Autumn is my favourite time of year - nothing beats October to Christmas. Mellow, ethereal sunlight; nights drawing in; cosy evenings; comfort food; nesting under duvets. It also brings the best of the liturgy with it - All Souls' is my favourite liturgy of the year, in a tie with the Easter Vigil. I love the descent into the darkness, the silence, the depth of the symbolism...the stillness that leaves room for God.
Autumn also brings its anniversaries. I was talking via IM to a friend who is converting to Judaism from Catholicism, and she mentioned that she had lit a Yahrzeit candle for her brother's best friend, John Ross Fisher, who was like another brother to her who committed suicide on 13 October, 2004 whilst on leave from Iraq. She wanted to write a tribute to him; I've offered to put it here when she's finished. May he rest in peace.
Naturally, that discussion turned my heart towards personal anniversaries. On around the same date as John Ross, but 16 years earlier, my Aunty Suraiya died - the second of my mother's sisters to die that year. I remember always being a little wary of her - she always seemed so silent and preoccupied. Just occasionally, when something funny was said, that wrinkle in her brow would disappear, she'd throw her head back, and a surprisingly warm, rich laugh would come out...her face transformed completely, from that beautiful real smile to the unexpected wicked twinkle in her eye.
It wasn't till much later that I learned why - her husband, my father's cousin (the same one who betrayed his family during Partition - a real gem), used to abuse her. I remember talking to my mother about her sisters once, and she said the following (approximately):
"I remember, she used to be so beautiful. Long, thick hair - we all wanted it - and she used to laugh so much. All the time. She was so funny, always playing jokes."
"Sorry, mum, which one of you?"
"Your Aunty Suraiya."
"WAIT. Did you just say 'Aunty Suraiya'? NOT Aunty Razia?"
"Oh yes. Suraiya used to be beautiful and laugh all the time. Until she got married."
At that moment, I swore no man would do to me what he had done to her - he'd never extinguished her light, but he'd driven it into deepest hiding. Her death was a shock - she'd been ill with what seemed like a cold, and wouldn't go to the doctor. When she died, the huge shock was compounded by the fact that copies of her will were everywhere in the house - in the sugar tin, in her room, in the cupboards...
I wish I'd taken the time to make her smile more.
Early November - the 4th to be exact - brings the next anniversary...a suicide. The irony is that we both worked at hotlines in the same room - she, on the child protection hotline; me, on the *deep breath* suicide prevention hotline. Relationships get very close very quickly when you're dealing with such intense issues.
Lou was in her 50s with grown kids, and treated me as one of her own. We'd talk for hours, mostly about what I was going through at that time. She was encouraging, and she told me that no matter what anyone said, I'd move when I was ready. I remember thinking that she cared about me, not what I could do, and I treasured that.
The last time I saw her was Columbus Day weekend that year - her replacement hadn't come by the time I left, so she'd gone into the next room to work on some sewing. I quietly peeked around the door to see her intent on cutting out a pattern. I didn't want to bother her, so I didn't go to hug her as was my wont. "I'll catch her next time," I thought.
I later learned NO ONE showed up that weekend, and she had kept the Child Protection hotline manned for 72 hours straight.
When she didn't show up on the morning of the 4th to take over someone else's shift, I wasn't too worried - things sometimes cropped up. The next Saturday, I came in to the news that someone on Protection line had committed suicide. I looked up in horrified fascination and asked, "Who?" And heard, "Lou." I can't tell you what was said after that.
I'm not sure I can put into words the complex emotions that arise from the suicide of a friend. I can only begin to imagine what it is like for parents, siblings, spouses, children. It takes your world apart in a way few other events can. Shock, grief, anger, guilt, fear...I had loved her dearly, but I was so angry, I didn't go to her memorial service. Yes, I regret that to this day, and every anniversary, it haunts me. Especially when 4 November is a Saturday again.
Suffice it to say, many demons drive me - and amongst them is one that reminds me that I will never, ever miss the signs of suicidal depression in those close to me again. (I know I'm human, and I know I will, but...)
The final anniversary, 6 December, is mine alone. It involves a very difficult year, an 8th floor balcony, a leg over the railing, and the choice between leaping into the abyss or onto concrete.
I chose the abyss. Only time will tell if I made the right decision.
It was the most incredibly painful place I had ever been. There were no barriers, no defences, no illusions. Everything I'd packed away, everything I'd pretended wasn't mine, everything chasing me met me there. It's...real. But painful and frightening though it was - and still is - the abyss is an amazing place. I learned that in its...nothingness, it is the place where all degrees of freedom are present and where every creative possibility is equal. And it was the place where I could feel God along every inch of my skin, in every cell.
As per Genesis 1:2:
"And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness [was] upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters."
I came out the other side never completely belonging to this world again. That doesn't mean I don't get irimtated (as most of you reading my blog will have guessed), that my myriad faults disappeared and I became a plaster saint (pass me a bucket, someone), that I lost my acerbic humour or my earthiness, or that I go through my life in some ethereal haze (I tend to slap people who do - figuratively, of course). Most of my life goes by in the everyday normalcy that everyone else's does, for which I am profoundly grateful. But in moments of great joy or great sorrow - in the pleasure of an evening spent in the warmth and love of friendship, or during events that make me feel like I am walking through hell - as I feel completely caught up in them, as anyone would, there is a part of me that whispers, "Hold on to this; this moment will never come again...treasure it, hold it close, live it deeply," or "This too shall pass - soon it will be an hour past, then a week, then a year...you will breathe again." There's always a sense that no matter how wonderful or how awful things are, there's a pattern, a tapestry, and each thread, light and dark, is necessary. It's an indescribable feeling, and a great blessing.
Another blessing amongst the many that arose from that time is the lack of terror in the face of someone else's darkness and the ability to move towards them, instead of away from them. The darkness is home, and somehow, one finds a way to slip between the cracks into a friend's darkness to sit with them. Sometimes, there are things to say, such as, "All will be well, hang on," or "Ok, if that's how you feel, let's plan your funeral." More often than not, there is nothing to say - you can only sit there, and put your arms around them, literally and/or figuratively, even as you know the only way out for them is through - and they have to go alone. And you pray, in the words of Vienna Teng's "Lullabye for a Stormy Night":
"And I hope that you’ll know that nature is so;
the same rain that draws you near me,
falls on rivers and land,
on forests and sand;
makes the beautiful world that you’ll see in the morning,
everything’s fine in the morning.
The rain’ll be gone in the morning..."
If I'm holding a friend's sleepy toddler in my arms during a stormy night, I know when their morning will come.
With friends, one doesn't know whether their morning will come on this side of the veil or the other.
"... but I’ll still be here in the morning."
And that's a promise.