Today is my cousin Eliot’s birthday. I always remember it even though he’s been dead for thirty-three years, a suicide in 1987. He was 27 years old. In what I can only describe as a moment you think happens to other people, I got the phone call telling me he’d leapt from a 15 story building in Chicago, wearing his backpack. After a tumultuous decade which began in his teens, he’d finally succumbed to the agony of intractable bi-polar disorder, still trying to finish school. He was bright and full of promise, but not able to climb that internal mountain that thwarted him over and over.
Eliot and I shared a traumatic experience. He was only 4 years old and I’d just turned 13 a few weeks earlier, when his baby sister Iris, not quite 2 years old, died on the very early morning of my 8th grade graduation. For me, what was supposed to be a joyous passage to high school was instead a grim day. I was pondering the impossibility of this darling baby girl being gone forever while I marched down the aisle at school, my honor roll pin, gold and blue, at the center of the ribbons on my dress. My parents weren’t there to see me, off to help my aunt and uncle in their agony. I remember my mother telling me that Eliot was terrified that the cold he’d had was the reason why Iris died. She had bronchiolitis, what today is an easily treatable disease. Back then, because she was running a high fever, she was immersed in icy cold water which unexpectedly caused her bronchial tubes to seize up, making breathing impossible. An utter tragedy. I attended his funeral with my baby boy, not even a year old. Eliot was buried next to Iris’s grave. I’ll never understand how my aunt and uncle, long divorced, but yet still bound as parents, bore their pain.
Over the years, our two families, mine and Eliot’s, spent lots of time together. My aunt and uncle had another baby girl, my cousin Elise, who’s more like a younger sister to me than a cousin. We lost another cousin, Dennis, son of my mom’s eldest brother, to suicide when I was sixteen. Dennis was a polio victim when he was a little kid, about the same age as my brother. I remember seeing him with his leg braces and hand crutches. From what I recall, Dennis had a job in social services and married a teacher. Maybe I have the employment confused. These events happened more than fifty years ago. No matter. Subsequently, after discovering that his wife had an affair with one of his friends, Dennis shot himself.
I’ve been inundated by memories of all those people I’ve lost to suicide. Family members. A best girlfriend. A former significant other. The increase in suicides during Covid has dredged up lots of my sad memories. The numbers are particularly stunning among women and young people. My personal losses precipitated permanent breaks in my psyche, small ones like a hairline or a stress fracture. I recovered from them all but with that subtle scarring that reminds you of a former injury on a cold, damp day. I lost my innocence early in life. I miss it. At the time back then, there were underlying currents in motion that I didn’t understand. I’ve worked my way through many of them in adult life. But the stresses of these times are wearing on me.
I signed up for two classes offered by the lifelong learners program in my community. One is about Zen Buddhism and the other is about QAnon. The irony of my choices isn’t lost on me. Two different sides of my peculiar brain – one class ratchets me up and the other soothes me – sort of. The practice of mindfulness and meditation is good with me but the male-centric origins of its practice annoy me. Of course the QAnon class feeds into my usual state of rage. Along with those, the harsh old memories, facing another pet euthanasia and worrying about my son returning safely from three weeks’ conservation work in Peru, I’ve felt those psychic fractures making their presence known. Never mind Michael’s absence as I rattle around our big house by myself, trying to navigate the pandemic, the news cycle and the multiple pathways of my brain. I finally decided to just allow myself the luxury of feeling everything, the fractures, the wistfulness, the whole proverbial ball of wax. I wrote my thoughts down as they came, in no particular order. So here they are.
I will always remember the first flutter of my babies moving in my body. How those tiny movements turned into abdominal surges that you could watch shifting from side to side like big waves. Occasionally a hand or foot would protrude and be absolutely identifiable and we’d marvel at the presence of these unique parasites. I loved it. I was never sick. I loved nursing too. Moments in time. I miss that special smell of a baby’s head. Magical, like an intoxicating elixir.
I knew that there were darker issues at work in my family starting when I was about nine. I didn’t know exactly why but there was a gap between the older siblings and us younger ones. Some of it was chronological. My brother was eight years older than me and my sister was five years and a few months older. My younger sister is two years and a few months behind me. My parents were barely out of their teens when they married and had my brother. They lived with my maternal grandparents until I was eight months old when we moved away to Iowa. My older siblings had complicated feelings about their early life with essentially two pairs of parents. I never felt that way nor did my younger sister. I think that crowded household was troubled. My ever inappropriate mother told me multiple times that she felt like she had two separate families, the older kids in one, and me and my younger sister in the other. I know my brother really loved me but I knew my sister harbored resentments toward me and perhaps the whole world. Fred quit college and enlisted in the Air Force when I was about twelve. He was gone for several years. My sister, who was often forced into parenting during my mom’s frequent hospitalizations, was harsh and miserable. I couldn’t get connected to her. She was cloaked in distance and silence. I couldn’t fix things. Instead I tried to sneak around her walls. I was almost her size and coveted her clothes. One day, I snuck one of her blouses out of her closet, the one which she was wearing in the photo above. I wore it to school. I was terrified the whole time I had it.
We had shared family experiences. But my sister was aloof while my brother had no boundaries. Eventually they were out of our house and the two separate families that my mother referenced felt like reality. In adult life, I never developed real intimacy with my sister and I recoiled from my brother’s overwhelming and complex problems. My younger sister and parents came to live where I was located. Over the years, all those old differences were exacerbated by circumstance and distance. I talked to both of my siblings on the telephone but lived my life away from them. My brother died six years ago – I hadn’t seen him in over twenty years. My closeness with my parents turned into me supplanting my older sister as their power of attorney and go-to helper. She and I grew further apart and ultimately became estranged during my mother’s last year and at her death. Soon it will be six years since we’ve spoken. I never thought that could happen in my family. When I look at us as little kids in the photo, I can’t recall a time when I felt like we were sisters with a real bond. Every now and then I think of reaching out to her to see if any type of rapprochement is possible before one of us dies. But I don’t. I always felt that she couldn’t wait to be away from me. That situation is in my wistful but resigned category.
I prefer to think of the hours of pleasure I enjoyed watching my two kids, both talented athletes, running, shooting, kicking and spiking their way through their childhoods into early adult life. Both were academically talented which was great, but seeing their athletic achievements, their grace, determination and the ability to rise to the tops of their games was icing on the cake. I’m glad we had the presence of mind to film them although I can still run movies of them both in my head.
I have the joyous memories of seeing the Beatles live in Chicago in 1964 and then seeing Paul McCartney on his own in 2019.
Always a horse lover, I was ecstatic to witness the blazing speed history of Secretariat winning the Triple Crown for the first time in decades.
Spending part of my childhood hunting for my favorite caterpillar, the white tussock moth, holding them in my hands, feeling their light, soft, fuzzy bodies is part of my wistful moments. My pockets were always loaded with shells, rocks and seeds that I’ve always picked up wherever I went and which are still strewn throughout my house. I’m connected to this planet in an intense visceral way.
Finally getting myself within six feet of Roger Federer after enjoying his tennis for eighteen years. What a glorious experience.
Errol Flynn’s face and Robert Redford’s smile.
Standing on Little Round Top at the Gettysburg battlefield.
The smell of Coppertone suntan lotion. The greasy orange sheen of Bain de Soleil and the blue-green color of Sea and Ski. I can feel the sun, the sweat and the chill of Lake Michigan.
I can taste and smell a warm, flavorful kosher corned beef sandwich, followed by a slice of plain cheesecake from the Carnegie Deli. I can walk through room after room of Monet’s Water Lilies Exhibit at the Art Institute in Chicago. I can listen to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony being conducted by Sir Georg Solti when he was the guest conductor. I can smell the hallway of my grandparents’ apartment building at 78th and East End.
So many beaches.
Crying at the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.
Ribeye, the smartest and most sensitive dog I ever owned.
The looks exchanged between my son and my mother before she died.
My favorite childhood candies.
My love of bookstores and the pleasure of walking into Shakespeare and Co. on the banks of the Seine, and City Lights in San Francisco. During this past week when I’ve felt angry, isolated and anxious, I’ve traveled through so many spaces from the dark and damaged to the light and comforting. My philosophy is to just let it all do what it does. So far nothing has killed me. In the midst of everything I have the most unexpected, surprising and gratifying internal buoyancy of what Michael and I shared for so long. I don’t pretend to understand it but it’s palpable to me and lifts me, always. Despite my apparent lack of brevity, we had long silences where we just stared into each other’s eyes. That remains, not only as part of my fractures and wistfuls, but as a strength. And I’m lucky enough to have gotten a shot of it that I can hold in my hands.