For Our Brothers
There are many words to describe suicide so why do I, in the corner of my mind and when I am angry, describe it as an awkward death? I have heard people say it is tragic and it is painful, but once hands are shook at the funeral, the bagel and fruit platters are eaten and the bouquets of flowers die, awkwardness is what is left in the air. Weeks pass, and while friends worry about failing the chemistry test or wearing the same prom dress, I keep waking up at 3:17 a.m. exactly, replaying the week leading up to that night over and over. I forget that food is necessary to function and keep calling my brother’s voicemail in the bathroom stall of school during lunch periods.
How could I ever again care whether my dress was blue or pink or if I got an A or an F? People in my extended family are too nervous to visit anymore because they wonder if you could have prevented it, or worse, if you were the one who caused it. They silently wonder why there was a gun in the house. No one wants to ask the wrong question because they are too worried you might start heaving and collapse of crying if they say they are sorry or want to know how he did it. I never realized how powerful silence was until it surrounded me everywhere.
If he died of cancer, people may sympathetically say, “I am so sorry. He was a fighter and he fought that disease for as long as possible,” or if he died in a car accident it would be acceptable to say, “It is so unfair that the drunk driver hit him. God will take care of him; he is in a better place.” Worse than the silence that permeates all rooms when my family walks in together is what I have heard all too many times by friends, fellow family members, and even therapists: “My goodness, what a selfish choice he made,” or “Let us pray together that his soul will be saved from hell.”
Why do we, as a society, shame people who struggle with depression so that they fear asking for help or admitting deep sadness? And why when people ask how Aaron is doing or how Aaron passed do I fear saying “He struggled with mental illness, and he took his own life”? Why did I stumble over my words and blush when my former boss asked how my brother died so young? I was sweeping the floor after closing time only to answer quickly, “He was shot.” Technically, I was not lying, I thought, but I was not telling the truth either. And I am in the middle of being grateful and spiteful when my dad will tear into us with his eyes and words if anyone in my family uses the word “committed” suicide because he claims it is not politically correct, forcing us to say, “Aaron died by suicide.”
I remember sitting at Pollo Loco, a small Mexican-style food chain in South Los Angeles with my friend Sam, a handsome tall boy with skyscraper legs stretching into the heavens and eyes that shown the distant oceans of California. We were eating jalapeño peppers fried in oil and filled with pepper jack cheese when he explained, “Pretty much my mom is so fucked up in the head because her dad hung himself, and she never got over it.” He continued with: “Everyone has thought about doing it, you know, ending it when things get heated, and if they say they haven’t, they are lying. We just have to keep going. That is the difference between those who give in and those who do not. The ability to trust yourself to keep going.”
My brother is no more special than your brother, and his death is no more important than another’s death. Death is equal, and so is the pain. I am glad that I have memories of him when we were little because it wasn’t long before his depression seemed to corrode his life. I never got to drive my brother anywhere. By the time I had gotten my license, he had committed suicide. I only know what it is like being in the passenger seat alongside him, when he was my older sibling, role model, and friend. Older siblings are the ones who are supposed to make the mistakes so the younger children can learn how to better get away with the mischief. They get the tight curfews and expectations of responsibility. Not me, it was not supposed to be me. I am the quiet middle child, hiding behind the corner of my mother’s flower dresses, perpetually looking down to ankles. If he decided to shoot himself, how am I supposed to learn? I am no longer defined as “Aaron’s little sister,” “Mini Walt,” “Walt Junior,” “Little Walt,” or other nicknames of that sort. I am forced to drive myself on and be an individual. For the first time, I began questioning how to live the hardest before my unpredictable death.
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying says that “Perhaps the deepest reason why we are afraid of death is because we do not know who we are.” Damn straight I do not know who I am. I thought I knew at eighteen, and I thought I knew at twenty, and I probably thought I knew at ten years old, but I look back and I did not know enough. After his death, I have been reintroduced to who I really am, who I care about, what I value, and what I will fight for. As humans, we are animals of habit, and we get so used to living one way that, when the universe throws off our pattern, we act like we have no clue who we are, what we believe in, or what is good for us. So, in the past when I have attended grief support groups for Survivors of Suicide, it is at times hard to bond with some because they believe they are the only people who have lost someone. It is especially apparent during the first few weeks of pain. My own family and I—we are guilty. And it seems this way when someone passes, that you are alone and that you are the saddest person who has ever existed and only you know this depth of pain. In the past, I have used drugs, sex, overeating, and starving because I did not know how to scream I was hurting. I was missing one of my best friends.
I guess the hardest thing to come to terms with after a suicide is that we will all most definitely die, it’s just that the rest of us do not know when. And this is why life is so sacred and beautiful. Do not rush your time here. I still have not understood this entirely, or know what death really means, or what does or does not wait for me after this life, but I do know living is making mistakes and being okay with them.
DSM-V, Deliberate Self Harm
The earth feels too tight.
Do trees hurt when they grow new roots?
When the leaves shift red,
dangle, you pluck one off,
fat and whole.
The tree flinches, either wind or
it hurt like a pulled tooth.
An empty socket, copper.
Sometimes I tear myself apart
You admit to the benches,
the gravel, the becoming
Tear the red leaf down its veins
your wrists ache;
it’s just a symptom
of a mistake in your blood.
A tree doesn’t have the gift
of tearing itself apart.
This season rips apart the world
and it’s diagnosed as beautiful.