On the precious nature of life

Louisa Bacio has put together a bloghop titled “Authors Care” in support of Suicide Prevention Week. If you’re like me, you grew up with stilted, embarrassing suicide awareness videos but little interest in the matter…until it became personal. I tuned the message out, along with the yearly sex ed sessions and most of the lessons involving math.

When I got into high school, things changed. One friend found a note written by a mutual friend, describing how she wanted to take razors to herself. The first friend came to me for advice, and with the help of the school counselor we set up a suicide watch. A student in the grade above me was found with a bullet to his head. Another classmate’s younger brother lost his life…on Mother’s Day.

We read Ordinary People in English class and discussed suicide as if it were a literary device, while overworked school counselors passed out numbers to the suicide help line. I became a peer counselor and took classes on how to listen. Not to fix, to judge, or to diagnose, but simply to listen. For me, because this is how I handle most of life’s issues, I delved into the literary world. I wrote a play about a girl who commits suicide, and I read books about characters dealing with or recovering from suicide.

One of my favorite authors, Kyoko Mori, wrote the autobiographical Shizuko’s Daughter.  It’s a taut, elegant, and heartrending story of a girl growing up in the shadow of her mother’s suicide. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a good read.

Another book I loved was Language of Goldfish by Zibby O’Neal. Although not in the same literary class as Shizuko’s Daughter, the book’s lyricism and emotional honesty are stunning. Carrie, an artist, realizes that she is not prepared to grow up. Instead of adjusting, her mental stability begins to falter. The story of her descent and recovery offers hope.

Over a decade ago, a character named Kat appeared. I didn’t know much about her, but I saw her lying on a rumpled bed, in the middle of days’ worth of mess and sick to her stomach. I saw her best friend, Natalie, pounding on the door and shouting. Breaking in to discover empty pill bottles. I wrote the story of Kat’s hospitalization after the suicide attempt, and I put it away.

One year ago, Kat and Natalie came back to me. Their story began ten years earlier this time, when they were young college girls full of energy, naivete, and love. I found, in writing their stories, that I could make sense of earlier events in my real life. Could I change people’s lives with what I wrote? Probably not. Could I change mine? Yes.

In writing Kat’s story, I created a friend who valued her, listened to her, and guided her out of the time in her life when living seemed impossible. Kat had reasons; everyone had reasons, but what she needed most of all was love. The love might not have come in the exact form she wished. 🙂 But it was still love.

People do care. We are worth it.

If you don’t believe that now, please reach out. Call a hotline. Message a friend. Google for resources.

Will you do something for me? Will you send a note to someone in your life, perhaps someone with whom you have not had contact lately? Will you let that person know what he or she means to you? Or compliment them on a job well done, a positive attribute, or remind him or her of special times together?

We’re stuck on this planet together, and our only option is to take care of each other.

I offer this small scene from The Way Home as a reminder that life does get better.

“Kat, goddamnit…”

I turn away from Natalie’s accusations. Dr. Mitchell’s repeated “Katherines” are easy to ignore, but Natalie’s anger is more difficult to shut out.

“…and then they ask me where you got them, and I told them no way could you have gotten them at my house. I’d been with you the whole time… but then I went to the bathroom and found the bottle half-empty. How could you? When I was right there?”

Why bother to mouth the apology she will not accept?

“Katty, if you hate me that much… You had to get back at me, didn’t you? I didn’t tell Mrs. Roach not to renew your lease. You’re mad at the wrong person. All I did was try to protect you. You yell at me to give you privacy, and the one time I respect it, you…” Her voice catches.

For the first time, I look at her. Her hands are clenched into fists as she blinks rapidly, looking at the bump in the bedclothes where my feet stick up. Her nose has gotten pink.

“Natty…” I croak.
A tear trickles down her face.
“Natty,” I try again.
Her chest heaves up and down, but still she does not speak. I reach out to her as best I can amidst all the wires. Natty jumps a little as she feels my arm reaching up to her in a half-hug, and she looks at me for the first time. As if without thinking, she holds my hand to keep the oxygen sensor in place. I sit up as far as I can, and I reach out my other arm to bring Natalie’s head closer to my shoulder. She resists at first, but finally she scoots closer on her stool and lets her weight fall into my body. I try to stroke her hair, but it gets tangled up in the cord. I mutter a bad word and return to holding her as she cries.

After a moment, Natalie straightens up, giving a rueful laugh. “Anyone would think I’m the one who’s sick,” she says as I give her a tissue so she can blow her nose.

I squeeze her hand as best as I can. “You can join me if you want,” I say as I indicate the empty bed next to me. “The meals suck, but at least you don’t have to cook or wash dishes.”

“Oh, I ought to—” Natalie’s first smile freezes as she catches her breath. She looks stricken, but I interrupt to finish her sentence.

“Spank me until I can’t sit down, just as soon as I’m better enough for it?”
Natalie shakes her head as tears fill her eyes, but I shake my head right back.
“Yes. You should. Or I’ll spank you.”
That startles a laugh out of her, and Natalie puts a hand on my shoulder. “If you ever

actually killed yourself, I’d…”
“Kill me?” I bite my tongue, too late, and I grimace as I anticipate the rebuke. But Natalie gives a wry laugh. “Yeah. I guess.”

We look at each other without speaking for a moment, and before I know it, it is not just Nat’s eyes that are watery. I cough a bit, unnecessarily, and let go of her hand to grab a small box left as a gift on my bedside table. I hold it up to Natalie.

“Let’s play checkers.”
“What? You don’t even like…”
I do my best to set up the board and the checkers, though, and Natalie eventually joins in.

She jumps my checkers, starting to giggle, and I move my pieces directly into her jumping line. She looks up at me, quizzically.

“Isn’t the point of checkers not to get jumped?”

“Not if you’re playing with someone who’s suicidal… OW!” I cannot help giggling as Natalie flicks her finger against my forehead.

“Oh, so that’s how you’re going to play, is it? Well how about if I don’t play along? How about if I just let your checkers win?” Natalie gives me a mock stern look.

“Then I guess I just sit here in sheer boredom until I get to go home,” I say, trying to sound as piteous as possible.

“Would serve you right,” Natalie sniffs.

“It would,” I whisper, starting to cry. And this time it is Natalie who reaches out to me, holding me close. Telling me that it will all be okay. For the first time ever, I believe her.

Natalie always wanted a little sister.  Kat didn’t know she was allowed to want anything…or anyone.

Kat, a shy farmgirl, arrives at her freshman dorm with a backpack, a suitcase, and her mother’s wish for Kat to attend college “at least until you get married”. Her roommate Natalie, a confident and fun-loving social butterfly, decides sight unseen that Kat will become her best friend for life. Natalie teaches Kat about college life, academics, and friendship by taking Kat under her wing…and over her knee.

Then their lives fall apart one fateful night on campus, and for the rest of the decade Kat and Natalie struggle to find their way back to each other. Their way home.

I’ll be offering copies of The Way Home as a prize for two random commenters (through the 14th). I realize that many of my regular visitors have already read the book. If that’s the case, you may designate an alternate recipient of your choice.

For the list of all participating authors, click here.