2009 :: Issue 5/Fall :: Haunting Memories
When our brother called to say you had shot yourself, somehow, the bullet shot me, too.
I had never before seen our father weep.
One sleeps, and then awakens into a nightmare from which there is no waking.
I had weaned my second baby just days before your death.
Mom says that you were a colicky baby; cried whenever you weren’t sleeping.
My first friend, you took me to playschool for show-and-tell, as if I were your toy.
I never told you that my first kiss was your best friend Chuck. You were away at basketball camp. The kiss tasted like frozen pizza, and I thought that all kisses would taste that way.
Those first days: pills, cigarettes, tissues, planes. My soul floated behind me like a balloon.
You were born on the summer solstice.
You could solve a Rubik’s Cube in less than 30 seconds. Your IQ test said you were a genius.
You liked to draw shoes. While you were wearing one hundred dollar Nike Airs, I wore a two dollar canvas pair.
You were more intelligent, more coordinated, more popular.
Easter 1995. You said that the singer of the band you have been following around is Jesus Christ. You show symptoms of manic-depression and schizophrenia. Eventually, that is your diagnosis—schizo-affective disorder.
Those years between your first suicide attempt and your death, they were like seeing a cancer patient in remission. When you’re mentally ill, you alienate those who care most about you. When you’re a cancer patient, people bring you casseroles.
You had a magic radio show in your head and everyone listened.
“Cigarettes eventually kill you if you smoke long enough,” I said.
You, holding your cigarette, reply, “Cigarettes aren’t going to be what kills me.”
One eventually accepts the futility of presenting a rational argument to a schizophrenic.
A few weeks before your death, you ask me, “Why won’t God let me be the person I am?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I don’t understand God.”
I wanted to believe that you had more control than you actually did, that you could get better. Your death was the loss of that hope.
That first suicide attempt, you had jumped off a ferry and a couple Canadians saved you. Our parents drove to Vancouver to get you.
You sometimes would say that you were the greatest philosopher who ever lived.
Three of Wittgenstein’s four brothers committed suicide.
Those people who respect or idealize the artists who have committed suicide, they do not understand the folly of their admiration.
Before you shoot yourself, you put your dog in the yard with food and water. When we lived in Colorado, I potty trained your dog because you kept putting fresh newspaper over the peed-on papers.
You had turned on the bathwater before using the gun, and the water that ran out of the tub and over your body made the whole house a biohazard. The flooring, the baseboards, the lower two feet of drywall, the furniture—it was all ruined. Maybe it wanted to follow you. I did.
I cope daily with the oxymoron of a successful suicide.
I work side-by-side with the clean-up company. My job is to put our parent’s personal possessions into a storage pod, and to sort through all your things. The insurance doesn’t cover that.
I say a prayer to Saint Joseph every morning before working. Saint Joseph, the patron saint of departing souls. Joseph, your middle name.
You had wanted me to have the medal of Saint Joseph that you used to wear. The women cleaning the house, not understanding the significance, dispose of it. When I ask them if they remember it, they tell me, “It was covered with blood, and hair.” Later, as a substitute, I wear a cross with your ashes in it.
Your friend comes to help me. He talks too much. He has ADD, and his medicine only does so much. The pills make it so when he talks to me, it sounds like he is speaking through a mattress.
It rains off and on, lessening the ferocity of the Florida summer.
“We’ve been doing this for five years,” the women tell me, “and you are the first family member who has worked with us.”
I lose track of the number of giant screw-top wine bottles I find. Beer had been making you vomit.
We wear plastic bags over our shoes, your friend and I. The two women who cleaned up the bathroom where you shot yourself are now removing the wet carpeting and putting heavy pieces into biohazard boxes lined with red bags. They are wearing white rubber boots and biohazard suits.
In your room, I notice that your fish tank is running and the fish are still alive. I feed them. They haven’t eaten for days.
On your coffee table, there is powder from the crushed-up Buspars you have been crushing and snorting.
Your shoebox full of Risperdal goes into a biohazard box.
I throw out all the porno tapes in your entertainment center. I give away your electric guitar, and keep the acoustic for myself.
I put the dishes from the sink and counter into the dishwasher. The ramen noodles, was that your last meal? I get a Yoo-hoo from the refrigerator and drink one. I had forgotten that you liked those.
We take cigarette breaks outside. I start to cry, and Alice comforts me. “My brother-in-law killed himself,” she tells me, “while his four-year-old son was in the house. It’s how I got into this business. There was nobody to clean up.”
There is a loud noise in the house while we are all outside. Everything inside has been removed; the house is empty. It sounds like a metal chandelier dropping.
Your suicide note says to give all your clothes to Goodwill. I put your clothing into black garbage bags, and your friend promises to take them to the donation center. I want to burn them, have them cremated with you, but we donate everything but your shoes. I cannot bear to have another person wear your shoes.
At the funeral home, we talk to Randy, the person who families talk with when the death was a suicide. “My father killed himself,” he tells us. “He was a dentist.”
“We can put the announcement in the paper as a Memorial Gathering or a Celebration of Life,” Randy says.
“Put it in as a Memorial Gathering,” our mother says. “He didn’t like life.”
I want to see your body before it is cremated. The funeral director describes the state of your body, and I decline.
Our brother and I put up fliers at the bars you frequented and at the pizza shops where you worked.
Many of these people didn’t know you before you were ill.
I smoke cigarettes outside with your friend. “He didn’t tell me how pretty his sister was,” he says.
The petite Italian girl from the pizza shops asks, “You’re his twin sister?”
“No,” I reply. “He was a couple years older than me.”
“Oh,” she says, “he said he had a twin sister.”
Your ashes weigh slightly more than a newborn baby, and our father carries the box out of the crematorium, cradled in his arms. The box is in a purple velvet bag, which reminds me of Crown Royal.
Airport security checks the guitar case for drugs.
Our older brother, staying at the house between girlfriends, says that the kitchen cabinets are open in the mornings.
Our parents drive your ashes to Vermont. Even in death, you go on road trips.
We consider making a garden where we will put your ashes. We consider putting them at the local graveyard. Our mother feels drawn to a memorial garden nearby. A woman tells her that her husband’s ashes are in the garden. He committed suicide, as well.
Worldwide, about one million people die each year from suicide.
“I’ll probably never see you again,” you say to me in a conversation a few weeks before your death. “Don’t say that,” I say. “Why would you say that?”
Does one come to terms with the idea of never again feeling the sun on one’s face?
We hold a funeral mass five months to the day after your death. It is held on a Wednesday, in a small chapel built within the garage of a nearby Catholic church. The large church costs $10,000 dollars a year to heat, the priest tells us.
During the funeral, I envision an angel coming to earth to get you and take you to heaven.
I start wondering if you’ll be able to smoke cigarettes in the afterlife.
Your ashes are placed in a bronze urn, and this urn is placed in the Good Shepherd mausoleum in the town where we grew up. Our grandparents are buried nearby. We grew up on Good Shepherd Road.
The kitchen cabinets stop opening; there are no more strange noises.
A few months later, there is a fire at the house of your friend who helped me clean out the house. Your fish die. Your electric guitar and CDs burn. It seems even your things were doomed.
As the re-construction is happening at our parent’s house, the statue of the Virgin Mary is stolen from the garden outside. Either it was stolen, or simply ascended into heaven.
Our parents decide to move back into their house. At first, they keep the bathroom door closed all the time. Eventually, our mother buys an orange shower curtain and towels for the room, lessening the sterility.
It is like visiting a grave, using that bathroom. I can’t get it out of my head that the white walls and ceiling of that small room are the last things you saw.
While visiting, I bathe my small children in the bathtub, and shortly after, our parents begin to use that bathroom at night. “We’d still use the kitchen if he died in the kitchen,” our father says.
I notice how the force of the water from the spigot makes the tub stopper close, and I realize then that the tub overflowing was an accident, that you turned the tub on to muffle the noise of the gunshot. I had forgiven you already.
My son begins speech therapy shortly after your death. I stop caring about how intelligent he’ll be, or the comparisons other mothers make with their own children. After all, your intelligence didn’t do you much good.
Our mother tells the speech therapist that you killed yourself. “My brother killed himself,” she says. “He was 27.”
I try to remember the small things: your misshapen toes; your laugh.
All of those people I have known who have committed suicide—why is it that in my last image of them, they are smiling?
Later, I realize that I would have had as much success talking you out of committing suicide as I would talking a healthy person into committing suicide.
Suicide is beyond reason, and eventually, I stop looking for reasons.
It wasn’t so much that you killed yourself as your illness killed you.
Yesterday, you were dead. Today, you are dead. Tomorrow, you will be dead.
I am alive.