Fifteen Years Gone: On Life After Suicide

IMG_0773.JPGI don’t think I’ve ever really dealt with my brother Stephen’s suicide. This may seem like an odd thing for me to say, given the volume of writing I have done on the subject of suicide, often invoking the memories of my uncle and brother. I’ve been with more people than I can count sharing stories of what it is like to have your life rocked in the way that only suicide can provide.

I’ve given advice that I first received with disdain and incredulity. The real grief will sneak up on you when you least expect it. No, it won’t, I said. It’ll be the seemingly smallest details that crush your heart. Nah, I’m over that, I responded in the initial years of grief, not yet understanding.

It takes years to understand. At least it has for me. Fifteen years. Fifteen years of mentioning Stephen, lecturing on suicide and the Bible, working with survivors and trying to help others get help before they take a step they can’t do over.  It takes years to understand that while your loved one may be gone in body, your relationship continues. Only you can keep it stuck in a rut.

I realized today, while processing with my therapist, that I have a ticking time bomb inside of me. I only share the “intimate stories” that I’ve carefully selected for public consumption. There is no duplicity. I don’t leave things out or embellish, at least no more so than our tricky minds rearrange things in the light of trauma.

The pictures of Stephen have largely been stored away, but not because I am ashamed of him. Rather, because I’m afraid that if I see one of these pictures it will trigger unaccessed memories.

I’m terrified to listen to the dozens of cassette tapes I have of our band/comedy team, “The Experimentals.” It will suck me into a time warp, back to the room that is now piled with clothes, books, and cat litter but was my bedroom. Was the place where we recorded hundreds of hours of teenage shenanigans.

How gorgeous was my brother? Seriously. Seeing this picture has brought up a lot of memories and I’m not sure how to deal with them. So long have I held them down so that they don’t pop up, like his body, and bump against the shore.

It has been fifteen years since I heard Stephen’s voice, and I easily could. In the corner of my office, hidden behind a set of bells, is a red case. It is my Pulp Fiction; in it is held treasure, but death surrounds it. In that case are tapes of us doing our characters: Billy Bob Joe Frank and Cleetus, two good ole boys we subconsciously knew we were only two generations removed from being; Chester and Leonard, two old men disillusioned with the world; Jimmy and Billy, created a decade before Cartman, two ruthless obese teenagers, with voices very similar to the aforementioned character, who headed the local mob knocking over Entenmann’s trucks.

On there are the recordings of my start as a guitarist trying to be cool like his brother. I’m sure that on there are many examples of me having a meltdown. Bipolar doesn’t just start overnight, yo’. It grows in ya’. Schizophrenia, too. So I think I imagine that I’m afraid to hear what is there to be heard. We could both be incredibly mean. Mental illness will do that.

In the back of my mind, I knew that October 12 was coming up. And I have known that it is the 15th year.But in many ways I really forgot. I didn’t access the information with my soul. That seems significant to me. I was walking out the door, having almost forgotten my therapy appointment, when it suddenly slapped me in the face. Tomorrow is the day. THE day.

Fifteen years.

The number matters, yes.  But it is what will happen in the coming year. I promised Stephen in my heart and in my head that I would complete a terminal degree. We’ll never have the houses side-by-side, cousins playing with one another as we competed to see who could become the greater literary success, but I’ll earn a doctorate for both of us. 

What do I do then? That’s the question that I’ve been wrestling with.  

It is never lost on me that while I love the life I have and can never imagine doing anything other than being a loving servant, the first footfall in this direction came in the microseconds after learning that Stephen’s body had been found washed up outside a riverboat restaurant on the Newport side of the Ohio River.

Stephen would find it absolutely amusing that I have become a devout believer in God and a minister as a result of his death. Stephen was an atheist. He’d probably say, “Aaron, you always did have a penchant for the dramatic.” But those hoped-for lives of over twenty-five years ago were not lives. They were hopes that we could be better than the pain and anguish of living inside of minds that are both brilliant and prisons.

I haven’t dealt with Stephen’s death because I only integrate him into my life in ways that are safe, that keep me from accessing the depth of pain and despair that has not lessened one bit. It means accepting that this pressure I have placed on myself has really been a form of avoidance. And I just can’t do that anymore.

I have to work in terms of projects. It is simply how I am wired. And I do want people to know him, to show why when I think of safety and love I think of being on the back of his motorcycle, throttle wide open, with him yelling at me “You’re all clear kid!”

I have purchased a cassette player that has an MP3 converter. I have a digital camera, and I will slowly start going through the pictures. And by the time next year rolls around, I will have made a tribute film to our relationship.

After fifteen years, it is time to start grieving properly so Stephen and I can move on to the next phase of our relationship.  To honor him tomorrow, I will spend the day helping others.

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