Hung in Memory

Three Christmas trees stand in our house, each trimmed with memories old and new.

The oldest tree is a fiber optic tree I bought in my years at boarding school. Its motor to change colors is as loud as a washing machine, but Blondie loves it. She decorates it with all the Peanuts ornaments Bo has given me since we first started dating twelve years ago. The boys have a tree Bo bought during his year of ministry internship. We keep its ornaments mostly unbreakable, as the garland is often pulled off to be rope.

The family tree is a collection of Christmases past. There are ornaments Bo and I have made or received over the past thirty-some years.

My grandmother made this one by hand. The time, the patience, the steady hand to wrap the thread just so, to pin the pearls and sequins.

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When I was young, our ornaments were all packed in a giant stove box. At some point my elder brother and I started a contest to find this glass dove. Some years it was in the first layer of ornaments; other years the fifth.

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Some ornaments hang in memory of those who’ve died. When my mother’s parents died, I received their Christmas angels. They always fly just beneath the star.

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When my father’s parents died, I received back a few ornaments I had bought them years ago.

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Christmases had more family then. More life.

Not so much these days.

Last Christmas, my sister-in-law tried to kill herself.  This year our relations with Bo’s side have been tense, but nothing…out there, into the darkness again. And for that I’ve been thankful. They even wanted to come to our house last week for Blondie’s Christmas service and my birthday.

In the hours before they arrived, my mother called to sing happy birthday–a tradition. One hour later, she called in tears.

“It’s…it’s Aiden. Oh, Jean, he’s…he’s not with us anymore. He was so despondent, his partner…” sobs.

I stopped breathing. My cousin was just a couple years older, a sweetheart. When Mom faded after “partner” all I could think was, What the fuck did he do to my cousin, I’ll fucking–

“His partner found him. He…he hung himself, Jean.”

The kids screamed for more peanut butter waffles.

The washing machine honked.

The oven declared something, I don’t know why the fuck that timer was even on, just so much God damn NOISE. Fucking NOISE when I all I could do was huddle up in the hallway and cry.

I managed to call Bo. He managed to get out of work just before his relatives came. My sister-in-law takes the coffee I offer her and asks, “So, how’s it going?”

Part of me just wants to punch her.

“Not great.” And I find I’m physically unable to make words. Do I just flat out say, “My cousin hung himself, so I’m pretty shitty right now because the last thing I want to do is celebrate a birthday or talk to people. I want to walk outside in the below-zero snow and fucking THINK, and cry, and let the tears freeze my face because I fucking failed my family.”?

I don’t say it.

Bo tells them later.

No one acts like anything happened. They carry on just as we were directed to do last year: lots of plastered smiles and talk without substance. I cringed inside and cried outside while they all sat around the Nintendo or the snack table. After the tenth worried stare I told Blondie that my cousin had died. “So now he’s with Jesus!” She tells me with a hug. My sob shakes her bones.

~*~

My elder brother wants me to ride with him across the state for the funeral. I decline. I wanted to sit in silence…or noise, if I wanted. I want to control my environment, however briefly. To have ONE thing under my control.

Why, Aiden?

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The obituary barely mentioned depression. Was his depression like my own postpartum depression? Bo knew I was sad, knew I was depressed, but he had no clue just how bad it was until I put it into writing years later. He looked at me like he didn’t know me.

I learned as a child to live two lives: the life locked away with The Monster, and the public life of the Preacher’s Daughter. I learned to smile and joke and shrug and separate the pain and confusion so it felt like an other-life, like it couldn’t possibly impact the world outside my bedroom. Did Aiden live as two selves?

And it never even occurred to me to get it out, to really talk about it, until these past couple of years. Between the writing and the reading of Zoe Zolbrod’s experience as an abuse victim, I hadn’t physically felt just how deep that pain had saturated me. It’s been a long, nasty time, working the poisons out. And until The Monster agrees to family therapy, the poisons will never be out completely.

What kept the poisons in Aiden? Or did he not even know he had been poisoned at all?

When pain is all we know, we don’t realize there’s an alternative. The toddler of a friend of mine often tires of walking because she’s a problem with her hip my friend can’t afford to have surgically handled. The girl’s not a fan of walking or running, and who can blame her? She’s never known the movement to not hurt. Was that life for Aiden? Did life just never not hurt?

Much of my father’s family fell out of contact with Aiden when he opened up about his homosexuality. My uncle didn’t help much: while a kind and funny man, he was also very selfish, much like his wife. The two split not-amicably, leaving Aiden and his sister with their mother in the North Woods while he moved to Florida. Even Aiden’s funeral wasn’t enough to bring him back.

No wonder, then, when I went to the visitation and studied the pictures hung about the room and saw near nothing of our branch of the family. To my shame, it’s only right. The stills of his past were filled with those who were there for him in the present. While I can look back on the warm glow of childhood Christmases spent together, we only saw each other a handful of times in the past fifteen years: I had gone on to school, marriage, and motherhood. I only caught snippets of his struggles with alcohol, relationships, and relations with his own mother and sister. The last time I saw him was at our grandfather’s funeral. We spoke for a long time about faith and love, the insanity of kids–he had been helping raise his nephew. The last I heard of him he even had custody of one because his sister continued to struggle with drugs.

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How I wish I would have known of his love of the 80s. Of writing. Of him. Because for all that philosophical and nostalgic talk we never really talked about each other. We never reached for each other.

I have to live with that missed chance now, but I’m not going to let that regret ferment into another poison. NW Filbert once shared this quote from Wendell Berry to me. It’s never fit more than now:

The Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Reach for those whom you love this Christmas. Hug them. Plant a big wet one on their foreheads. Christmas glows not only with light, but with hope. May that hope shine as you call them out of their inner darkness.

Click here for more on the American Federation for Suicide Prevention.

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45 thoughts on “Hung in Memory

  1. Well Ms Lee, over dinner this very evening Lord Zoolon told me of your loss. It is thus I am breaking from my blogging holiday to comment. Plainly in such circumstances one must. As an old fool who comes from a lengthy line a suicides within my maternal blood line, and as one who once…just the once…was at that very exit door, I know how you must feel. If you can, just focus on your kids and other half, and make this year the best one yet. Keep it simple; simple is always best. To absorb yourself in the ‘now’ and keep writing has to be the focus. Happy Christmas from the UK.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, thank you so much. Yes, that is what I’m trying to do. A six-year-old can’t comprehend this, let alone two four-year-olds, and they shouldn’t have to. My daughter actually put me to tears yesterday; she drew a picture of Heaven at school, with little names next to her stick people of family we’ve lost. She saw my tears and said, “I know, I’m no good at angels.” And I had such a snot-laugh.
      Simple is indeed always best, and I intend to keep Christmas that way…unless my in-laws interfere. I’m sure that’ll be another story…
      But anyway–a most happy, blessed Christmas to you, Shirl, and the Lord Zoolon from the Wisconsin Lees. xxxx

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh dearest Jean, what a heartbreaking start to your birthday and Christmas. So sad that Aiden couldn’t find a way to overcome whatever demons tormented him. And very sad that some of his family couldn’t support him and his homosexuality. When will people realise it doesn’t make a bit of difference? People are who they are.

    We both know you can’t go back in time, but you can go forward. So now you can go forward with an additional layer of compassion, empathy and understanding for those around you. Sending the hugest of hugs at this joyful yet disheartening time. When you’re feeling down, just think of Blondie’s comment about drawing angels, and let a little smile creep in.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for the hugs and love, Peggy. I mulled over that for hours, all the what if’s and should have’s. You’re right–none of those questions help in the here and now.
      I’ll keep this Christmas as bright as it can be. May you and Poor John have a blessed Christmas, too! xxxx

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  3. Thank you for sharing your story and please know that there is nothing anyone could have done once he had it in his mind to do so.. I attempted to take my life years ago and was very mad when someone interrupted that from happening (I now call it “saving” me and thank that person very much). I’m sending a gentle hug and I think that you have to give yourself time to grieve but also know that he would have wanted you to carry on xx

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, thank you so much for this. I spoke with his sister–she said they talked for three hours the night before about suicide, about how neither of them could do it for the sake of the other. I wonder now if he had already made up his mind, and was, in some way, trying to say goodbye. xxxx

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  4. Sending you all my love, my friend. As I looked at his photos, my heart squeezed. As someone who almost did the same thing, I understand in some ways that pain. I will write again because we’re in a moving car, and you can imagine what that’s like with two children and a grumpy husband

    Liked by 1 person

  5. AW Jean, Jean my darling, you know Mike and Christy there have spoken some very wise words. I know we often think if someone could just get over the hump then they can go on but often the demons are too great and the corner is one they cannot turn. My younger girl suffers from depression and yes, we’ve had our moments. SO I want to say to you Mike’s advice is sound about keeping it simple but carrying on. My thoughts are with you. You’ve had quite a year. I still wish a good Christmas day and the hope that next year will be a better one of you and those you love xxxx .

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Lovely Shey (HUGE hug). I keep thinking how different the last fifteen years should have been for him and the rest of our family, but dwelling on all that simply does nothing for anyone now but turn me into a shell. I have to keep all of me, all the selves, in the here and now for the ones I *can* hold. My family will know they’re adored, that I’ll never go back to that darkness (though God knows I’ve walked that boundary) and that nothing apart from an Act of God will keep me from their light. A blessed Christmas to you and your kin, O Lovely Lady Shey. Give that precocious little grandson an extra hug from me. xxxxx

      Liked by 1 person

      • I will do that. You must stop thinking of how different things could have been. Things are what they are. You play the hand you’re dealt. Or you go crazy. You just do the best you can to be there , to love, to hold, to cherish, to listen, to talk and you realize even with all that, it might not be right. But you do your best. xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx.

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  6. I’m so sorry for your loss. Wishing you and your family strength and togetherness during this time.

    I know you wrote about how you wish you’d known your cousin better. This post is a good start to that.

    Thinking of you.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. So very sorry for your loss, Jean. You are right, it won’t make sense to create another poison asking Why? because there is no one to blame. Here in Ireland depression affects one of ten people, especially young people, and it is a great concern, and a great sorrow.
    Cuddle with your kiddies tonight – they are your possible best friends when they grow up 🙂 Explain to them your Christmas ornament collection, and share the warmest and funniest memories. Happy belated birthday, dear friend! Hope 2017 is a better year. xx

    Liked by 1 person

  8. So sorry for your loss Jean. Selfishly I don’t like anything that reminds me of that “dark” place yet I feel those same events remind me just how bright life can be if one keeps their eyes and heart open.

    Hugs 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Here it is, one other most difficult thing to put into your basket of difficult things. That you handle it all, dissecting it through your gift of writing and coming out the other side in grace, is the legacy you leave for those who need some guidance and would follow your lead. You are blessed. Even though it feels like one effing thing after another, you are blessed. I am praying that the difficulties ease and the sun rises for you and your family again bringing the light of understanding. I have no idea why this shit happens. But it is always how we deal with it that matters. Merry Christmas, Jean. oxo

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  10. Pingback: Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Clunk and move on. – Jean Lee's World

  11. I’m very sorry to hear about Aiden. It seems like 2016 had a lot of losses for everyone. I hope you can recover from the traumas of your past whether the Monster cooperates or not. I’ve never had anything that traumatic happen to me as what you’ve written regarding the Monster, but I’ve experienced some abuse, and I know it’s not easy to feel like a whole person again. What helps the most is to have lots of love in your life, which I think you do.

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