...not gunpowder, treason and plot.
A friend's suicide. A landmark anniversary.
Even now, some years are better than others - last year, I was so excited and emotional about the impending American election - it's not often I get up to go to the 7.30am mass - that whilst I remembered Lou's anniversary, it wasn't so hard. Other years have brought an emptiness or a gentle grief. Some years, it feels like the day she died. Last year was easy enough that I thought I might actually be past the worst of it.
How wrong I was. This year, I started crying on Halloween night and didn't stop till I fell asleep. The last couple of days have been better, but I even cried at the end of the All Souls' mass - and as much as that mass takes me to the depths that I love and moves me to sorrow touched with hope - I don't cry in public.
Last year may have been the easiest, but this year has been the worst since the year she died. And because 11 November is tied into her anniversary, I expect I've got at least a week to go.
It all began Thursday, in an Alexander Technique lesson with Sumi.
"You know, breathing IS an option, even over here," came the supportive, yet somewhat tart, comment as Sumi checked my head, neck, shoulders and back, before giving me a sharp look and saying, "You hold yourself very tightly, don't you? You really need to let go."
"Busted," I thought.
Then, on Saturday, I walked into Unique Creations when I saw a friend with one of the kids she babysits, making a plate for the parental anniversary. I admired the design, then my eyes fell on the date. I felt like I'd been hit.
"Oh, is THAT their anniversary? 4 November?" I semi-squeaked.
I gasped, realising suddenly that it had been a day of happiness and normalcy, as well as one of incredible pain. And that was the start.
In her book, "My grandfather's blessings", Rachel Remen posits that when we experience a sudden shock, we hold our breath, just as we do when plunged into cold water, and we need to breathe again to move forward and release the energy of the event and attendant emotions.
I believe that, and I think that most of us have some areas in our lives where we are holding our breath: a death, a breakup, a loss that we perceive to be catastrophic. We may be moving on in others, but until we breathe in all areas of our lives, we'll leave some part of us behind, or it will die of asphyxiation.
That gasp was my first breath in the part of my heart that had been Lou's since that 4 November.
She was working at the Child Protection Line; I was working the Crisis Hotline. Four hour shifts they may be, but they're intense hours - you discuss the tough calls, deal with some of the most difficult issues. Small talk isn't an option. Friendships become intense pretty quickly in an environment like that. Lou and I were no exception.
Lou was the first older woman I could pour my heart out to - my doubts, my fears, my 'I don't WANT to be a doctor; it's what my parents want,' 'I'm not sure I want to do this.' She was one of the first women to listen; the first woman whose love didn't waver when I didn't want to do what she wanted me to do. Well, there wasn't anything she wanted me to do, except be me. She trusted in my ability, she had faith in me. It was an immense gift, the first such I'd received.
She often stayed beyond her hours, as she had grown children and was on her own - she had done the whole of the three day Columbus Day Weekend because no one else showed up. Last time I saw her, her back was to me as she cut out patterns. I didn't want to bother her since she was busy, so I didn't give her my usual hug. It was the last chance I ever had.
The next time I heard her name, the word suicide was part of the sentence - and I held my breath. That part of my heart froze in that moment.
A month later, after a biochem exam, I could hear her Carolina drawl in my head: "You did really well, hon, I'm so proud of you." I shrugged it off, but I got an 88% on that exam, one of the highest grades in the class.
She, who had loved me for who I was, would never, ever have wanted me to freeze in that moment for an instant longer than the announcement.
Growing up in a family where emotions were held in contempt - by the time I got home after the shift I'd heard about Lou's death, I was so normal, my parents didn't notice - would be the easy answer. But things are never that simple.
I loved her, but I was so angry I couldn't go to her Maryland memorial service before she was buried in NC. I never forgave myself for that. But I was angrier at myself. FFS, I worked at a CRISIS HOTLINE. I dealt with suicidal people almost every goddamned shift. HOW DID I MISS IT IN MY FRIEND?
And so, I could never breathe; I could never let it thaw. I could never forget the intensity of that pain; never be that blind again. I had to be there for everyone whose loved one committed suicide; for everyone who was suicidal or self-harmed; I had to keep getting better. No one else in my circle was committing suicide on my watch. NO. ONE. One of the demons that would drive me - still does, more often than it should - was born. And when it was too painful for me to bear alone, I made him drive others - no one was good enough, no one did enough for anyone else, nothing.
What I forgot was that if you can't let go of what you're carrying, you can never receive or hold anything else.
When I gasped Saturday, I couldn't hold my breath any longer - I kept breathing...and started crying as what was frozen thawed and started hurting like f***. I had an inkling of how bad Saturday night was going to be, having been that deep before. Deep breath. When the only way out is through, you just batten down the hatches and go. Each day since has been a bit easier, with All Souls' mass offering the space to breathe and grieve, allowing me to drop the mask I had worn at work. Today is 8.45-7 - I'm not looking forward to it. C'est la vie - I've been through much worse. I'll live.
With every breath, I'm letting go a little bit more.
But I'm afraid. I'm afraid I'll forget her; forget how deeply it hurt; I'll forget how to be with those in that much pain; I'll no longer WANT to be with people in that much pain; I'll lose my edge, my vocation, something.
The truth is, that's just not true - I'll never forget how much that hurt and I'll never want to stop easing that pain for others. I just won't have that intensity of pain right under the surface. I won't drive myself and others to impossible lengths - as one of my friends said, "Do you believe that no one will kill themselves if you're around?" If I'm honest, I think some part of me thought the answer was 'Yes.' Without that pain, that impossible drive, I'm more able to be there, more able to help - more flexible and agile in my responses. I'll have a greater variety of responses too if I'm not so driven by my pain. Pain tends to blind us.
And my arms will be empty and open to hold something new. It's what Rachel Remen might call an endbeginning. And the thought of standing there with empty arms, not holding anything, is terrifying. But I need to stand there in faith and trust - because beginnings always come.
I will get there one day - but I can't force it and I can't predict how it will come. I need to breathe through it, find my way by the light in the darkness - sometimes alone, sometimes with others by my side.
But for right now, let's just say it hurts like hell. Coming out of numbness into feeling always does.
And I like to think that somewhere, Lou is looking down at me, saying, in that North Carolina drawl, "You did really well, hon. I'm so proud of you."
Thanks, hon. Me too - and I'll see you on the other side. Till then, miss you, love you.