I was going to post Part 2 of When We Marry but that will have to wait. This week I’m pondering other things.
On most days, Mazie and I walk along the Tulsa fairgrounds – on the sidewalk outside the western gate. At a certain point, there is a shallow ravine, a drainage ditch overflowing with tall grass. And every time we walk along this, I think of her. Lily.
I met her dad on Easter morning. He had just driven in from Colorado, pulling a trailer. Said his wife and daughter were only a short distance behind. They were renting the house across from my neighbor, John, while they looked for land to buy. A place to create a new home.
He asked me about the neighborhood. Said his wife and daughter liked to walk every day. We chatted a while and he was animated. A few hours later, I came back with freshly baked brownies. For him and his family. After that, I never saw him again. I never met Lily.
Ten weeks later, John texted me the news.
Turns out, John never saw much of this new neighbor either. They have a nice front porch with a table and chairs but never use it. The wife ventured over a few times to comment on John’s garden. His lilies were especially beautiful this year. So white. “My daughter’s name,” she said.
Lily was young and recently divorced. A few times, John said, she strummed her guitar on the porch, sitting in the chairs where her parents never sat. And sometimes he saw Lily and her mother walking. But that was it.
Then came the night with the police and the TV crew. The shoes sitting under a tree and a trail of money leading down to the ravine. No note, but she clearly wanted to be found.
My heart breaks for her parents. To lose a daughter like that. In a new place, isolated and alone.
I can’t imagine their grief. But I can almost – just almost - imagine Lily’s.
What makes a person take their own life? And please, don’t tell me mental illness cuz honestly, I think that’s bullshit. That answer is too neat, too tidy, devoid of complexity. Depression, yes. A pain inside the chest, a darkness that never lifts, a problem that doesn’t go away, the insurmountable effort of facing another day, yes. All these things, yes. Depression is debilitating. But when we reduce all suicide to mental illness, we are lying. Every death has a story. Too often, we don’t know the story. In truth, we never know all of it.
I don’t know why the mother of my eighth-grade classmate took her life that summer. Or why Pam took hers, just weeks after having dinner in our home. A friend later did her biorhythms chart and apparently that fateful day they had been low. Did that make a difference?
Jack had AIDS. He was in great shape, buff and still healthy, but, he said, he couldn’t bear the thought of becoming weak or dying slowly. He sent a letter to his friends explaining everything and included a photo of him smiling. Then he laid down in bed and made sure that was it. For months he had planned and none of us knew.
Avi wrote a ten-page letter after it was revealed he had done something bad. Children were involved. Maybe charges would be pressed. He didn’t wait to find out. He took the tram up to the Sandia Mountains and as the sun was setting, one shot echoed. He was a warm, deep, and philosophical soul. Was he always tortured and we didn’t know? He was only twenty-seven years old.
Pam, Jack, Avi – these weren’t mental illness. And their deaths weren’t a response to bullying.
Is suicide the opposite of home or an attempt to try and find it? Feeling so far away from comfort, from peace, from a sense of safety, the endless aching, the despair. Perhaps convinced you are a burden, a mistake, and don’t deserve to be loved, to belong, to feel safe. At least in the moment knowing you are so far from it.
The truth is, there have been times when I was ready to die. To cease being alive. I don’t mean to alarm you. But maybe you’ve felt this way too?
The first time, I was grieving the death of my father. My chest felt blown apart, like swiss cheese or the way spoiled milk curdles in coffee. How easy it would be, I thought, to let the car drift, to hit the concrete median on the highway. I didn’t want to kill myself, only … I didn’t want to go on living.
Two other times, I was deep in depression. Most recently, last winter. Existential angst. Triggered, perhaps, by friends dying. Perhaps emotional fatigue. Every day took so much effort. Every day required a long nap. There’s a point when pain is numbing and in the numbness is an ache. Friends said, yes, yes, we are all hurting, and I couldn’t disagree. Pandemic and politics, we are all so exhausted. So of course, I couldn’t tell you this. I wasn’t looking for pity, or affirmations, or love. What I wanted was to close my eyes, to feel nothing, to forget.
The other time, the depression came on quickly – the swift and unforeseen swing from manic activity, years of working in HIV. I was inconsolable and would let only my sister near me. The cliff, I said, I’m hanging by my nails from a cliff and the soil is crumbling. Clods of dirt are falling around me. It would be so easy to just let go.
And before all of this, when I was a teenager, I had a religious conviction that told me this life meant nothing. It was only the stepping stone to bliss. I wasn’t depressed, I was ready for the hereafter.
In all these times, I never considered taking my life. A desire for relief, to cease living, is not the same as contemplating suicide. I have often thought if I had a terminal illness, I wouldn’t fight it. What would you call that? Acupuncturists have told me repeatedly that I have low kidney chi, the life force energy. I was born with only a little, which, they say, explains my persistent childhood illness and my miscarriages. I don’t have enough blood. I have so very little energy. But you’d never suspect that if you knew me.
When my mom refused kidney dialysis because she also had pancreatic cancer, the hospital chaplain told me that was suicide. I told him he was wrong. Her decision was courageous. Her decision was faith. “I had a long conversation with my Lord,” she said. She was ready to go home.
I’m not sure what I’m saying. I’m just wondering …
What does it mean to cause one’s own death?
Eating meat causes heart disease, but many of us still eat it. Over-eating and lack of exercise. Fast food and alcohol. Come on, the list goes on and on: the things we know we shouldn’t do and the things we do anyway. The things we should do and avoid.
What about not wearing a mask during a pandemic? Not getting the vaccine?
Is the right to die a civil liberty?
You can drink yourself to death but don’t drive when you’re drinking. Killing yourself shouldn’t cause another person harm. Same with smoking. You can do it at home but not in public places.
Where do we draw the line? What constitutes suicide?
Our actions have caused wildfires and flooding. We’ve changed the weather and we’re dying from the heat. Our copious consumption has depleted forests and oceans and polluted our air everywhere. The artic ice sheets are melting. Our passiveness allows corporations to poison our children. No clean drinking water in Detroit? That’s old news. Another oil spill? Old news too. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) just released a report that is damming and well, again, we do nothing.
Every day we are killing ourselves. We are complicit in the killing of others. The pain is overwhelming.
And then we see Afghans clamoring to leave their country in order to not die in their homes. Haitians carrying on after a catastrophic earthquake followed by Hurricane Grace. Who named that storm anyway? Was it meant to be ironic?
Then I consider the hero’s journey, which requires a transformation, a death of one life for another. At the beginning of each journey, our loved ones plea, “don’t go!” fearing for our lives. We leave anyway knowing we are already dying. We can stay and die slowly or leave. Death happens either way. Living – really living – is a perpetual act of suicide.
Every day we are dying. We must die to one life in order to live more fully in another.
"Sometimes even to live is an act of courage." - Seneca the Younger
Living and dying are one and the same. The yin and the yang. “To make an end is to make a beginning.” How can we say that one person is living and another is dying? That one is courageous and the other is not? Who are we to determine this? Who among us is living so fully and not complicit in death that they can throw the first stone? Do we package suicide as a sin, or as a result of bullying or mental illness so we don’t have to see ourselves in it?
Living and dying, it seems to me, both take courage.
Either way, courage brings us home.
What do you think?