Friday, November 4, 2011

For Charles

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.
W.S. Merwin
Charles, 2009

When I was a newspaper reporter ten years ago, I interviewed an elderly gentleman whose wife had passed away from Alzheimer’s. We met at a community center and he invited me to sit down next to him, shoulder to shoulder, in gray metal folding chairs at a long table. He opened a thick photo album and slid it along the table so that it rested between us, one page in front of him, the other in front of me. The album held a series of photographs slid into place behind protective plastic. He’d put it together after his wife’s death and he’d placed the pictures in order, beginning with snapshots from the time when they first met. 
His wife was lovely in that way that all people are in photos from their youth. She had light hair that lay in soft waves around her face. She had a generous and wide smile. There is something magical about the passage of time that makes us forget to criticize and point out imperfections. I challenge you to pull out old photos of your grandparents or your parents. Just look at them. They were the most beautiful people on earth, weren’t they? You can see it, can’t you? The way we twist ourselves up into knots over our flaws, our fat thighs and our big noses and our frizzy hair. Yet, these things are magically invisible when you look at the past. Is it perhaps because they were never real to begin with? 
For several pages, the images of the man’s wife were full of life and spirit, her eyes bright. Next to a Christmas tree. Beside a brand new car. Surrounded by children. She grew older. Wrinkles appeared around her eyes. But you could still see them, the eyes of the happy girl from the early pages of the album. 
Eventually, her smile disappeared. Her eyes were not joyful but merely confused as though she was asking a question that no one could answer. She became lost, somewhere in the maze of her mind, and her eyes were empty.  
The last photo was of her sitting in an armchair and the image itself was fuzzy as though the camera could not focus anymore either. 
“Can you see?” he asked me. “Do you see how she faded away?” 
He needed to tell his story so that someone else could see what he saw. Lately, I have begun to wonder if this is what we humans, so screwed up and breathtakingly beautiful, need most of all. To be heard. Certainly we need love but love is more than a noun. Love is a verb. It is an action word. That act is, in large part, listening. 
When Charles, my ex-husband and the father of my two children, committed suicide two years ago, maybe he was only trying to get someone (me) to listen. We look for answers, we who are left behind, and we compile albums full of images from the past. The albums reside on shelves in our minds and they are thick and heavy and water-logged (it rains a lot in here). The shelves are built along twisting pathways in the brains’ labyrinth of cells and neurons. The shelves sag beneath the weight of messages that have yet to be decoded. 
It’s so fitting that a labyrinth, that structure from Greek mythology, looks like something you might draw if someone handed you a sharpened pencil and a piece of paper and asked you to draw a brain. Daedalus built the maze for King Minos to house the Minotaur, a creature that was half-man and half-bull and to whom seven young men and seven young women were sacrificed every nine years. Even Daedalus couldn’t find his way out of the structure he’d designed without a clue, a long length of thread provided by Ariadne that would lead him out again. 
When you go wandering through the labyrinth of your memories, you need something to tether you to the world beyond yourself. You need something to pull you out again before the Minotaur finds you. He’s in there waiting, pacing the curving paths, his breath so hot and heavy that you can feel it on your bare skin as you run. His name is Regret. His name is Guilt. His name is Anger. He’ll trap you inside if you let him. 
After Charles died, I thought of the elderly man and his photo album. He’d lost his wife long before she died. “Do you see her here in this picture? See how she wandered away?” So I looked at photos of Charles to see if he had started to fade away, too. When had it happened? I couldn’t see it. His smile was wide and bright in the photos from the summer of 2009 before his death on August 3. He had shaved his head and it was smooth and he had grown out his red beard and it was scruffy. His shoulders were broad, his arms muscular. 
My memories, though, are like that old man’s photo album. I flipped through them identifying the places where Charles became less and less himself, when the Minotaur had him in its grasp. 
See, I lost him long before he died, too. I lost him to drugs. I lost him to divorce. When he had no place else to go, I let him stay in my house and yet I can see now that he was no longer really there. 
Afterward, I lost myself for a time. I felt the Minotaur’s hot breath on my neck. “It’s hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head.” Sally Kempton, a former journalist who now teaches meditation, said this. It is one of those things that is TRUE in all capital letters. I keep it written on a list of things that I do not have to question. These things are on a piece of paper in an album on a shelf in my head. Above this Truth Shelf is a sign that reminds me of the truest thing: This too shall pass.
I am like that old man. I want to take my album off the shelf and show it to you.

Here we are when our son is born. He is 9 lbs, 10 ozs. He is the whole world cradled in our arms. Can you see him? It is 13 years before Charles’s death. Here we are when our daughter is born. She is petite and soft. She is the whole world cradled in our arms. See how full of life she is? It is 9 years before Charles’s death.

Here’s an image of me and Charles in my kitchen watching the crotchety old lady next door throw leaves and sticks from her yard into mine. Here’s us waiting for her to disappear into her house and then we’re running outside in the dark, picking up huge armloads of dried leaves and dumping them over the fence back into her yard. Here’s us running inside and laughing so hard we are clutching our sides and gasping for breath. Do you see us? It is 10 months before Charles’s death. 
I strive each day to give these happy images as much weight as the others, the ones that are at the end of the album. When Charles lost his battle with a monster. When he said he wanted to die and then he did. 
I talk about him to our children. Remember how Dad sang this goofy song to wake us up? Remember how Dad always fell asleep in movies? Remember how he called every day and said I love you? You have his nose. You have his eyes. You are beautiful. You have his heart. 
I’ve been told more than once that suicide is a taboo subject in this country. The people who have told me this may be right but they are wrong in assuming that this will stop me from telling my story or looking for others who need to tell theirs. Something is only taboo if we allow it to be. We are silenced only if we agree to be silent. 
I need to speak aloud the name of someone I will always love. I need to raise my children in the light of truth, in a place where they have permission to cry and laugh and remember. Where they know that they are heard. 
Each day I forgive myself anew for not listening and loving as well as I wish I had. By listening now, I can keep the Minotaur at bay. None of us has to be alone in the maze. 
On November 6 at Heardmont Park in Birmingham, Alabama, my children and I will walk for someone we love but we will also walk for others. You really don’t have to look too hard for the meaning of life. It is simple and it is this: We are here to love one another. We are here to listen. 
We would love for you to walk with us. If you are beside us, we will match our pace to yours. If you have a story you need to tell, we will listen. Here, reach out your hand. Take the end of this thread. Hold fast to it. We can show each other the way out. 
The 6th Out of the Darkness Community Walk will be held at 2:30 pm Sunday, November 6, at Heardmont Park in Birmingham to benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. To join our team For Charles or to make a donation, click here. Donations can be made through December 31.
Kate, Charles, and Jacob, spring 2009

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