The God of Now (Continued)

I’ve been in other armies before.

Very few prepared me for the choice my captain,

my commander,

was going to make.

At times, my commander was stolen like a thief in the night,

while others still,

the harakiri was too much to share.

And still,

loyal to the end,

I join another army.

I swear my allegiance to the next one,

hoping, this time,

I can have a place at my commander’s hearth.

At least for a time.

The trouble in that life,

the life of a warrior,

is that it’s lonely.

At times, it’s quiet–

wandering through a world with no one by whom to kneel.

Alone with thoughts, hopes, dreams, desires.

And then someone worthy comes along.

A cause.

A friend.

A family.

A lover.

On my knees I fall,

preparing my oath.

This is where I feel most fulfilled.

When will I take my last oath?

We prepare, in life, to be productive

physically, emotionally, mentally.

To get the promotion.

To run the race.

To make the spectacle.

Then, while we’re trudging along,

something stops us.

I remember that day, in 2015.

I had just had a birthday.

I had just started a new project at work.

I had just hired new staff.

I had just started an affair.

We slept in hotel rooms around town

Had dates at the best restaurants,

Had plans to holiday.

He was leaving his wife.

I was promoted at work.

I had just placed in a century,

and was planning a tour.

Then, something felt “off”.

At first, it was an itch.

I’d noticed dryness that didn’t improve,

with lotion, or hydro-cortisone,

or even steroids.

Then, I was incontinent.

I felt a warm stream run down

my beautiful nylons

while presenting to executives.

I attempted to ignore it, at first,

but it recurred.

I stopped drinking coffee,

then alcohol,

and still,

recurrence.

It’s as though my body just forgot.

I scheduled a lunch break appointment

to take a look at my chronic “eczema”

(self-diagnosed, of course!)

or, at worst,

to test for infection.

That must be it!

I have too much to do!

I’m feeling fine.

I’m too healthy.

I’m too young.

I thought I had time.

But it was a tumor.

A flat, chapped, solid tumor,

full of cancer.

What was visible was the tip of the iceberg.

3 weeks later,

I received a phone call

while pretending that the tumor

had potential

to be nothing.

The truth is,

I avoided my next appointment,

and promptly paid the $20 no-show fee.

If I didn’t show up,

I couldn’t have cancer!

Not again.

Never again.

But the call came,

and I answered it.

Recurrence.

My body was betraying me

once again.

And, the worst of it was,

I was going to have to swear an oath of loyalty-

To Myself.

It was against my very nature.

I remember my first thought

written down after that call.

“Yesterday, I was healthy.

Yesterday, I was a cancer survivor.”

For over a year,

those were the only words

written on that page.

There was nothing else to say.

I had thought that you’d know,

Know when you had cancer.

I thought I would feel it.

“Wait. But yesterday,

I WAS FINE.”

In fact,

I was better than fine.

And things like this are,

unfortunately,

not just another speed bump.

I saw her for her birthday.

We went to her favorite cafe

and we celebrated both our birthdays.

Her 65th, my 32nd.

I’m less than half who she is.

I was 5 minutes late, as always.

We couldn’t extend our date,

Work called.

I was distracted,

not fully present for her.

She was terrified of her upcoming scan.

I didn’t listen.

I thought she’d be fine.

I thought we were fine.

My blather was useless,

and my ears had shut off.

She was trying to tell me.

She was trying to ask me for help.

She wanted to connect.

And I rejected her.

And now,

with her news of “unplugging,”

I am scrambling to make up lost time.

To suck up all her essence

before it’s gone.

Falling at her feet.

Pledging my oath.

Loving her deeply,

Drinking her in.

My emotions vacillate.

I am angry.

At this,

with myself,

with Death.

I am terrified to lose

what I know it can be.

Not just because I’ve lost so many,

but because it’s her,

Specifically.

She has been a joy.

A light in my life,

 

a soul sister.

She has given me the room to grow,

to play like a child,

To love with abandon,

regardless of time.

Of outcome.

To love her.

I’m guilty for not being there

for someone so giving.

Bandwidth issues. Capacity issues.

For not understanding.

For not being understanding.

Enough.

At all.

In small moments,

I’m terrified

about our camaraderie.

The connection we share.

I can relate to her,

to this.

This is the time when I can give back-

body, mind, and spirit.

Connect, give, love,

accept acceptance,

shine light.

Taking the time we have.

Committing to the process

and not quite the outcome.

The end takes us all.

All we can say is

“Not Today.”

 

 

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The God of Now

“I’ve decided to unplug,”

she said.

“Unplug? Where are you going?”

“Oh, I’m not going anywhere; I’ve decided.

I’m just not going to do anything.”

“You mean…but you’ll die that way.”

“I know. I’ve decided to unplug.”

We’d just heard the news a few weeks ago. Wait. Weeks?

It has felt like weeks. I mean days.

For months, she had complained of feeling “off”, “unwell”, “out of sorts”.

She couldn’t pinpoint it, so to me it sounded like nothing.

She’s dying of cancer.

Her belly full of writhing, replicating balls of free radicals.

Her ovaries deteriorating.

Betraying her.

We anticipated, and she prepared us for,

liquid metal to be dripped into her veins.

For her to plug into the magic,

the alchemy,

of science. Of medicine.

Hail to the chief.

The God of Now.

But she retreated, after while.

They’d caught it earlier,

but it wouldn’t change the outcome.

She knew it, and we did, too.

But to hear her desire to “unplug”

was a painful exercise in anticipatory grief.

What’s best for you not being best for me.

A rejection, a “break up” of sorts.

I knew I respected her, immensely!

But the grief, and all its components of ugliness,

remained.

I wanted to be present for her to give her the love she deserved,

but being present meant bringing the anger, too.

The fear.

I grew quiet with my thoughts.

I never had to make that choice.

The cancer was no match for

The God of Science

when it ravaged me.

I know there would be a battle, but

the troops were on my side.

I’d purchased dragons.

I had the wildfire.

Alone, I stood on that battlefield,

and The Lord of Light defeated

Death.

Not today.

But she knew, with her troops surrounding her,

that she must be sacrificed.

And so, strong and sure,

she prepares us all,

to trudge along without her.

Morning, Mourning

February is tough. When everyone is celebrating love and infatuation, love is not what’s in my mind.

March is rough. When people are dancing around, claiming bonuses, when Spring springs, I feel the withering inside.

January, February, March. Q1 of every year, I’m reminded why I work in death. Why death hits home. His birthday was January, but he died in March. Her birthday was February, but she died in September. Her birthday was October but she died in March. His birthday was February and he died in February. Birth, death, love. Tragic loss. Zig-zagging through my first quarter of the year, breaking my heart open again.

But morning seems to always come.

Mourning seems to start the morning after… When the haze burns off and you’re left with truth.

I’m still mourning.

This week, this week this year, has been incredibly difficult. The son of my dear friend, who took her life 7 years ago now, turned 10 last month. He’s beautiful and smart and gentle and kind. And she’s missing out. I’m staying in the home of friends equidistant between where she jumped off a bridge and where her son sleeps. I’m drinking in that bridge, and that boy. He’s stronger than I. More compassionate.

Tomorrow is the 6th anniversary of the death of my best friend K-Rock, who overdosed in a Bronx apartment. The last time I got to feel his arms around me, where we had our last long talk in person, was a mile from where I’m sleeping this week. I am literally at the center of my pain.

Two nights ago, I spent the evening with the man who nursed me through that pain, who drank some of this heartbreak for me. And who still loves my broken heart. We were out catching up after years with no contact, celebrating the anniversary of a project we’d completed long ago.

A project that is the perfect metaphor for our amazing love affair: “Madness: A fast-paced game with no turns.” Its market differentiation was that it had stops built into the game.

Bittersweet. Celebrating the end of the Madness.

But really, we were getting closure. A different kind of death–the end of a love we’d shared, the end of the hope I had for reconciliation, the death of the memory. Painful, but necessary, in this season of tragedy. And I got to do what I wish I could have done with those I lost to abrupt death: the four things that matter most: “i love you”, “Please forgive me”, “i forgive you”, “thank you”. Just as he always knows to do, he gave me everything I needed. intuitively.

In July of 2013, he gave me something even more special. He took the time and energy to help me find just the right succulent to plant at the grave of my K-Rock. He took a shaking, crying girl through a graveyard for over an hour, searching for her best friend. When I was ready to give up without finding him, the man by my side forced me to keep going. He calmed my nerves, eased my pain, and told me it was worth it. It was 120 degrees outside, the sun beating down, and he was miserable, but he gave me what I needed. Intuitively. And we sat there, shoes off, talking to K-Rock until I could say everything I needed to say. Until I could introduce them properly. Until I could seek closure and find it. That day could quite possibly be my definition of bliss. I felt complete, unconditional love amidst the chaos. I learned what it means to hold space. And to be held.

Above anything, without fail, he was my friend. He was my shoulder while mourning all my other friends.

And yet. Last night, I walked out with closure. It is the morning after mourning. And I’m grateful for the shoulder, but I need it no longer. In the end, that death of the relationship, the hope of one, rather, was necessary for the dawn to break. And break it has.

What trauma therapy has taught me is that sometimes, we must re-enter a place in the past to feel all the feelings the place must teach us. So I am here, in the center of my pain, watching the sunrise come up after mourning. The loss never seems to lessen, but I can tell the pain will subside.

Good, bad, happy, sad, with or without shoes. Feel it all.

Preferably with a friend.

Never Say Never

I remember now the moment I fell in love with you. 

It was faster than I anticipated, 

occurring through my fear and pain.

I had a panic attack, and you,

You sat down in front of me, 

Your hands on the sides of my face,

Demanding my eye contact,

Teaching me to follow your breaths.

“Slow inhale, and hold.

Exhale. Let the tears come. Let the pain in.

Calm down those nerves, my darling.

Breathe in. Expand your container.

Breathe out. Empty it all.

I’m here, you’re held.

Never alone again.

Breathe in, composure.

Breathe out. There’s a smile!

See. You’re okay.”

With that, love. 

Expansive, all consuming, 

Forehead touching,

Transformational love. 

With those breaths, I fell farther

Down the rabbit hole that is your heart.

Never alone again.

And I believed you.

Every time you said it, I did.

Until the very end. 

Until the day you left,

When you looked back, saying,

“Never say never.”

No matter how far you are, 

I still feel those hands,

Soft and strong, 

calming my nerves. 

When I need a friend.

I still smile when I think of yours.

“There it is!” You’d declare.

They are the moments where I continue

To fall in love with you

Even still.

On suicide

When I was a child, my mother used to allow me to wander the library unattended. She is a genealogist, and for the most part, the library is where there were computers or other machines that connected to archives. I tagged along, happy to be left alone to explore my wonderland. 

I remember the moment I first laid eyes on that spine in the philosophy section. At first, I was drawn to the idea of a German female author (Emile Durkheim) talking about suicide. Little did I know it was a Frenchman postulating on the reason why people turn to suicide. I sat in the aisle, my back to the shelves, searching for answers. Turning the first page, I realized this book, this crisis, this epidemic of existential proportions, was older than me (1897!) I wasn’t the only one searching for answers. I had not come up with this concern myself. 

I was twelve years old. 

A year earlier, I had spent hours in the same library, reading my summer book list from start to finish, at times tagging along with my mother, and other times persuading my friends to come with me. To explore the library, full of possibility and knowledge. I rarely read non fiction, rather traveling through the young adult classics and fantasy sections, save for my time spent reading biographies of the greats: novelists, classical musicians, architects, artists. I was obsessed with the world’s beauty. I longed to be part of a world where beauty and luxury existed. I believed it was possible. 

At twelve, I experienced loss from suicide. She was 14, a girl I more than loved, a familiar. My tribe. My heart.

Sitting there, alone, tearing through Durkheim, I searched for the answers no one could give me. Why? How? What does this mean? Can I catch it? Is all hope lost? What happens to her now? To me? Why does this hurt so much?

The answers in this book puzzled me, frightened me, excited me, angered me. Mostly, they left me pondering more often how suicide happens. I was searching for answers and it just prompted more questions. 

That year, I began to tempt fate myself. It wasn’t like playing Russian roulette. I was alone and in pain. I was searching for answers, for comfort, and I found nothing. I’m convinced that my obsession to solve the puzzle of how pain turns into death, how people die in pain, has kept me alive. 

At 14, I became involved in group therapy where other survivors of suicide came together to communally ask the questions I found in the book. Some weeks I went to every group offered. It was then when I came to the realization that the pain that causes a suicide is transferred from the victim to survivor. It creates a link that perpetuates pain, and the only way to relieve it is to discuss it, in community. 

I started my own group, then found others with whom we started a non-profit. It became the thing I woke up for every day. I developed a peer mentoring program, an adolescent survivors of suicide group, then a train the trainer program that was taught throughout the country to peer mentors in high school and resident advisors in college. I created spaces where people could continue to ask Durkheim’s questions. I was obsessed with finding the answer to this problem through the pain left behind in survivors. 

But when I left these groups, when I came home, I was often in more pain. I was more disconnected. People were still attempting and completing, dying, all around me. Despite the hours logged managing a suicide hotline and teaching others about suicide prevention and self care for grief and loss, I never received the help I needed. 

Lesson 1: Sometimes the helpers need help too. Often, the helpers find little help. No one sees them as having weakness.

When I was 16, after the loss of my sister and grandmother, I created a plan to take my own life. The most serious of my several  attempts landed me a spot first in the emergency room, then strapped to a gurney in the back of an ambulance, and finally placed in an inpatient psychiatric facility for adolescents. “Why did you attempt to take your life?” A weary nurse asked upon intake, removing the laces from my shoes. I responded that I no longer could be in my family of origin. And, because of that, I had no one left alive who was safe. 

In this place, I had conversations with children and adolescents who had the risk factors and warning signs I used to teach teens when discussing suicide prevention. I was the hypocrite, and all I could think about was studying for AP exams. They were my only hope for leaving my family behind. I craved safety I had only read about in the books from the library. In this place, we openly talked about pain, about anger and loss. We all chased Durkheim’s questions. Alive but dying inside, we collectively pondered how we’d gotten to this point so early. 

Sadly, we didn’t come to conclusions. The majority of those I shared space with for 9 days died by suicide or overdose, or became incarcerated for drugs or violence. 

Lesson 2: Pain is rarely just physical. No substance, legal or otherwise, can lessen its grip.

At 18, i completed my first thesis on suicide, mainly highlighting and applying the works of Durkheim and others from that era to collected experiences from suicide support groups I facilitated and suicide hotline calls I managed. I analyzed themes, still desperately searching for answers. My cerebral approach created distance from my own pain. 

I was surprised when my mother asked to read my paper. 

One evening, after one of our long drives down the coastline, my mother taught me about my family history of suicide. My premature birth was a result of her own attempt following my father’s desertion just weeks before. I was horrified. Upon sharing this with my stepfather, he recounted the many times he prayed when my mother and I would take our iconic coastline drives. She used to write suicide notes, stating she was going to remove us from the suffering. She was going to save me from my future pain. 

Lesson 3: Pain can be genetic. It can be contagious. 

They say “you’re only as sick as your secrets.” In a family or environment where safety is rare, where love is conditional, where trust is optional, and loyalty is constantly questioned, children are never taught to seek community. They do not learn how to ask for help or share pain openly. The pain, suffering, anger, and loss is not resolved, and grief continues to take hold. 

Eventually, if not resolved, isolation, desperation, and paranoia sets in. Hope is lost. The existential noose pulls tighter, the box closing in, and options become limited by the weight of the pain. 

Lesson 4: The only way out is through.

What have I learned now, in my many years of continued research, exposure to survivors and victims of suicide attempt and completion, and from my own treatment for trauma? 

  • How someone dies fundamentally changes your memory of them. 
  • A shared distribution of weight lightens the load for everyone.
  • Pain is only lessened by the reduction of stigma and the increase in open discussion about what brings the pain.
  • Pain leads to shame, which leads to isolation. 
  • Some of the best medicine is community.

I have dedicated my life to making better memories. Only when we talk openly about and process the pain is it possible to remember people, places, and things with greater fondness. Only when we feel safe can we process the pain. 

Safety and community can break the cycle. Safety and community are the answer for which I have been searching. Safety and community, not substances, reduce isolation. Safety and community prevents suicide; it creates and maintains the best memories. It creates a beauty in this world that, too, can be passed from generation to generation. 

Lesson 5: It’s ok to fail. It’s ok to ask for help. 

I am forever grateful for the ones who have picked up the phone or answered my cries for help. There have been many along my path, and I remember them all. Thank you for reminding me that life’s beauty is not just something I can read in the fantasy section. 

And for the hundreds of souls who I have lost along the way, especially my heart, you continue to drive me to search for the answers, to create solutions. We can do better; we must be better. I carry your hearts in my heart. 

In the end, only kindness matters.