Saturday, April 30, 2016

Celebrating Life and Loss

April 23 rolls around every year, and something in me raises its head and wants to refuse to acknowledge it, but that's hard to do. As April crawls along, and the day gets closer, I'm keenly aware that it's about to arrive, again.

The fact of the matter is that on a beautiful spring day in April, when winter's snows had melted away, and robins were starting to consider whether it was time to begin gathering materials to feather a nest, my oldest brother decided to give up on life. He made the choice to not wake up the morning of April 24, and after spending a few days making preparations to carry out his plan, he ended his life.

He took time to leave a handwritten note that wounded my mother and brother to such an extent that my brother will never forget the words, and I'm thankful dementia has given my mother the gift of doing so. He did not bother to leave his only son a note, and I'll never understand that. There's a sad irony in the fact that my copy of his note is the only piece of paper I have with his handwriting on it - big, loopy cursive letters written on lined notebook paper - the letters ironically always leaning forward.  Even now, years later, I keep hoping I'll come across an old birthday or Christmas card tucked away in a box - a memory of him that is happy rather than tragic. If I found one, I'd add it to my box labeled 'Jerry', on top of the photos of him with an elk he'd killed or his massive smoker or photos he took of Montana, his hands-down favorite place on earth.

Losing someone who is a close branch of your family tree is always hard, of course, but when suicide is involved it feels like experiencing a double death, a double loss. You try to deal with losing them, then you begin the much harder journey of dealing with the fact that they chose death over life.  Since I have only one experience with dealing with it, this many years later I'm not sure I've ever come to grips with it. Or that I will, or that how I feel or don't feel is normal or healthy or anything else. This far in I go from Sad to angry to empty and the percentages of each changes from time to time. Sometimes more sad, but sometimes more angry that he chose this to be part of our family legacy. He got to choose it, and none of us he left behind had any say in it.

So April 23 comes along every year and some years I drive to the local Walmart, where I know the homeless stand with hands open, waiting, and I give one a $20 bill, because my brother was afraid his next step was homelessness. Sometimes I give money to a local shelter. Sometimes I volunteer at the shelter, and look over the faces of the men, always seeing several who remind me of him with their hair that needed cut weeks ago, and face stubble and eyes that look guarded and tired beyond their years. Lately - over the past handful of years, I've chosen to spend the entire day celebrating life in its fullness, grabbing it by the handfuls and living it with gusto to make up for the fact that he gave up on it.
This year I started the day with a walk around the neighborhood, Miss Lily at my side, listening to worship music through earbuds, and singing aloud at a level that wouldn't wake anyone still asleep in the houses we were passing by. Everywhere spring was waking up in her full glory. Pink glory mostly. 

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I wondered at the lives of the people inside the houses, who were just waking up and starting their weekend, and prayed they were living joy-filled, hope-filled lives, at least mostly so. I prayed they knew they were loved. And I was filled with such a sense of all my brother gave up, more than a decade ago - the flowers with their fragrances and bees buzzing all about them, and the blue skies, and sprinklers running, and tricycles scattered on sidewalks, and the smell of grass cut the day before. I saw the recently used back-yard grills, the vans pulled into driveways, their seats full of the beautiful mess of life, newspapers thrown onto lawns, mailboxes waiting for something to be delivered. I saw the cars already driving up and down the street - those out and about on an early Saturday morning, and hoped they were going for pancakes or omelets with someone they loved.

After returning home from our walk, later in the day, I took the money I would have normally given to someone asking for a handout, or to a shelter, and we took four of our grandkids to see Jungle Book, with big buckets of buttered popcorn and cold sodas and boxes of sugary candy, and I sat in the seat, next to those people I love more than life, and vowed I will never give up on it. I so wish he hadn't.

Suicide is, from my experience with it so far, impossible to fully understand. To even completely absorb. Ultimately I accept that my brother was either in too much emotional pain or too tired of fighting a battle he felt he couldn't win, that he chose not to fight anymore. To me it seems a horribly selfish act, one that affects so many for so long and he could never have imagined how those he left behind would struggle with what he did. When his pain ended, it began for every single person Still here, who loved him. No parent should ever have to feel what my parents felt.

I so wish my words will encourage one person who is feeling hopeless, to not give up, but rather to seek help. Whatever my brother thought he could not face could have been solved another day, and he should have had decades more to live and love and take walks and smell flowers and freshly cut grass and grill burgers. Life is hard and it'll keep on being so, but it's worth it, even when it takes everything you've got to keep on fighting. Don't give up, even if it's for the sake of those you'd leave behind. And if you have someone in your life who seems to be barely hanging on, call them - go to them - today. Give them even one reason to keep on fighting. If I'd called my brother on April 22, if any of us had, who knows the impact we might have had, and even if we couldn't change what would happen the next day, we'd know he knew he was loved. Tell those around you what they mean to you. Do it today.

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