Suicide is less an act than a tale of the soul.
– M. Jouhandeau
Since far back into the recesses of time, women have washed their man’s body, preparing him for the grave; they have lovingly and with crushing sorrow wiped the blood and dirt from him, felt the stillness in his silent chest, held his now-cool hands. They are always gentle, though he is past their ministrations.
This last rite, this last bit of care feels like woman’s work, even in this post-feminist age.
So it was that I found myself in the middle of December 2004, cleaning the one-room Victorian apartment in which my love had lived and then ended his life. I came with his sister-friend to cleanse him from that space. We, his women, moved about, all wounded silence and competence somehow both reflective and bustling. His beautiful body, undiscovered for days after his death, was already gone, taken away, autopsied and cremated quickly: thus a task I would have thought I’d find unbearable became a needed ritual, a final farewell… the last act of tenderness I could ever offer him. I could not stroke his fine, soft skin again or kiss away the desolate horror of his solitary ending, but I could give him this. I could wipe each wall, each counter, each surface that had witnessed our happiness, clean of him– of the molecules that had drifted from him as he moved about, falling from his skin, floating on his breath; of his beard-clippings and bathtub ring, products of his living, breathing self. Nothing was repulsive: all of it was him.
His family had come from far away, handsome somber brothers with Jeff’s voice and mannerisms slightly warped, like funhouse mirror reflections of him, to claim his poor corpse and make the arrangements. Their similarities to him both comforted and stung. They had come back to a place they hadn’t lived since they were children, to meet loved ones of their brother’s from an existence entirely separate from theirs. We, those who surrounded him in his chosen daily life, were strangers to them, and they to us. They had come first, a couple of days after the horror began, to Jeff’s friend Blondi’s house, Sorrow Central in these awful times, to meet with those of us closest to him so we could all get some idea of the sides of him we hadn’t seen. We gave them parts of his recent life, and they offered us bits of his childhood– all of us hoping to fit our pieces of him together in some way that might give us clues into his final, terrible choice. We clung to those images and each other, drifting debris in a sea of grief.
“Oh, he was excited about you,” was the first thing his brother Joe had said in his deep, haunting almost-Jeff voice, gathering me warmly up into arms that should have been my lover’s. I allowed myself to be enfolded, unable to speak. He told me Jeff had called him to tell him that I was in his life, but that he couldn’t call me his girlfriend or I’d kill him. A couple of weeks later he had called back to say that it was official: I had used that term myself. His brother couldn’t remember when he had heard him so happy.
Yes, happy. Happier, we had told each other, than we had been in a long time, maybe ever. His friends saw it, too, saw him smiling for the first time in a couple of years, saw the vigor come back to him like color into an old television set warming up. He had seemed almost serene over the last year, a changed man.
But then, what had happened?
Something. Something had happened in the last month or so, some unraveling in which all that happiness became inaccessible, dreams of the future unworkable and the present unbearable. Something had happened, and the little room that had been filled with such laughter and glorious passion became his final glimpse of the world, where he ended his last barbaric yawp “Good Bye” with an exclamation point and stepped into a tiny closet which held oblivion for him. He had thought to leave his pain behind, and indeed he had– in the hearts of all of us.
It’s funny. I had never thought of it exactly this way, but no matter how completely in your life you are, you can take one simple action–simple, though undoubtedly difficult to endure–and leave it all exactly where you put it last, for others to deal with later through their blinding fog of agony. Each trinket, each envelope, a half-roll of one-ply toilet paper; just like that. Rubber bands and coins, rope over the rack, head through the loop: Good Bye! Such everyday things– a pen, a pad of paper, glasses off, smoke a cigarette, lamp glowing brightly, the closet, a rope–in you go, and minutes later the entire scene and all of the elements of it are transformed: now it is an awful place. Daylight waxes and spills in, cars are audible from the street, people walk by; the light wanes, the sun sets, darkness comes, the lamp never stops shining yellowly through the window… and then again, and again, while a dark and hideous thing hangs motionless in its shadowy nook, and the most innocuous surrounding objects are altered simply by their very proximity.
And so his family arrived and we talked for a couple of hours, and cried together, and then went from Blondi’s over and down a block to the apartment. As we drove over for the first time I lost control of my breath, which began to come in great heaving gasps, making my face and fingertips numb. We parked, and as I got out I realized that my legs were numb, too, and so then I was sprawled on the crisp, dry winter lawn, sobbing into the ground.
It took 7 or 8 people less than 4 hours to compartmentalize a man’s entire life, put it in boxes and big plastic trash bags, and move it out. I hadn’t evaluated Jeff’s existence that way before; this stuff was his. He would take care of it. I had no reason to think that he wouldn’t be here to look after it himself and decide what should happen to it. I was helpless: I didn’t know where each little bauble came from or why it was important. Whatever memory or connection they held was lost with him. Where had he gotten this medallion, the little silver boxing skeleton, the oblong piece of carved malachite? What face had they reminded him of, what event? I felt as if I were reading hieroglyphics, unable to discern the meaning behind the shapes. Now these things are imbued with new significance: I keep them because they were important to him, because they were the few things he chose to have nearby so that his eye could fall on them. Their origins are as lost to me as if I had found them in an Egyptian tomb, but somehow, oddly, I feel that as long as I have the things themselves their stories will remain intact, even if I don’t know them. How sad, how stoically mute inanimate objects seem sometimes when they’ve lost their owners… but perhaps our possessions forget us as soon as we forget them.
I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
– Jack London
I have dwelt for a time
On sleepy and permanent planets
Unremarkable clods of moist fragrant sunwarmed dirt
They are not unappealing
In their quiet unchanging way
If you can get used to the idea
Instead I choose
To float alone in the airless eternal silent dark
To catch the tails of comets
Yang to my Yin
Other half, shadow twin
Bitter stale ancient pain, ashes of grudges
Long and dreamless slumber, then awakening
Ever wary, watching
Opening just the same
Guiding you deep to the soft sad center
To taste the yearning there
Roiling electric black rumbles on the horizon
I stand at the edge and look down at my undoing
I breathe you
There is power in surrender.
You disturb the longing suncracked soil
Laying seeds in cool deep careful beds
Quenching freshly broken ground
Just enough, always enough
Coaxing fragile green hope up toward bright warmth
Delicate uncurling promise
Where once there was nothing
But parched unpregnant dust
Their intention is as good as harvest;
You plant them just to watch them reach for light.
The simple fact that they try to be tomatoes
Long to be lilies
Pine to be peas in a pod, that they
Dream at night of being your morning glory
By the time they begin unblossomed to wilt and wither
In the scorching relentless noonday blaze
You’re far afield, seeking greener pastures
Eating an apple you picked from someone’s tree along the way.
I reach for you to touch myself
And when I look within it’s you I find
The windows of your soul show my reflection
Glimpsing burning and elusive truths
In infinitely repeating visions of ourselves
Enchanted, frozen, I die of love
Not too close
Not too close
I hate you when I see my flaws
Not You is everywhere, in abundance
Faces, voices, houses,
Chairs, shoes and well-traveled intersections
All overflowing with your infinite absence
And the notion of chosen, solitary silence
I am filled with Not You, too
I curl around the bleeding place you aren’t
It beats with my crippled heart
I let the rain wash your dishes.
They had sat there since you went,
Each day when I pass them,
A drainer full of dishes on the porch
The smell of the soap reminds me
Of washing up after coffee together.
I thought water from the sky might
Be able to cleanse things from them
That I never could.
I loved you so terribly
I never could have dreamed
As we sat there sipping from our cups
That so soon they would be
Left outside to weather the storm.
If I could
When you went toward
And left this nasty mess
Behind with those whom you
To gain your peace have left
Have pulled you down
By that rope around your neck
Like a blue balloon
And made you stay to
Listen to my weeping
What was it like?
Did you stand naked in the wind
And melt into the sun?
When you stopped your breath so cruelly
Did it rise unencumbered
From its restless tides
Expanding to seek Light?
I can’t tell, you see, from here
Where there was only Stink and Rot and Shock
Things to clean up
And dark days empty of you
For months now I have
Drifted like a leaf
Withered from weeping
Caught in currents of despair
I am so far now from where I began
I can never get back
Will not see my face again without
The lines of losing you
Can’t catch the thread I lost
I have a new face now
But still I carry you with me
Aching around you like a pearl
Beautiful crippling burden
As if it were my life
I have gone
And taken leave of this
I gazed too long
Down into the abyss
I say this much
I know it to be true
Don’t look long into the abyss
Or it sees into you
– Jeff, in a dream, December 16th, 2004