Chronicles of a becoming: Do you want to be well?
When my brother Carlos first died last June and for months after, I devoured stories and essays, anecdotes, blog postings, anything and everything related to grief. Poems, books, anthologies. I was looking to make sense of this senseless loss…how my querido hermano finally succumbed to his fifteen year addiction at the far too young age of 41.
(Cheryl Strayed’s “Heroin/e” quickly became a favorite I revisited many times. Then there was her essay “The Love of my Life” and David Sedaris’s “Now We Are Five” and so many more that I can’t even begin to list…)
I wanted proof that I wasn’t going crazy. Something to explain the knot in my throat that I couldn’t seem to swallow or cry out or scream through.
I needed someone to tell me that this grief would pass because I didn’t feel like it would. It seemed impossible that it could. That the vise grip it had on my throat would loosen.
I needed to know that I would survive this feeling of dying. The tiny little deaths I endured daily when people who did not know how to handle grief said stupid shit, like it’ll pass, you’re strong, you’ll be okay, you have to get over it; when I heard Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car or smelled his cologne on a passing stranger; or that time I swore I saw him in a crowd and I freaked, ran toward him, only to have this stranger look at me like I was a lunatic. The thing is, in that moment I was. I was losing my shit.
I was terrified that I would forget him, his voice, that mischievous twinkle in his eye when he came up with a scheme that would make mom scream and chase us.
I was desperate for people to know who he was. Not just the heroin and how he lost himself in it and stole and manipulated. I wanted them to know him when he was Superman, how he loved and believed in me, what he taught me about love and life and survival, and how so much of who I am, my fierce, my “fuck that, I got this,” I owe to him.
In November, I went into a really dark place. I went in willingly. Into an abyss I was scared I would stay in or wouldn’t know how to claw out of. (I’m picturing that scene from Silence of the Lambs when Buffalo Bill lowers a bucket into that torture pit chamber of his and you get a glimpse of the blood and fingernails and scratch marks on the wall) That’s when I started reading everything I could get my hands on about depression, how grief can trigger it, the dangers, the menace.
Despite this, I didn’t acknowledge it or admit that I was depressed until sometime in February, when the blackness started to ebb and I could see light on the edges. It was blue and shadowy, almost grey, like powder. What mattered most was that it wasn’t all black. It symbolized hope.
It was around that time that my friend recommended Live Through This: On Creativity and Self-Destruction. It was in the reading that I finally forgave myself for not writing for a while. I don’t remember when I stopped but I remember the ache of what I was writing. Me dejaba sin ánimo. The memoir had become everything and it was keeping me from confronting myself and my pain in that gritty, profound, it’s time to face your shit way that I needed. (I’m thinking of a quote from a Roxane Gaye essay here: “Writing is not everything. It can’t be.”)
That’s when I started therapy.
I kept reading voraciously about grief and depression. Books like Unholy Ghost—Writers on Depression. Essays and articles and studies. Then something shifted one day while I was on my way to therapy. I was on the B train crossing the Manhattan Bridge. The day was that kind of sunny and crisp that only happens in early spring when the earth hasn’t yet exploded with green but is about to, and you can’t help but smile at the tiny green shoots pushing up through the brown. You smile because you know what’s coming—life.
I was reading yet another essay on depression. The author wrote about how bad it got for her, how deep she sunk that she thought about offing herself to make it stop. Suddenly, I thought (I may have even said it out loud), “I don’t wanna kill myself” and I slammed the book shut. I finally really understood those lines in Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters: “Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?… Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well.”
I did want to be well. I wanted it more than anything.
People in mourning have to come to grips with death before they can live again. Mourning can go on for years and years. It doesn’t end after a year; that’s a false fantasy. It usually ends when people realize that they can live again, that they can concentrate their energies on their lives as a whole, and not on their hurt, and guilt, and pain. ~Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
No one is asking us to forget, to turn away from all that we loved and cherish in the one we have lost. We could do that even if we wanted to.
The task before us—and it can take a very long time—is to incorporate this grief and loss into the rest of our lives, so that it doesn’t continue to dominate our lives. It’s no longer the first thing we think when we wake up in the morning, or the last thing we relinquish before we sleep.
A child said to his mother, in regard to the outpouring of kindnesses after his father’s death, “There are so many good things. There’s just one bad thing.”
The “bad thing” will always be there, but when it begins to take its place among the good things life offers, we’re on our way. (Meditation for July 23, Healing after Loss: Daily Meditations for Working through Grief by Martha Whitmore Hickman)
Months later, I’m still learning this new normal, and I’m becoming more aware of how different I am, even when it comes to my writing process and reading rituals.
My memoir has taken on a new energy that I’m still gauging, still harnessing. It’s terrifying in some ways because I was so close to finishing it when the greatest loss of my life ripped me to shreds. I know the book is more true and powerful now. I know my brother had to die for that to happen. I still wish it hadn’t have happened like that.
That longing for him hasn’t gone away. The other day, I woke with a pounding in my chest (like a sledgehammer slamming into me repeatedly) that reminded me of that pain I carried when he first died. I remembered the feeling of dying.
It happens less often these days, but I’m not sure it’ll ever stop happening. And, sometimes, I worry that it will…that I’ll stop missing him, that I’ll stop wishing he were here to share my daughter’s milestones, my excitement over a published piece, the moves I’m making with the workshop Writing Our Lives.
I guess I’m still learning how to incorporate this grief and loss into the rest of my life. This is a journey I’m on. It’s not an easy one but it’s mine. It’s all I’ve got…and yes, I still so want to be well.