From The First Day

But I would walk 500 miles
And I would walk 500 more

Just to be the man who 

walks a thousand miles

To fall down at your door

- Sleeping at Last

On the morning that John died, before I knew, I'd called him over and over again, hoping that he'd answer.

I called one person and then another and then a third. I called his parents. I begged them all to check on John, I told them that something was wrong.

I got in my car, shaking. Knowing that someone needed to find out why he wasn't answering my calls. It didn't make sense. We weren't fighting. We had told each other we'd loved each other just the night before. We had plans for later that day.

John and I had been going back and forth in the weeks prior, trying to figure out what we wanted to do with our relationship. A relationship that was wracked with the complexities of mental illness. Our only constant was how deeply we loved one another.

The day that John died was a Sunday. Two days earlier, John told a friend that we were broken up, even though we were talking to each other every day and seeing each other almost as often. We were struggling, though, and I'd resigned myself to waiting for a healthier John to return before we talked it through. 

I didn't realize the degree to which John was giving up.

On Saturday morning, the day before he died - he'd asked me if we could try again. He'd said please. In the past, I myself had pleaded with him to give us another chance. So, I said yesOf course. Yes. We had plans to do something together later that night.

But, a few hours later he told me he didn't want to do something after all. He told another friend that he wasn't up to seeing him, either. And he told his parents that he wasn't going to be stopping by their house that day. John canceled all of his plans.

That night, John and I spoke on the phone. We always spoke to each other before bed. On this night, he told me something that he'd said to me before. He told me that he was worried that he was always going to disappoint me. Once again, I was frustrated. I told him he was having a bad day and there was no point in talking about these things when he wasn't doing well. We didn't fight, though. He remained calm and said that he agreed.

I did not return to the topic. I did not insist that he listen to me so that I could tell him that I still believed in us. That I believed in him. I did not tell him that I knew what it was like to suffer at the mercy of an unhealthy mind and that I knew that it was possible to come back from the worst of the self-doubt and the worst of the pain.

I did not tell him.

Instead, we did what we always did each night. We watched a show together while talking on the phone at the same time. We laughed at the show together. I reminded him that we had plans for the next day, and told him that I was looking forward to seeing him.

He hesitated when he answered. I think about that hesitation all the time. That moment of silence.

"I'll see you tomorrow, OK?" I said again.

"Yeah, OK," he said.

When I'd gotten off the phone, I realized I hadn't told him that I loved him. I sent him a quick message.

"Goodnight. I love you." I wrote.

A few minutes went by, and then he responded.

"You're an incredibly special person, Chelise. I will always love you." He wrote.

I felt a moment of happiness reading those words.

I will always remember his hesitation when I told him that I'd be seeing him tomorrow and I will always remember the moment of happiness I felt when he told me that he'd always love me. One memory will always break my heart and the other memory will always hold my broken heart together with a tenderness for which I have no words.
When John didn't answer his phone the next morning, I began to get worried. By the time I decided to drive to his house, a part of me knew already. A part of me knew, without wanting to know. 

Before I got to him, one of the people I'd asked to check on John called me to tell me that they'd gone into his room, and they told me what they'd found. I heard the words that ripped apart my world, my heart, my soul. In that moment, everything that was me was ripped apart. I didn't want to be that ripped apart person. Perhaps the seeds of hating myself were sown then and there.

I was on my way to him. 

I pulled my car over.

I was on my way.

I started begging. Inside and out loud. Begging. No no no. Wait for me. I'm on my way.

I called my son. I called a few of my closest friends. My son called a few more.

And then, my phone rang again. It was a police officer. I don't remember his name. He was calling from John's room. John was in that room still. My John, who was there and who was gone at the very same time.

The officer asked questions. What was said in my last conversation with John? How did I know that someone should check on John this morning? Had I known that he was suicidal?

I had trouble hearing the officer. This stranger's voice that was asking me questions related to something that couldn't possibly have happened.

It was hard to hold the phone. Not just my hands were shaking, my entire body was. I wasn't hot, I wasn't cold, but my shoulders were shaking so hard, I could feel the tremors in my jaw. I heard my voice but I didn't know who was speaking. How could it be me?

Before getting off the phone, the officer said to me, 'I'm very sorry for your loss.'

I wasn't ready for John to be a loss. I couldn't take in the words. I couldn't inhale or exhale. I didn't want a loss. Was I supposed to say thank you?

"OK," was all I could manage in reply.

On the day that John died, I couldn't say thank you to anyone about anything.

After I spoke to the police, I couldn't talk on the phone anymore. I couldn't talk to anyone on the phone the rest of that day - except for John's family. No one else. Not anymore. Not on the phone.
I was alone when I found out John died, but it seemed like within minutes my son was at my side, and then minutes after that I was surrounded by my closest friends.

I knew that John's parents and his sister had now been told. There were other people that I thought should know. Other people who ought to find out as soon as possible.

My friends assembled to make the heartbreaking phone calls that I could not. They took turns holding me and making phone calls. Even my 19 year old son took on the unthinkable responsibility of calling John's best friend. My son had only met him a few times, and yet, when I said that someone needed to call him, my son stepped up.

All of the people who were with me the day that John died, knew John. Some a little, and some well. And I can say with certainty that every one of those people cared about John, either because of who he was, or else because they knew that he and I loved each other, and that was enough for them. They were all in shock and grieving too.

These were my closest friends and my son, watching me crumble. They were trying to hold together a person who was at times hysterical and who was completely consumed with the freshness of grief. And yet, they also made phone calls to others who loved John, to deliver the devastating news of his death.

John's mother and sister both called me to remind me how much John loved me and to remind me that for the next few days - every single one of us was going to find a way to bear the loss of him and that we'd do this by loving one another.

While one life had ended and others were grievously changed forever - love was already creating a net into which each one of us would have to fall that day. And we'd fall into that net again and again in all the days to follow.
Some of my friends were calling people they'd never met and others were calling people they'd long known. Over and over again, the kindness extended on each end of the line was profound. There were mutual tears being shed. There were so many words of love and support.

Of all the calls that were made that day, there was only one that garnered an ugly response.

My friend Stacey called a friend of John's named Jeanne. Jeanne asked Stacey who she was, and when Stacey explained that  she was a friend of John and I's, Jeanne uttered a profanity and then hung up without another word.

I felt bad that someone had been so rude. I apologized to Stacey. Was it the first apology I tried to make that day? Maybe it was the hundredth apology I'd made that day. I don't know. 

I hadn't had any personal arguments or conflicts with Jeanne. Not ever. I knew that she and John had an argument of some type in the weeks before he died, but I didn't know what it was about. And John was struggling. He was arguing with me and with co-workers and it didn't seem to be personal. It seemed to be more reflective of his struggles. He also told me that he and Jeanne had met for lunch and made up, shortly after their argument. Aside from that, John and I hadn't talked about her or that situation. It didn't seem to be pressing on him, and it certainly did preoccupy my concerns in the days before John's death.

Was Jeanne supportive of John at the end? Was she angry at me for some reason? In the face of John being gone, none of that seemed to matter.

I thought Jeanne should know about John because I knew that there were times when she'd been a good friend to him. Any feelings I had about what may have happened between her and John, melted away when I thought about the pain that was being handed to each of us.

What did any of these conflicts matter? John was gone. For all of us who loved John, all of our hearts broke that day. As far as I was concerned, if someone loved John, they now had the beauty of that love in common with me, and equally, we were now going to share extraordinary grief as well. 

I asked my friend Stacey to call Jeanne, because I didn't want Jeanne to find out about John's death in a way that would compound her pain. I didn't want Jeanne to find out on Facebook, for God's sake.

My friend Stacey loved John too. Stacey's children loved John. Stacey was swallowing her own grief in order to be as gentle as possible when bringing the tragic news of John's death to Jeanne.

Did Jeanne, when she cursed at Stacey and hung up her, even for one moment consider that Stacey might also be in pain?

Did anyone think these calls were easy to make?
On the day that John died, I was vacillating between shock and hysteria. Even so, there was a tiny voice reminding me that I was loved. It was whispering to me behind a wall of incomprehensible darkness. It was the only light. It seemed as if everyone I trusted and cared about was either contacting me or showing up.

Those first hours, the only thing that tethered me to the earth was all of the love that was galvanizing around me.

The people who were with me that day came and went. Before my friend Stacey had to leave, she sat down next to me. It was late afternoon. For all kinds of reasons, I was pale and couldn't stand without needing to lean on someone.

"Will you please eat something?" Stacey asked.

I answered the same way that I would so often answer that same question over and over again in the days, and weeks, and months to follow.


Shame was already beginning to pool at my feet. From that point on, I couldn't take a single step without leaving a trail of shame behind me.

So, would I please eat something?

Three months after John died, I sat on a hospital bed while a doctor pressed on my sternum.

"Has anyone looked at this before?" She asked me.

I considered her question. "I don't think so."

She was talking about my xiphoid process, a bone that is at the base of the sternum. I didn't even know it was called a xiphoid process until she started talking about it.

"Something's wrong," she told me. "It shouldn't feel like this.

She was thoughtful for a moment and then she stepped back and looked at me.

"Have you ever broken it? It's almost as if didn't heal properly."

"I don't think so," I said. "I broke my nose once when I was surfing, but I'm pretty sure my chest was fine," I laughed a little, but she didn't.

"What about chest compressions?" She asked.


"Chest compressions. CPR. Has anyone ever performed CPR on you?"

I remember looking out the window behind her. I hadn't been outside of the hospital in a couple days, but I knew it was hot out there. Still, in Berkeley there was a breeze and I could see the clouds being pushed along the skyline. I remember wondering what it would be like to be floating out there. 

"Yes," I told her. "Four years ago, I had to have CPR."

"Ah. Well, it's likely it was broken then. It's fairly common. Often, when CPR is performed, ribs are broken."

She didn't ask me what led to the need for CPR. I was glad for that. I was so tired of talking about death.

I don't remember getting CPR. I don't remember any of the life saving measures that were made on my behalf on October 5th of 2013. I just know that they happened, and their success is why I am alive today. 
Even with lungs that had given up on breathing and a heart that stopped beating, a miracle was doled out that day, and my life was saved.

I thought about how much I wished that I could give my miracle to John. Trade my life for his. Some days, I would have handed it over and given it up without hesitation. Most days I lamented - why am I the one whose heart started beating again?

My heart seemed useless to me anyway. 
In the days after John's death, even the act of breathing became surreal. I stood just behind my own life and followed myself around. I wondered if I'd ever want to catch up with the girl in my body. The only thing I knew for certain was that I didn't know how to live inside myself anymore.

He was gone and the world should have been standing still. Instead, one day turned into a week, and two, and then three. Soon enough, we were hurdling toward week number four. 

There was no break. The days kept passing. 

Sometimes I still count the days in memories. I think about the time before he died. I go back a year, two years, sometimes more. I think about my first week with him, and then of week number two. 

"Is it normal that I think about you all day long?" He'd asked me once.

My heart had skipped a beat and I'd laughed. I told him yes. Yes, it's a normal part of realizing that you want to spend more time with someone, to think about them a lot. Some days, I told him, you'll think about that person all day long. Yes.

When was it that John and I began falling in love? Was it week number one? Or week number two? Or three? Perhaps it was when we were hurdling toward week number four. What did it feel like to touch him then? To laugh with him then?

The first couple of months after John died, every day there was a new memory. I'd sit on the couch and realize I would never lean back into his arms again. My lips would be chapped and hurt a little. They'd hurt already when it would hit me anew that I would never be kissed by him again. I can remember what it felt like when he hadn't shaved for a few days and I'd reach up to touch his cheek with my fingertips. That strangely intimate gesture I reserved just for him. I still catch my breath when I realize that I will never feel his sweet and prickly skin again. 

Even today, when I think of all the never agains, I wave my hand in the air, wanting to push the thoughts away. Instead, as I stir up that minuscule breeze, I want to become that. The gentleness of air. The peace of being nothing.

I ask myself the same questions over and over again. How do I go on under these circumstances? How do people do this?  Why do I have to figure out how to do it?  What if I can't? What if I don't want to figure out how to live through this?  

What then?

When I focus on the best of him, the way he could make me laugh, his kindness, his endless capacity for forgiving - I am comforted. 

Some days still, I live for the memories of John. Some days I wonder if they will never end. Every day, I wake up and have to juggle what I am living for and what I want to end. 

Every single day.  
Right from the first day, I couldn't eat.

Except, I did. I ate to appease others. I ate so people wouldn't worry. I ate to avoid the worst of getting dizzy or passing out. But grief stole my appetite and I didn't want it back. I wanted to disappear. Trying to disappear was winning out over eating.

Trying to disappear was winning out over everything.  

As time went by, people told me I was getting too thin. I couldn't see it. I couldn't see it, so maybe it wasn't happening. And I was glad that I couldn't see myself anymore. I didn't even want to try.

I mean, I could see my clothes in the mirror and I could see my lipstick and my earrings. I could see my skin - the flesh that was draped over my body. Of course I could. But I didn't know if I was heavy or thin. I didn't know if my complexion was pink or grey. I didn't know.

Sometimes, the thing that takes me down is so ugly, it's better to be blind while it happens.

This is what an eating disorder looks like.

This is what it's like to live in shame.

Even when I seem ok. Even when I am laughing. If my eating disorder could talk it would tell you: I hate my broken heart. I hate the mirror. I hate my reflection.

I hate me.

From the very first day that John died, Jeanne told people she blamed me for John's death - and more than one person told me that they wanted to 'warn me' about what she was saying. Maybe she thought I wasn't suffering? Maybe she thought that losing John wasn't punishment enough.

Right from the first day that John died, it was incomprehensible that anyone who knew John could be so cruel to me. And yet, like the hurricanes that gather strength when travelling over the sea - Jeanne's public assertions became the perfect force behind my shame.

Jeanne blamed me and deep inside, a voice that had been speaking to me since my mother died fifteen years earlier, understood. The thoughts were there for me too.

I deserved retribution.

I deserved cruelty.

Right from the very first day, I knew.

I deserved to suffer more.