April is the Cruelest Month:
Editor’s Note: This essay first appeared in Wild River Review in April, 2009.
Angel, Passy Cemetery (photo by Ron Davis)
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
T.S. Eliot – The Wasteland
Eliot was right, at least as far as my family is concerned.
On Easter Sunday, April 6, 1996, my brother Bernie went to dinner at the home of family friends. By all accounts he ate well and laughed and left saying he’d see everyone later. Then he went home and hanged himself.
On April 10, 2008, my brother Ronnie got up, had breakfast with his mother, kissed her and went for a walk. They found his body a week later. He’d gone down by the river and hanged himself from a tree on the shore, behind the Anglican Church, where the steep bank would ensure he wouldn’t be seen. He’d taken the rope from our parent’s garage.
Since 1996, getting through April’s been pretty rough. This year, the thirteenth anniversary of Bernie’s death and the first anniversary of Ronnie’s, well, let’s just say there’s a bumper crop of lilacs breeding out of the dead land this year, mixing memory and desire.
There have been other suicides this year. Novelist David Foster Wallace hanged himself on September 12th. Nick Hughes, son of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes hanged himself on March 16th. His mother, of course, famously gassed herself in the kitchen of her north London home in February 1963 while her children, one-year-old Nick and his two-year-old sister, Frieda, slept in their cots in a nearby room. She stuffed towels around the kitchen door to make sure the fumes didn’t reach them. Thanks, Mum.
And there have been others, Thierry de la Villehuchet and William Foxton, both victims of the psychopath Bernie Madoff, killed themselves, as did thousands of other, people who aren’t, even in the rictus of their despair, famous enough to warrant widespread attention.
We tend to think of suicide as something that happens to other people, but it’s far more common than we like to admit. I was talking with a friend the other day, and I told her I couldn’t count the number of people I’ve known over the years who’ve killed themselves. I get past the fingers of both hands and I stop. According to the National Institute for Mental Health, in 2004, suicide was the eleventh leading cause of death in the U.S., accounting for 32,439 deaths. The overall rate was 10.9 suicide deaths per 100,000 people. An estimated eight to 25 attempted suicides occur per every suicide death.
Expect that figure to jump. According to CNN, the Army reported 24 soldiers committed suicide in January alone – six times as many as killed themselves in January 2008, according to statistics released February 5th. I expect the economic situation isn’t going to help either.
Many of the people I know, including both my brothers, have committed suicide as a direct result of alcohol and drug addiction. Mercifully, I’m one of those folks who sit around in church basements, learning how to live without booze or drugs. Thanks to what I’ve learned there, I’ve managed to do without alcohol or ‘dry goods’ for fourteen years. As long as I keep going, I have faith that the quicksand of despair that sucked them under won’t also devour me.
But I hear a lot of stories from people in those church basements about their own suicide attempts, including one girl who came out of a blackout to find a cop sitting on the edge of her bed. Apparently, while drinking, she’d called an emergency hot line and said she’d downed a bottle of pills and a couple of bottles of Jack Daniels. She just wanted the pain to stop, she cried. She didn’t remember calling, and didn’t remember taking the pills, but as they wheeled her to the waiting ambulance, the cop took her hand and said, “I’m a recovering alcoholic. I was once where you are now. I promise you, if you get into recovery and stay sober, you’re never going to feel this much pain again.”
That was eight years ago. She’s sober and doing great. Not everyone is so lucky.
At my brother’s funeral, my father asked me to give the eulogy, and requested I speak specifically about addiction. I agreed, and afterwards the eulogy was published in the newspaper in my family’s home town, and after that people asked me to put it up on my website, which I did. Even after a year, I still get emails from people reaching out for help. Some check back in later and tell me how it’s going, in those church basements, some I never hear from again. I pray for them all.
Often people look at me with horror when I tell them both my brothers killed themselves. I even had a therapist tell me once that, if I ever approached her for therapy, she’d turn me down. “Since it’s so much more likely you’ll kill yourself, too.”
Gee, thanks. Okay, fair enough. The rate of suicide in families of suicide victims is twice as high as normal. In fact, multiple suicides in families aren’t that uncommon. Think of Ernest Hemingway – his father, Ed, sister Ursula, brother Leicester and granddaughter Margaux all committed suicide. That’s five suicides over three generations.
In one study of Amish families, (Egeland & Sussex, 1985) almost three-quarters of 26 suicides bunched in just four families. Genetics? Maybe. I’m sure that’s part of it, since genetics is also a factor in depression and addiction.
But there’s something else – the taboo has been broken. Suicide as a valid solution (albeit a decidedly permanent solution to what may well be a temporary problem) now exists as a real possibility. “Suicide Contagion” “has rocked more than one school” and Jeffery Eugenides wrote about the family cluster syndrome in his book, The Virgin Suicides. Ross Maracle, a Mohawk elder, has written poignantly about the suicide epidemics among Canadian First Nations Children.
So, what does all this mean to us? What does it mean to my family, and to me, and to you, who probably know somebody who’s been affected by suicide? How do those of us who have lost loved ones go on? How do we cope with the grief, the anger, the guilt, the fear and yes, the shame?
I remember being at my father and stepmother’s house after Bernie died in 1996. It was the day after the funeral and my husband, Ron, and I sat on one side of their tidy, sunny, living room, and my father sat on the other side. We were talking about how many people had been in the church, how they’d filled the aisles and the narthex and spilled out into the street. My father looked up toward the kitchen and my gaze followed his. There stood my stepmother, her eyes red from crying, her hands pressed up to her mouth.
“Are you okay?” my father asked.
“No,” she managed to squeak out.
My father opened his arms and she ran into them and buried her face in his shoulder and he held her and she held him, and they found comfort and strength with each other.
I thought, they’re going to be all right, if they have that kind of love, the kind that reaches toward each other, that understands where grace and hope live, they’ll be all right. Not unscarred, but all right. And they were. Addiction and depression run like a dark and bloody river through our family, and none of us have been unharmed by it, and none of us have avoided, in turn, harming others, and they might have chosen to blame themselves or each other, but they didn’t.
Not everyone is lucky enough to have that kind of relationship, of course. So you do what you must – find a therapist, a support group, a clergy person, all of the above.
Turning toward the love which was symbolized in my father and stepmother’s embrace meant doing certain things, for love is, after all, a verb, and an active one at that. My father, who had stopped drinking three years before, stayed stopped. And I, who had stopped thirteen months before, stayed stopped, too. And the longer we stayed sober, the more our gaze turned away from selfish things, and we started to repair the damage we’d done, to create more healing in the world than harm.
And then, last year, it happened again. Even though my stepmother spent nearly every waking hour of every day for the past decade trying to save Ronnie’s life, it wasn’t possible. He was so far into his addiction that his body and mind were broken, I believe, beyond repair. So there was another funeral, and more people spilling out onto the church’s lawn, and enormous amounts of kindness and love along with the indescribable anguish, and the wounds that will never fully heal. You learn to limp, and turn toward the light. And your faith, if you haven’t lost it altogether, grows a little deeper, and you look for meaning in the lives of the one’s you’ve lost, and the pain you feel.
When people ask me why I write about these things, I tell them that it’s partly because the pain lives inside me every day, as it does in my parents. And as a writer, I can’t help but write about those things, which obsess me. But also, although I know not everyone commits suicide because of addiction, for an enormous number of people it’s a huge contributing factor. And I hope that maybe, just maybe, someone whose struggling will read this, and reach out for the help they so desperately need. That is, after all, why my father asked me to deliver Ronnie’s eulogy, in which I told this story:
It was in 1991 and Ronnie had come to visit my husband and me in Toronto. He had been nearly a year sober at the time – yes, he did get sober now and again, he just couldn’t stay sober. We had a little bungalow with a big backyard with a hammock and a pool. Ronnie loved to lay all that long and lanky length of him in the hammock and listen to the birds in the trees, and wait for the baby raccoons to come out and play from under the deck where their mother had built a nest.
He was working hard to stay sober, and it can’t have been easy for him, since I wasn’t sober yet myself and didn’t hesitate to drink around him, all the while – in that terrible, blind, self-centered way of alcoholics – talking about how great it was he was sober. One afternoon I asked if he wanted to go to an AA or NA meeting. Ronnie said yes, and so off we went into the projects of Toronto, the toughest of the tough neighborhoods. We found the meeting in the community room of a run-down apartment building. It was a good meeting and people were kind and thoughtful and encouraging as Ronnie talked about his commitment to getting and staying sober. Then a man turned to me.
“How you doing?” he said.
“Me? Oh, I’m fine,” I said. “I’m very careful.”
“Keep coming back,” someone said and people laughed.
We came out of the meeting and a gauntlet of drug dealers stood right outside the door.
“What do you want?” they said. “We got what you want.”
That’s the way it is. That’s how hard it can be. Ronnie didn’t manage to stay clean and sober. But a few years later, I walked into my second AA meeting. Even though Ronnie didn’t keep coming back, I did. Sadly, I don’t think Bernie even understood there was a connection between his depression and his drinking.
Addiction robbed both my brothers of everything, and left those of us who loved them in agony. Nevertheless, even though they died, I believe they planted a seed of salvation in me. So that’s why I write about this. I honor my brothers’ memory, and I know that if someone reads this and asks for help because of it, if someone turns from despair to hope, then their lives had meaning.
Although April may be the cruelest month, it is also the month of renewal and rebirth, during which death is overcome and life returns. And here I circle round again to T.S. Eliot, who also said:
So the darkness shall be light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.
T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, East Coker
Lauren B. Davis is the author of the bestselling and critically acclaimed novels, The Radiant City, (HarperCollins Canada 2005) a finalist for the Rogers Writers Trust Fiction Prize; and The Stubborn Season (Harper Collins Canada, 2002), chosen for the Robert Adams Lecture Series; as well as two collections of short stories, An Unrehearsed Desire (Exile Editions, 2008) and Rat Medicine & Other Unlikely Curatives (Mosaic Press, 2000). Her short fiction has also been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Awards and she is the recipient of two Mid-Career Writer Sustaining grants from the Canadian Council for the Arts – 2000 and 2006. Lauren is a mentor with the Humber College School for Writers, Toronto, and Writer-in-Residence at Trinity Church, Princeton.