"Say what you have to say, and not what you ought."
~ Henry David Thoreau

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Lightning Can Strike Twice in the Same Place

This week I had every intention of writing about my recent motorcycle trip to Jackson Hole and Yellowstone.  That all changed when my sister called me late in the day on Tuesday.  As she soon as I heard her voice I knew something was wrong.  I'd only heard that particular tone in her voice once before.  And, just like when I'd heard it before, my body immediately knew something was wrong, almost before she uttered the words "Have you read Jason's email?" my insides were already turning to liquid, my heart started racing and I wanted to vomit.  I logged into my email as she told me the news.  "Jason's sister is dead.  She killed herself."  For the second time in my 42 years, the world seemed to stop spinning, and I felt like I was watching myself from a distance as my mind tried to wrap itself around something that it desperately wanted to keep from knowing.

Jason's email told me everything I didn't want to know.  He even included a news clip about the tragic way his sister had chosen to end her life.  There I sat at work, staring at my computer, dumfounded, without words.  How could this be happening?  Again?  To Jason?  It just isn't fair.  That's when my tears started, thinking of him and all that he'd already endured.  Not even two weeks before, my mom and I had been talking about Julie, as we often do.  I mentioned that one of the few things I hadn't yet forgiven Julie for was how her suicide affected Jason.  I'm just not okay with it.  He, among everyone in her life, was there for her no matter what.  He loved her, despite her maddening ways. From my perspective, she took advantage of his love, dismissing it, not understanding how rare such loyalty is. His love and loyalty never wavered, even in death.  It was Jason who spared Amy from having to find her sister dead.  Instead, he went, knowing full well what he'd find.  He stayed with her until the very end, waiting until the coroner took her away.  And now this.  Again.  

Still in shock, I called Jason. Actually, I called, got his voice mail, left a message, then he called back and left me a voice mail, which I listened to, and then called him back.  Even in the midst of such sadness and shock, Jason didn't miss the significance of me listening to his voice mail and returning his call.  "Well, I guess I know how to get you to listen to one of my voice mails now" was how he answered.  We laughed at the morbid irony. Julie's last phone call was to me, and she got my voice mail.  She left me a message.  As per my habit, and keeping with my instructions to send me a text if it's urgent and important, I deleted her message without ever listening to it.  To this day I don't know what she said. 

At least laughing about what it takes to get me to listen to a voice message broke the ice. But then I had to actually talk about what why I was calling. I'd like to say that I had all the right words and knew exactly how to respond to such a tragedy.  After all, I know exactly how it feels to lose your sister to suicide.  Instead, I swore.  Really, what else is there to do?  We both agreed my profane word was really the only thing to say in response to suicide.  

I've spent the last 48 hours thinking, wondering, remembering and reliving.  It's the emotional, physiological memory of such trauma that's the worst.  It's like when you have a burn and the thin top layer of skin has just started to heal, covering the burn.  You nurse the wound, being very tender with yourself, protecting your injured part, knowing how fragile it is.  Then, out of nowhere, the wound gets bumped and the thin, new skin gets torn off.  The pain is there all over again, not as bad as the original burn, but close.  

Today I watched Robin Roberts say goodbye on Good Morning America.  She'll be gone for an indeterminate amount of time recovering from a bone marrow transplant.  As she talked about her experience with cancer, and subsequently finding out that her cancer treatment had given her a rare disease requiring a bone marrow transplant she said, "Life provides losses and heartbreak for all of us.  But the greatest tragedy is to have the experience and miss the meaning." 'I am determined not to miss that meaning."  I stopped what I was doing when I heard her, amazed at her simple, yet profound wisdom and amazing optimism and courage. I'm not even close yet to knowing what sort of meaning any of us will gain from this latest tragedy. It's still too raw, too soon, but her words shifted my focus and gave me hope, which right now is enough.  

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Putting a Face on Suicide

My sister Julie had beautiful blue eyes. Along with her curly hair they were one of her trademark, standout features. Whenever I first saw her after not seeing her for months I was always reminded of how much I loved her sparkly blue eyes. They really did light up when she laughed and smiled. I often find myself stopping to look pictures of her, gazing intently into those eyes. Not only do I stare because I miss looking into them, I also look hoping to discover some hint of the pain she kept so well hidden behind them. How did I not see it?
Recently, I’ve been searching the eyes of others who also died by suicide on a Facebook page called Putting a Face on Suicide (PAFOS). The page is a personal project started by Mike Purcell, who lost his 21-year old son, Christopher Lee Purcell to suicide in 2008. The mission of Putting a Face on Suicide is to pay tribute to those lost to suicide, and to humanize the statistics of suicide by putting a face to all the numbers. The volunteers at PAFOS solicit pictures of loved ones who have died by suicide. Their objective is to collect 99 photos of people who have died by suicide for each day of the year. 36,135 faces will represent 365 days of loss by suicide each year in the United States. They use the collected pictures in posters and tribute videos, which survivors are asked to use in their individual suicide awareness/prevention volunteer efforts.
The project is incredibly powerful. Every 40 seconds someone around the world dies by suicide. That’s 99 people every 66 minutes. Hearing or reading such devastating statistics is one thing. Seeing the human faces and reading about the people that have died by suicide is quite another. Looking at the faces day after day is painful and sad. Every day my Facebook newsfeed is full of them. Every face represents so many things. The lives cut short, unrealized hopes and dreams, talents and skills that can no longer be shared. 

I look at each face and wonder how many people each of them left behind. How many survivors did they each leave to pick up the pieces and try to make sense of such a heart-wrenching loss? Every face reminds me that the world lost children, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, lovers and friends. Most of the pictures show people smiling, happy, being goofy, seemingly full of life. They show living, breathing people who were loved and cherished and will be forever missed by those they left behind. My sister’s face is now among the hundreds of others featured on the page. Day 16 was lovingly dedicated to her. Below is the tribute I submitted along with her picture.
My sister was a delightful, smart, funny, talented woman, adored by all who were lucky enough to call her a friend. The energy of a room immediately changed when she walked in. People were always genuinely delighted to see her, and gravitated towards her because of her sincere interest in others. She was an adored aunt by her seven nieces and nephews.  With no children of her own, she treated them all like her own children, taking a genuine interest in them and their lives. 
Julie was a runner, having taken up the sport in high school when she ran cross-country and track. She completed several full and half marathons during her life, and inspired several others to start running, including me. She had a keen intelligence and after many years of stops and starts, proudly received her B.A. in English two years before her death. Julie was a model employee, loved and relied on by her employers because of her great work ethic.  She worked for a small construction management firm as a construction Project Manager. She worked her way up the ranks, becoming a trusted and successful employee in a male-dominated field. 
Julie's death devastated our family, changing all of us forever. Her death also changed my life's destiny. I'm now passionately committed to supporting other suicide survivors, and work to educate the public about suicide prevention, which I do as a volunteer field advocate for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and as a member of the AFSP Utah Chapter.
My sister never understood how deeply she was loved by so many. Those of us who loved, and still do love her, want her remembered for the vibrant, talented woman she was. To us she will never be just a statistic. As my mom said recently, “She was more, so much more, than her final act. I want her remembered for who she was, not what she did.” I once heard some wonderful advice for suicide survivors on remembering and honoring the lives of their loved ones, “The final chapter doesn’t rewrite the entire story.”
I thank the kind, generous people at PAFOS for showing the faces and telling the stories of lives lost to suicide. I’ll never stop missing my sister’s blue eyes. Hopefully, sharing Julie’s picture and story will help show the world what was lost the day she, like so many others, took her life.    

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Coffee Shop Connections

Photo by Mike McAuliffe
My favorite local coffee shop, Grounds for Coffee, is celebrating 21 years in business this year.  Located less than half a mile from my house, it's a gathering place where locals go not just for coffee, but also to connect with each other.  When I mention that I'm going to coffee, or talk about something that happened at coffee, everyone who knows me knows that I'm talking about "Grounds" as it's called by many.   

My addiction to coffee started later in life.  I didn't even start drinking coffee until my mid-twenties.  It wasn't until years later, in my mid-thirties, that I ventured out into the realm of fancy coffee drinks like lattes and blended, iced concoctions. 

I don't remember the first time I went inside Grounds for Coffee.  Since it's on the corner of a major intersection near my home, I drove by it nearly every day of my life for years before I actually dared go in.  It seemed like a mysterious, unknown place, filled with strangers, a place where I'd be uncomfortable just showing up to hang out, alone.  Plus, for several years I had no reason to go there, since my husband at the time always got up and made coffee in the mornings. 

After divorcing, and spoiled by having my coffee ready and waiting for me for years, I started stopping in to get a cup of coffee on my way to work. Sure, I could have made my own coffee, but I was terribly lonely and feeling pretty isolated after my divorce.  Stopping for coffee and having a brief interaction with strangers at the counter made me feel better, somehow less alone.  Soon, I started going in on weekend mornings.  Some weekends, when my daughter was at her dad's, talking to the person who made my coffee that morning was the only human interaction I'd have the entire day. 

I noticed there was a group of regulars in the shop every morning I went in.  The size of the group varied, but there seemed to be a core group of three or four who were there every day as far as I could tell. They seemed friendly, interesting and harmless.  Sometimes we would nod and say "hi" from across the room, but I never dared bridge the distance and just walk boldly over and join them.  As fate would have it, eventually I met one of the regulars through another group of people I know.  After that, it wasn't so awkward for me to join them at their table.  

My hunch had been correct.  They were friendly, interesting and mostly harmless.  I quickly learned who was who, and to my surprise discovered that many of them were neighbors who lived very close to me.  Before long, I was joining them on a regular basis and it felt like I'd known most of them for a very long time.  The group consists of a widely varied cast of characters, but there's a core group of regulars who show up almost daily at predictable times.  I soon found out that I had to be on my toes and have a thick skin to hang with them. The barbs fly regularly, without mercy, and nobody is exempt.  They're intelligent, witty, sarcastic, and don't tolerate fools lightly.  The conversation can turn on a dime-one second serious with wise observations and opinions being offered, immediately morphing into something raunchy, politically incorrect or otherwise inappropriate.  Sometimes, especially on Sundays, the mostly male group talks way too much about football or other sports.  

One morning, one of the regulars showed up with a new guy.  I noticed him immediately, intrigued by his quiet, aloof manner, kind eyes, muscular forearms, and the way he listened intently but didn't jump right into the fray.  I tried to act nonchalant, but I really wanted to know more about him. He was back another time or two, then I didn't see him for quite a while.  The next time I did see him, he was having coffee with an attractive blonde woman.  I was crushed, but not surprised.  After that, he seemed to drop off the face of the earth.  

Imagine my surprise when months later he showed up again, alone and unattached! This time I was determined not to let him slip through my fingers.  We slowly started talking, but never alone, and always surrounded by the other regulars.  After a month or more, I still only knew his first name!  Even though it was obvious our attraction was mutual, and that the friend who had originally brought him around was clearly trying to facilitate us getting together, it was just too awkward trying to find out more about each other with so many interested bystanders.

Mike showing off his first broccoli of the season, grown
in the community garden at Grounds For Coffee.
Thankfully, Mike finally took the bull by the horns and tracked me down through Facebook.  At last, we were able to talk outside the coffee shop and away from the prying eyes and ears of others.  That was over two years ago.  Needless to say, Grounds has a special place in my heart, because it's where Mike and I met.  

It's also special because it's where I met people who have become friends that I know will be there for me if I need them.  Mixed in with all the joking and mindless chatter is real talking and connecting.  We know what's going on in each other's lives, with our families, friends, jobs, business ventures, children and pets.  If someone needs help or support, it's given.  After my sister died, Grounds was one of the first public places I dared venture into. I knew there I'd be among friends, and nobody would be alarmed by my zombie-like appearance and demeanor.  In fact, it was a friend from Grounds who mowed my lawn and took care of my yard the week I was gone for Julie's funeral.  I hadn't even thought to ask anyone to watch over my place.  He just did it, like a friend would.  A few months later, when I needed a large vehicle to drive my family and several boxes of Julie's belongings back from Colorado, it was another coffee shop friend who offered me his vehicle without hesitation.  

7-week old Lucy meets the crew at Grounds
Grounds for Coffee is like the bar in the old t.v. sitcom, Cheers.  It's a place where everybody knows your name, or at least it feels like it.  I don't know what vision Dan and Suzy Dailey had when they started their business 21 years ago, but I know their coffee shop is much more than a business. It's a community. In the back, there's even a community garden, a fitting extension of the shop inside and the connections formed there.  Inside and out, Ground for Coffee is a gathering place where friendships are formed, lovers meet , and both special and everyday, ordinary moments between families and friends are shared. Places like theirs are special and rare, and they don't happen by accident.  

Congratulations Dan and Suzy!  Thank you for being a part of our community.  

Gillian having hot chocolate at Grounds for Coffee
Photo by Steve Conlin

Monday, August 13, 2012

Beantown and Back

“I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.”Mark Twain

Earlier this month Gillian and I took a trip to Boston to visit my brother Jon, sister-in-law Sam, and nephew Atticus. Our journey started in Colorado, where we met up with Atticus, who had been spending time there with his grandma Rita.  The three of us flew together from Denver to Boston.  Luckily, I already knew that I liked both of my travel companions, having traveled with both of them before in a variety of places.  Gillian has been flying since she was seven months old, and Atticus has traveled further than most 9-year olds I know, so navigating airports and crowded flights with the two of them was a breeze! 

It was my second trip to Boston and Gillian’s first. On my first visit, my sister Julie and I drug four-year old Atticus all over the city, logging so many miles on the Freedom Trail that the poor kid developed an aversion to the Freedom Trail that still exists five years later. Just the mention of it brings panic to his eyes.  That trip was marked by daily meltdowns every afternoon, when the three of us would be exhausted and in need of a pick-me-up that only Starbucks (iced coffees for Julie and I and Madeleine cookies for Atticus) could provide. This trip was much different.  Sam was there to join in the fun (last visit she was studying in Bangladesh) and there were no meltdowns.  Our trip to Starbucks was more for nostalgia’s sake than anything else. 

Gillian's number one, non-negotiable request for the trip was a beach day on Cape Cod.  She got her beach day, and she also got plenty of bonding time with her cousin, uncle and aunt.  Gillian hasn't spent much time with Atticus through the years, since he's lived so far away and my two previous visits to visit Jon and family in both Boston and Bangladesh didn't include her.  I loved seeing the two cousins connect and get to know each other better.  By the end of the trip they were teasing and antagonizing each other just like siblings!

For me, the trip was not only an opportunity to spend time with some of my favorite people, it was also a chance to make new memories in a city I last visited with Julie.  I loved being there with her.  We really bonded on that trip, and I view it as the time our adult relationship as peers really blossomed.  It was good to be back to revisit my memories, and to be able to make new ones of shared, happy, silly, carefree moments with others I love and cherish as much as I loved and cherished her.  
Jon entertaining Gillian and Atticus while waiting for the T.
Playing on the docks
Madeleine cookies for Atticus
We spent a fun afternoon playing the classic New England game of Candle Pin Bowling.
Waiting to have some Boston Cream Pie at the Green Dragon Tavern,
 birthplace of the American Revolution.
Jon showing off his candle pin bowling moves.
Riding the duck boats at Boston Public Garden.
In the stockades in Salem.
Lunch at The Lobster Shanty in Salem 
Dunkin' Donuts-a Boston tradition! 
Gillian sharing her donut with a hungry looking pirate. 
Sam and I doing our best imitation of elderly women crossing the road.

Proud sand castle creators at Nauset Beach.
Gillian getting on Atticus' last nerve.
Lunch in Chinatown.
Gillian showing off her Chinatown souvenir umbrella.


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Out of the Darkness

Julie & Amy joining me when I picked up my race packet - May 14, 2010
There used to be three of us and we ran.  Now there are two of us, and we walk.  I never would have taken up running if it wasn’t for my sisters.  Amy and Julie ran many races together over the past several years.  In 2009, tired of cheering from the sidelines, I took up running so I could join them.  When the three of us ran our first half marathon together in August of that year, I imagined it was the first of many races we’d do together over the coming years.  Our joke was that we’d all be running races together as old women just for the free beer at the finish line!

Hugging Amy after she finished
the Ogden 1/2 Marathon - May, 2011

As it turns out, that was the only race the three of us ever ran together. The following Spring, Amy and Julie cheered me on from the sidelines when I ran the Ogden Half Marathon.  The year after that, Amy and I ran the Ogden Half together.  Julie was gone by then, her cheers from the sidelines only imagined as we carried her spirit with us down the winding canyon course and across the finish line. 
Next month, one week apart from each other, in two different states, Amy and I will be walking in Out of the Darkness Community Walks to benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.  We’ll walk to remember and honor our beloved Jules.  Most importantly, we’ll walk, along with the other suicide survivors who will join us, to call attention to suicide and its awful aftermath, in hopes that by bringing attention to suicide we can save lives.  We’ll also be walking in solidarity with other survivors, showing our strength in numbers, proving, simply by putting one foot in front of the other, that despite the almost incomprehensible pain that comes after someone you love kills themselves, life does go on.  It is possible to survive such a devastating loss, especially when other survivors are there to lend their strength, support, understanding and love.
Until recently, I didn’t understand how important and healing the support of other survivors could be.  In May, I started going to a weekly support group for suicide survivors.  As I wrote in this post, I wasn’t optimistic about how much I would gain from going.  My how things change!  When the group ended, I was sad to say goodbye to people that just six weeks earlier had been strangers.  Like soldiers who’ve done battle together, we bonded, forging connections through our shared experiences of loss, grief, depression, confusion, anger, sadness, and questioning.  Together we talked, cried, and laughed, learning about each other, our families, and those we lost to suicide. 
One day I struggled to explain to my mom how and why I thought the group had been so helpful and comforting to me.  I think this poem by Eloise Cole explains it best. 
Borrowed Hope
Lend me your hope for a while;
I seem to have mislaid mine.
Lost and hopeless feelings accompany me daily.
Pain and confusion are my companions.
I know not where to turn.
Looking ahead to the future times
Does not bring forth images of renewed hope.
I see mirthless times, pain-filled days, and more tragedy.

Lend me your hope for a while;
I seem to have mislaid mine.
Hold my hand and hug me,
Listen to all my ramblings.
I need to unleash the pain and let it tumble out.
Recovery seems so far and distant,
The road to healing, a long and lonely one.
Stand by me. Offer me your presence,
Your ears and your love.
Acknowledge my pain; it is so real and ever present.
I am overwhelmed with sad and conflicting thoughts.
Lend me your hope for a while.
A time will come when I will heal,
And I will lend my renewed hope to others.
The healing power of hope should never be underestimated. I’ll wake on September 8, knowing Amy will be walking in Colorado that day, taking an important step on her journey towards healing.  On September 15, I’ll be walking in Salt Lake City, lending my hope to others.  Every step I take that day will be a step out of the darkness, towards healing and hope, for me and for so many others. 

*If you’re interested in participating in an Out of the Darkness Community Walk to benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, go to www.outofthedarkness.org to find a walk in your area.