Leper

Leperous Job

Four years, four months, and eight days. 

This is how long it has been since my husband ended his life.

This is how long it has been since my husband ended my life.

The mercy of the first year of grief was the numbness. I sleep-walked through twelve calendar months. When I began to stir from the opiate of grief, memories came up like photographs in a screen saver: Disorganized, disembodied, disconnected.

I preserved a sense of household normalcy through strength of will and habit. Friends and family were supportive, but I could not be comforted. Deeply ashamed, I would not tell strangers how my husband died. I told partial truths, “He had Parkinson’s Disease.”

He committed suicide. He died by suicide. He killed himself. He took his own life.

We were Christians and Catholics, among whom one would expect to receive mercy, but where, more often than not, judgment is harsh and more liberally dispensed than in any gathering of sinners. I learned to shut my mouth and my heart.

Year one passed by.

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Year two was worse than the first. Old schisms and fissures expanded. Brittle relationships buckled and failed. Someone whispered he was the good one. Another said you’ve changed too much and unfriended me on social media.

She’s a bitch. She’s a sorceress.

She’s too liberal now.

He was the good one.

I stopped trying to explain myself.  I drank more wine.  I wanted to die.

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During the third year, a leprosy of my soul set in: Nerve damage, a loss of vision, the bloody stump. A corruption made visible, emblems of decay and pollution, weakness and sin.

“Unclean! Unclean!” I rang the leper’s bell.

Stay downwind; stay away from us. We’re not like you.

Don’t associate with them, their dad killed himself.

Something is wrong with that family.

I learned why Jesus associated with whores, thieves, tax-gatherers and sinners. I drank vodka tonics at the bar. I learned to make the perfect Bloody Mary. I stopped going to mass.

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At the end of the fourth year, my friend died. She who was at the births of my twin daughters. She who was like a second mother to them, a daughter to me. She who communicated the love of Christ better than anyone else I’ve known, other than my husband. She who carried me through the years of grief over my daughter’s death, over my husband’s death.

Daddy, Mommy’s asleep and won’t wake up.

Daddy, I can’t wake Mommy. 

She who had three young children ages two, six, and eight was dead on her daughter’s sixth birthday, a Happy Birthday banner strung across the fireplace.

Life and Death

Once upon a time . . .

My child died.

We had almost recovered, but then—

He was diagnosed.

He grew ill.

He wasn’t himself.

He had a wreck and nearly killed a man.

He lost hope.

He ended his life.

He ended my life, and then—

My friend of 24 years died.

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The process of suffering gone to decay and degradation has a name in alchemy: fermentation. Fermentation is a two-step process that begins with the putrefaction of a child, the hermaphroditic child who resulted from the conjunction process.

Pay attention here:

A union occurs, a marriage, a conjunction.

A child is born, a whole and glorious child, the fruit of this union.

But then, the child becomes diseased and dies.

The child putrefies and rots.

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Once, I was blessed, O so blessed.

I married the love of my life and received every good thing.

Every wish I ever wished came true.

But then, my husband became diseased and died.

And now, I putrefy and rot.

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Suggested Reading

Alchemy: The Great Work

Von Franz, Marie-Louise. Alchemy: An Introduction to the Symbolism and the Psychology. Toronto, Canada. Inner City Books, 1980. Print.

Flannel Shirt

My daughter has forgotten her school ID, so I drive back to the school to drop it off at the front desk. As I drive, I think that my life consists of driving in a big circle from home to high school to middle school and back home. I circumambulate like a pilgrim in a labyrinth.

I offer the lanyard apologetically to the school secretary, who already has a small pile of them in front of her. “This weather makes people sleepy and forgetful,” I say. She agrees.

The door is heavy and resistant when I leave. It’s drizzling and cool outside, clouds hanging low and weary. From inside the car, I hear the muffled sound of the marching band at practice coming from the football field. My tires make a spattering sound on the pavement.

I am driving down Fourth Street, and my heart aches. It aches and pulls all the time, but most of the time I keep ice on it. The ice numbs the ache and I’m able to think about something other than the pain. Different behaviors act like ice for me. Staying busy acts like ice. Caring for children acts like ice. Sometimes television or reading a book, ice cream or a glass of sauvignon blanc act like ice.

I give the ache a sidelong glance, hoping that giving it a quick, squinty look is safe, and I won’t suddenly be overwhelmed with the enormity of this wound. It’s not safe to look at it at all, though. The second I look, I see him: My husband. I see him in the faded, plaid flannel shirt he’s worn in dream after dream lately. Soft from a hundred washes, the shirt is a warm hug on a cold morning. I can see him wearing that shirt in the kitchen, cuffs rolled back, pouring himself a cup of coffee, turning to give me a smile as I frown my way to the teapot. He was the morning person, I the night, and for 30 years that man smiled at me every morning.

I miss you, Sweetie.

In depth psychology we pay attention to images. “Stick with the image,” we tell those deciphering their dreams and daydreams, or amplifying poems and literary passages. Artists, musicians, and writers stick with images, too, because the soul speaks in images more often than anything. Words can be so limiting. The flannel shirts I’ve seen on my husband and on working men in my dreams are speaking. I see the flannel shirt. I can feel its fabric in my hands, and I’m driving down the street in the rain and suddenly I’m crying. I can’t stop the tears.

I love you, Sweetie.

My husband was tall and had a great shape to him. He had muscular arms, broad shoulders, and developed muscles in his hands because of the work he did—the carpentry, using the tin snips, the hammer, the screw gun. Even as a business owner he wouldn’t stop stepping in to lift the hammer, snap a line, tie off a wire, tighten a screw. I know it irritated the crew when their boss came around and put a tool belt on, but he loved to work with his hands as well as his head. Later, his diagnosis with a disease that would take both abilities from him was an ill-fated ruin, an abuse. Every time I think of it, my heart breaks.

Where are you?

I laid my cheek against the water-colored hues of that flannel shirt a million times during our marriage. That flannel shirt is such an icon of manliness, earthy comfort, the Land Run heritage of this red earth that made my husband who he was. In that shirt were love, safety, and comfort; friendship, sharing, and mutuality. Acceptance and understanding were its weft and warp. I called that shirt Lover, Husband, Grandmother, Father. I could fly into those arms all the time, any time—run there, crawl there, dance into them; lie with him, against him, under him, over him, ask him to cover me, sit in his lap, swat him on the butt as he passed by, pull at his belt buckle provocatively. A thousand, million times in our marriage, that flannel shirt was home.

You were my best friend.

I’m driving down Fourth Street, crying. Even now, one of those shirts hangs inside my closet on a hook on the door. It still smells faintly of my husband—sawdust, cigar smoke, horse, machine oil, him. How lucky I was to have the man who filled that shirt, to love and be loved by and make love with him. How fortunate we were to make a home.

That flannel shirt saved my life, redeemed me from the pit, died on the cross for me, birthed me, suckled me at the breast. Every day, I wait to see that shirt coming on the horizon. Every day I pray to that shirt, save me.

Fear is the Mind-Killer

One of my favorite books as a teenager was Dune, by Frank Herbert. If you’re part of the baby boom generation, or within shouting distance of being a baby boomer, you’ll remember this best-selling science fiction novel. A famous line was “fear is the mind-killer,” which is part of a litany against fear. The entire quote says:

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

As an adolescent, I remember reading this book and thinking this was a great quote. At that age, one is full of youthful energy, optimism, naivete, and invincibility. Fear and doubt are not the developmental necessities that daring behaviors (and ideas) are, they are obstacles to be overcome with no inherent value. We think we can do anything at that age, most of us–an idea that continues through our child-bearing and child-raising years. We need to develop the ego strength that enables us to shove fear and doubt away, or we’ll not be able to establish practicalities and routines that serve us. Later, though–usually in our 40s–mid-life and teenagers, tragedies and illness and deaths bring a person up short, seeming to punish us for our daring.

Now that I have been a widow for a year and a half, I’ve been reminded yet again about how fragile life is, and more specifically how fragile I am. I am a limited resource, living on limited resources. Everything and everyone runs out eventually. Though the air may not run out, my lungs will. What good is all the air in the world without a working set of lungs? It’s good for those who can still make use of it, nothing more, nothing less.

A friend wrote me a long email recently addressing the anxiety and fear she hears in my voice every time we speak. She’s right: I’m overrun with it, actually. I rarely wake up in the morning or go to bed at night without feeling the vice-like grip of anxiety around my heart. It tumbles around in my stomach all the time, almost, like the ball on a roulette wheel. ’round and ’round it goes, where it lands, nobody knows.

“Where the fear has gone there will be nothing” is hogwash. Fear leaves devastation and paralysis in its wake before it brings forth Version 2.0 of the True Self. This is what grief does; it’s not romantic at all. It’s messy, like giving birth. It’s also textbook, it’s largely predictable, it’s universal, and it’s got to be gone through if one hopes to emerge whole on the other side.

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