On April 17th, 2017, the day after Easter, my friend took their father’s gun and went for a walk on the beach in Yachats, Oregon. Friend isn’t the right word. My sibling, my animus, my twin took their father’s gun to the beach, pointed it toward their body, and fell onto the sand. I don’t know what part of them the gun pointed to. It was the heart or the head. In my mind it was the head.
The week before, they sent me a letter—the first in a long time—describing their life and recent sobriety: “i don’t like it more than being a drunk—i’m still trapped in this ol’ brain. but it is better, i suppose … how is your writing?” The end of the letter read, “i miss you, bfud. i think of you every time i walk barefoot on the banks of the willamette river. timshel, jam.”
On April 18th, I went home between classes in the afternoon. I felt restless. Ate something, responded to the letter, put a white page in a blue envelope, and, on my walk back to campus for poetry workshop, deposited it in the blue USPS mailbox on the corner of College and Locust.
When workshop was over, I had eight missed calls and three voicemails.
I grew up thinking of suicide as something my uncle did. My mother was seven months pregnant with my middle older sister. My oldest sister was almost three. I wouldn’t come along for another 12 years. It was 1975 and my grandpa had been dead for eight years (though it took me longer to realize his death as its own version of suicide). In that eight years, my uncle had managed to spend nearly all of his money and the family’s, too, and people were beginning to find out about it. He was depressed, in bed at my grandmother’s house for weeks. My mother and my oldest sister went to visit him. My sister sat on the bed wearing her new red snowsuit. A week or two later on a Friday in November he died inside of his Rolls Royce while it ran in the closed garage of his house. This suicide a suicide of shame. Of the anxiety that one’s self or actions have become so repulsive to those nearby, there is no hope love might still be given. Shame mixed also with alcoholism, mental illness, and the flawed perception of reality that sometimes accompanies extreme privilege.
When I got a little older, added to my understanding of suicide was that it was something my father hadn’t done. Manic break, gun safe. At the time, he was in his first few years working as an attorney for a large corporation in Idaho. He made a mistake on a case that cost the company time and money. The mistake was forgivable from the company’s perspective, but my father could not let it go. He isn’t the kind of person who makes mistakes. He is the kind of person who gets very disappointed in other people for making mistakes. He became obsessed with reviewing the mechanics of what had happened, of poring over every detail trying to understand how his infallible mind could have failed. After several days of talking and not sleeping, he woke my mother at three in the morning and handed her the keys to the safe where he keeps his shotguns. Then they went to the hospital.
I was four years old. It wasn’t the first time he’d gone to the hospital but it was the first time since I’d been alive and having a child changed things for him. He took the doctors’ recommendations seriously—eating, exercising, sleeping regularly—and started taking a heavy dose of Lithium. If he had killed himself, I think it would have been a suicide not so far away from my uncle’s. Shame was there. Though, I imagine my father’s shame to be concerned less with the perception of others; rather, a simple inability to live inside a mind he could no longer trust.
Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I also experienced suicide via events in my middle older sister’s life. Having half-sisters who are 12 and 15 years older than me has brought a great deal of prematurity to my life—from watching movies a kid really shouldn’t watch to bearing witness to realities and difficulties beyond my age bracket, the world I saw through them was a different kind of world than most of my peers seemed to be living in.
When she was in college, an old friend of hers died of a drug overdose. It’s a coincidence that he grew up in the house where my uncle both lived and died—the kind of coincidence that happens in Boise. I understand overdose to be a kind of suicide. And while some instances of this seem more intentional than others, most substance use is a form of controlled suicidal behavior. Our death drives are expressed in small acts of negligence. What was supposed to be fun becomes a well. Sometimes it gets out of control, small acts become large, we fall in. Several years after my sister’s friend died, one of his sisters hanged herself in a different room of the house.
Her senior year of college, another of her high school friends killed himself after a breakup. Suicide of heartbreak. Then, while she was in graduate school to become a therapist, one of her classmates killed himself. He lived in the basement of the house where she lived. After not seeing him for several days, my sister and her housemate found the body. This occurrence—a mental health professional in their own profound struggle with pain and depression—much more pervasive than its logic suggests. People choose to become therapists for a variety of reasons, but one skill that most of them seem to share is the ability and willingness to hold the pain of others. To do this in a way that is healthy requires a great deal of work and practice. Even the most seasoned and wellboundaried professionals get tired; the work becomes too much some days. Then add in other external pressures and any amount of internal struggle.
While my sister was still in the thick of her PhD program, I went to college to study philosophy. In my mind, suicide became a question. It became something any reasonable person must consider each day before leaving the house. Instead of being troubled by this, I felt freed—I must choose to live just as acutely as I could choose to die. If this is true, an act as minor as getting out of bed turns into an affirmation of my existence, of my own self worth.
Jam is called Ben when I meet them. We feel like twins. They are six months older than I am. They are gentle and soft to me and listen to me like I have something to say. They never try to kiss me or make me their girlfriend. One night, we have the same dream. They believe in the question too. The choose every day to live or die question. Jam is the first person who sees I am a poet. Our recognition is in our shared understanding of the world as a choice and it is in each other’s writing. It is between the blues of our eyes. That we are often mistaken for siblings because of how we look and because of the tender language between our bodies.
BFUD is an acronym we made up during the first year of our friendship as a rejection of the more common acronym used for a similar purpose. We were 20, then we were 21. Best Friends Until Death. At the time of the acronym’s conception, I still had the privilege of not believing in forever. Both of us did. Jam rejected the concept of the eternal fiercely, having been brought up in the home of a pastor and having in their late teens done as so many children of intensely religious parents do—running at warp speed in the opposite direction of god. I was at the tail end of my philosophy degree, which is its own kind of running. It was my junior year of college, and after transferring to the university in Boise, I worked in a coffee shop. Jam worked there too. For a year we spent most days together. When we weren’t working, we were walking by the river, reading poems, drinking and talking, letting our young time pass.
In Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, each character has a dæmon—a creature, usually taking the form of an animal of some kind, that is an external representation of the character’s inner self. When all is as it should be, a person and their dæmon stay in close physical proximity to one another—any distance more than a few yards between them and discomfort ensues, excruciating pain. Death can occur.
At the end of our year, I leave Boise to spend my last year of college in France. The night before I go we walk around until near dawn. We name stars. We cry and I fall asleep in the crook of their shoulder. I drive away from them with eyes full of tears, watch their cheeks get shiny in my rearview mirror.
On the plane I open my carry on and find the first of dozens of letters I will receive over the next year. The letter is a poem. When I find it again after they die, it will feel like what I want to say to them. This is how all of our letters will feel—every I miss you, every I love you, every come back soon.
The end of the poem reads:
Because I know when you’re gone
I’ll still be seeing you
in my periphery. And when I’m looking
for someone to share my cigarette,
you’ll catch up to me. And every wish
on an eyelash or star you heard me
quickly resign was that your flight would
be delayed to give us more time.
The rest of the plane ride is the sensation of moving an ocean away from my dæmon.
After that I get one letter a week at least, usually along with my favorite horoscope cut out from the newspaper. It is 2009 then it is 2010. Phones and apps don’t yet make it possible to remain in constant contact across countries and oceans. Sometimes we Skype. Mostly, I check the mail obsessively, read over and over the pages they’ve already written to me. In their presence I understood for the first time what it meant to be seen and loved with a devotion that transcends desire. In their letters I watch this become unconditional.
In the hall outside of the English Department office, I returned one of the missed calls and was gently, gradually told of the death my best friend, my person, my dæmon. Something happened to Ben, she said. What, I said. Well I think he’s dead, she said. What makes you think that, I said. Then five more minutes of questions before she will really tell me they are gone and my body is on the floor and I am watching it from somewhere else.
The greatest punishment possible in the world of the Pullman books is to be permanently severed from your dæmon without dying. This causes a person to become a shell of themselves, as though they have lost access to that which gives them life. They become less creative and less intelligent, then disconnected, hardly there.
Over time, countless rituals have come into being as means of honoring the dead and helping those left to live continue to do so. Many of these take a physical form—burials are performed, gravestones and other markers are created. Others begin in the mind and move out into the air or onto a page—memory, story, history, elegy. I’ve heard people say that elegy functions as an attempt to bring the dead back to life. I’ve heard that grieving can only begin once the elegy has been written, that the writing is not a point of closure but an opening out onto all the ground that must now be covered.
After the semester was over, I drove from Colorado to Idaho. I said a poem into my phone. Coming into Boise after 11 hours in the car, the first place I went wasn’t home but the river. I wanted to see this place that was ours, to touch it, knowing if I followed it long enough I would pour out into the same ocean they saw right before they died. I parked my car, got out and walked to the edge of the water. It was a gray day and the river was gray and everything else was green in the brief way it is in southern Idaho before spring turns fast and hot into summer. I put my hands in, did not notice how high and quick it was moving.
Once home, I was informed by my father (horrified that I’d managed to put myself in the only certified danger available to me in the limited time since my arrival) that the snowpack had been abnormally high this year and, now melting, had caused the river to rise significantly. As the weeks continued, the water got higher and higher, flooding paths and bridges, speeding like traffic under an overpass. For the next two months no one was allowed to go near it. There were signs everywhere that read: “DANGEROUS RIVER CONDITIONS! If you enter and have to be rescued, you will be charged for all efforts to rescue you.” All I had wanted from my time in Boise was to spend hours there, to stand in it, to dip my body in. I wanted to walk along the paths I had walked with Jam, sit under our trees, send offerings into the water and bury them in its shore. Nearly all of those places were under several feet of water. I tried to go anyway, got as close as I could, wrote several bad poems about the irony of being unable to swim the one year Jam chose to die.
Thinking it might result in the catharsis that I was not getting from the river, I planned a trip to the Oregon coast. Before leaving Boise, I went to see a healer. I told her about my dead friend and my plans to go to the beach where they died. With her hands around my ankles and her eyes closed, she told me Jam was never at home here. It was like they were at the bottom of the ocean, she said; millions of cubic feet of sea above pressing hard into their skull. When she says this, I know she is right. The air around me turns to water and I can feel it pressing into every square inch of my body. Everywhere is dark and thick. I feel how much effort it would take even to die.
After that, I drove to Seattle and stayed for a few weeks. I don’t remember doing anything but walking. River traded for I-5 teeming by under my feet. I made a reservation at a motel in Yachats, took the long way from Seattle to Portland. Said poems into my phone about bones and windblown trees. I drove down the 101, through Astoria and Seaside, resolved to read every letter, make a fire out of driftwood and paper, cry, feel better, feel something. I wanted to go to the edge of those two worlds and understand wholly and finally that they were gone and that it was okay for me not to be.
The healer told me to only make the fire if it could be a gesture of thanks, if it could be a renewal of my own contract with living. In the weeks just after Jam died, most of my attempts to make this kind of sense slipped quickly into memories of conversations and letters—all the paragraphs declaring our fearlessness at the prospect of our mortality, the hours spent sitting by our river talking about suicide. Now that the theoretical had become actual—now that they had been brave enough to actually do it—I couldn’t find my right mind. Or, what was I doing all those years saying things I didn’t know if I meant.
In Seaside, I got out of the car and walked onto the beach, put my feet in the water. The sun was high and bright. I took a picture of it with a disposable camera. I picked up a wet sand dollar and put it in my back pocket. I tried to burn a piece of paper. The wind and the wet would not let it burn. I buried it in the sand, got back in the car, turned the car towards Portland, and canceled my reservation at the motel in Yachats. When I arrived in Portland, I remembered the shell. I put my hand in my pocket to take it out and found it crushed. Sand between my fingers.
I first started thinking about the suicide question in an existentialism class after reading Camus’ An Absurd Reasoning. Though the text ultimately rejects suicide’s viability, it begins by asserting that the only truly necessary philosophical question is whether or not life is worth living. That is, should I or should I not kill myself. It concludes that in the face of the absurd—our state of ever-reaching for connection and meaning only to be met by the silence of the world—the only answer is to continue to live. I mostly bought what Camus was saying. That even in the desert of our condition, the low warm tone created by dailiness and its inertia make existing worthwhile.
The more I read, the more it became apparent that most philosophical texts dealing with suicide assert it as a sort of cowardice or a giving up, a foolishness. And if they do not, they tend to divide suicide into categories of cause and legitimacy. The latter is the case with the Stoics who considered suicide a wise option as long as it was a measure taken in response to an imbalance of nonpreferable circumstances (illness, poverty, etc.), in order to maintain dignity and loyalty, or to avoid shame. A handful of early Stoics killed themselves, as did Seneca who was forced to cut his own veins. Seneca came along a bit later and though his views on suicide mostly aligned with the early Stoics, he allowed into his thought the idea of suicide as a means to freedom. That a wise man could (and should) kill himself not to escape pain and suffering, but when his time has come to leave the world. For Seneca, the quality of being wise held a lot more gravity and specificity than it does now. A wise person is in complete control and has come to this control through a deep understanding of the world. A wise person does not suffer. A wise person does not fear death or pain. A wise person is free. So, while a person who is not wise might kill themself as an attempt toward freedom, it is only a wise person who can truly invoke suicide as an honorable and appropriate exit from the world—to choose to die without escape from suffering being the central motivation.
I could understand many of the instances of suicide I’d encountered as being instances of cowardice, or acts in response to an imbalance of difficulty. They were consequences of misfortune or illness or foolishness or shame. I started to wonder, though, about the possibility of a different kind of suicide. Something a little like what Seneca added to Stoic philosophy. Not cowardice, but transcendence.
In his essay, “On Suicide,” Arthur Schopenhauer works to dismiss the determination of some monotheistic religions that suicide is a crime. He refutes this assertion more or less easily, putting human agency over body and mind at the forefront. For the majority of the essay, Schopenhauer approaches the option of suicide as the early Stoics did—as a response to a life that has become inundated with undesirable factors. However, in its final paragraph the essay opens.
Schopenhauer writes, “Suicide may also be regarded as an experiment—a question which man puts to Nature, trying to force her to an answer. The question is this: What change will death produce in a man’s existence and in his insight into the nature of things?” This was the kind of question I wanted to ask. What if it is possible that suicide is the greatest experiment available to humankind. What if those who choose to undertake it are not cowards at all, but pioneers of a species. In the next and final sentence, the writer dismisses his question, saying, “It is a clumsy experiment to make; for it involves the destruction of the very consciousness which puts the question and awaits the answer.” Logic points to his being correct, but I imagined this final sentence away and considered instead the challenge laid out in the lines preceding it.
On the outside of their right foot, Jam had the word “timshel” tattooed in my handwriting. Jam became obsessed with timshel because of East of Eden. I have not read East of Eden and I don’t plan to, but the way I understand it, timshel is the directive used in the Ten Commandments when they are written in Hebrew. When translated, instead of “thou shalt,” timshel means “thou mayest.” Timshel makes every action a choice, an opportunity for creation. Such that even to kill oneself might be a radically open and generative act. Thou mayest live, thou mayest not. We understood this together, first without any external confirmation. Later, through the evidence of our experience.
After France I move to Seattle and watch daily a friend endure the difficulties of severe hypomania. Suicide becomes less of an idea then, less romantic, more lavender hand soap swallowed to get the pills out of the stomach. Then Michael falls or jumps from a train. A few months later, Katy is killed and then the man who shoots her kills himself. I move back to Boise.
At first, Jam and I become even closer through our suffering. After our friends die and my Katy dies, Jam’s nephew, Oliver, is born with a heart condition and dies two weeks old. We get used to sharing our pain with each other. We write. We cry. We name this time The Very Bad Year.
As years add up between the present and The Very Bad Year, though, the people who were close to all of it either surface from the pain it caused or they don’t. Some of us move to different cities. Some get married. Some have affairs and almost get divorced. Some stay in exactly the same place, occupying the same chairs at the same bars. Some stop going to bars and stay home to drink where the whiskey is cheaper. A friend of Michael’s shoots himself in the chest. To keep from being pulled under, I leave Boise again and move to Portland.
Empedocles flung himself into a volcano either to prove he was immortal or to make other people think he was immortal. A month into living in Portland, I wake up at 3 AM and don’t go back to sleep. My mind seethes. For 13 days I write and barely sleep. I begin to understand more directly a different kind of suicide, I imagine the experiment:
Periodically, I have glimpses of an existence outside the customary. They come along in the afternoon and stay for a few hours, maybe a day. While inside of them, I gain a sense of clarity that is at once wondrous and debilitating. The world is full to bursting, my head on the edge of explosion.
I brim with aliveness in these moments. At the same time, I am overcome by the awareness that if I were to continue to exist within this consciousness for a period beyond days, the only appropriate action would be to die.
Maybe it is more like running than dying. Maybe it is like body building. You see yourself to your capacity. You surpass it. You make yourself as human as possible. You become very large then disappear. Is it like stars, not shining bright and burning out, but living past your lifespan to be seen for thousands of years.
What does it look like to really try. Why does this seem like it must be painful, destructive, to exhaustion in order to begin approaching enough. What would it take to kill myself writing. What are the necessary geological conditions for making a mountain. How much time between destruction and rebirth.
Plenty of writers have killed themselves, but this is not what I mean. I want a physical act. If I run for too long, I will die of dehydration or some other internal cause. It will have been the running that led to death, but it will not be the running itself that killed me. Is there any act of effort that can truly kill a person. What is the purest form of death. A mother’s death in childbirth.
I want to run screaming into the freezing ocean.
A few years ago, walking back from a bus station, a man followed me. He moved next to me and asked if I would get a cup of coffee with him. He touched my ass, the backs of my thighs, he put his hand between my legs. Just a cup of coffee, just a cup of coffee.
After that I had a normal day. I read, did laundry, made dinner. I went to sleep. The next morning I half woke from a dream of dying. I fell asleep again. Hours later I laid on the couch reading. At the end of a chapter that concluded near the upper part of the right page, I remembered the dream. I remembered feeling in it like my life had been stolen. That I’d died without anyone telling me it was going to happen, just as I likely will someday. No warning. Everything gone in a moment. On the top of the right-hand page, I remembered. I felt cheated. I cried for hours.
I still want control, but now I want will. The ability to decide to die and to have it be so. Not by my hand, but by my mind. I want an act of consciousness that ends me.
Similar episodes follow. Each time they come, I become a genius and everything is clear. Brightunbearable reality1 is everywhere around me. I am not afraid of death; death is the only reasonable act. If I jump into the volcano, what do I become.
Jam and I start to deal with pain differently. In Portland I get a job as a copywriter and fling myself into the poetry community. I take workshops and go to readings, make friends who have written books. I write dozens of poems and start to take my work more seriously. I apply to MFA programs for poetry. Jam stays in Boise and this time we don’t write letters. In the months before I leave, they start drinking whiskey all day and spending time with people who are younger and younger. They fall
in love with a 20-year-old and they do other drugs. They change their name from Ben to Jam.
I have a resistance to their new name
that I do not understand. I know they have always felt
uncomfortable in their body, I know they don’t believe
in the binary and they have anger
toward the parents who named them. I know this
change is making them feel freer. I want them free.
I am lost because this won’t save you.
I go to Boise for Christmas and we hardly see each other. One morning we have breakfast. I eat and Jam drinks.
I get into an MFA program in Colorado and come home for the summer before moving there. I see Jam a few times. One afternoon we sit on a patio and drink tall beers. As they bring the glass to their lips, they say they are going to start drinking less. We talk about poems and it feels different than it used to. Choosing to go to this program feels like choosing to be serious, like choosing to devote my life to the thing we first loved together. They say they are writing poems and in my head I dismiss this, too.
I want poetry to be for Jam what it has become for me. I want
them to take it seriously in the same way I am. To throw
themself so far into the writing it becomes a choice
to live. They say they are writing poems. I can’t believe
because I believe if they were, this will save you.
I go to Colorado and the poems that have been healing me start doing other things. In order to write, I am forced to open. I start feeling my dead all around me. I start believing in the permeable layer that exists between this world and that one. In forever. I talk to the graduate student therapist at the counseling center about how little energy I have for Jam and how sad it makes me. I tell him about all the other times in my life I have tried to pull people out of the water and that I am tired. He tells me my boundaries are getting better.
The summer after my first year of grad school, I am in Boise. Chris calls me at five in the morning because Jam has put something on their Facebook that seems suicidal. This has happened before but it feels more urgent this time. We call and call. We leave worried messages and send texts that say call me back call me back. At five pm, Jam texts me and says “I’m working tonight but wanna hang out after?” After being terrified all day, I am livid. I send them a list of numbers to call when they feel suicidal. It is the last time I talk to them all summer.
I spend the entire fall feeling sad and guilty. I try to tell myself I can’t do any more. They text me about a new record in October and we agree that it is perfect. I text them after the election to tell them I love them. Over winter break I am leaving a restaurant after having lunch with my mom and my dead friend’s mom. Jam is sitting at the end of the bar. I say hello and my mom says hello. We hug and tell each other we love each other. Their eyes have no shine in them. Like they have been painted over with a layer of clear matte paint.
Two months after I see them they move to Oregon and get sober. Five weeks later they are dead.
Now I live alone in the basement of a house. Above me live three other poets. Rachel is a poet I met by chance and David, Cole, and I are all in the death rattle of our third year in the MFA program at Colorado State University. In Dan Beachy-Quick’s workshop in the fall of our first year, among other texts, we were assigned Dante’s Inferno. Though we read the whole book, we could have just read the scene in which Virgil places his hands over Dante’s eyes so that he will not be turned to stone looking at the gorgon—the moment of grace in which the poet protects the man who will become the poet from his fascination with the dangerous. Because poets are still poets even in an academic setting, this was meant to teach us not so much about The Inferno; rather, it was meant to teach us to protect each other, to help each other know when to look away.
We also learned that a house only becomes a home when those who live inside it have suffered in the rooms its walls make.
After I get off the phone with my friend, we walk down the stairs of the English building and keep walking until we get home. Cole puts a record on. I lie on the floor then start screaming and slamming my body around. David sits nearby on the floor, Cole sits in his chair in the corner.
A week after Jam dies I suck on a weed lozenge for a couple of minutes then go for a walk. As the candy starts to kick in I put my phone on airplane mode so that the dead people can have more space in the air around me. This kind of thought is part of the reason I rarely get high. Whatever channels in me that are already open are further widened and I become so overwhelmed I can hardly function. I walk 11 miles by the river. Jam gives me a poem and I write it into my phone.
I come back to Colorado at the end of the summer. David and I go to a barbeque in Denver in a poet’s backyard. On the drive home it is dark. My mascara runs down my face and drips onto my shirt. We get to Fort Collins and I ask to keep driving. We drive east into the prairie and the windows are down and what comes into the windows is not rain or grass but ash from a fire burning on the other side of the mountains.
When April comes again I take every one of their letters out of its envelope. I open them and lay them out in order on the living room floor. I lay on top of them, become a mountain.
A few days shy of a year after they died, the four of us read new poems to each other in the backyard. In Cole’s poem a line says, “I too am a gravesite.” I look up at the tree above me while I listen to him and remember looking up at the tree a year ago. By myself, reading the suicide notes Jam left. Some of the dead leaves won’t fall until the spring ones come in. I remember being drunk. I am drunk now. It is the first day of the year that has been warm into the evening. We finish reading poems and make more drinks. David, Rachel, and I lie in the grass and listen to music. We hold hands or they put their hands on my shoulder or knee as my body begins to shake. Tears move over my temples and through my hair, into the grass. Cole stands nearby, watching over the three of us.
I have a dream that Jam is inside my body. Alive but not alive exactly. I am going to a wedding. Jam comes too. They watch the wedding from inside of my body and our friends who are getting married and our friends who are at the wedding all know Jam is there watching. It feels good to have them inside of me, though in the dream I know they won’t stay.
In The Very Bad Year I was 22 then I was 23. All I could ever imagine feeling or wanting to feel was devastated. Remaining frozen in a well of sadness seemed to me the only way to honor the no longer living. When Jam dies I am convinced this will happen again—that I will fall back into that well that is both made of and filled with grief, that I will be always only sad.
After the initial shock passes I am not fine, but find I am able to hold onto the awareness of my own joy and accomplishment and fulfillment alongside the knowledge that this big part of my heart is no longer in the world. Episodes of sadness and devastation and anger and regret and guilt and of feeling torn from my dæmon are just that—episodes.
I learn that I need to make space for these episodes, to periodically invite them in so that they don’t take over. Sometimes this happens without me—in dreams. Sometimes I go against all advice that would ever be given by a therapist or other reasonable human being and I alter my consciousness with substances. Mostly I try to do something beautiful and weird. A ritual performance to lure my dead back to me. I try not to watch myself. Sometimes the poets who are still alive cover my eyes. I am learning still to cover my own.
The fall before Jam died and the month just before the 2016 election, I set out to write every day for a month. I asked 30 people to give me tasks that would become poems. This was a way to get myself to write but it was also a way to disorient myself, to upset my normal writing process so that something new might come out of me. The tasks ranged from simple (write a poem after getting out of the shower or bath and write a poem in the dark) to more complex (go to the library that is closest to wherever you call home and look in the section furthest from the door. find a book with words on the spine that remind you of wherever home was before this one, and find book with a name that sounds a lot like yours, and find a book that was written by someone that could’ve been you. read pages that are addresses of places you’ve lived, whether zipcodes or street names or friendships or grocery stores or park benches or years. then write. ask the books how they feel about the words that made a home out of them, and the words that have made a home out of you.) As I made my way through the month, the poems that surfaced from the prompts I was given leaned more and more into suicidal ideation. They imagined drowning, jumping off of things, losing blood until the world goes blurry. As I wrote them I did not feel acutely suicidal, but somewhere beneath my readily available consciousness the idea was right there, always possible. I allowed myself to keep writing, thinking that the exploration in writing might act as a stand-in for the action itself. That if I could imagine far enough into suicide, I wouldn’t have to do it.
I have never tried to kill myself. The times I have thought seriously about suicide as more than theoretical, I have been stable enough and have had resources enough to find reasons not to leave the world.
I am on a plane at night during The Very Bad Year and I think of my parents. How my father would blame himself, my mind that is part his mind. How it would kill him, too. I think of all the loss my mother has endured. How it expresses itself in her body. How I love her more than any living thing. How to hurt her in such a way would keep my ghost between here and there forever.
The times I have not thought, the times I have walked toward moving trains or over bridges and have imagined jumping, I have not been brave enough.
The fall after Jam died, I took a class on Homer’s Iliad. It seemed logical then to study a book that could easily be said to hold only death. My way of moving through trauma has always been to throw myself into the eye of it. Being inside of The Iliad allowed me to return to my understanding of the normalcy of death like breathing, though its very existence as a text still posits death as a crime against living. I fell back and forth between these senses, but mostly, all the ancient loss was a comfort to me. It proved more difficult, though, in the final weeks of class, to sit through discussions about Achilles and his friend Patroklos.
Part of what makes me a writer is my inability to compartmentalize—my inability to separate myself from symbol. (Sema, soma. Sign, body.) The symbols I read and the symbols I produce, the symbols that come out of our mouths to float in the air between us. The names. They are not theoretical. They do not simply point, they are. In any given iteration, a symbol exists as it is meant in a present context, while standing also behind it is every other use of that symbol back and back and back as far as the eye can see; and in front of it, every future use. Two mirrors face each other. I stand between them, see back and back and back until my eyes give out, forward and forward until I fall in. My reflection, the language that makes up my mind. Every word, every name an echo of another instance of its twin being breathed. Some events are echoes, too. Some are rhymes.
Patroklos and Achilles are friends beyond friendship. They are one thing separated only by bodies. Achilles finds in Patroklos a way to love that he does not normally allow himself—Patroklos is the grace of domestic love, of home. Near the end of the book, Patroklos puts on Achilles’s armor, wears it into battle, and is killed. In this, a part of Achilles is killed, both in the sense that the part of Achilles that was his best friend (the gentle part, the part capable of quiet, familial love for another person) is now gone, but also in the sense that in the moment of death Patroklos might have been mistaken for Achilles. When Hektor then puts on the armor his victim was wearing, he is dressed as Achilles and Achilles is forced, in a manner, to hunt himself. Achilles must imagine simultaneously himself killing himself and acting as Patroklos’s killer. It is a sort of living suicide.
I don’t know what kind of suicide Jam’s was. It was not like my uncle’s or the consideration of my father. It was not shame. It was not an overdose, and though there was a long weakening of their spirit by alcohol in the years before they died, I can’t say it was a result only of that. It might have been a suicide of sadness and depression, of fatigue with the world, of feeling given up on and of wanting to give up. It might have been a suicide of a heart broken too many times. It might have been a suicide of logic, an end to suffering, a freedom. Likely, it was a suicide of all of these combined. What I want to call it, though, is a suicide of grace. This is not meant to make anything all right. It is not meant to paint whiteout over the many people who have been hurt by this, who are angry and confused, who will be for the rest of their lives missing a part. It is not meant to cast a glow over this choice or to make it in any way beautiful or romantic. But what do they know now that I don’t. What were the results of our great experiment. Which of us is brave.
For me, Jam died about two years before they actually did. In order to continue living, I had to try to forget them. The guilt and complication and regret of this was and is larger than I am capable of communicating. When someone is leaving the world, they push away from them the things and people that most ground them. They become difficult to be around. They make people who love them wish for an ending.
When their body died, they came back to me. The good came back. Memories of bright afternoons gone on forever, of letters and emails and songs, of the way their hug felt and how their eyes looked when they were still sparkling. It felt like a waking dream, my twin standing next to me again.
In the ancient Greek understanding of the word, a dæmon is a being that is not quite god and not quite human. It is a sort of quasi-divinity. A ghost, a divine spirit.
A few months later, their poems came. The poems I tried to deny because I knew they would not be enough to keep them here. And yet, they do. I should have known. Years ago, Jam told me:
we’ve made it through
bottles of wine and Bulleit rye
we’ve talked in poems
and slow danced to fast songs
you held my hand
until Oliver was really dead
you put line breaks in my poems
until he was alive again
After Patroklos dies, the only desire that remains in Achilles is that one day their remains be put together—that the mistake which made them two might be righted.
Standing waist-deep in the still high water, I watched as Jam’s ashes settled into the bed of the Boise River. I wanted to go under with them. Just as I wanted to be there standing next to Jam on the beach, holding their left hand in my right hand while their right hand lifted the gun. When Jam got the tattoo on their foot, we were both in love with the idea that I’d be with their body always, even in death.
When they did die it ultimately erased in me any question that I might want to leave this world. It made me certain in a way I have never been that I want to live until I am very old, that I want to live well and to be well.
The part of them that was me and the part inside me that is them did what we talked so many times about doing. The part of them that was made of me is dead with them; the space in my body that was made of them has bled into the Pacific Ocean. I do not need to kill myself. My hand is ash next to the rocks in the river.
1 Alice Oswald’s translation of the Greek word “enargeia,” used to describe Homer’s Illiad in her book, Memorial. She says, “It’s the word used when gods come to earth not in disguise but as themselves.”
CL Young is the author of two chapbooks, including What Is Revealed When I Reveal It to You (dancing girl press, 2018). Her work has appeared in Lana Turner, the PEN Poetry Series, Pinwheel, Sixth Finch, The Volta, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Colorado State University and lives in Boise, Idaho, where she runs a reading and workshop series called Sema.