catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 6 :: 2007.03.23 — 2007.04.06


Acting as if

There are so very many ways to avoid one’s cross. Today, for instance, I went back to bed to the sound of rain and wind after driving my daughter to school, ignoring even the minor task to nudge my son out the door to the school bus. I drove him to school around 10 am, on my way to a costume fitting at the theatre. (Doesn’t that sound posh? Theatre’s a grand distraction, more consuming than books, less caloric than baking.) Headed to the market for the overly frequent stop-in for whatever, stopping on the way for a cinnamon raisin bagel, schmeared (ate it all), with a decaf latte (extra shot). On to the grocery. Oh, but it’s right next to Kohl's—let’s get that flatware for mom. Added a 10" omelet pan, much needed to fix the German apple pancake I’m attempting (ate the whole thing last Sunday—it’s got three apples in it!), and a stuffed pig for an upcoming birthday present (let’s not bring up the eating, ok?). Then I recalled the deadline for this reflection, the one about that cross o’ mine, and hurried home.

The season of Lent never really registered with me before joining a church ten years ago. But it’s been five years now that the Lenten season has seemed to be all about me, resonating as it does with imagery of darkness, betrayal, and suffering, words that summarize well the aftermath of a suicide. Arriving when it does adds to the gloom, as my husband killed himself March 6, 2002, a month and a day before his 40th birthday.

Someone writing about Lent asks,

Why does betrayal hurt so much? Because it's personal. Betrayal comes from within, from a traitor who belongs to a group, yet acts against its interests. But the group is part of his identity, so when there is betrayal, part of our own turns against us and destroys the unit. So it is with lovers: to betray them is to destroy the person they are, their identity, their self.

What I thought we had—our family, our partnership—was indeed destroyed in an instant. And not just the thing, but the thinking—so responding to the act and its aftermath was complicated by a mind contaminated with hindsight, even in the shortest term. If what you "know" about the last ten years is so desperately wrong, what about yesterday? Faith is especially hard won. Someone else has said that love is about action. Expressing love isn’t about how you feel, it’s about how you act. If the feelings aren’t there, act as though they are. Do this enough and love may well show up. My faith over the last five years has been like that. I wasn’t sure what it really looked like, if I really had it, but I was sure going to act like I did. And guess what? I’m still here, and it is too.

I was baptized five months after the suicide, into the Church of the Brethren, in a country stream on a summer Sunday. A friend asked some time later for my thoughts on that experience. I had to confess I felt the real baptism to have taken place in the instant of "going under" that began with a woman from the sheriff’s department delivering dire news to me in my kitchen. I had no choice but to offer myself up to a completely new way of thinking. There were two small kids involved, and my own mental health.

Surviving a suicide (yes, we’re called suicide survivors, which might at first sound like we’ve failed an attempt, but no) is like stepping through the looking glass, the wardrobe, or across the bridge to Terebithia, but without the possibility of return. Magical thinking indeed. Who you were and what you knew is no more. You start doubting your sanity, when your loved one takes this step from out of the blue. You are defined, forever, to the extent you allow it, by the actions of another, through no choice of your own.

Betrayed? Yes. Rejected? Yes. Consigned to a dark and lonely place, stigmatized, alone, kept company by a pungent and tenacious kind of grief suffused with guilt and anger. It’s been such hard work, and years of it, to take enough deep and easy breaths to feel like I will live through this in more than a survival mode. It’s been a knuckle-bloodying struggle to get on top of this breed of grief without denying it (such the preferable path)—to welcome the experience for the lessons it will bring, the certain graces that allow some easy breaths. Of course, forgetting what happened is impossible, but perhaps after five years, looking ahead rather than back can take center stage.

Lately, as my oldest reaches puberty and my youngest reaches the time of organized sports and macho playground posturing, the hardest part is unexpressed anger about what these two wonderful children are missing, and what they are left with—flaming ugly baggage of the worst kind. It’s a physical ache to see my children suffer in untold ways in this void left by their dad’s violent departure. Adults are incapable of understanding a suicide, what in hell do you say to a child about it?

My daughter, nearly 13, has often admitted the frequent deep fear that stays with her when she leaves for school that something will happen to me while she’s away. Her thinking brain knows I’m not in danger. But her visceral self knows anything can happen in the course of a day. Your world can break apart, what you thought you knew evaporated. 

My son, eight, remains more of a mystery. Typically male, he’s not much interested in talking about how he feels. Just three when his dad died, I told him when he was six that dad didn’t die in a car crash. We’d seen a movie that day, The Fantastic Four, which included a scene with a man on a bridge preparing to jump. I used it as an opening to talk about suicide. I remember my sweet boy’s soft face and beautiful eyes looking at me as he asked, "Why?" Revealing the truth to my children was a truly surreal and corrosive experience, one that made that cross feel like a battering ram. I remember when I told everything to my daughter, just a few weeks after her dad’s death. Not quite trusting this nonsensical information, she asked, "How do you know?" Silence greeted me when I told her about the note.

I have a small, hand-formed, sculptural kind of pot shaped like an armadillo, a humped thing resting on four pedestals. It has three slender tubes rising up from the curve along the top. It’s hollow, so I put water in it sometimes, and a few cut flowers. It had to come home with me when I first saw it, as it was immediately symbolic to me of our family, before and after the suicide. Below, there are four supports, above, there are three necks rising, reaching. The family that was four is now three. We wouldn’t be here without the fourth, but it is the three on top that remain open, with room to host a living thing. A new family, a new reality.

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