This is not a feel-good story. I tell you this now because I am offering you an out. Shut your eyes. Close your ears. Walk away. Go ahead. It’s your choice. I would. My first instinct would be to run. But for some damn reason, I’ve committed to embracing this story as sacred. This is my attempt to set it upon the altar and regard it with reverence.
There are three things you should know. First: I have been suicidal twice in my life—at the age of twelve and again at the age of thirty-six. Second: Although I have never attempted suicide, only flirted with it in extreme ideation, I am a suicide survivor. Third: A fifteen-year-old boy named John, the first-born child and only son of a dear friend and my oldest daughter Lily’s first crush, saved my life. He did this by taking his own.
My introduction to suicide came when I was a child of eight or nine. Sirens could often be heard traveling a few blocks away from my house, from highway 101 to El Camino Real and on toward Stanford hospital. On one particular late summer afternoon, as the neighborhood kids and I played outside, that familiar high-pitched screech sailed down my street. As soon as the ambulance turned the corner and passed my house, we ran after it. My calloused bare feet pounded the pavement for four blocks to where the ambulance had stopped at a cube-like, cement-sided, two-story house on Walter Hayes drive. A small crowd of people stood in front of the Pepto-Bismol-pink house, watching two policemen coax a man onto a gurney as paramedics stood nearby. The man wore white boxer shorts and a white cotton undershirt that contrasted with his shiny black skin. There appeared to be a bloody hole the size of a quarter at his throat. He shifted erratically in circles eluding the officers, who stood nearby. “It would be better for everyone if you lie down and cooperate,” they said, trying to avoid the use of force.
“What happened?” we whispered.
“He tried to kill himself,” we were told. “By cutting his throat and jumping out the second-story window.”
Finally, the man lay down on the gurney. He looked at all us kids watching and tried to reassure us, saying, “Everything’s going to be okay. I’m going to be okay.” As he spoke, the red spot on his throat moved raw and wet. Was he trying to reassure us, or himself? The story that circulated through the crowd was that he came from somewhere in Africa to work in the States, and he had tried to bring his family into the country, but they had been denied entry. So he had cut his throat then jumped out the second story window onto the concrete driveway. He then proceeded to roam the neighborhood, assaulting my friend, Raji, who happened to be playing in front of her house, by hitting her over the head with a baseball bat.
The paramedics wheeled the man to the ambulance and loaded him inside. All the while he said, “Don’t worry. Everything will be alright.” Whom did he see when he stared into our frightened eyes? Was he speaking to his children? I glanced down the street to where a policeman was interviewing Raji’s sari-clad mother. Raji was nowhere in sight. If this man missed his children so much, I wondered, why would he hit a child over the head with a bat? Was he mad because other children got to be here when his own could not? I stared up at the small square window, wondering how he fit through the opening, for he was a large man. How did he not hurt himself upon landing? And what made that round hole in his throat? As the paramedics closed the doors of the ambulance, blocking the bloody hole from view and silencing the man’s assertions that everything was going to be alright, I glanced once again at the upstairs window. Was the man’s suicide attempt spontaneous, the kind without a plan? Is that why he didn’t succeed? Or was it a cry for help? As a young child, I did not have an answer, but one thing seemed clear: if he really wanted to commit suicide, he chose a very strange way to go about it.
The photographs from my daughter’s seventh grade field trip don’t show a teenage boy in turmoil. They show a group of young teens smiling and happy. In the swimming pool. At the campground. Near the Lava Tubes. There is no indication that one week from then one of those faces would be lifeless and the rest of the bright, goofy faces would become tight, crumpled, shell-shocked. Do photos deceive? Or do we see only what we want to—subjects putting on a good face? It doesn’t matter what you’re feeling; here’s the expectation: Smile for the camera. On the count of three, everybody say Cheese.
A week after the field trip, the phone startled me awake at six in the morning. I clambered out of bed and rushed to stop the ringing before my family woke. Who is calling so early? I wondered. When I answered, I heard my friend, Yolanda, say, “I have something to tell you.”
Immediately, the groggy fog that was my brain began to clear. “Okay,” I said, sitting down on the couch. It’s amazing how the mind can move from a state of deep subconscious quiet to confused clutter to rapid awareness all in a few swift beats of the heart, a few ragged breaths.
“John is dead,” she said. “He killed himself.”
Oh my god. No. “How … how did he do it?”
“He hung himself. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you,” she said. “I got the call late last night. Now I’m notifying people before school starts.”
School. What am I going to say to Lily? I thought. How am I to tell her that the boy she likes, her first ever boyfriend, is dead, by his own hand no less? “No,” I said. “No.”
And then they were there. My family. My husband Steve. My daughters, Akela and Lily. They didn’t enter the room, just stood in the doorway, staring, disheveled from the abrupt awakening. I stared back. But only one held my gaze. Lily—my thirteen-year-old daughter. Her blue-gray eyes, her plump lips, her round cheeks. I knew I was about to break her. My fingers would clutch the paper-thin shell of her heart. I would try not to crush it. But I would fail.
“I have to go,” I said to Yolanda and hung up.
I could tell you that when I heard those words, the ground beneath me fell away, like crumbled pavement washed into a raging river. I could also tell you that it was like standing on a beach and watching, paralyzed, as the tide was sucked way out, exposing the sandy ocean floor, and a tower of a wave crested, ready to swallow everything in its path. For that’s what it felt like—drowning. Reality shifted. One moment I was asleep. The next I stood naked in my living room, yelling “No.”
The thought of saying the words Yolanda had just spoken, forming the syllables, speaking them out loud to my thirteen-year-old daughter, instilled in me so much panic that there was only one viable option: I tore open the back door, flew down the steps, out into the yard. My mind wouldn’t slow down, wouldn’t shut off. All I could think was how can this be happening? This can’t be happening.
I paced back and forth, the palm of my hand pressed to my chest, fingers clenching my skin. The jagged rocks of the gravel driveway poked my bare feet, but this did not slow me. I continued pacing, clenching, shaking my head, saying, “No.” I glanced through the trees at the neighbor’s house a few hundred feet away. Could they hear me? Was I being too loud? Had they also gotten a call?
Steve had followed me when I ran from the house. “What happened?” he now asked. Maybe, I thought, if I never say it, then it never will have happened.
I stopped pacing and forced myself to take deliberate breaths. The girls were in the house; I didn’t have to say it in front of them. “John’s dead,” I said. “He hung himself. How can we tell Lily?”
Steve stood there for a moment, still and quiet, hands in his pockets, eyes downcast. Was he hearing me correctly? How can he just stand there? I thought. Doesn’t he realize the magnitude of the situation? Can’t he freak out like a normal human being? But everyone’s got their own way of processing bad news. Mine was to lose it and become emotionally debilitated. Steve’s was pragmatic. In that moment I couldn’t accept Steve’s reaction. I was too consumed by my own.
“We need to go tell Lily,” he said and turned back toward the house.
Both girls sat cross-legged on the couch, silently waiting. Steve told them that John was dead.
Lily looked up at Steve. Her eyebrows rose slightly, knitted towards each other. “How did he die?” she asked.
“He killed himself,” Steve said.
And then a rush: “I didn’t think he would really do it. I told him not to. He promised me he wouldn’t. I promised I wouldn’t tell anybody,” Lily said.
Now, was I hearing correctly? John confided in Lily his suicidal thoughts? My ears must be deceiving me, I thought. Not only was I experiencing the loss of a dear friend’s first-born child, a boy only fifteen years old, who chose to end his own life, but I was faced with the fact that he had confided in my daughter his thoughts of suicide. In that moment, I realized that I had failed as a parent. I had never spoken openly with my children about suicide. How could I have had this oversight? I, who only nine months earlier had been suicidal, had never thought to arm my daughter with the knowledge that if someone confides in her his suicidal thoughts, it is not a betrayal of his trust to go for help. Lily thought she was holding John’s confidence, being a good friend. She wanted him to like her, didn’t want to alienate him by tattling. But she was young. And naïve. And now she sat on our couch in the early dawn, tears streaming down her face. How was I to remedy my ensuing guilt and feeling of responsibility? In my desire to protect my children from unpleasantness and instead procure a sense of innocence, I had succumbed to the usual prescription that discussion on the topic remain taboo, something hidden, avoided, ignored. Surely, my lack of forthrightness contributed to John’s death—if only by not helping to prevent it. Or was my instinct to protect my children really due to my unwillingness to admit that I, their mother, was also susceptible to being the cause of suicide survivors’ pain?
I kneeled on my bare haunches, hands limp in my lap, gazing from Lily to Steve to the dirty, stained carpet to the cold woodstove leaking ash to the window streaked with calcium deposits. Tragedy doesn’t care how you are dressed—or whether you are dressed at all. It doesn’t wait for you to make a fire to relieve the chill or clean the floor. It doesn’t care if you can see clearly through the window.
Lily began to cry. “It’s all my fault,” she said.
“It’s not your fault,” we told her.
As the parent, I had to be the one to hold things together, so I went to the bedroom and slid into the protective skin of sweatpants and a T-shirt. Then I picked up the phone and dialed the home of Lily’s best friend, Heaven. But there was no answer, only an endless drone of rings. I listened, unwilling to put the receiver back on the cradle, unable to accept that the reinforcements I so desperately needed were unavailable. Then a car drove up the driveway. Heaven and her mother, Marie, the very reinforcements I had been calling upon, had arrived.
I suspected Lily had a crush on John before going on the class field trip. When I dropped her off at the school the morning they were to leave on the trip, it seemed important she ride with her friend, Selene, in her mother’s car, a new four-wheel drive SUV rented specially for the trip. At the time I thought the car was the attraction, not Selene’s fifteen-year-old brother John, a homeschooler, who was going with them. Windows rolled down, the Backstreet Boys blasting, they took off in style as I waved goodbye. It wasn’t until they arrived back at school five days later that I learned her motivation. All the cars had arrived except one. When I asked one of the chaperones, “Where’s Lily?” she said, “Oh … she’s with John.” A simple enough answer. But it was the hesitancy in her voice after that “Oh”—and the tone—that gave it away. Later, it was the photo of the two of them leaving the Lava Tubes that confirmed it. Taken from a distance, it catches them from behind, walking hand in hand up the path in a drizzle.
John left no note, no explanation. His actions are left to speculation. This is how I have come to reconcile his death: I will myself to understanding through the belief that John suffered intense sadness and hopelessness due to depression. I have no way to confirm this conclusion. I simply believe this because I have felt it: Moments when I’d be washing dishes at the kitchen sink, lost in thought, spinning down, down, and I couldn’t shut it off—the negativity—I hadn’t yet learned the power of mindfulness, of becoming aware, of making a conscious choice not to go into the darkness. I just followed the stream of negative thoughts as they swirled in a centrifugal spin, like when the plug in the bathtub is removed, and the gravitational pull sends the water spiraling down, down, with that sucking sound of being swallowed into the pipe. I am a terrible mother. I am unlovable. I am not deserving of forgiveness. I am a loser. I will never succeed in life.
These thoughts, like Drano, sucking, swirling, settling in the pit of my stomach, and I’d stop washing the dishes and go crawl beneath the covers, lying there motionless, eyes open to the world, but not really seeing. Sometimes, I’d feel heaviness in my heart like layer upon layer of wet, coarse wool army blankets sitting on my chest, and with each layer of blankets, the heaviness grew to an intolerable weight, so that I began to suffocate, felt like I was decomposing into a weighted dark, dank hole. And my foremost thoughts were of how to end it, how to end the pain, even though standing all around me was beauty—in the way the light filtered through the trees, in the cloud formations in the sky, in my children’s round faces and the way their voices spilled from their lips—yet the beauty washed over me and instead of lifting me up, I felt drowned by drinking it in; it filled my lungs, and I could not breathe it crushed me so. Did John feel this too?
Nine months before John killed himself, Steve and I were in marriage counseling with therapist #2. On our last visit with this particular therapist, we sat in the rocking chairs that occupied the therapist’s tiny, square room. Steve was saying he didn’t think our relationship was going to work out; he was ready to give up, move on. We had been through this before—him wanting relief from my anger, feeling that his life consisted of navigating through a mine field, which made him withdraw from the relationship, me frustrated with the lack of love and affection I was receiving, which made me more irritable and combative. This was our push and pull dance. Only now, our troubles were compounded by my depression. My fighting nature, the thing that had always ensured my survival, was withering. Honestly, I don’t know which came first, the depression or the crumbling marriage. Did my depression begin because Steve wanted to leave me and I feared abandonment? Or did Steve want to leave me because my depression was a manifestation of my own self-image—that I was unlovable and therefore unworthy. I only know that this time, when he said he thought the relationship was over, it felt for real.
The counselor had one elbow on the arm of her chair, her chin resting in her hand. She looked bored. She remained silent, her mouth cast into a frown. Maybe she, along with Steve, thought our relationship was doomed. Or maybe she just didn’t have any more tools to offer us. All she did was stare, her legs crossed, the torso of her long body stooped and downcast. Why is she dejected? I wondered. It is my husband who wants to break up, not hers! “All right then,” I said, “what’s the point in being here?” I got up to leave. The counselor offered no words of advice. She made no attempt to ascertain how I was feeling or if I was a threat to myself. She did not reassure me that even if this was the end of my marriage, it would not be the end of my world. If she were to have done so, that type of comment might have seemed trite. But in that moment, all I could feel towards her was resentment for her not even trying.
Steve and I silently climbed into our van and headed downtown. I didn’t know where we were going. It didn’t seem to matter. Nothing mattered. I refused to speak, just watched the landscape roll by. Steve felt bad. But I didn’t care. Let him feel like shit, I thought.
“Pull over,” I said. He stopped. I got out of the vehicle. We were in town—24 miles from home. I didn’t consider this fact. I just started walking. Steve didn’t try to stop me. What I didn’t know was that he immediately went to a payphone and called the counselor. He told her of my abrupt exit and asked if he should worry about me hurting myself. “No,” she said, “I don’t think she’ll hurt herself.” But how could she have been sure?
I headed in the direction of home. I was wearing slipper-like Uggs, and my feet shifted inside them. At first sidewalks lined the highway. But once I got to the edge of town, the sidewalks disappeared, forcing me to walk on the gravel shoulder between the drainage ditch and traffic whizzing by at fifty-five miles per hour. I was not sure which side of the road was safer, going with the traffic and not seeing what was coming at me from behind or going against the traffic and potentially being hit head-on by a car coming around a curve. I opted for going with the traffic. I could have hitchhiked. I had done it before. But I was not in a hurry. I decided to leave it up to chance. Maybe someone I knew would recognize me and offer me a ride. But no one stopped. The cars kept coming in a sporadic, ongoing flux. Each vehicle that passed forced a gust of wind to wrap my body and nudge me off kilter, my feet sliding not only in my shoes, but also on the loose gravel. The road was relatively straight until I reached the golf course; then the curves began and the shoulder tightened, leaving a paltry two-foot-wide space to walk. So I crossed the highway and trudged up the other side, crisscrossing this way for some time. I don’t know how many acres of serene farm pastures I passed. But the bright light of day began to cast shadows, and my feet began to tire. As I approached the next small enclave, seven miles from “Town,” where I’d started, I wondered what time I would arrive home if I walked the remaining seventeen miles. I imagined it could take all night. My kids would worry. So when I got to the gas station, I used the payphone. But my friend, Yolanda, who commuted to town for work, was unavailable. As I hung up, I noticed a familiar car parked at the gas pump. I walked up to the window and knocked. My friend, Julie, had just picked up her son from school. “I need a ride home,” I told her. “Climb in,” she said.
The next day Yolanda called. “Do you have a plan?” she asked.
“A plan?” I said, confused. What is she talking about? Then I understood. She wanted to know if I had a plan for how I was going to kill myself. She knew the procedure. As a licensed clinical social worker who worked with at-risk youth, it was her job to ask this kind of question of anyone she suspected to be at risk, whether they were her clients, or in my case, her friend. I had confided in her my thoughts a few times—not in detail—but she knew enough to be wary. So I suppose when her husband relayed the message that I was walking home from town after a bad therapy session, her concern rose to the level of asking this question.
“No, I don’t have a plan,” I said.
But I had thought about it, many times, many scenarios. I considered pills. This option did not seem foolproof. Chances are someone would have found me and gotten my stomach pumped. Besides, I hate swallowing pills. I considered shooting myself, but I didn’t have a gun. This option didn’t appeal so much because it leaves a huge mess for your loved ones to clean up. However, I could have gone into the woods and shot myself. Nature wouldn’t have minded the mess. I considered driving off a cliff or into a tree. But then I would have wrecked our car and left the family without wheels. Not practical.
Do all suicides begin with a plan? Are they stealthily conceived, or spontaneous acts? Did John have a plan? He had the rope. Was he just waiting for an opportunity? Or had his pain become so acute he couldn’t take it anymore, just wanted it to stop? Right then. Right there. The thing is, when you contemplate suicide, when you really consider it an option, you don’t think about the fact that it’s a permanent solution to a temporary situation.
It would have been easy to kill myself as I walked home from town—if I had really wanted. All I would have had to do was walk in front of traffic. But it wasn’t part of the plan. My walking that seven-mile stretch was a test. I tempted fate to see if I might get hit. I tempted fate to see if I might be saved.
That afternoon, after learning of John’s death, I sat on the lawn in the yard, holding Lily, staring at the evergreen forest, listening to a hum of insects, the breeze punctuated by bird calls and chicken squawks. It was a brilliant, sunny day—aqua blue sky, fertile green awash in every direction. Lily lay in the grass, her upper body in my lap, leaning against my chest. She moved in and out of weeping. I cradled her. That’s all I could do—I stroked her hair, wrapped my arms around her, my hands firm but gentle. Every now and then she spoke half-cracked confessions of guilt and sorrow. And I murmured: “It’s not your fault.” We sat this way for hours, in this shifted reality, where nothing else mattered, rejoined by stillness, the sensation of time stopping. And then we went to the house of another family, our friends Hannah and Paul and their three kids, and we sat some more.
The next day, all the children of the small community charter school gathered in a wide circle in the meadow. Interspersed among them were parents and crisis counselors. John’s family stood in a mini-circle in the middle. We held hands while someone walked the interior and smudged us with sage, pungent and cleansing, as Michael sang a Native American chant: the warrior song. Yolanda had brought some of her co-workers from the county to assist with grief counseling. John’s mother held a piece of burning sage and smudged her family. She staggered, stiff and crooked, around the inner circle, her expression dazed. She looked as though she might teeter over at any moment; her staccato movements were so unbalanced. She had not wanted to come to this grief circle, to lay herself bare to the gaze and thoughts of so many. Her children, though, the ones who were left, had pleaded to come. So here she was.
Surviving suicide is like balancing on the edge of a blade. Either way the knife flashes, you’re going to get cut. Certain thoughts kept hacking their way into my consciousness: What could I have done differently? If only I had reached out more. I should have seen this coming. Other thoughts I defended against: How could they not know something was wrong? Why didn’t they get him help? I knew the guilt I bore. I could only imagine the guilt John’s parents must be feeling.
We divided into small groups based on age, with two grief counselors per group. I went with the teens. We sat outside their classroom, on chairs, desks, a couch, the discussion open for anyone to speak. One boy said he didn’t understand why John did it. A girl revealed that John had called her the day before his death and left a message, but she didn’t call him back. John’s sister said she felt abandoned.
Lily raised her hand. She said, “John told me stuff.”
She said he had shown her scars where he had cut himself. She said he spoke of killing himself, but she made him promise he wouldn’t. She said she felt it was her fault because she didn’t tell. Hearing these words once again, in the presence of others, fractured me. I could barely look at Lily. Her eyes were red and swollen, her skin pale. I could see the collapse in her chest, the weariness of holding in her emotions. She sat cross-legged on the hard desk, confessing to a large group of people what surely, to her, must have felt like sins. She was being brave. Yet I took the easy way out: Escape. Again. I got up. This time my hand covered my mouth instead of clutching my chest, in an attempt to stifle my gasps. I walked at first, then ran, through the classroom, out the sliding glass door, into the madrone tree forest. My knees buckled. Face to the dry leaf-scattered ground, I sobbed. Later I was told that as I ran away, Lily said, “See, even my mom is mad at me.”
What does it take to really want to commit suicide? What does it take to attempt it? Statistics show that three times more females attempt suicide than males, while four males for every single female complete suicide. Recently a friend of mine got a call from an out-of-state friend of hers who said she was calling to say “goodbye”; she had taken thirty Xanax and drank a pint of whiskey and would be dead soon. Now, to my eye, this friend did not really want to die. She was desperate, yes—desperate enough to tempt fate. She made one phone call. And that was to my friend thousands of miles away. What would have happened if my friend had not answered, if she had been too busy and the call went to voicemail? This woman would be dead. As it is my friend did answer her phone, did call 911 and was transferred to the dispatch several states away, and the authorities did break into the suicidal woman’s house and transport her to the hospital where she was saved. This woman’s pain was severe enough that tempting fate must have seemed a rational gamble: either way she’d be relieved from her suffering.
Is there a difference between those who contemplate suicide, those who attempt it but do not succeed, and those who complete it? Maybe there is a fundamental difference in the physiology and psychology not only between these three types of people, but also between those for whom suicide steals into their consciousness and those for whom it does not. Maybe there is a certain line, a precipice, if you will, that when one stands upon it in the midst of despair, those who are predisposed to complete suicide fall to one side, tumbling down the mountain, hitting rocks and crashing to certain death, while those who are “ideators” or “unsuccessful attempters” fall to the other, only somewhere along the way down, they get caught by a branch or land in a crevice that stilts their fall, and it is painful, but the experience wakes them, scratches into them a glimmer of truth of what it means to be alive, cuts them with the realization that they don’t really want to die—that to do so would be devastating to those left behind, and they are then embedded with empathy for others, or maybe just a pure, unadulterated appreciation for breath, for blood, for thought and feeling.
My husband Steve has never been suicidal. And I imagine he never will be. He does not experience depression and does not appear to be predisposed to such tendencies. Sometimes I want to believe that my raging emotions that often go unchecked, the same ones that allow me to feel for others, that empathic impulse that flushes through my veins with the whooshing of my heart’s valves, is the thing that makes me susceptible to suicide. The capacity to feel is what challenges my life—makes it nearly impossible to sustain when the days are overwrought with difficulty. I want to think that those who kill themselves are the empathic ones who just can’t bear the pressure and burst. But now, I am not so sure. After John’s suicide, I watched the tendrils of grief creep through unsuspecting households, winding its way around the survivors, constricting their hearts and squeezing until they cracked wide open, and I now believe that it is empathy that holds one tethered to earth. Witnessing the grief of losing John was the rope that belayed me down the right side of the mountain. It was the thing that made me care too much about what would happen to my loved ones should I fall down the other side. Yet I have stood on that precipice. I have wavered. Where is the distinction between action and resolve? Think about it. At the beginning of this story, I gave you an out. You chose to bear with me, not run away. What does this say about you—you’re willingness to engage? Do you wish you had left the room?
I know it’s not the same for everyone, but, for me, experiencing the aftermath of a suicide healed me of my suicidal tendencies. John saved my life. This is a distinction of which I am painfully aware. There are no tradeoffs—a life for a life. There is only the awareness of where I was and where I am going—and how I choose to get there. Gratitude. That’s one convoluted emotion I feel now.
It happened on picture day. One week after the field trip. I was leaving the school grounds, walking to the parking lot. John’s mother had just arrived and was on her way in. Her other children were with their classmates having portraits taken in the lower meadow. As we greeted one another, I thought about John. I thought about John and Lily. I wondered where John was. I had noticed he wasn’t on campus and thought it odd he was not there to get his picture taken. I almost said something. The words waited on my breath, ready to come out: “Where is John? Isn’t he going to get his picture taken?” But I didn’t. I just smiled, said hello, and kept on walking.
In her portrait, Lily sits on a log, a few blades of tall grass in the foreground, a blur of yellows, browns, and greens of meadow grass and wildflowers in the background. She does not know that as the camera records this moment, John is at home hanging himself. Her expression is content, her face relaxed. She wears khaki pants and a pale yellow tank top. One arm is bent, elbow on her knee, as she rests her head, chin in palm. Her hand wraps the side of her cheek. She is suntanned from the previous week’s fieldtrip. Her long, straight, dark brown hair is brushed and hangs in front of her shoulders. Her blue eyes are bright. Her thick arched eyebrows curve perfectly, framing the slope of her eyes. She is smiling—not an open-mouthed, toothy smile, but soft, full-lipped, gentle.
Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.