this one time I’d gotten my haircut and Linds told me that my hair looked like yours in the back, and that she didn’t like it. This comment set me spinning in a million directions, all of which I kept to myself. I was upset because I didn’t want to be or look anything like you, but at the same time I was angry because I felt like Lindsay was attacking you (she didn’t like your hair = she didn’t like you) and I wanted to defend you. I also felt like a horrible human being for having such a strong reaction to such a small comparison. All of these thoughts were swirling in my head when Linds made the comment, but I didn’t say anything about it. Not to her, not to anyone because it felt so wrong to so desperately want to not have any kind of connection to you, not even in the way my hair looked.
March 11: 9 months 16 days
Dylan asked mom for some of your ashes. He asked over text and mom kind of avoided answering.
“How do you feel about it?” I asked when she shared this with me.
“I don’t know,” mom said.
“Yeah, I feel kind of weird about it. Like I don’t know if she would’ve wanted that, but then again, maybe she wouldn’t want to be sitting on my windowsill either.”
That’s where I keep the small canister that the funeral director gave me. It seemed like a nice place, where you could get some sun and where I’d see you every day. Right behind the canister I have this picture of you when you were a little girl. You are maybe four or five years old and you are wearing a little bikini and you are in motion going down a tall slide. I found the picture when I was looking for good photos for the boards at your service Something about it struck me. Your face looks determined yet carefree. Something about it reminded me of your potential and beauty. About a simpler time when you didn’t have to worry about the demons chasing you. When a slide was enough to make you happy.
So anyway you are on my window sill and I don’t know when I will be ready to pour out your ashes and let go of this last physical part of you. You, not of something you owned, I’ll still have those, but your things are not you. Your ashes are your body.
Maybe it shouldn’t be about when I’m ready. Maybe I should think more about what you’d want, but I know that you were generous enough that you’d probably tell me to take my time and set you free when I am ready.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day. Mom has your grave decorated with shamrocks and other green stuff. I haven’t actually seen it, so I don’t really know what’s there, but I imagine it’s sparkly and maybe even borderline gaudy. I’d bet there’s a leprachaun figurine involved. At Christmas mom put a blanket of pine on your grave. I never even knew that was a thing, but apparently they sell these woven rectangles of pine boughs that are meant to lay on a grave and keep your loved one warm. I thought that was both bizarre and incredibly touching. There was also this plastic Santa face that must have fallen off of a wreath or one of the things that mom bought. It had sort of gotten pressed into the earth so it looked like there was this doll sized Santa rising up from your grave. I thought you would’ve gotten a real kick out of it.
I find myself wondering a lot about whether the way that I am mourning your loss would make you happy/satisfied. I feel like you’re watching. Sometimes, I imagine you with a pad of paper, taking notes on the things I am doing or not doing. Am I crying enough? I would get low marks on that measure, both in frequency and intensity. I do think about you a lot. I guess I would do okay in that regard.
Maybe this is some kind of Catholic guilt or something. When I step back and think about it objectively, it seems ridiculous to think that you are watching me. That makes me more important than I am, but then, we are all the stars of our own lives, right? I’ve always been the kind of person who assumes that if another person is upset, it must be because of something I’ve done. And even if you are watching me, I’d like to think that you have better things to do than rate my grief. I want to believe that our spirits shed all judgement when it leaves the body.
Maybe the idea of you watching/grading me is just a way for me to keep you with me.
I’ve written several chapters from your perspective. I wonder how you’d feel about that. It seems important to try to see the world from your eyes. It doesn’t feel fair to tell the whole story from my point of view, but then I suppose even your imagined perspective is still really my perspective, when it comes right down to it.
I wrote this one scene that took place back when we lived together in Canton–a night that stuck out in my mind for some reason. We went to the Austin Grill for a drink. You felt like you needed to prove to me that you could have just one and I went along with it. We listened to a guy playing music. You had a glass of wine, I had a beer. Then we left. But when we got home you kept drinking unbeknowst to me.
I wondered what that night looked/felt like from your perspective. I imagined how you must have felt back then–like the walls were closing in. I wrote about it. I hope that you would be okay with what I’ve written.
One thing I feel very strongly about is being open about your suicide. Last night at my group a couple talked about losing their son-in-law and what his death has done to their daughter. They worry about her, worry that his death has opened up a wound inside of her that will not heal. The son-in-law also left behind a daughter, this couple’s grandchild. She’s just eight years old and they said that she doesn’t know how her father died. This is how her mother has chosen to deal with it. The grandparents expressed concern over having this large, looming secret. “The whole neighborhood knows what he did, so it’s going to come out at some point,” the grandmother said, “but it’s not my place to tell her.”
She’s right, I suppose. It’s not her place to tell her, but I can’t understand choosing to hide the truth rather than just talking about it. What can an eight year old handle? What can they process? People used to keep adoption a secret and then the kid would find out and it’d be this huge thing, but if they’d just had it explained to them in age appropriate ways they would have had a lifetime to process it, rather than all at once.
I try not to judge things that are said in that room. I know that people are doing their very best and trying to survive a thing that feels impossible, but I struggle with this one. I find myself wanting to scream at these people to tell her the truth.
But then just yesterday, when our accountant was over to pick up all of our tax documents, there was a slip of paper from the 401K that you made me the beneficiary for. Twelve hundred dollars that I got because you are dead. She asked where this had come from and the whole thing–the fact that you chose me, the fact that I had gotten money that you could have used–had made me so sad that when I got the check that I just wanted to forget about it. I put off cashing it. I let it get buried in the mail pile. I tried to give it to mom and dad, but they refused. So anyway, when I got this slip of paper for my taxes, I didn’t even process what it was. I’d just sort of blocked it out. Then when the accountant was questioning me, I realized all at once and I knew I had to tell her, but I found myself skirting the whole thing. “My sister died this year,” I said. “She made me the beneficiary of her 401K.” When it came right down to it, I didn’t say that you’d killed yourself.
March 23: 10 months
We don’t actually know when you died. It was probably on the 22nd, but since nobody found you until the 23rd, that’s the date that had to go on the death certificate. At first, I was hoping that we could put the 22nd because May 23rd is mom and dad’s wedding anniversary and for some reason I wanted their anniversary to be separate from your death, because I didn’t want that happy day to be tainted by your death, but I quickly realized how ridiculous that was. As if one day would make a difference. As if they’d ever forget that it was May 23rd 2016 when they found your body.
Your death overwhelms me at times. Most of the time I’m okay, but then I have these moments where it washes over me, and I have to wring myself out before I am okay again. Sometimes dad’s voice on the phone replays in my head. The way he sounded when he said, “Alexis is dead.” I can’t remember how I responded, although I can remember the feeling I had in that moment. I know that Lindsay was looking at me, searching my face for some clue as to whether things were okay or not. I remember repeating, “She’s dead.”
Sometimes I imagine that I am dad, coming home from Florida, coming into the house, turning on the lights, calling up to you. No answer. Up the steps. Knocking on your door. No answer. Trying to open the door. The door hitting your body, unable to open. Seeing your body through the crack, touching it. Calling 911. It’s all imagined. It’s not my memory and I am grateful that I only have it in this imagined version and I am so sorry that he has the lived one. Sorry that he has the sensory memory of your cold body on his hands. Mom too. I imagine the sounds that they must have made.
Sometimes I get angry that you had to die alone because you killed yourself. It seems like our world would be a much kinder place if the people who want to leave it did not have to do it alone. Did not have to be found on the floor of their bedroom.
Ten months gone. If you were still here, this chunk of time would have been 10 more months that you had suffered.
Every night before I go to bed, I kiss my hand and touch the container that holds your ashes. I feel silly doing this, but I do it anyway. Lately, I feel the reality of it all weighing down on me. You are inside of that container. All that is left of you. What to do with you…I’m not ready to pour you out anywhere. When I think of doing that, it feels like another loss, but then I wonder if I am being selfish. Maybe you wouldn’t want to be on my windowsill. But then I think that you’d be generous enough to allow me the time I need. You were always kinder than me in a lot of ways. Also, I like to think that this line from one of my favorite poems is true: “What can I promise you? Only that you can keep me as long as you can and I will be.”
I miss having the possibility that we could become sister again. That we could become close. That we could restore what we once had. Maybe I miss that more than I miss you. You had become so difficult to handle, to be around, to love.
Remember that time that you took the sprayer from the sink and you taped the handle down and nestled it in a plant full of blooming flowers that was on the counter? When mom got home from work, you urged her to smell them. When she leaned over them, you turned on the water and it sprayed her in the face. She was so mad.
There are other stories of your devilish sense of humor. When we were still pretty young, you used to tap people on the shoulder when we were standing in line and then look away so that the person would assume it was mom or dad who had done the tapping.
Then there was the time that you came up to me after school while we were in line waiting for the bus. You had a cupcake in your hand and you held it out for me and sang happy birthday to me, even though it wasn’t my birthday, and then you smashed it in my face. And then the time that you and our cousin Jimmy put super glue on the handle of my water gun.
It took years for some of your jokes to become things that we would retell and laugh about–the way mom was so red faced and angry after you sprayed her–the water dripping off of her face , the wet spot on her blouse expanding outward. The way I screamed when I tried to put my water gun down and it would not leave my hand. Some of them became part of family lore, and some, like the time you mashed the cupcake in my face, still just strike me as mean.
Last week I went to see my podiatrist because my feet have been hurting. This is a kind of thing that I worry about. I mean, I’m on my feet all day and already, at 39, it’s painful? How in the hell am I going to keep doing the work I do?
Anyway, when I was on my way into the office there was a man sitting on the bench outside. He had tanned leathery skin and he was talking to himself. When I went inside, I could still hear him. He was yelling about someone being an asshole and dirty whores and all kinds of profanities. All I could think of was you. If you didn’t have mom and dad to care for you, you might have ended up on the streets and your illnesses would have gotten worse, maybe even as bad as this man’s. I kept thinking about the way that whomever he was talking to was real to him and about the way that his voices probably never stopped and how this is a particular kind of prison. Trapped in your own body with a brain that sends you inaccurate information.
The podiatrist eventually came out and realized that this man was sitting on the bench in front of his business. The receptionist told him that she’d already called the office park security. “Call the police,” he said. “He can’t be out there.”
When he left, the receptionist looked at me and said, “I don’t want to call the police.” I nodded, all the while thinking of you. Of the way that our society does not want to see people like that, the way that the police would come and usher the man along to somewhere else or possibly arrest him if he got violent. There is no place in our society for the mentally ill. Prison is the new long term mental hospital. Prison or a graveyard.
Yesterday was national siblings day, which basically means that people post pictures of themselves with their siblings on social media. I’ve never posted a photo of the two of us, not on national sibling day or any other day. It always felt like that would be fake. Dylan posts a lot of pictures of the two of you. He texts me and mom and tells us to check out his Facebook page.
The other day was one year since he had seen you and he put three pictures of the two of you on his Facebook with a note saying that it had been a year. I commented that they were great pictures, but looking at them made me feel bad. Reading that he had not seen you for one year was just a reminder of you being dead and that nobody will see you again. It will be one year, then two. It has probably been over a year since I’ve seen you. I don’t know the last time we saw one another. I remember our last phone conversation, but not the last time I saw you. I don’t need these reminders. They are alive inside of me without them.
Yesterday was Easter. Lindsay and I stayed in Baltimore. Mom and Dad invited us to the beach, but I felt too busy with getting ready for the baby to travel to Cape May. I felt guilty all weekend. I think Mom was pretty sad.
Last Easter, I didn’t visit either because Mom and Dad were having alcohol and I’d made it clear to everyone that I didn’t want to be around you when you were drinking. It always pissed me off so much, the way that as every holiday approached, mom would casually ask me if I was coming for whatever occasion, but she’d make no mention of whether or not they’d be serving alcohol, so I’d have to ask and then she’d act every time like it was the very first time she’d heard of any of this from me.
I remember the conversation I had with you where I told you that I would no longer be around you if you were drinking. You told me that if I loved you I wouldn’t do that; that if I loved you, I wouldn’t try to change your behavior and I told you that I wasn’t trying to change you. If you wanted to drink, I told you, that was your decision but that it was my decision not to be around you.
Now that you’re gone, can you see how much it took for me to get to that place? How many hours of therapy it took for me to put myself first in our family unit? Now that you’re gone, I can see how the word “decision” was probably the wrong one. You were an addict. How much of your behavior was a decision, I don’t know. What I do know was that you dictated so much of our family story. Did you know how much power you had in our family? Did it feel good to have power in that one area?
Things rose or fell on your behavior. We held our breath and hoped that you’d be having a good day, but watch out if you weren’t. Or sometimes, you’d just sleep right through an occasion and we’d have dinner or whatever, while you slept upstairs and I’d find myself relieved not to have to deal with you, but also having a low grade worry that at any moment you’d wake up and come down. There was also the awful recognition that occurred quietly inside of me that when you weren’t around, things were lighter in our family. The moment you appeared, you took up all of the space and mom, dad and I would squish ourselves against the walls. We’d ready ourselves to react to however and whoever you were going to be that day. I don’t miss that.
Sometimes it feels like our family doesn’t know how to act without you there to dictate things. Now it is our grief over losing you that seems to fill up the room.
This woman at my survivors of suicide support group said that after the first year passed, something got easier. She is only 14 months out. She tracks it in months because she cannot bring herself to do it in years. She said that there’s something about having gone through every event that happens in a year–birthdays and holidays and change of seasons–and having made it through each of these. I can see that, can see there being some relief in that, but it seems like there is something so sad about that too. Something sad about the pain lessening because it means that time is passing and that maybe the person is being forgotten. Pain and grief feel, sometimes, like a duty. Like a way to honor you, a way to show what you meant, what your loss means, how it manifests itself in the bodies of those you left behind. I don’t think that’s a healthy way to think about it, but it’s the way I think about it sometimes.
There was also this older couple at the meeting last night. They ran the group for 20 years. Their daughter died in April so they brought a photo of her and flowers and they asked that we all take a flower when we left. The photo of the young woman sat on a table at the front of the room and I stared at it, thinking how dated it looked. She was lovely and young and it made me think about how all the photos you are in will look dated one day because there will be no more pictures of you. There will be time marching on and each year, the pictures of you will look older and older because the world doesn’t stop.
I took a stem of yellow flowers and now they are in a glass on the counter and when I look at them, I think of that young woman and of you, and something about that makes me happy. Happy to know that people went home with those flowers and they’re thinking about a young woman they never knew. Remembering her.
Last Sunday as I was going to bed I was hit with the realization that it was 11 months. I’d been drifting off to sleep and suddenly, bam. My eyes opened and I realized that I hadn’t thought of the day in terms of your anniversary until that moment. Does that mean that I am healing or forgetting? Is there a difference between those two things?
Then the image of your body on the floor came into my head, as it often does when I think of you late at night, and I just sat with it and then fell asleep. There is nothing else to do when your image comes to me that way.
Now one year is fast approaching and I have been feeling so much dread around it. It feels like such a long time for you to have been gone.
This month is weighing heavily on me. This is totally normal, I know from going to my support group and hearing other people talk about approaching one year. But being normal doesn’t lessen the emotional burden. Sometimes I am afraid that my grieving hasn’t really even begun. I’m afraid that I’m going to wake up one day and all at once there it will be. I’m afraid that it’ll be after the baby comes, when there is no space for me or my grief, when all of my energy will need to be given to this new life.
Yesterday Lindsay asked me when The Bachelorette would premiere. I told her that I thought it wasn’t until the fall. She looked it up and it turns out that it’s May 22nd. When she told me, I felt the room tilt sideways. Of course it was May. Of course. The night that dad called me to tell me you were dead was the night of The Bachelorette premiere. Linds and I had been prepping food because we were going to host a premier party. I’ve thought of that night a thousand times since it happened. Time keeps moving, a slippery fish in your hand, a thing that cannot be contained or observed. Time, a dutiful soldier, calling out life’s drumbeat, marching on. Always marching on.
Mom and Dad will be married for 47 years on the day that you died. You now share an anniversary with them, how strange. I wonder if you thought of that. If there was part of you that wanted that. I doubt it, but it has crossed my mind.
I think of everyone dying since you died. I see that you are only the beginning of many losses that, if I live, I will live through. I think of Lindsay losing her sisters. When I’m in a room full of people I love, I sometimes envision their lives like stars in the night sky. There one moment, and then not there. The vast emptiness that is left behind when a person dies.
I also see that every human being walking around has dealt with so many losses and that the people left behind carry on, mostly. I think of having a child and how joyous this time is, but I worry for the life of the child. Right after you died, I went to a grief group called Compassionate Friends and there was a woman there whose baby died in the womb. Full term. I remember listening to her speak, the way that her voice was so small, as if it took every bit of her effort to get the words out of her body. Every ounce of her was filled up with hurt. Her shoulders curved in toward her center, like she wanted to fold herself up but couldn’t because of her skeleton.
I’ve thought of her so often because I can now imagine what that would feel like. I am so in love with the baby Lindsay is carrying. Our lives have already begun to orbit around this child. Every time it moves, I feel a flood of relief. At the same time I have this feeling of ease, as if there has been some charm cast over us and nothing bad could possibly happen. I know that those two things don’t make sense side by side, but there they are. Sitting on the bench in my mind, right next to one another.
I’m filled with dread as we get close to one year.
I spent last weekend with mom and dad. While we ate dinner Saturday night we talked about you. About how your brain was different, how you processed loss differently than other people. The pain of the loss never seemed to leave you, or lessen. It just became a thing you had to carry and those things piled on top of each other over the years.
We talked about how you felt so much pressure to succeed. To please mom and dad. To get good grades. Dad said that he must have done something wrong, but I had the same expectations on me and I am okay, so it can’t be that simple.
Mom regrets fighting with you about where you wanted to go to college. She also said that when you were a senior you told them that you weren’t going to college, that you wanted to move to New York and try to be an actress. “Maybe we should have let her go,” she said in a questioning tone, wondering if she’d let you go do what you wanted to, whether you would be alive. Whether this life that you never lived, this path that you never got to walk down, would’ve provided some kind of key happiness.
Mom also talked about how she doesn’t think you killed yourself. She began listing off all the reasons–that the note you left was too short to be a suicide note, that you answered the phone when she called. Part of me wanted to offer a counterpoint to each thing she brought up, but then I thought, Why? Why do this?
Instead I told mom that I know she has her story that she tells herself about your death, and that I have mine and that I believe with everything in me that you killed yourself. I could’ve listed off my reasons. I could’ve argued with her, but she needs her story, just as I need mine, as I need you to have been ready to die, to have wanted to make your exit.
I miss you in the strangest way. I don’t even know how to describe it.
Today is probably the day that you died one year ago. The 23rd is the official date. The date that you will officially have been dead for one year, but today or tonight is probably the day. I’ve been trying to just get through this month, to not linger too long on any one thought, but it has felt heavy. Not unbearable, just heavier than other months.
And in the midst of it all, my wife with her belly growing large. Carrying our child. Baby showers where we have been surrounded by a tangible circle of love. All of this joy stacked up right next to my grief. Two towers that have no relationship to one another aside from being emotions that exist inside of me. Joy does not cancel out grief or sorrow. Sorrow does not diminish my joy. Maybe joy braces your soul. Maybe it makes you stronger or more able to hold the sorrow.
Dad says he’s not sure whether you’re in a better place and that he doesn’t like it when people say that to him. He told me this the other day when we talked. “Don’t you believe in heaven?” I asked. “I’m not sure,” he said.
I’m sure that you were suffering while you were here in a way that is unimaginable to me, and now you are not here and I believe that wherever you are, you are not suffering anymore. The pain has ended. I really do believe that with everything in me because if that’s not true, then I don’t understand anything.
I know that I didn’t do the best job of loving you while you were here and I am sorry for that. I am sorry for my anger. I am sorry that instead of kindness and compassion I offered you judgement and a burning anger. I haven’t forgotten how hard you were to love, how you could be an asshole, how you could manipulate situations and take advantage of people, how the tone and tenor of every family interaction revolved around you. How you knew just what to do to reach inside of me and turn me inside out and how you used this knowledge. I haven’t forgotten those things, but I know that I failed you in ways that will always be my failures to carry. I know that I was not blameless and that I screwed things up and that I hurt you deeply by turning away from you. I am sorry for that and I hope that wherever you are, you can forgive me for those things and maybe you can find a way to let me know that you forgive me. I know that’s a lot to ask, but I’m asking anyway because you’re my big sister and maybe now that your all essence or spirit or whatever maybe you are bigger than us humans. Maybe you can contain more and maybe you can see inside of me and you know that all that anger was just sadness over losing you when you got sick.
Anyway, rest easy dear sister. I love you and we all miss you.
I remember the phone call like it happened five minutes ago. Dad’s voice. The way it sounded. Unlike anything I’d ever heard. It was him and it was not him. Today was a heavy day, interspersed with rays of light. People remembering you. People donating to the scholarship we are creating in your honor. Mom, rubbing the stone at your grave. Me, not sure whether she was trying to clean it or conjure you. Mom, sitting next to me listening to the CD that goes with your book, eyes closed, tears streaking her face, sun shining on her red hued skin. Mom, crying into dad’s shoulder.
One year. It is too long for you to be gone. Too long and you are not coming back. How can any of us be expected to understand death, to understand the never. Never is comprehensible only through the passage of time. Time where you do not miraculously appear and tell us all you were joking.
We laughed, too, over your grave. I called you a pain in the ass. You were, but so am I. “Shit,” mom kept saying, “I can’t believe I’m never going to see you again. Shit.”
Later after I left, Dad sent me a picture of two doves that had landed on their balcony. They looked like they were preening each other. He said that you’d sent an anniversary present. Nice work. Love you. Miss you.
I’ m relieved to have your anniversary behind me. I felt such a sense of dread leading up to the date that it felt like something inside of me released on that day and now here I am on the other side. I always thought that I would fall apart after you killed yourself–the way that people do in movies, where they stay inside drinking all day until someone comes over and tells them they’ve got to snap out of it. That’s kind of how I imagined life unfolding, but it hasn’t. It has just been a slow, lonely slog. Lonely because no matter who you surround yourself with, no matter how much they love you, it is you who has to carry your grief, to spread it out on a table and study it under the light, to sift through it and know what it is made of, finding fossils of fear and hope.
Uncle Paul died. I suppose you know that if things work the way that I imagine they work. He made it longer than the doctors initially said, but I think it was an ugly few months. It’s strange to think of he and dad in their hippie days, running around together, smoking weed and who knows what else.
Aunt Bern called mom and dad at 1:30 a.m. the other night when he died and they went over to the house. They said that Kier was in the bed with his body, crying and saying goodbye. Because he’d been in hospice, the people from the funeral home could come and take his body, rather than whatever the usual red tape is with declaring somebody dead. Dad said that he took a minute to say goodbye but mom didn’t want to see his body. She said she didn’t want to remember him like that.
They took his body away in a body bag. I asked dad that. I’m not sure why, but I was hoping for some reason that they would just carry him out on a stretcher with a sheet over him and then put him in a bag later, but that’s not how it works. They took you in a bag too and it bothers me. It feels like there should be a longer period of time between when a person dies and when their body starts to get treated like that’s all it is. It’s too shocking to think of someone, still warm, going into a bag. Why do they do things that way? Why can’t they just do that later, so the family doesn’t have to see?
It feels like Lindsay is afraid of my grief. I don’t know how else to say it. We talked the other day and everything she said felt like she was trying to fix it or take it away. When I told her that I felt such dread during the lead up to your “anniversary,” she said she didn’t like hearing that, which felt like a judgement to me. What I wanted from her was to just listen and tell me she couldn’t understand, but that she could imagine how it must be. I wanted her to tell me that I’m doing great, all things considered.
She said something else, that I can’t even remember now, maybe she asked something about what I could do to change my feelings and I got mad, thinking why do my feelings need to change? My sister died one year ago, my feelings are right on track and I haven’t fallen apart like they do in the movies. I am still standing and I am getting through this and where I am right now, is perfectly normal. I know that she just wants me to be okay because she loves me, but I got so mad.
I don’t know why, but I often have this feeling that people, especially Lindsay, are telling me that I’m doing something “wrong.” I’m obsessed with doing things the right way and the wrong way, and I take any bit of concern as an attack.
It doesn’t help that grieving inside of this marriage has been odd. Because Lindsay was not your biggest fan, it has felt like my grief is something that I need to keep to myself. It hasn’t felt like there’s much space to remember the good things about you, because I think that Lindsay worries that if I remember the good I’ll forget the bad things and then I will be washed away with guilt over how I failed to love you.
Anyway, I hope you were there to welcome Uncle Paul and to show him the ropes.
I’m going to become a mom any day now. I think that I’m way more stressed out about it than I even realize, my stress is manifesting in a kind of absentmindedness that is really hard to deal with. I keep misplacing things, more than usual. I lost my wallet on Monday and I still haven’t found it. When I was searching for it yesterday I misplaced Lindsay’s car keys and then I had to go hunting around for them. I guess it didn’t help things that we had a plumbing leak this week, so there is a big hole in our ceiling and there’s going to be more expense on top of the already expensive bathroom. Life is just this thing that we have no control over. We move our chess pieces but life is the better player, always throwing out the unanticipated, watching to see how we adapt to surprise, to change, to all the pieces getting blown off the board by some giant breeze.
Sometimes the every day shit really gets to me. It’s the things that you have to do, that you are going to have to do over and over again that kind of exhaust me–making the bed, folding the laundry–things that don’t stay done for long but seem to take a long time to do. Unloading the dishwasher. I think this is the only window that I have to see into how life might’ve felt to you. I imagine that you probably felt this exhaustion over so many more things, so much more intensely. I wish I could ask you about it. When you were here I didn’t want to hear it. I remember one Easter, we were on the phone and you were telling me about the ringing in your ears and how you couldn’t figure out what it was from and I was literally rolling my eyes because I thought it was so clearly from the drugs you were abusing. On occasion I would step back and wonder what it felt like to live your life, but I could never allow myself to linger there for too long because what I imagined was so miserable and all I could think was that I wouldn’t be able to make it as you, and I would be filled with despair.
I don’t know how much longer I can write you these letters.
I am trying to unravel the mystery that is you, reading your journal from 1989-1990 when you were 15/16 years old. This was when you began cutting your wrist. You were depressed and you also wanted to punish the people who were not kind to you. You wrote about how you wanted to make them regret the way they treated you. Even then, life seemed to overwhelm you. Cutting was something you liked to do.
It’s funny reading your journals and not really seeing my name even mentioned. I wonder if my journals from that age are the same or if you had a more prominent role in my life chronicled because you were my older sister and therefore probably less annoying and more impactful. If I didn’t know I existed, I would think that you were an only child.
Can I see your illness even at that young age? Your illness reaching around inside of you, looking for something to latch onto and grow into the thing that would one day, decades later, drive you to end your life? I can see its outlines, the shape of it coming into focus. I cut myself too for a time, but it was different for me. I was lonely and desperate for friends and I’d seen you do it, so I did it too but it didn’t light me up like it did for you. It didn’t bring this relief with it, at least not that I remember.
You were such a mystery. Self-conscious and yet confident. Boy crazy. Smart, but unsatisfied with your intelligence or just unable to see it? You were not enough, I guess, not enough for yourself, not enough to win the approval of others the way you wanted to.
It has been hitting me all of the time lately that now that you are gone, you have no agency in telling your story. We’ve been left behind to put pieces of you together to try to come to this understanding and you are not here to correct the record when we get it wrong. To say, no, no that’s not what I was feeling, it was this. Our guesses become our facts in the absence of your voice. It feels like I need to apologize for this, but hopefully you don’t care anymore. Hopefully, from wherever you are, stuff like this is small potatoes and you just laugh at all the stuff we are getting wrong.
I have a son. A baby boy named Cooper. I barely have time for grief over losing you. At night I am so exhausted that I climb into bed and fall immediately to sleep, hungry for any rest I can get between feedings. You have crept into my dreams more. In one, I threw your canister of ashes and some of it spilled out. In another, you were really sick and acting strangely.
I feel like I can better understand mom and dad’s grief now that I have my own child. I think of him growing up, all the things he could be. It is unimaginable to think of him ill or disabled, especially by his own mind. As I sit writing this, he is in a sling across my chest, his breathing rhythmic and soft, his eyes crescent moons. Will I ever be able to see him as anything other than perfect and lovely? The way mom and dad saw you. Images of you as a baby call to me, indiscernible visual echoes, unmistakably you. They wanted you to have everything, to be everything.
They failed you the way that we all fail one another, with our ignorance and our blind spots. When I look at Cooper and I whisper apologies in his ear for the thousands of mistakes I will make. Mistakes borne of fatigue and frustration and selfishness and most of all, the unhealthy patterns of processing my emotions. I pray that these mistakes will not harm him too much. So yes, they failed in ways, but not ever in their love for you. That was unwavering.
I wonder how you would have been with Cooper. I would have been nervous for him to meet you, nervous for you to hold him; nervous that your mind or body would have given out when he was in your arms. I wonder if you would have wanted to hold him anyway. You weren’t really big on babies. Anyway, just wanted to say that I still think of you. My grief is compressed, coming at me in forceful bursts–less frequent but eruptive, powerful.
Cooper is sleeping next to me. He’ll wake any moment. It is still mysterious to both Lindsay and myself how he could have possibly come from her. How is it that we have the ability to carry a fully formed human inside of us? In the bible, God takes a rib from Adam to create Eve. I have lots of problems with this story, but I like the part where one human is created by part of another one.
Coop likes it when I sing to him. It seems to settle him, even when he is in the midst of crying full tilt. We listen to the Beatles and Ed Sheeran and Coldplay. I dance around with him in my arms, fatigue setting in. I feel like you are with me when we listen to different songs, or at the very least, I think of you. I want the best of everything for Cooper. I would do anything for him. It has felt, in moments, like I was born to be a mother. Feeling this way about him makes me think of mom and dad, of how they would have done anything for you. I imagine that watching you suffer with your illnesses, that being unable to reach you and help you and fix you, must have felt like the very nerves of their body were being razored with a rusty blade.
Dylan is in Rio. He sent mom and I a text message with a picture of your watch on his wrist. He brought that with him on his trip. I keep thinking of him there all by himself and wondering how it is to travel without you.
Lindsay and Cooper and I took our first road trip over memorial day weekend to visit mom and dad in Cape May. We brought the dogs with us, which meant that we had to buy one of those turtle shell things to go on top of the Jeep. It took us hours to pack. Sully rode in the way back, Maddie rode in the row with Coop. When we got there, we opted to stay in the room with two single beds, just as we did when you were alive. The back bedroom is still yours in my mind. At night when I fed Coop, I sat on the bed in that room and I thought back on the night you cut your wrist and came to wake me up to show me. I remembered how angry you got when I woke mom and dad to tell them what was happening. I could see you standing in the corner of the room when I came in with mom at my side, I could hear you calling me a bitch.
That night wounded me so deeply. It cauterized my heart. After that, I don’t think I ever could feel anything for you. I blamed you for everything that you went through. I felt that you were the thing in this world that I most needed to protect myself from.
I remember how you used to say that we’d all be better off without you and I would always tell you that wasn’t true, but the thought has been creeping into my mind now, a year plus out, that this statement was at least partly true for me. It is easier not to have to worry about you, not to have to worry when and how you will die, to have that looming question behind me. It is easier not to have to watch you suffer and not to have to hold onto my anger and not to have to try to find ways to assign blame to you for your illnesses. It is easier not to have to feel that I should be doing more to reestablish our connection, to be your sister, to not have to be concerned that I will have to care for you after mom and dad are gone. It is harder in other ways, but that is to be expected. It’s all the ways that it is easier that I struggle with. I am sorry to say that there are ways that it is easier. I am sorry that you were right, at least partly.
November 1: 17 months 8 days
It seems that Uncle Jim is vying to join you. The other day I got a call from mom, who was on her way over to Uncle Jim’s apartment. Nobody had been able to get in touch with him and little Jimmy was over at his place banging on the door. Mom has the only set of extra keys. I thought for sure that he was dead and so did mom, though neither of us said those words.
Mom was hysterical and then calm. I stayed on the phone with her and tried to keep her more toward the calm side by asking her where she was and reminding her to breathe and telling her about Cooper’s four month doctor visit, which he’d had earlier in the morning. All I could think about was her finding Uncle Jim’s dead body and what that would do to her after finding you. When she finally pulled into the apartment complex, I asked, “Mom, are you going to be okay if you go in there?” She brushed me off and told me she would be. She’d call me later.
Little Jimmy had to break the chain thing on the door and Uncle Jim was in bed, alive but totally out of it. Foam on his mouth, saying things that made no sense.
There were all kinds of drugs in his system, but in our subsequent conversations mom has mentioned this exactly zero times. What she has mentioned is that his white blood cell count was high and that the doctors thought he might have had a seizure. Dad is the one who told me that actual facts about Uncle Jim. It is stoking a kind of quiet fury in me to have this denial in our conversations, it is a breath blown on an old ember from when you were alive and mom refused to acknowledge so many things. I don’t understand it. Is it shame? Is it that she can’t face it because then she would have to act on it? I don’t know, I only know that I am tired of pretending that things right in front of our faces are actually something else.
November 19, 2017
Tomorrow is Mom’s birthday. I got her a birthday card from you, as this seems to be a way that we have come to remember you, to feel like you are here. It has pigs on the front that are wearing birthday hats. I think that it would have made you laugh.
Uncle Jim is out of the hospital. One morning mom said that he was in a new hospital and I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, he was moved to a rehab. She said it in this way like, we had been talking openly the whole time about how drugs were the main problem. I was dumbfounded, but I managed to get my footing and carry on with the conversation as if this were totally normal. I decided in that moment that I wasn’t going to confront her, but that later, I was going to ask her about it.
Mom and Dad came to visit that next weekend and when Cooper went down for a nap, I asked her about why she communicated that way–telling me all the things that had nothing to do with drugs and none of the things that had to do with drugs. At first she denied it, but I pressed her gently. She was so uncomfortable. I felt kind of bad for her, but not bad enough to stop. I really wanted to understand. All I could get out of the conversation was that as long as she doesn’t acknowledge it, there is a chance that it could be something else. I explained to her that when she communicated in this way it was very confusing to me, that I was left scratching my head and thinking that I’m crazy for suspecting drugs, which are the most obvious answer.
I don’t know where it all landed for her, but I felt better for having had the conversation. There are so many parallels with Uncle Jim and you. The rehab sent him home after his detox because his insurance wouldn’t cover inpatient, only outpatient. But there is no outpatient treatment available, so he is just supposed to go to meetings. He is living at their house for the time being. He is incapable of doing simple things for himself, navigating the world. Getting a phone set up by himself is impossible. Mom is going off on him. They are in the same space that they used to be in with you, but nobody is acknowledging it.
I don’t know how I am going to talk about you with Cooper and that has been sitting heavy with me. I grew up knowing so little about Uncle Danny. He was a mystery. All I knew really was from that picture of him that Nan and Pop had on their bureau and the music box that belonged to him. There weren’t a lot of stories that floated around about him. I never knew what he was like, only how he died and some sense of the impact that his death had.
I don’t want that to be true of you. I want to be able to speak openly with Cooper about you, all the complicated things about you. The good, the bad. I want to tell him stories about you. Funny stories, but I am having a hard time remembering them. And the ones I do remember feel tinged with sadness and foreboding, filled with hints of what was to come for you. Not all of them, but too many.
December 24, 2017
You would have been 44 today. Forty-four. When you were young, you romanticized death–loved the song Only the Good Die Young, by Billy Joel. I don’t think you ever wanted to get old.
The more time that passes with you gone, the more I feel our relationship changing. I don’t feel as much of a need to hold onto the bad memories between us as a way to protect/forgive myself for all the ways I failed to love you. And that allows something else to open up, though I’m not quite sure what that something else is yet, just that it’s different from what has been.
Most of the time I do forgive myself, but I have moments where I just really recall how hard hearted I was with you and it is terrible to think of. I read the last journal that you kept and it tore me apart to read it. Your mind was so unraveled. It made me question things that I thought I knew and it allowed me to see the depths of your pain. You were living in hell on earth and the hell was your brain. You saw things that weren’t there, you heard things–there were a whole cast of voices who told you things. They had names, each of the voices. It seemed that when you drank, the voices quieted. And so in some way, you were trying to drown them out, and who could blame you for that? I think of myself then, refusing to be around you if you were going to drink. So set in that boundary, and with good reason, sure, but not ever considering that you were drinking to maintain some level of sanity. That you just wanted some quiet. It never occurred to me to ask why you drank the way you did.
I won’t be at your grave today. Mom and Dad and Dylan and Colleen are meeting there, but I’m in Baltimore. I’m going to wear your leather jacket today in your honor. I never could pull it off the way that you could. I still look/feel like an awkward teenager with it draped over my shoulders but it seems like a nice way to carry you around with me.
I just opened up your ashes to look at them. They are light grey with chunks of bones in them. Death is just so hard. Your death.
Often, I find myself checking on Cooper, to make sure that he is breathing. Yesterday Maddie barked right next to him while he was sleeping and he didn’t wake up and I had to make sure that his chest was still rising and falling. I know that all parents go through this to some extent. The moment their child is born, so too, is the flicker of fear of losing that child. The urge to protect so fierce. I think, though, that my fear is just a little different. The other day one of the songs that plays on one of Cooper’s toys played in another context and I recognized it as a thing that would blindside/destroy me if I ever lost him and then heard it. That feels beyond what most people would think about. I’m not sure why I’m like this, how much of it has to do with losing you.
I was able to share some funny stories about you at my support group meeting–the way that you would steal lawn ornaments and put them on our yard, the sheep that you convinced us you had living in your dorm room, the way that you read to me as a kid. I lit a candle in your honor and I cried as I listened to all the other people light candles for their loved ones.
Happy Birthday Alexis. Part of me wishes you were here, for mom and dad’s sake. Part of me is glad that you are not suffering, not living in the hell of your mind. I’m sorry for my shitty way of loving you, sorry that there were times when I couldn’t stand you and didn’t want to talk to you, sorry that I couldn’t understand what you were going through, sorry that I wasn’t a better sister to you. Happy Birthday Alexis.
I don’t forget that you are dead the way that I used to in the beginning. It’s just a thing I know now. Time is the teacher of things that our minds cannot fully process. Days, months passed and one day I just stopped forgetting. My sister is dead as a thing I know, the way I know my name, my date of birth. I don’t need to remind myself because it’s built into me. Is this progress? It feels wrong. Is grief a measure of love? Or if not a measure, at the very least, strongly correlated, so that when it starts to subside, guilt rises up. I did not love you enough. Not in life and not in death. It’s not a simple thing, to heal.
This past Monday, Cooper turned nine months old. He is sitting up, clapping, smiling, laughing. Nine months. He brings me more joy than I ever knew possible. I have so many hopes for who he will be. Not specifically, but generally: a good person, a kind person, a person who is able to articulate his feelings and communicate them, especially to the people he loves, a thoughtful person who thinks things through and considers all the sides of a story. I know that mom and dad felt every single thing toward you that I feel towards him. How does any parent survive the loss of their child?
Spring is here and I feel your loss more heavily. I am somehow reminded in this different way that you’re not going to be experiencing any of the beauty of the earth’s renewal. I think a lot about how stressed I would have been to have Cooper around you. I truly wonder how you would’ve taken to him or how interested you would have been in him. Would you have been jealous of the way that mom and dad love him and dote over him? Would you have had any interest in holding him? In being someone in his life? Would I have given you the chance if you had? You wanted to be in my life and look what happened there.
Its been nearly two years that you’ve been gone. Do I miss you? I don’t feel that I have that right. Do I miss you? Yes. In the strangest way. This missing is something that has opened up in me of late.
Right after you died, I don’t know what I felt…relieved, sad, scared, sick, regretful and somehow, despite knowing it would happen, shocked. I felt a lot of things, but I didn’t miss you. We hadn’t really been in one another’s lives in years and when you did come around, it was always stressful and hard and I was always so angry. Maybe two years is how long it has taken to wash away all of that calcified buildup. Maybe now I can be human again and just miss you.
Today I heard this writer on the radio who was talking about a story that he heard as a boy that impacted him quite deeply. It was about a sheep who’s owner kept it locked up because there was a wolf that lurked in the pasture. One day the sheep got out and spent the day out in the sunshine, in the grass, soaking in all the beauty. Then as the day wore on he saw the shadow of the wolf and he knew that he was going to die, but instead of running he turned and ran toward the wolf and said, “As long as I live, I’ll endure.” I thought immediately of you. That is how you lived. I miss you.
May 23 2018
When you were alive, I spent a lot of time avoiding you, not talking to you, being angry with you. At dinners, I would go out of my way to not sit next to you and hear your loud chewing or your incessant, manic talking, which became worse when you drank. Like, a lot worse. The level of manic talking was directly correlated to the number of drinks you had, and that was often a very high number.
I said things to my therapist like, “I love my sister, but I don’t like her.”
But I didn’t love you. At least, I don’t feel like I acted with love toward you, which is the essence of what love is, so I guess I didn’t love you. If I want to be kind to myself I can say I didn’t love you well.
Today is two years since you left the world I want to acknowledge your absence, but I don’t know how to give myself permission to do this. I feel like such a hypocrite since I acted like such an ass when you were alive and now you are dead and you will always be dead.
What is there to say? I don’t want people to forget you, even though I think that I forgot you long before you died.
I forgot all the good things about you. I forgot how we used to get ridiculously excited when we were kids, and mom made us artichokes for dinner. Not the frozen ones, but the huge, fresh ones with all the leaves that we tore off and dipped in butter one at a time. We were the pickiest eaters alive, but we loved artichokes? That is seriously weird.
I forgot how whip smart you were. How you tore through books, how you loved Anne Rice and vampires, how I was so jealous of your writing, (which was and still is some of the most beautiful prose I have ever read), I forgot that you gave me hope that I wouldn’t always be gawky and awkward and nerdy when I was going through (a very late) puberty. I forgot how big your heart was, how after Nan died you gave me a framed photo of Nan and Pop holding hands from behind as they waded into the ocean. I forgot that you were goofy and funny, and I forgot the day that you jumped up and down with me on the picnic table on our back porch when my boobs finally started to grow. You might have been more excited than I was.
I forgot all of these things because you changed over the years, or your illnesses changed you. When you were sick, all I could see were your illnesses. Your addiction, depression, bipolar. If I could go back and change something, it would be my ability to separate you from those things, I just couldn’t do it back when you were alive.
It’s easy to love a dead person because they aren’t a real person anymore. Real people have annoying traits and habits and can be full of hurtful words. Real people can suck up all the oxygen in the room and talk right over you. Real people make bad choices that hurt themselves and those around them. You were a real person and I did a really shitty job of loving you.
In some ways, you never had a chance in this world. You were so sensitive. You walked through life collecting wounds the way that kids collect lightning bugs in jars. Holes poked in the lids to give them air. You’d sit peering in through the glass, examining each one. It wasn’t a thing you wanted to do, it was just the way your brain worked. You never figured out how to open the jar and let them all go free.
I guess I’m writing all of this because I don’t want you to be forgotten. Not by me, or anyone else who knew you. You mattered to me. You mattered. I am trying to remember all of you.
November 15 2018
In five days, mom turns 70. Time, time, time passing. No chance of stopping it. No chance to pause your self while the rest of you grows up, so that the older you can tap the paused you on the shoulder and whisper, “Stop being such a little shit head. Stop thinking that you are so important, so busy. One day, you will look ridiculous to yourself. At least, that’s the best we can hope for. If you don’t see how ridiculous you were, there is no saving you.”
41 with a baby boy in my life who fills up my whole heart, except the part that was scarred, but even there, a softening. Even there, some feeling coming back.
I think of you, my sister. I wonder if I knew you at all.
Outside, it’s snowing. Your grave will be covered with snow. What do you know as a dead person? Can you see? Can you see me struggling or not struggling enough? Is it, like some people say, that a person’s energy never disappears? You are all around? Mom misses you the most. I understand some things differently now that I’m a mother. I understand the urge to keep a child safe and I understand how the impossibility of this can, if your child is harmed, rip your insides apart into a pile. How it could diminish you.
Can you come to me in my dreams? Would you? Would you come and tell me that you forgive me? That I should forgive myself?
December 23, 2018
Tomorrow you would have been 45. I don’t know what to do with that knowledge. Will I ever stop counting the years? Sometimes I feel so alone with my grief, but that is mostly because I don’t know how to talk to anyone about it and I don’t know how to allow myself space to grieve you.
I think that something is opening up in me as I read more and more of your journals. I’m able to understand how the world looked through your eyes and I feel a great empathy that I was not capable of when you were alive. I don’t think that you ever felt like you were enough, not once in your whole life. The men you chose to be with treated you poorly (an understatement for some of them), at least for the most part. It seemed like you were always wanting something more from them but always willing to accept their inability or unwillingness to give you what you needed and that seemed to confirm to your belief that you didn’t deserve goodness.
I can’t remember how we were before we grew apart. I remember being silly with you.
One of the journals I read was from when you were in brookline after you slit your wrists and turned on the gas in your apartment. During your group sessions I guess everybody would share their goals and your goal was this: to not lose hope. When I read that something in me both filled and deflated at the same time. The part of me that filled, understood that you were such a fighter and I felt so proud of you, but I also felt so sad that you had to have this as a goal, as if hope was like water in your cupped palms and it was running out, spilling all over and you were afraid. I’ve never felt that way, never felt as if hope was a thing I was about to lose and I know now that you fought to hold onto it and that you are/were much braver than I could ever be.