By R. B. STUART
In April 2007 shortly after my move from New York City to the outer tip of Long Island, I experienced an isolation and desperation that brought my thoughts back to suicide. Which hadn’t occurred for 20 years since the age of 26. Now that I was living in my future the hopelessness over my place in life and achievements fell short of the expectations I had for myself as a young girl with dreams of a bright future. After the death of both parents---an orphan for the first time---I witnessed my joy replaced by sadness---and youth traded in for jaded age. It became difficult to see my accomplishments and replicate the beauty cast over me by my mother’s eyes. The vanishing of everything I felt to be true created voids in corners of my life, becoming a vortex of pain that had reached the crux of….that spring day.
When I left the bank, I could feel the emotion snake up my throat---I didn’t expect to still be struggling at 46 the way I did at 26. I asked the teller Laura if any portion of the check cleared. I felt shame and sadness as I withdrew money from my account. Over the past two years I deposited yet another credit card convenience check to pay my rent and bills. Suspending the tears when she asked how I was doing, “Not well. Say a prayer for me,” I responded trying to hold down the emotions that were beginning to regurgitate. Her soft, compassionate blue eyes had a wisp of sadness in them, as if she knew the hardships I was undergoing. Reflected in numerous withdrawals that dipped my account to the $10 minimum.
I couldn’t turn my face to walk out the door fast enough before the pain and sorrow imploded from my heart, melting from my eyes. Orchestrated by a high-pitched whale I wept, ‘They say God doesn’t give you anymore than you can handle…it’s a lie. If it were true then people wouldn’t commit suicide.’ It seems God doesn’t ration the mounting pressure one experiences in life. In times of sorrow, sadness, desperation and hopelessness…. nothing changes. You cry yourself through it and wake to the same toil the next day.
Abandoning the thoughts in my head, I was lost in the grief of my heart. I reached my car door, opened it and sat in the seat of my pain. My apricot miniature Poodle, Sunday lept onto my lap and sniffed the emotions escaping from my mouth. He probably wondered what happened while I was in “that place.” He stayed quiet as I started the car and we left.
I decided to take him to the woods for a walk on the trails at Laural Lake. As we drove down the steep, mottled, dirt entrance I thought, ‘Should I tie him up to the exhaust pipe the way Daddy did with litters of kittens we couldn’t afford to keep.’ In the 60’s my father would have us kids go in the house while Mum turned up the radio. Then he’d place the unwanted litter in a bag, turn on the car and asphyxiate them. On the outskirts of the woods under mounds of dirt and dried leaves he’d bury the remains in a pit. The decaying animals would rest….living out their memories with us on the grounds in which we played.
I plotted, ‘If I didn’t have to worry about my dog, then I could kill myself. What if I killed myself and my dog survived, who would take him? If I killed him first I would surely want to die. I couldn’t bare life without him. Maybe a family member would parent him.’ I parked, he yelped and scratched at the door with pleasure having just arrived at one of his favorite spots. He hopped out, prancing as though life was grand, unaware I was premeditating his murder.
Tucked in the woods we meandered around the dirt trails when I noticed broken chunks and shards of glass from shattered beer bottles. I didn’t want him stepping on broken glass and cutting his paws so I was always cautious where we walked. I began picking up the brown chunks, green chips and clear slivers. I carried them in the palm of my hand, they reflected in the sun. He explored while I contemplated using the glass to cut my arms.
My thoughts raced, ‘What if I took the glass shards and sliced upwards from my wrist to forearm, the way suicide victims do killing themselves in a tub of water. If I sat down on the old cement foundation in the middle of the woods, and slit my wrists I would eventually bleed to death. Would Sunday howl or lick the blood off my arm? How many hours would it take before I died? Would I make it through the night alone in the woods? Whoever found my car would eventually find me. When opening my car door they’d see I had just come from the bank and was on my way to pay bills. The errand and food list wedged on the dashboard. Ready for execution.’
In my family, talking about death and dying was as common as discussing life. My thoughts drifted to my father Irwin, a 1st Division Calvary Specialist in WWII, an Army Master SGT who survived the invasion of Normandy but always wished he died with his war buddies. In 1966 he died at 46 from lung cancer. And as he wished, his ashes were scattered across the ocean…finally finding a resting place with his buddies at sea. My father left behind seven children and a 37-year old wife, my mother, Patricia.
Over a decade ago my mother told us that when my father relocated her from Boston to the 88-acre family farm in the country hills of Sterling, Massachusetts. It was the mid 1950’s, she was around 27, and they were newlyweds. She gave birth to her first two children, my brother Frank and sister Pearl. Desperate to get away from the seclusion of farm living, she went out to the barn and picked up my fathers shotgun. With one hand holding the cold metal barrel she sat with the tip in her mouth. The head pressing against her inner cheek, she tried stretching her other arm down the butt of the rifle. Unable to maneuver both, she fumbled to pull the trigger. In her attempt my father walked in. He ran over and snatched the gun out of her hands and thundered, “What the hell are you doing! Don’t you ever try that again!”
A city girl used to living a comfortable life, she was ejected into a meager existence as a housewife, and reasoned, “I hate it here! I don’t want to live in the country on a farm.” Desperate to be taken out of the surroundings that on one hand, brought her happiness with her children and husband, and on the other, torment and despair. The poverty, daily chores and tending to the farm animals wasn’t what she thought her life would be. She prevailed throughout the years, and after several strokes she died in 2002 at 73 from Congestive Heart Failure.
My brother Frank, the first-born and only boy, said at the age of 18 he thought about slitting his wrists with razors. Having felt caught between the stages of boyhood and not wanting to be the same type of man as our father. Which to him represented the negative connotations of being a man. Frank experienced violent physical abuse by my father’s hand. As a result he didn’t want to grow up and be the monster he saw our father to be. So instead he turned to drug use; marijuana, hashish and acid and developed a slicing sense of humor.
Four decades later, our fathers brother shared Dad knew Frank was homosexual and tried to beat it out of him---thinking he could beat his son into being a man. Frank had experienced bouts of depression since, but no longer suicidal thoughts. Now, in his mid 50’s, he’s drug free, but thick with the past. As a health facilitator he lives happily with his long-term partner.
Born in 1952 my older sister Pearl, who was a toddler on the farm when my mother attempted to kill herself, has had death thoughts since the age of six. Because of the role my mother gave her as junior Mum caring for her four younger siblings. Rather than be a mother to us, Pearl longed to forfeit her birthright of childhood---to die.
She’s the only one in the family to be clinically diagnosed with depression. Her desires to die were more silent than the other siblings. It resurfaced over the last five years partly because she feels stuck in her life, and being involved with a verbally abusive alcoholic for over a decade beat her down. Her self-inflicted punishment casts an anchor of guilt around her neck fearing he’ll have nowhere to go if she throws him out. So instead, each day he extracts a piece of her while she slowly dies inside.
Her seclusion, hopelessness, weight gain, loss of her son and resentments are at most times too much to bear. Pearl confessed to feeling jealous when hearing on the news of people who have accidentally died, “God why take them….I’ll gladly go.” Seeking relief from the pain, she attached a hose to the tailpipe of her car in a failed attempt to asphyxiate herself. It was divine intervention that the car wouldn’t start.
Pearl remains trapped in a life she loathes, childhood wounds still raw, her lackluster commitment to life saddled with the psychological and emotional loneliness of aging makes merely getting out of bed a challenge. As she disappears, she struggles to keep her grasp on living. Fortunately, a brief stint in a mental facility scared her sane. She finally kicked out her abuser, and life and love seems hopeful, as she’s in control of her life again.
In 1957 my sister Karen’s birth was shaky from the start having survived a ruptured appendix at age three. After the death of our father, and the remarriage of our mother to gold digging-child molesters, who over a three year period single handedly drained my mother financially, while desecrating everything that was once my fathers---including his children, especially the younger daughters.
Karen, the prettiest girl in the family, began experimenting with drugs and sex at 16. By her late 20’s she had tasted as many men and women, as drugs, and seemed to be the most seduced by hard drugs; barbiturates, narcotics, amphetamines, shooting up the latter and heroine.
Influenced by her as an older sister, with her guidance, I began an escapade with drugs. In 1981 at 21, Mum gave me my first journal. Karen and I had rented an apartment together in the North End of Boston. As young women, we hadn’t lived together since we were children, and wanted to experience freedom from abusive, controlling relationships. So we spent nearly a year partying together in the safe havens of Boston’s gay clubs. The drug use created erratic behavior and depression, and an uncertainty in my life. At that tine I needed the comfort and guidance of my father. So the first few pages of my journal were about depression and being caught in between life and death---success and failure.
Within months Karen had a boyfriend, a pharmacist and drug addict, whom I detested and she eventually married. She decided they would cohabitate so she moved out. Shortly thereafter they broke-up, and impulsively reunited, got another apartment, moved and separated again.
In the late 1980’s at the age of 28, Karen started complaining of pain on the back of her neck. She compared it to being hit on the back of her head with a brick. At that same time she began a mantra. The first time I heard it we were sitting in the back of a Boston cab going to her apartment in the North End, “I wish I’d get AIDS and die. I wish I’d get AIDS and die,” she chanted. I reasoned with her to stop saying that.
By January 1987, she wanted to reconcile with her husband who’d been bounced out of pharmacies around Boston for stealing drugs. He moved South, finding a drug store in Florida where he charmed his way back into the pharmaceutical business. Karen made plans to be in Florida with him by Valentines Day. Once there, within weeks she became exhausted, had a shortness of breath and developed the flu. By mid April she was diagnosed with AIDS. Three weeks later she died alone in a Florida hospital at the age of 29.
The death of my childhood chum, the beauty who shared bunk beds with me, the kid that tormented me, the girl that combed, cut and braided my hair, the friend who shared laughter and scars, my dance partner, the only one who knew my fears and collective memories, she was the black raspberry to my pistachio ice cream, the one who sang Jennifer Holiday’s “Dreamgirls” with me….the only person who corralled those moments in time, in our lifetime, had vanished. Into the ethers her spirit went---sailing the sea with my Daddy.
I was 27 when she died. My psyche was ripped from the core. My heart bled a constant river of tears and grief. As I mourned, I stopped smoking, no longer drank or did drugs, became celibate and read self-help books. Learned Transcendental Meditation and affirmations, became one with the earth and saw the face of Mother Nature for the first time. I searched the heavens endlessly for the meaning of her death…and to my life. Grappling with my own desires to die.
In the darkened hours of the night, in the mist of heartache and sorrow, I begged God, “Please take me I want to die. I don’t want to live anymore.” My head waved side to side against the pillow that cradled my inner torment. A flush of tears soaking the sides of my face as I repeated my pleas. My stomach ached from the heaves of anguish. I pleaded to take me from this misery. Exhausted, hopeless and feeling abandoned….I began to fall asleep….until I felt my feet being tugged off the bed.
A miniature casket was suspended in the left corner of the room where the ceiling meets the wall. There where two lights blinking, one red to stop, one green to go. As it began to move toward the bed the tugging at my feet continued. Like magnets, I was being pulled towards the casket. I looked at the foot of the bed and saw a three-foot high ugly brown troll, with a big animal like face and pointed ears tugging at my feet.
Frantically I pulled my feet back, using my legs to push myself back up to the headboard. I was horrified and whaled, “I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die.” Instantly the spell was broken. I leaned over to turn on the light. My forehead felt afire, was it my third eye and a mystical episode I wondered. I was panting and called by brother to tell him what happened. That’s the night I made the conscious choice to live---and would never wish to die again. Until 20 years later….
Karen’s death transformed everyone in the family in different ways. My younger sister Nita decided the Lord was calling her and in 1989 became a missionary for the New Tribes Mission. Giving herself to the Lord she became celibate, refrained from alcohol and smoking, and learned how to preach fire and brimstone. For eight years she lived across the country learning and preparing for the ultimate goal of doing missionary work, bringing Christianity and Jesus to third world countries. She built houses by hand, cut off the heads of chickens, prayed, asked for donations, sang in choirs, learned linguists; Cherokee and Pigeon English so she could speak with the natives. With training complete and her life in crates, she and the other missionaries moved to the New Tribes Mission camp in Papua New Guinea. Where she’d do her life’s work.
It wasn’t long after she arrived did she meet a tanned and salty scuba diving instructor from Australia, who not only taught her about diving, but rekindled a few of the seven deadly sins. Within a month she was reprimanded and told to stop seeing him or else she would be expelled from New Tribes. The affections from her illicit love was stronger than Jesus, and so she opted out. Leaving with him for a torrid seven-day sojourn in Australia.
Knowing it was time to depart from her fantasy romance she reluctantly abandoned her heart. Aware that her life over the last eight years had dissolved, she flew to California and stayed with our brother and reverted to secular life. The smoking and drinking reemerged as Nita felt God had forsaken her by allowing a weakness for the flesh to return. For weeks she pondered at the crossroads, then moved to Florida. Overtime the doubts began to surface and by 1997 at 34 she uttered repeatedly, “I wish I’d die. I wish I’d get cancer and die.” She hasn’t died. At 43 she lives successfully….with those thoughts, and has recently begun journaling, writing “goodbye” letters to family and friends.
In 2006 my baby sister Ella, a 41-year old Army Captain Chaplain with the 101st Airborne returned two years post Iraq with stage IV Dygerminoma cancer. Although the dance of life and death has been one woven throughout all of our lives…when faced with an unwelcomed death sentence with a rare stage IV she whaled, “I don’t want to die. I’m only 40 years old. I’m too young to meet my maker. I don’t have enough memories yet.”
With all the prayers, a great medical team at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the rotation of family support in D. C. After 35 rounds of Chemo, two major surgeries, one to remove a volleyball size tumor from her abdomen, the other to remove her creative organs. As of November 2006 she’s in clinical remission and celebrating her rebirth.
As my yearlong dedication to her began to wane, I had to resuscitate the life I put on hold. During that period I allowed my already fragile writing career to disintegrate. Willingly, I sacrificed the focus of me, my life and doggy, to be certain Ella would live. I made sure not to make the same errors in judgment as with Karen’s death. The remission eradicated her mindset from the death sentence, giving her permission to take her life back, and in the midst forgetting she didn’t do it alone.
By January 2007 after several telephone arguments, the gratitude and sacrifice of the conjoined family efforts had vanished from her mind. As she reverted back to being the same person before the cancer, with the same sibling conflicts and issues. The near hint of death hadn’t yet transformed, or even awakened her. As a result, our servitude had evaporated from her thoughts.
This was the catalyst to my emotional devastation, compounded by my fragile financial outlook, and lack of work. Having spent a majority of the nine months with her in D. C., my credit card debts were mounting. Edging their way to swallow me whole. I turned from her to me, and what I found was feelings of forsaken. Being isolated in a new town, with work that was sparse. The burdens of my own and Ella’s, was too much to carry, crushing my last bit of hope. I couldn’t see around the corner---was anything even there? Or was there more loss, pain, suffering and abandon.
My daily and hourly prayers were marred by doubt. A blanket of confusion of what to do to twist out of the spiral of defeat was taking hold. I felt disconnected from the family, mostly misunderstood, and judged for not having a “normal” life. And slighted for following my fruitless dreams was only compounded by not having a steady income. It gave them the ammunition they needed. Would I abandon them---or my dreams?
As the work ended my hope diminished. I detached from Nita and Ella breaking the emotional bonds. It was a vortex of heartache that produced thoughts of death once again. Nearly 20 years, 1987 and now 2007. Karen’s death was the catalyst the first time. This time a blend of family and career; fear, scarcity, loneliness and loss.
I took Sunday for a walk and within blocks my mind was flooded with words, thoughts and visions of how I could die. I wept with each step pleading to God why has he forsaken me. The sorrow dripped from my eyes as I fell in a trance of grief. My dog oblivious to my howls of anguish meandered along the frozen edge of the country roads. The feelings of being misunderstood were apparent, as was the lack of respect for the life experiences I had tucked within my history. I pled to the spirit of Karen, my Mother and Father for help. My mind and heart became one---lost in a bounty of aloneness and suffering.
As I approached the homes along the bay the negative tape in my head began to silence. The vision of myself along the rocky shores of the beach started to emerge---I became still inside. Like Virginia Woolf’s suicide, I envisioned myself collecting rocks and putting them into my jacket pockets, into my sports bra, into my underwear, my socks, boots and tying Sunday’s leash to my arm. As we’d wade out into the calm winter water, he’d become cautious as I walked slowly through the graveled shore, clutching him against my breast.
The smooth, faceless cold rocks pressing against my flesh---the weight taking hold, the waves knocking me off balance until I surrendered to the salty foam. The warmth of the water against the crisp air would cover me like a blanket. The life-filled world of Technicolor would become grey, still, and lifeless as my feet became heavy in the sand. I relinquished my will to the vast oceans of death that came before me. Sunday would frantically submit to his masters wish, staying tethered to my arm as our ship of life went down.
This reel in my mind had silenced my cries---as I was suspended by the vision. We floated back home along the tarred road. I thrust my body onto the bed and whaled for my dark thoughts. Sunday was confused and sat by my side. With no one except the spirits to hear my lowly inner turmoil, my journal became the caring caress I needed. It stood firm, spine erect, arms wide open, steadfast. In silent strength the pages took all I could expel. The unfettered paper marred by tears, pain and confusion absorbed the strife eating away my psyche. Only after I exhausted the power of death did the wave of emptiness rock me peacefully to sleep.
The next day brought a feeling of renew, and three weeks of unexpected part time work brought my optimism back. It made me feel self-sufficient and strong. I decided to see a tarot card reader in NYC. I needed to know what was ahead. The trees in the forest were closing in. She provided the hope that abandoned me. She spoke of success, riches, powerful men and love. I only had a few weeks and months to wait before all the cards fell into place. She affirmed my terrible life experiences with lady luck nowhere in sight, but all that would change. The depression would lift, and everything I’d worked for in my life would finally meet---with that elusive four-leaf clover.
I spun like a top with excitement. Nothing could penetrate my star filled eyes. The future was finally mine. Three weeks came, then five weeks, then nine, and….no powerful man, no money, no luck, and was out $50 dollars. I regressed back to the darkness on that crisp, bright spring day when I took Sunday for a walk through the woods at Laural Lake. With each step pieces of my family history sprouted in my head like jewels---suspending the visions of cutting my arms with the glass sparkling in my palm. Their events began to link themselves together. My family’s own personal demons, our own struggles, and fight with life and death I noticed had a similar thread. Like a patchwork quilt their stories surfaced and revealed themselves. Maybe we don’t own those thoughts---they belong to our parents, our ancestors. Their desires to die were passed down to us.
Woven through my parents and siblings is the fragile balance of doubt and hope, weakness and strength, confusion and clarity, sadness and joy. And if tipped one way for a long period of time desperation emerged wrapped in the package of despair, wishes of dying, or death.
While I was able to uncoil the intricate emotional longings that have replicated and connected us over the generations….the memories, the words, the sentences. It painted a picture for me of my family, and I thought, ‘Maybe the death wish isn’t mine after all.’
Just then, as I rejected death, I was possessed by generations of understanding. Their spirits gave me permission to be cradled by the muse and in euphoric excitement I grabbed a pen and paper from my pocket and this story began to unfold. The phrase I penned brought enlightenment, “my death wish was inherited in my DNA, it doesn’t belong to me.” And by unlocking the originators….I felt peace with my demons and was somehow set free. My soul, no longer lost in the woods of darkness---the spell was broken, and in my clarity I found the freedom to finally---live.
© COPYRIGHT 2007, R. B. STUART. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction of this Blog in any form.