Pieces of Brokenness

I am not the voices in my head
I am not the pieces of the brokenness inside
I am light, I am light
- India Arie

The month before John died, I was sitting cross legged on his bed, typing on my laptop.

I was editing a poem about the the month of March, a month that feels as if it is neither winter nor spring. A month that sits in between seasons, undecided if something is leaving or if something is being born.

"Why don't you ever write about me?" John asked.

"I do write about you," I told him.

"You're not writing about me now," John said, leaning over and trying to peak at my poem.

"I write about you in my journal," I explained.

"How often? How often do you write about me?"

"I write about you all the time."

"Will you make it public? Will you put it on your blog?"

I laughed. "If you want. One day. But right now, I want to finish this poem."

"One day!? When? What if 'one day' you don't feel like writing about me anymore?"

"I'm in love with you. Writers are always writing about love. I'm going to write about our love for the rest of my life, I promise," I said, laughing again. I shut my laptop and reached over to him. I pulled him close, for a kiss.

I still remember that conversation, and I still remember that kiss.
There are so many conversations between John and I that remain inside me now. His voice and his words. Our laughter and our kisses, those are there too.

They are all inside me, and without my writing they would have nowhere to go.
Ask me about my grief, and I will tell you this. The sadness that has seeped into my soul is like tattoo ink. Stinging and permanent. John's loss has been indelibly written upon my heart. It will always be there.

I have to sit with so many incomplete conversations. Topics, both good and bad, that he and I always promised to return to. I have to carry around the memory of his kisses, never having understood that our last kiss was going to be our last kiss. Nothing can rewind the days and allow for finishing the things that were left unfinished. I will forever walk around with pieces of me incomplete.

But I don't have to let unfulfilled promises remain inside of me, too. Not those. I told him I was going to write about him, and I can still do that. And when I am not writing about him, I can write in honor of him.

I can write in honor of all of the other lives that been lost in this same heartbreaking way. And also for those of us who are fellow survivors of suicide loss.

I will write in honor of all of our broken hearts.

I will not stop writing. I will do it for John.

After all, I promised him.
I remember so little of the first two months after John died. I remember fragments. Scraps from the ripped apart pages of my grief.

The days were puzzle pieces and as time went by I'd have to shove them together to figure out how I got from one place to another. Never though, was it a puzzle I wanted to complete. I still don't. I don't need to remember all of it. Instead, I remember the best of those months. And the worst.

I go back and read journal entry after journal entry. April 9th, one week after John died. April 17, the day that marked fifteen years since my mother's own suicide. May 2, one month after John died.

I read my journals to fill in the memories. Page after page of words and scribbles. Perhaps writing was the only act of self compassion I could manage. I put the words on paper, thinking that even if I couldn't escape my pain - perhaps at least my words could.

I knew about the stages of grief. I'd seen others go through them, and I'd been through them before, myself. Still, they caught me by surprise anyway.

I'd be driving home from some place or another, and I'd have to pull the car over to cry. Leaning against the steering wheel with my head in my hands, I felt as if I were floating outside of my body and looking down at this woman in hysterics. I needed her to stop before I could step back in.

Living inside of myself was so uncomfortable. I was foreign to myself. How could I be this person who I hated so much? Everything I'd ever liked about myself was gone.

How is it that John managed to take me with him, when he left?

When I'd calm down, still there in my car, I'd try desperately to step back in time and make something else have happened. When I couldn't do that, I contemplated whether John might be in the witness protection program. Could there be any way? What could he possibly have done that might require him to go into the witness protection program?

I hoped for that. More than once. I tried to work it out in my mind. Maybe I'd never see him again, but surely this world would be softer, if I just knew that he was still here. Somewhere. Anywhere.

I'd think about it and try to shove my puzzle pieces into that picture, but it never worked. The futility of trying to make sense of John in a witness protection program was too much.

I'd be crying, once again.
I wanted to die too. Of course I did. The intensity was overwhelming. I wanted to die in place of him. I wanted to die to be with him. But it was too hard to talk about. I didn't want to scare anyone. John had just died and no one should have to worry that I was nearing that level of desolation, myself. We'd all been so rocked by death already.

I don't think I was alone in this. His parents. His sister. I don't think the feeling was foreign to any of us. Wanting to die and wanting to live. Not knowing what to do but knowing what we had to do. There were so many nights and afternoons when his sister and I would sit at her kitchen table and when we'd begin to talk about the depth of our grief, words would begin to fail us. Our voices would drop to a whisper and sentences would be left incomplete.

So, I got sick. Escaping into my anorexia was both cowardly and brave. How could I die and stay alive at the same time? I've had this eating disorder for so long. I didn't know how to live through the loss of John, but I did know how to starve myself. That pain, I could manage. That punishment, I could levy.
Today, I'll start eating, I kept telling myself. Today. But there are so many hours in a day, its easy to put off something you don't want to do. One hour turns into the next and then the next and suddenly the next has become tomorrow. The hour to start eating never seemed to come.

One afternoon I was at home, laying on my living room couch. I'd made a cup of tea and put a bunch of grapes on a plate. Both were on my coffee table and I stared at them. I stared at the faint white curlicues of steam that floated up from the top of the teacup.

There was still a spoon in the cup. My mother once told me that if you put a cold metal spoon in a cup of hot tea, the tea would cool more quickly. The spoon acts as a conduit for the heat to escape, she said. So, I always drank my tea with the spoon still in the cup.

Hesitantly, I reached over and plucked one red grape from the bunch and then held it over my head, staring at it. I wondered what it tasted like. The skin was ashy. That meant the skin would be just slightly bitter, I knew. And just as quickly as I imagined its taste, I knew that I wasn't going to be able to put it into my mouth. I wasn't going to be able to eat anything that day, I knew.

Still holding the grape, I looked again at the teacup. Reaching over,  I pulled the spoon out of the cup. Carefully, I placed the grape atop the concave side of the spoon. I rolled over on my back and imagined that the spoon was a lacrosse stick and that the grape was in the net. I flicked my wrist and watched as the grape flew upwards.

Not far enough, I thought to myself. I took another grape and tried again. Still not far enough. I took a third grape and flung it harder than I had the other two. Voila. I hit my target. The grape made a satisfying thud when it hit the ceiling.

I blinked and then squinted.

There was a tiny smear of purple juice on the ceiling, marking the spot where the grape had made contact. Maybe if I dabbed it with a wet cloth I could wipe it away? I sat up and then stood. I went to the kitchen sink and grabbed a dish towel.

I looked up at the ceiling again. It was too high I realized. Even if I stood on a chair, I wouldn't be able to reach the ceiling. My only hope would be to stand on the kitchen table.

I dragged the table a few feet closer to the spot on the ceiling, but once I stood on the table I realized I hadn't pulled it over quite far enough. I had to stand on the very edge and on my tiptoes, in order to reach over and wipe at the spot of juice.

I could feel the table shaking and suddenly I realized that even if the table didn't collapse beneath me, there was a good chance I'd lose my balance and fall face first onto the floor below.

Could I die from that? It was the first thought that popped through my mind.

Would people think that I'd been too lazy to find a roof to jump off of, so instead I opted to hurl myself to my death - from my kitchen table?

No, if I fell I'd probably just end up with a concussion and a broken bone.

I sighed and climbed down off the table, leaving the grape juice stain where it was.

It was bad enough having a broken heart. I didn't need a broken arm, too.
Once a month, I do volunteer work at a jail in Alameda County. Shana, one of the women I volunteer with, lost her husband last year to an unexpected illness. She is not quite my age, younger by several years. And now, a widow. And like me, she is an alcoholic in recovery.

It was not quite two months after John died when I decided to return to my volunteer work at the jail. Shana gave me a hug and spoke to me about her experience. She squeezed my hand and told me that she understood that falling in love with someone meant allowing them to occupy a part of your heart, and losing them to death meant that in many ways, you heart would never again be complete. She said she knew that this was not just figurative. She wanted me to know that she understood that at times, the pain was even physical. Our hearts don't entirely know how to beat when they have to contend with the void of negative space.

"So many people told me they were impressed that I didn't relapse, that I was able to stay sober," Shana said to me. I shook my head. I too had heard this from people.

"They didn't understand that I didn't want to drink," Shana said, and then she looked at me and said these words aloud: "I just wanted to die."

It was one of the first times, outside of John's family, that I heard words that truly echoed my own grief. Something about that experience made me realize that I wanted to learn more about the specifics of grief itself. I realized that I was not only blaming myself for John's death, but I was also blaming myself for not grieving properly. I was not strong enough, I'd been telling myself. My pain was disappointing other people, I believed. But when Shana spoke to me, I realized that there were echoes of familiarity in every voice that speaks up about the experience of loss.

I have since learned that for those of us who have lost someone to suicide, it is far more common for our grief to include suicidal ideation of our own. Why didn't I know this? I truly think I would have been more forgiving of myself those first few days and weeks, if I had known that my own suicidal thoughts were normal, rather than another personal failing on my part.

I didn't know this, because just like I'd been, people are afraid to talk about it.

Whether it makes sense or not, when Shana shared with me that she'd wanted to die, I began to consider that perhaps I would survive.

I began to do what I do. I found ways to learn more. I read about grief. I spoke to people in my grief groups about what their process and experience was like. I became fascinated by the ways we were similar and the ways in which we were different. I asked my treatment team to explain things to me. I know they were frustrated at times. The fact that my recovery involved so many questions about other people's grief. "We want you to focus on yourself," they'd say. "I want to know how other people do this," I'd reply. I wanted to know how other people did it, because I didn't know how to do it myself.

I suppose I needed to hear people tell me the thing that I wished so badly that I could go back and tell my mother and tell John, too.

"Sometimes life and loss can be so painful, you will want to die. But hold on. Because wanting to die doesn't mean you have to."
There are similarities and there are differences between my mother's and John's death, and also the ways in which I grieved them.

My mother had been unhappy for so long. She'd tried to die before I was born. She'd tried to die again when I was a young child. Most days she didn't believe in help, others she didn't believe she could be helped. Usually she vacillated between the two. I think wanting to die became a part of the core of who she was. She purposely fit into the glove of that kind of unhappiness while most of us would have instinctually pushed it away.

Several months after John died, I was with my friend Heather at a suicide prevention walk in San Francisco. The event was held at Mission Creek Park, and Heather and I were walking on a cement path that ran along the side of the small man-made lake that was the hallmark of the park.

Suddenly it hit me. I stopped and doubled over. I broke into tears and Heather reached down, trying to hold me up.

"My mother was so unhappy," I cried. "She wanted to die. She was so unhappy for so long." I shook my head and looked up at Heather.

"But John had so much happiness in his life. He wanted to live!" I wept. "Oh Heather, John wanted to live!"

I pleaded with her, as if maybe she was the one who could hear the things that I felt God would not. There we were, among so many people who had lost so much. The ghosts of such incredible loss floated around everyone on that day. And I was sobbing, not because of John's suffering, nor because he was no longer suffering. I was sobbing because John had experienced so much joy.

I forgot in that moment how John's sickness could take him over, and I forgot how often. And I forgot too, that the memories of John's happiness should be celebrated and not mourned.

Both my mother and John were sick. And both were unbearably unhappy when their sickness was at its worst.. But I spent years watching the future of my mother dim and become dark. John was the opposite. I got to be with him when his hope for the future was the brightest. I always want to be able to go back to that. John was sick, and his sickness took him away from those of us who loved him. But I never want his sickness to dim the memory of all his light.
Two weeks before John died, I signed a lease to rent a one bedroom cottage, in Concord, California. It would be the first time in two decades that I would live alone. I knew that I'd probably not live alone for very long. John had asked me when I filled out the rental application, if it were the kind of place where the two of us could one day live together.

I told him yes.

But there was stress between us too. The timing was difficult. John was struggling so much. So we were struggling as well. The small thrift store where we both were working was closing down. I was getting ready for an art show and between the show and the store closing, I was in over my head commitment wise. John had his own personal concerns to contend with.

Even though I told him that yes, it was a cottage that would allow for two people to live together - he was upset about my moving. He felt it was a statement of my moving on, not only into a new house, but also from our relationship.

John was having difficulty interpreting lots of people's actions at that time. I had all but stopped trying to argue with him or extend reason. 'Ok John, whatever.'  became my frequent and insensitive way of telling him that we should probably talk about a topic later.

Intellectually I understood that when John expressed hopelessness, it was because of his disease. Emotionally though, I operated from the assumption that any time John spoke of giving up, what he meant was that he was giving up on us and giving up on me. I would withhold or lash out. I didn't know what else to do. Everyone from friends to professionals were advising me to create a boundary. Stay, love him, but don't engage in the things that are likely to make him mad or trigger his feelings of insecurity.

A few days after I'd signed the lease, but before I'd moved in, John asked if I would take him to the cottage.

"Can I just go and see the place, and get it over with?" He asked me.

I said no.

I told him that 'getting it over with' didn't seem like the right perspective to have when he saw my place for the first time. It felt to me that what he was saying was 'Let's go there so that I can feel even more upset and so that we can get into a fight. Let's get this over with.' So, I told him no.

I know he was hurt. I tried to explain my reasoning but it didn't matter. I imagine he felt punished and misunderstood.

Needless to say, after John died, these were the memories that provided my first fodder for excruciating guilt and shame.

John and I did resolve this issue prior to his dying. We had plans for him to come and see the cottage on a Thursday, but he died the Sunday prior.

Two weeks after he died, I moved into a place that John had never seen. The thought of my moving had caused John pain, and yet here I was, following through with it even in the face of his death.

What could I do? I'd signed a lease. I'd given notice at my old house and a new renter was set to move in there. Without this move, I'd have nowhere to go.

But this little cottage I'd been so excited about just a few weeks earlier, I now hated.
I grew up with a mother who was mentally ill and fragile. She was also wonderful and compassionate. She was complex, like all people (mentally ill or not). She taught me by example to value kindness and to strive for empathy whenever possible. Still, at times - especially when she was in a depression and unable to meet the demands of parenthood - she could be particularly cruel. 

As a child, I thought she was beautiful and amazing. Yes she also often left me confused and frightened. This was part and parcel of having a mentally ill parent. She was mildly psychotic at times. She would describe conversations she'd had with the trees in our backyard. She would describe the smiles and the voices of the angels she said she saw sitting in those same trees.

At other times, the psychosis was not so mild. Once, she told me that she believed she was turning into an insect. She stood in front of me, leaning over and tugging her hair apart so that I could see patches of her skull.

"Can you see the antennae?" She asked me, convinced that they were starting to grow.

Nothing was consistent. I never knew who I was going to get.

When I was young, I tried to figure out how to be good enough to make her well. I tried to have as few needs as possible so that my neediness wouldn't be the reason she pushed me away or the reason she was pushed over the edge.

I vacillated between desperately trying to get the attention of the adults around me, and desperately trying to disappear. I was completely ineffective, at both.

My ability to value myself was in direct proportion to her stability. And so yes, at times she was wonderful and compassionate and beautiful. But she was not stable. Ever.

I clung to the hope that if I were somehow better, my mother would be too.

It took me years to understand these internal feelings I had. I couldn't understand that when the person I loved was suffering, it didn't mean that I was bad, and it didn't mean that I had to save them in order to reclaim my value. I didn't understand this is how young children interpret this kind of neglect and dysfunction in their lives. We turn it inward. We perfect the art of self blame. This is what children do.

Three weeks after John died, my friend Heather called and told me she was bringing me dinner. I was not yet living in my new cottage. I could not bear to be alone, so I was staying with a friend. But I had undertaken the move and was beginning the job of unpacking.

On this day, I stood among a mass of boxes on the floor. Inside the boxes were housewares that John and I had purchased together. Books and cards that he had given me. Clothing I had worn to events where I had stood next to him holding his hand or leaning back into the sturdiness of his body. The sturdiness of his love.

A large cardboard box had been shoved into the bedroom. I pulled it open and recoiled when I looked inside. All shoes, and all of them heels. Some just an inch or two and some stilettos. The shoes I loved to wear when I was with John, because he was so tall and the shoes made me feel pretty and also made it easier for me to look up and meet him for a kiss.

"Do you need me to bring you anything other than dinner? Do you need groceries or something?" Heather asked me.

"Uh, I don't know," I said. Which was true. I stood amid those boxes and I didn't know anything anymore.

"What about paper towels? Toilet paper?" She asked.

"Yeah. I guess. Yeah." I answered.

So that's what she did. Heather came to my house with burritos from Chipotle, some paper towels, and a plastic wrapped package of twelve rolls of toilet paper.

I ate what I could of the burrito. I thanked her for the paper goods and we laughed at the practical nature of her housewarming gift.
Three and a half years earlier, Heather had been integral to ensuring that my son and I were able to stay together, even though both he and I were very new in recovering from addiction. She was a year ahead of me in her own recovery, and like me, she was a mother. She had three children, all in the same age range as my son.

When Heather and I met, I was at a point in my life where it seemed as if I'd lost everyone who had been important to me. My closest friends. My family members. Everyone was stepping away, throwing their hands up in the air, telling me, essentially, that they just didn't know what to do for me anymore.

But Heather knew what to do. She showed me exactly what it looked like to stand up in the worst mess you've ever made and still reclaim yourself and your life. Heather never looked at me like she was frustrated with the mess I made, and she never looked at me as if she was disappointed. She only ever looked at me like she'd once been where I was. Without saying a word, she offered me compassion, empathy, and a whole lot of hope.

I trusted her and because of the role she played in supporting my recovery, supporting my being a mother, and supporting my son, words will never be able to describe the ways I am indebted to her.

I'd already known Heather for a couple years when I met John. Still, I didn't realize until he told me, Heather was one of his closest friends. He talked to her about things he didn't share with other people. He sought out her advice and he trusted what she said. Heather was there for him and she was gifted at helping him understand the subtleties of serious relationships, as well as the not-so-subtleties of dating in general.

I knew that John confided in her when he'd been flustered with his other friendships and certainly when he'd been flustered with me. I also knew that Heather cared about me but she would definitely take his side when it seemed the appropriate thing to do. Heather was very loyal to her friends, but also honest and always guided by her integrity. I knew that meant she wasn't always on my side, but I never questioned her care for either John or I - and I knew, she was never cruel.

So when John died, I knew that I didn't have to tell Heather that John and I had been struggling. I also knew that she was intimately aware of his side of things. Still, the moment he died, she was at my side and at my son's side too.

The guilt and shame that I was enmeshed in during the first few months after John died was absolutely brutal. In no small part, I got through those days because of Heather's support. It was her love that allowed me to consider that I might be someone worth forgiving. Because she'd known John so well, I was better able to take it in when she told me that she knew that I loved John, she knew that John loved me, and she knew that I was not the reason he died.

There were times that I clung to her for these reassurances, and she was always steadfast. Even in the face of her own grief, she never faltered or let me down when I needed holding up.

I don't know that Heather will ever fully understand how much her love has meant to me. But that is not of great concern to me right now.

Heather knew John, and instinctively, she knew that John did not want the people he loved to be in so much pain around his death. She knew how to honor him. Like so many extraordinary people who stepped up in the days after his death, she knew that turning towards love and support was the thing to do, and that is what she did.

So, I'm not so much concerned with whether she understands how much her love meant to me. What I hope, is that she understands how much her love meant to John. And I know that wherever John's spirit has settled now, Heather's continued support of me still comforts him.

John's voice is mostly a memory though. I want Heather to know that her loyalty to who he was means that his memory lives on, and I truly believe that just as John loved and appreciated her when he was alive, he loves and appreciates her still.
A month after John died, I was finally ready to sleep in my little cottage. My son visited and slept on the couch the first night I was there, so that I wouldn't be alone. But I didn't want to ask him to stay for more than the one night.

The second night, I was still unpacking. I found a box of toiletries and went into the bathroom to put them away. In the corner were the rolls of toilet paper that Heather had brought me a few days earlier. They were still in their original packaging, all together and wrapped in plastic.

I stared at the rolls and then picked them up. I brought them into the living room and sat on the couch. I held the package of toilet paper as if it were an infant in my arms.

Gently, I placed the toilet paper down on the couch and I got up to continue unpacking. Every once in a while I would glance back at the toilet paper to make sure it was still there.

That night when it was time to sleep, I didn't want to sleep in my bed, so I decided I'd sleep on the couch. I fetched John's sweater, the one I slept with every night. Then I stood in front of the couch staring, again, at the toilet paper. I pulled the sweater over my head and laid down, taking the toilet paper in my arms.

I slept like that. On the couch, wearing John's sweater, and holding onto the toilet paper all night long.

We do weird things when we are grieving. Things that might never make sense when we put them into words. Especially to others who've never found comfort in the same ways.

Me? I stopped eating. I catapulted grapes at the ceiling. And I slept with a dozen rolls of toilet paper in my arms, in order to remind myself that I was worthy of love.
Maybe I'll never fully remember those first weeks after John died. In truth, I still don't remember much about the weeks and months after my mother's death, either. There are fewer puzzle pieces and more memories that I let slip away. When she died, it never occurred to me that there would be a time when I would look back and ask myself, 'How did I do it then? How am I going to do it now?'

My memories of my mother's death are not vivid. My memories of her are no longer vivid. Often I remember her in the same way as the ghost she has now become. Beautiful, light, ever present and yet, somehow just air and emptiness at the very same time. It is so ironic, how heavy absence can be.

There is a shadow that lays atop my memories of my mother. My sadness about the disease that took her over and ultimately took her life, hasn't dissipated. Is this what it's like for people whose loved ones die of cancer? Is their memory always overshadowed by thoughts of their disease?

I don't want that blanket of darkness to cloud my memories of John. I don't even want it to cloud my memories of my mother anymore.

I don't want to walk away from these feelings. This pain. Not if it means pulling the sheet up over the firm body of my memories of these two people who I loved so very much. If staying with these feelings means that my grief will never abide, so be it. I will stand here in the cold, shell shocked and frozen, so long as my memories of my mother and John are fresh.

Maybe this is why grief is lifelong. Because of that dichotomy. We must endure the pain of loss, in order to retain memories that are full of beauty.

For every memory that fills my mind with heaviness - if I try I can also find ones that are as weightless as the air that we breathe. Of those lovely memories, there is nothing dark.

It is in the memories of the once complete love that bound me to the people I've lost, that I find reprieve from my ever present brokenness.

I will always, when describing my mother, speak of compassion. I will. I will always tell people that my mother knew how to find the angels that sat on tree branches, and I want the world to know that I pray to her now, that she will help me find those angels still.

And this too. In addition to incomplete conversations I'd had with John, there were the ones that ended up in laughter and the ones that ended up in kisses. With John, there was no better way to finish to anything, than with laughter or kisses. And we had so much of both.

Ask me about my grief, and I will tell you this. I have learned that even in profound sadness, often when things break apart, they are no longer as heavy.

If we allow it, even the heaviest and darkest grief can be a path to light.