The call rolled in the way they always do… Unexpectedly.
Which is to say that I was asleep and in absolutely no mood to go to work. I would say it had been a long night… But I can’t remember. I only know that every night feels long when the morning comes entirely too soon… heralded by the pager rudely poking you in the ear with it’s thin, insistent, needle-like beeping. Five a.m., Sunday morning… and I was on my way to a suicide… Again.
I heaved my sleep-heavy legs over the edge of the bed and sat there for a moment, staring quizzically at my toes, daring them to touch the floor. And with a resigned sigh, I gave up on trying to delay my journey up and out of my bedroom until I felt a bit more ready. You’re never ready, that’s the point of my job as a medical examiner… If every death were expected, we’d all be living in a poorly-scripted Disney movie and I would be out of work.
There was nothing terribly unusual about the death. Each suicide has it’s own particular character… Just like the proverbial snowflake- every one is different, but they’re still all snowflakes. They’re all, more or less, going to behave the same way. Suicides and snowflakes have a lot in common, now that I think about it. They fall, they melt and inevitably, someone is going to have to wake up obscenely early to shovel it all up so everyone else can get on with their day.
If I sound pissed off, it’s because I was. Emphasis on WAS.
It’s easy to take suicides personally when you’re an exhausted medical examiner who has seen way too many people die in way too many ways… People who fought like hell to live. It seems so wasteful at first glance, you know? Someone throwing away something that millions of other people long for… More life. It seems as though when someone commits suicide, the rest of their allotted years should be distributed amongst those who are desperately trying not to die… Like me, for example. I have an in-curable cancer diagnosis, and I want to live. I want every single one of my 78-allotted years (as is promised to me by whatever statistician decreed that the average American woman has a life expectancy that stretches into the late 70s. That fucker and I are gonna have WORDS if I ever meet him). In this way only, do I want to be average. I would love to be fucking average, rather than the freak of pathological nature that I am. As it is, I have no idea how long I have to live. At any moment, my cancer could metastasize and I could have a really fucking uncomfortable ride off of this rock we call Earth. And when I see people who have killed themselves, well… It feels kind of like being flat broke and uncertain of where your next meal is coming from… And having some dude walk up to you and burn a hundred dollar bill right in your face…
It’s hard to feel sorry for them.
Or, at least… It WAS hard to feel sorry for them.
In this particular case, the whole scenario was a little bit easier to take because I managed to stop for coffee on the way to the scene. Furthermore, when I got there, the investigating police correctly surmised from my overall demeanor that I was on the teetering edge of setting them on fire. Consequently, in an act of self preservation they thrust a large box of donuts in front of me and urged me to help myself to their “cop-food”. (I’m not kidding… That’s actually what they called it. Way to embrace a stereotype). So, it was with a fully caffeinated nervous system and cinnamon-bear-claw in hand that I greeted my latest customer: A guy who shot himself in the head in a suburban park.
Apparently, he’d been depressed and hermit-like for the last month or so and, without warning, left his parents’ home at 10 p.m… Never to return. At roughly 2 a.m. his friends and family all received the fateful text message… Something that’s becoming more and more common: the suicide text. Notes are not done so much anymore and, when you think about it, it’s really an ingenious method to convey your goodbyes.
Allow me to rabbit trail for a moment here… With a texted suicide note, you don’t have to worry about the note getting lost..blown off your desk by a gust of wind for example. Also, everyone gets the same note… So there’s no contesting what it said… No one can misrepresent your final words because everyone knows what they were. Lastly, there’s never the worry that you’ll die and no one will notice for a couple days. People know what you’re up to and they know to look for you. There will be none of this sitting in your apartment decomposing for a week before someone finally decides to check in. With a text message you’ll likely be found when you’re still nice and fresh for an open casket… Unless you shoot yourself in the head… Like this guy did.
As predicted, the moment the text message hit the airwaves, the guy’s friends and family went apeshit trying to find him. The police were called and every squad-car in the county was on the lookout for an “endangered person”. At just after 4:30 a.m. A homeless dude stumbled across our decedent’s inert form, laying at the base of a bench… bullet in his head, blood on the pavement. I’m not sure how the family came to learn that he was there, but they showed up at the scene- kept mercifully distant by the police chaplain who did a very good job of explaining to them that they couldn’t un-see their loved one’s body once they’d seen it. Usually, that’s enough to make someone think twice about insisting upon viewing a violent death.
I won’t go into too much detail. Suffice to say that the death was, irrefutably a suicide. When I approached the family with the news, they were devastated and shocked… But they didn’t argue… There were no wild claims that someone MUST have murdered him… No wailing protestations that the wound MUST have been accidental. As is my job,I had to ask them a lot of difficult questions… Questions that, ultimately, colored in the outline that I had begun tracing with my investigation. With every answer, you could see the reality of the affair dawning on the family. The young man had been depressed… VERY depressed. They couldn’t say for certain what had been wrong. They couldn’t point to a particular traumatic event that set the whole thing off… There was no clinical diagnosis, no named psychosis. They couldn’t dig up the roots of his misery and identify the seed, but there was no doubt… He had been on his way to this end for some time.
Their sadness vibrated so strongly, I could almost hear the thrum of the wavelength as it passed through me. So I did what I’ve learned to do in these circumstances… I threw out an interrupter.
“Tell me something good about him.” I said to the decedent’s brothers.
“What?” The older one sniffled through the washout of his face.
“Tell me something good about him… Like, What was he good at? Tell me something he liked doing.”
The two men swallowed, stared at each other…
“He could juggle.” The younger brother almost smiled.
“Yeah… He could juggle. He was really good at it. He could hackey-sac too. He’d walk down the street, kicking the hackey-sac the whole way. His teachers in school would take it away from him, but he would go and steal it out of their desk and just keep going.”
And for just a moment, they were out… Out of the cage of their grief. He wasn’t their brother who commit suicide, he was their brother who could juggle.
I have no idea if it helps in any long term way. But it eases the tension of the scene just a bit… To get the family thinking something good about their dead relative… No matter how badly they went out. To throw a wrench into the gears of their devastation.
The rest of the whole debacle went off so uneventfully that I don’t remember anything else… Except for the fact that as I was leaving I was still so salty about being woken the hell up , stupid-early on a Sunday, that I took a picture of myself cutting through the crime-scene tape that police had looped around the park with my pink trauma shears. I told myself that I was going to post it on Facebook or something with a #thuglife, but I didn’t…. Of course. That kind of behavior isn’t expressly forbidden, but it does display an attitude that many supervisors consider threatening. So instead I just saved the picture on my phone and I pull it out and look at it when I’m feeling ornery.
All of this to say… I was pissed about the ungodly hour that I was roused out of bed, but I wasn’t pissed about another suicide. I actually find it hard to get angry at suicides anymore. I feel it’s kind of hypocritical of me… Since I commit suicide myself… Not too long ago.
I once had a co-worker who would tell me that suicide was what happened when the pain of living exceeded the pain of dying… And that’s how I came to realize that I had commit suicide.
I can’t think of a more accurate analogy, I commit suicide. I put the gun in my mouth and swallowed a nice, tall glass of death to it all. I took a running jump off a building that was “fuck-it” tall and counted every floor on the way down like counting the cost of a decision that is never done nickle-and-diming you to death. I sawed through the skin and gristle of my own wrist and sprayed the walls of my life with screams until my heart had nothing left to beat.
I got a divorce…
And as anyone who has ever gotten divorced can tell you… It’s like a death, but it’s hard to say whose. Was it my death? Was it his? Goodness knows the two of us crucified each other enough times with our words… And toward the end, all I could keep picturing was the anthropomorphized embodiment of our marriage, in the shape of a sick child… OUR sick child (if we’d ever had one) laying in a hospital bed, tubes and wires everywhere… Barely breathing, doctors trying to be kind while still conveying the gravity of the prognosis. anyone with experience could tell you there was no hope.
And I think about it.
I think about suicide, and divorce…and how it feels to live everyday with the thought in your head, “I can’t do this anymore.” What it feels like to carry that invisible disease of doubt around in your heart, trying to hide it, trying to fake it, trying to convince everyone (especially yourself) that this is normal. Everyone goes through hard times. No one has it easy. You don’t just give up. It would hurt so many people, it would tear everyone apart. But still, it’s there… Germinating in your mind: this uneasy, sub-sonic hum that no one else seems to hear. You start to do irrational things, behaviors that don’t make any sense to anyone on the outside. You leave for extended periods of time. Or you lock yourself in rooms. Take inordinate risks. Isolate or surround yourself with friends… Or maybe strangers. Throw out all your clothes, but new ones you never wear. Start taking pills. Go on a diet. Then over-eat. Buy a dog. Take up cross-fit… Anything to try and snap yourself out of it, that thought. “I can’t do this anymore.” I can fix it. I can fix myself. I can fight through this. You don’t just leave, you don’t just give up.
And who can possibly understand? Outwardly, you seem to have something that anyone else would want. You have a magical arrangement of circumstances and relationships that most of the world will never know: You come from intact families. Everyone is gainfully employed and educated. There’s no addiction, no debt, no problem. You’re loved by so many people who would never leave you or hurt you. What more could you possibly ask for? Except that it isn’t about “more”. It was never about “more”. Not for me.
When you finally do it, everyone thinks you’re crazy. Selfish. Cruel. They are surprised, devastated, heartbroken. They say things like “I knew there were problems, but I never thought she’d do this.” They stand over the wreckage and judge. How could you do such a thing? How could you do this to the people around you? No ones life will ever be the same, you know. When someone introduces this kind of act into a family… It opens a door. Soon other people will start doing it, too. You’re responsible for bringing this disease around. You’ve infected all of us with your unhappiness. Why couldn’t you just stay? Go on a retreat? Take up yoga? Have a baby?
And all I can say… All I can THINK, is that divorce is what happens when the pain of staying together is greater than the pain of breaking up.
I certainly don’t recommend it. It wasn’t enjoyable or easy. Some might like to suggest such a thing but they’re wrong… It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. No one in my family has ever gotten divorced. I had no guide, no map, no sympathy and no one’s approval;Just the voice of my own disquiet, slowly eating away at me like maggots devouring carrion.
And I think about all of those suicides… And my own judgements upon them. Some make sense… Like some divorces are irrefutably rational… So rational that no one could imagine another ending. But I think about the ones that make no sense, the ones that seem so wasteful and needlessly painful. And I realize that I can’t judge, no more than anyone can judge me for leaving. They can take their limited information, hazard a few guesses and self-righteously gossip it out over coffee.
So here I am, in my own afterlife…. Wondering about all of those suicides. Wondering where they are now and if they regret it. Are they better off where they are now? Are they content? Are they safe? Am I? And I wonder about my ex-husband… Not much, but a bit. I imagine the grief, confusion and resentment are much the same for him as if I had committed suicide. Maybe he wishes I had. Maybe that would have been easier for him.
Either way I hope someone is there to ask him the question, eventually if not sooner. “Tell me something good about it.” Not because I’m hoping he’ll think kindly of me, I know he won’t. But rather because I hope something can interrupt the grinding of his pain and he can remember that it wasn’t all bad. Our marriage was more than just it’s ending. I hope the scar tissue softens.
In the meantime, all I can do is continue to wipe the blood off my hands and recognize that, regardless of whether it was right or wrong, there’s no going back. Step away from the shed skin of the past, pass through the veil… And into the afterlife. Leaving behind a note that I’ve read so many times at work, but never really understood until now:
“I’m sorry. I know you may never understand, but I couldn’t do this anymore. I loved you all. I hope someday you’ll forgive me.”