Why I missed World Suicide Awareness Day

6 10 2009

World Suicide Awareness Day was on September 10.  I missed it.  Because I was thinking about committing suicide.

Yep.  While most folks spent their summer vacations  at the beach (or dreaming of it), I spent it in a dark, dark free-fall that brought me perilously close to ending my life at least 3 times.

Now, since you’re reading this, you know how this story ends:  I never pulled a trigger..or slit my neck or wrists or crashed a car.  But I did make plans…and took fairly deliberate action…to accomplish all of the above (except the gun part, this IS Massachusetts after all!).

The whole thing started with the death of my father.  For years, I’d wondered how the death of a man I barely knew would affect me.  Starting at 11:13 CST on June 29, I got the answer.  As my father was dying, I saw past all the illusions I’d carried about our distant, but complex, relationship.  I saw the truth of an imperfect man who, in the words of my sister, did the best he could.  And I thought that was that.

It wasn’t.  It seems that unravelling the illusions of my father launched an avalanche of unravelling the illusions that surrounded my entire family and my entire life.   For two and a half months, I was like Alice, falling through the rabbit’s hole into a place where absolutely nothing was as it seemed. And the more I tried to grasp onto those threads of  illusion, the more they fell away.  And me with it.

As all this unravelling was getting under way, I remember standing outside a hotel room in Texas with a bottle of wine in my hand.  The corkscrew had broken and I was so desperate for something–anything–to calm me down, to center me–that I cracked the bottle against a pole.  That action took away my desire for a drink…but it also made me look long and hard at the jagged glass. “Perhaps, I can sit this bit of karma out,” I thought.

I decided against it because I thought it was a bit white trash to end it with the jagged glass of a bottle of cheap wine outside of a Texas no-tell, motel.  I also decided then and there that the only way I was going to make it through this was to, “A”, go through it alone and, “B”, relinquish all control.   This wasn’t Oprah or Kripalu.  This was my life.  My darkness.  And I wasn’t going to find my way out by following someone else’s path.  And I sure as hell wasn’t going to make it by trying to drive this roller coaster.  After all, I had no idea where it was going.  So, that night, I put the cheap wine down and relinquished all control.

Which is not for the feint of heart.  Funny thing about the Universe.  When you set your intent, it tends to deliver.  And, boy, did it deliver.

From late June til late Sept, I stood in front of the mirror of my life, taking an unflinching, unvarnished look at my reflection.

Just as I thought I was looking, at long last, at me, another layer of illusion fell away.

At first, seeing the thickness of the layers of illusion made me angry.  I remember being in a hotel room in Rochester, MN, literally banging my head against a bathroom mirror, in order to break it and escape from the anger.  I’ll forever be grateful to whatever forces prevailed that night for dying in Rochester isn’t much better than dying outside a no-tell motel!

Then, as illusions of my family gave way to illusions of my life, I became terrified.  Turns out, I hadn’t left Texas to escape dysfunction and come out of the closet.  I left simply to build a new closet with a new career and new set of friends who simply mirrored what I had always known.   The dysfunction had followed me from Texas.  Stalked me, relentlessly and quite successfully.  And that realization led me to put my clothes and car keys aside one night as I went to bed. My plan was to wake up, get in the car, and drive it into a pole at high speed.

That was the one night in a very long time that I slept soundly all night.  I woke up at about 5 a.m.  The first thing I saw, in the betwixt and between light of the dawn was my husband.  Even as he laid there sound asleep, his love embraced me.

It was a transformative moment that told me I wasn’t going to get in the car and escape this journey.  I was going to follow those threads of unravelling illusion all the way to the end.

Which is what I did.  In the most unexpected of ways, at the most unanticipated time (funny how life works when you stop planning, huh!?).

About two weeks after I DIDN’T get in the car, I was doing some work for a client.  All of a sudden, I felt myself falling.

It was that awful feeling I’d had so many times since June.

Except this time, I landed.

On my twin bed in my elementary school bedroom in the first house I ever lived in.

And there, staring me in the face, was 12-year old Will.

He had a message for me, the one I’d been searching for.

All those illusions?  They weren’t put there by my family or by my friends or clients or anyone.  They were created, decorated, placed and guarded…by me.

He reminded me of exactly where we were.  It was the exact day, the exact moment, 32 years ago when I was sitting down to study for a spelling test in Mrs. Fugate’s class.  As I lay on that bed, I was thinking that the life of a smart, studious kid with thick glasses wasn’t really getting me far.  While my world was filled with books and music and thoughts that seemed like nohing I heard from anyone else, it wasn’t filled with friends.  So, I decided to change things. To bomb the test.  To do–and take and drink and say…and BE—whatever it took to fit in other people’s world.

And I did.  And I was good at it (it’s no surprise that my career has been based on spinning the story clients’ customers WANT to hear).

And it was all an illusion.  Each perfectly crafted, fiercely clung to, illusion simply added another layer that took me further and further away from my self.

Further and further away the power…the source…that each of us needs to fuel our own flame of individuality.

And, now, after months of darkness–no, after 42 years of darkness–the 12-year old Will was there to give me my power back.


My Dad’s final gifts

10 07 2009

My Dad died last week.  And, in dying he has succeeded in getting me to do the one thing he always wanted me to do:  Slow down.

Slow down to experience his death fully…not as a project to be managed, but as a precious gift that, at last, opened the box of our relationship as father and son.

Talk about the universe throwing you an unexpected right hook (Dad was a former Golden Glove boxing champion…I couldn’t resist!).

You see, Dad and I weren’t close.

There wasn’t any animosity or anything.  And it wasn’t personal.  He wasn’t really close to anyone.  Eventually, we settled into a nice little routine where I had lunch with him at least once each time I went to Dallas.  We had the same conversation each time (weather, sports, family—always that order).  It may not have looked like a lot to the outside observer, but for us…it was enough.

Dad and I even were blessed with a great farewell lunch (though neither of us knew it at the time, at least I didn’t).  It was this past Thanksgiving.  Never being able to say he was proud of me, Dad DID say he was happy for my decision to become a writer.  He even said that “maybe someday, I’ll meet your friend” (that would be my husband).  I told him that I loved him.  As him.

After my sister called with the Hospice news, I sat down with that final memory and told myself that I’d take a day or two to sort through the other weaves of our 43-year journey together.   I quickly realized that there wasn’t much sorting to do.  To borrow a line from my old friend, Gerry, when it came to Dad and me, “there just wasn’t much ‘there’, there”.

At least that had always been the official version.

That night, I started crying… unexpectedly AND uncontrollably.

I went upstairs to the study and lit a candle for Dad.  And I cried. And cried.  More than I have ever cried in my entire life.

Eventually, I saw Dad.  He was covered in vines.

They were the vines life foists upon us.  Broken dreams.  False hopes.  Unfulfilled promises…that we had made to others, and they had made to us.

The vines were more alive than Dad…and they were weighing him down.  His face was at once both resigned and terrified.

“It’s ok Dad,” I said.  “Put down the vines,” I told him.  “They’re not clinging to you.  You’re clinging to them.”

I’ll never know if he did or didn’t.  But I do know what happened next.

Suddenly, I was in the house I grew up in.  On Lake Haven Street.  It was the holidays.  I was sitting next to the Christmas tree (artificial, of course, these were the 70’s!).  And I was waiting for Dad to come home and do the only thing Mom ever asked him to do with the tree:  hang the lights.  Now, when we were kids, my sister and I told ourselves we wanted him home because once the lights were up we could hang even MORE ornaments from their wires.  That night, as I sat crying in my house in Boston—so many years and lifetimes away from Lake Haven—I realized that, at least for me, we wanted him home so we could be a family.

And, then, I knew that was never meant to be.  At least not for me.  At least not for my family.

It was an illusion.  A vine that I had carried with me my whole life…just in case it ever came true.

And then, I saw the figure covered in vines again.  Only, this time, it wasn’t Dad.  It was me.

Turns out, when you reached below life’s surface to its true “hidden harmony”, as Heraclitus calls it, Dad and I were quite close, one and the same in many ways.  Unhappy with what we saw as our hand in life, we created illusions to fill perceived gaps.

Illusions around family, around friends, around work.  Around us.

And, the gift of Dad’s death was to show me that he wasn’t the only one who could drop those vines.  I could, too.

And so I did.

Now, if you haven’t done it, let me tell you:  the sound of shattering illusions is deafening, unsettling, terrifying….and freeing.

I slept full of gratitude that night…gratitude for my father.  It was the first time I had ever paired those words together.

As I drummed the following morning, I again saw Dad (this time sans-vines).  We were moving towards each other.  Neither of us had much shape at all.  At one point, our finger’s barely touched and, then, we kept moving…now past each other. Dad one way.  Me another.

4 hours later as I was making lunch, I felt a pain.  A release.   A feeling at once empty and full.

My sister texted me 5 minutes later to confirm what I knew.  Dad was dead.

That afternoon, the first wave of a completely new sensation washed over me.

Turns out that Dad’s gift of shattered illusions had been simply a stocking stuffer.

His real gift was what happens AFTER you shatter those illusions.   And that is the gift of peace.

Not the Hallmark version of peace where it’s always morning in America.  Nor the Southern or Yankee brand of peace where you just lock all those unpleasant feelings, things and people in life’s basement and “buck up”.

Nope.  The kind of peace that comes only AFTER you’ve dropped all illusions.  The peace that is synonymous with truth.  With life.  Not as it could have been or should be, but as it is.  Now.  This moment.

Wherever Dad is, I hope he’s riding wave after wave of infinitely beautiful, just plain fun, peace.

I know I am.   And, for that, this son is forever grateful to his father.

Of fathers, sons, Michael Jackson and Farrah

29 06 2009

Last Sunday, in honor of Father’s Day, I posted a blog about father figures…specifically, the two men who had been father figures in my life.  And who i honored earlier this year by shedding the names of my birth father and putting on their names instead.  Five days later, I got a call that my birth father, whose name I no longer wear, had been placed on Hospice.  Most likely, he will be dead in a matter of weeks, if not days or hours.

That jolt has left me sifting through the weaves of our relationship–physical, emotional and karmic.  It’s also sharpened my awareness of the labels we carry with us.  Labels that we put on or, in many cases, allow others to put on. Masks that, by the weight of their illusion, either suppress or, worse yet, extinguish our true self.

What do the labels of “father” and “son” mean?  Does the father you are born to always win out over the fathers who raised you?  And what does the label of “son” require in the final days, moments of a father who was never there?

Looking outside my own life, I see friends and family members who refuse to wear labels…society be damned.  As they’ve aged, the frenetic rebellion of youth has settled into a beautiful groove of peaceful power.

And then there are the friends and family members who have spent lifetimes feverishly collecting all the labels society demands we wear. Yet, over time, the youthful exuberance of raw ambition weathers into a hardened resignation that, once you hit a certain point, you simply accept life for what is familiar vs what is true.  Convinced that it’s too late to change, they put themselves on a psychic Hospice if you will.  Seeking whatever will ease the pain of missed opportunities and numb their soul while they wait for their body to die.

Just look at Michael Jackson.

Michael Jackson seems to be someone who always was trying to come back to past glory rather than participate–warts and all–in the here and now. His eccentricities seemed to be more a reaction to society’s demands than a response to his true self.  Even in death, people refused to let him go. Pumping his dead body for hours to bring him back…to bring them back…to what once was.

And then there’s Farrah Fawcett.  Someone who accepted that others wanted to see her as an “angel”, but who never let that illusion cloud who she really was.  She used that illusion to lure folks in to see real truths–be it about rape, domestic violence or cancer.  Where Michael Jackson saw the ability of masks or labels to conceal, Farrah Fawcett saw their potential to reveal.

If that is, you took the time to look beyond the mask, beyond the illusion, to see the truth…to live in the moment of what is vs what was or, perhaps, what never was.

Two women, two paths.

11 05 2009

Two moments have been flickering in my heart all morning. One happened last night with my mother; the other about ten years ago with my grandmother. They tell a lot not only about them but about the paths women choose today.

First, my grandmother. But, before the moment, some background: I always tell people my grandmother was a combination of Victoria Barkley from The Big Valley and Auntie Mame. She was a true force of nature and the most driven person I’ve ever met. The kind of person who wanted to be “somebody” and, through sheer will and against long odds, succeeded. To her, life was all about appearances. And nobody looked better than Gran…or made a better career out of looking better than everyone else. She was one of Neiman’s first buyers, had a TV show, hosted Spain’s first debutante ball, etc, etc. To this day, I think of her every time I look in a mirror and never, ever would be caught dead wearing light-colored shoes after 5 p.m. for fear of some sort of divine retribution. She married three times, though I believe the only man she loved was the one she didn’t marry (he called her “The Divine Miss M” and their love affair spanned two marriages and 40 years). Gran was a tough woman, a difficult woman, but I loved her very, very much. And I’ll always cherish the gift of being her Patrick Dennis. That’s the background.

Now, the moment: One day, when she was about 80, her mind falling and her spirit weary, Gran and I were chatting on the phone. “Willo,” she said excitedly. “I heard the most marvelous thing this morning. I heard birds singing!” Now, Gran lived in Southern California–before smog made birds gasp rather than chirp. Birds sang all the time. But Gran hadn’t heard them. She’d spent her life rushing to the destination of “making it”…never pausing to savor the moments as she lived it. It wasn’t long after our conversation that her health deteriorated rapidly. For the last 13 months of her life, she laid in a bed–facing a window. Watching the birds. I think hearing their song was the purpose of her life. Once she received it, she could let go.

Now, my mother. And, again, first some background: My mother, in many ways is not her mother’s daughter. She is the ultimate Earth mother…someone who embodies nurturing, love and kindness. Where my grandmother has the more exciting story, my mother has the more honest life. And, yet, being born to Victoria Barkley/Mame came with a price–and that price was acceptance. Acceptance based on appearances. Not just how you look, but the appearance of success—on society’s terms, not yours.

It’s a struggle my mom has waged for many years.

For 25 years, she kept it locked in the basement of her soul as she savored the gift of a marriage…and love affair..with my stepfather. After all, who needs acceptance when you’re in love? And, then, last year, Tommy died. And the shadow of acceptance burst through the door that had kept it out of sight–but not soul–for so long.

For 13 months that shadow has enveloped my mother. It has persistently whispered that her marriage to Tommy was just a passing illusion. A nice dream of self-acceptance, but a dream that ended with his death…leaving her to awaken to a nightmare of judgement from others. Others who stand ever ready to tell her that she’s too old to learn new things. That she’s unemployable–except, maybe–and they mean MAYBE–as a greeter at Best Buy. That she’s crazy to still want to care for others after the pain of caring, first for her dying mother and, then, her dying husband. Or, my personal favorite, that her best days are behind her (as if there’s an expiration date to quality in one’s life).

And that shadow just about won. Until last night. Which brings me–finally! –to the second moment. It happened on the phone, in the middle of a most ordinary conversation with my mom. The kind you have with your mother once both of you reach a certain age. In the middle of chatting about dinner, the dogs, the weather and what not, mom said “You know, I’ve come to realize that I don’t really care what other people think.” I almost spilled my martini. Not because she said it, but because she meant it.

Finally, after years and years of suppressing the shadow of judging acceptance, she had faced it. And, basically, given it the finger (in a most Southern ladylike way, of course!). And she was free. Is free. To live her life. To find, alone with herself, the same joy and love she found,together, with Tommy.

These two moments fill me with gratitude for the two most important women in my life. They also make me wonder about the wonderful women I know who choose my grandmother’s path. They drink the kool-aid society feeds us that says the feminine has no value. That worth comes only from masculine pursuits–even if you dress them up in feminine masks. The roar of their ambition blocks the music of the birds. I don’t know many women like my mother, though. Women who move through society’s version of their life…to live their own. On their own terms. Blissfully happy.

My grandmother could have learned a lot from my mother. Other women could, too. To paraphrase Frost, she’s taking the road less travelled on. I bet it will make all the difference!

Should there be an expiration date to health care access?

8 05 2009

Access is one of the biggest buzz words in health care…and it’s a primary driver in the reform efforts underway in DC, right now. But is that access open-ended or, in a time when science has replaced nature and dollars are few, is it worth asking whether there should be an expiration date to access…or at least some controls?

Ellen Goodman raises this question to some extent in an op-ed in today’s Boston Globe. She starts with a recounting of the Obama family’s struggle with the issue of whether to provide life-extending–but not necessarily enhancing–treatment to his dying grandmother. They opted not to. The President told the story not so we could be voyeurs to the painful decision he and his sister wrestled with. He raised it to shine on a light on what he called a difficult moral issue related to sustainable health care.

I’m glad he did…it’s a question that should be front and center in American discourse today. The bottom line is that this country too frequently keeps people alive not because they should–but because we can. Rather than compassion for the individual, it’s an act of ego in the case of the medical providers (look, ma, I’m God!) and selfishness on the part of the loved ones (we may not want to deal with you as we tuck you away in a nursing home or in front of a tv, but we sure as hell aren’t going to let you go).

And it’s an act that raises not only ethical issues and quality of life issues, but increasingly financial ones.

As the Baby Boomers age, do you really think we can pay to extend their lives as long as science allows? Forget the cost to their individual quality of lives. What do you think the cost will be to everyone else? To the adults whose taxes pay for that care? To the kids who, most likely, will be denied access to keep seniors here for just a little bit longer? At a time when the Dems are adding to the federal budget at a rate of $100 million PER MONTH to right our domestic ship (following eight years of Republicans spending untold millions per month to sink our international one), how much longer do you think we can keep printing play money to pay for all this?

Now, rest assured Mom that I’m not implying in these questions that we should gather all the old folks at age certain and bid them a fond adieu. Life’s real questions don’t have easy, absolute answers.

But that doesn’t mean we should avoid the questions.

It does mean, however, that we won’t find the answers through political posturing (which means Members of Congress and the media can’t participate).

Answers won’t come from the scientific community, either. As I’ve watched what’s happened with AIDS in the past few years, it’s been horrifying to see what a disease that once was fueled by anger and passion now fueled by cold-hard-cash and career advancement/security. So, let’s leave the scientists (and docs) out of this conversation, too. It’s in their interest to keep folks alive as long as possible.

But, let’s do have this conversation among ourselves. Around dinner tables. On front porches. Even on the phone if distance makes face:face dialogue impossible.

Let’s ask “to what end” (thank you GES) we are overruling nature and keeping people alive just because we can. Is it for them…or for us? “To what end” is the cost–financially, but also to the cycle of life. Are we standing in the way of Life by blocking Death (because we so fear Death)? And what kind of life does that give us, anyway?

No easy answers, but–as one of Rilke says–maybe we can begin to “love the questions”…and each other, not for science’s sake, but humanity’s.

Why are Americans afraid of Death?

6 05 2009

Between the swine flu hysteria and postponed demise of The Boston Globe, I’ve been thinking a lot about Death lately–mainly why Americans are so damned afraid of it.

Death and I have been friends for a long time. Docs weren’t sure I’d live past 10 yrs, so Death and I hung out quite a bit when I was a kid. Starting with my grandfather’s death when I was 10 and my stepfather’s death last year, Death has been a pretty constant presence among my birth family. And, of course, there was a time not long ago when I witnessed AIDS decimate so many members of my “life family”.

As a result, I’ve never been afraid of Death. I figure it’s both my oldest and longest friend–there for both my first..and last..breath. I recognize that, from that first breath, all of us begin the dance, the glory, of dying. As a Shaman, I believe that Birth is not possible without Death. In fact, I’ve often thought that the old phrase “life and death” is backwards. The accurate description is “death and life”. You simply can’t get to life, to birth, to resurrection if you will, without Death. Both should be cherished equally for their beauty and their mystery.

So why are we so afraid of it?

Because we can’t control it.

And our world lives (and dies!) by the illusion of control. We schedule our lives down to the last minute. Parents and spouses everywhere schedule “quality time” with their kids…schedule it (how generous!). We pick out our kids’ schools before they’re born, insist on learning their sex while still in the womb, and–increasingly–even schedule deliveries. Mystery is messy…and time-consuming. And who has time?

Yep, it’s a nice, contained, controlled world we’ve created for ourselves and we freak out when anything–no matter how far-fetched threatens that false security (Joe Biden’s swine flu travel guides, anyone?).

There’s just one catch: Death doesn’t play that game. It’s the one mystery Americans haven’t succeeded in wrestling to submission. You just can’t “schedule” Death. In fact, you–yes YOU–don’t even know if you’ll live to read the rest of this blog (you made it to the end of the sentence, so that’s a good sign..for you…and for me).

And that uncertainty scares the shit out of us…which is too bad, because it manifests in some pretty unattractive ways:
— It makes us treat loved ones who are dying as projects to be managed (tucked away and drugged) instead of brothers, sisters, lovers, spouses, friends to be cherished.
— It makes us jump through ridiculous hoops to preserve our own illusion of eternal youth, figuring that appearances matter to Death and looking 35–even a plastic 35–can keep it at bay.
— Worse, our fear of Death makes us a society of “dead men walking”.

Here’s what I mean. The more you avoid Death, the more it boxes you in, until–eventually–it has walled you into your own personal Groundhog Day–where you live the same life over and over and over and over—a safe life, to be sure, but a dead one nonetheless. A life where you’re terrified to move or change because to do either means you relinquish control…and, when you do that, you welcome Death. To paraphrase an Eastern mystic, “if you fear Death, then you fear Life!”

One of the saddest conversations I’ve had over the past three years was with a good friend of mine. We were all having dinner at our house. As we were wont to do, our husbands were upstairs chatting (probably about how difficult it is to be married to us!!) and my friend and I were in the kitchen downstairs, drinking and cooking. I was telling him how I felt like I’d been called to start a new adventure in my life… one that represented a radical departure and one that, most likely, would take us away from Boston. “But you already know everyone here, your business is here,” he said, openly wondering if I had lost my mind (thankfully, I had, but that’s another story). “I can’t imagine having to start over,” he said.

When he said that, it broke my heart. Here was someone–only in his early 50s–saying that he was done with life. He had climbed to ONE summit..and for the rest of his life he was just going to sit on that summit–dead on the inside–until his physical body was done with him. He’d have dinner with the same people in the same restaurants ordering the same thing receiving the same complements over and over and over because that was safe, that he could control.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to climb one summit (or even ten) and then just stop. To be a living Soul trapped inside a dead heart. No wonder so many “successful” people numb the yearnings of their souls with sleeping pills and/or stiff drinks. After all, who wants to be awake when you’re dead? Better to be asleep!

The whole thing reminds me of one of my favorite stories, from the book “Ilusions”. It’s a story of river creatures that live their lives clinging to vines that dangle in the rushing river. One day, one of the creatures let’s go. He gets the shit knocked out of him a couple of times before he releases his fear and relinquishes control…and starts to gently float down the river and away from his fellow creatures.

I don’t know about you, but the river feels pretty damned good. There’s warmth (and life) in that mystery. Let’s dive in!