As I’ve written about the places connected to “tidal shifts” in my life, I guess I’ve known deep down that the conversation would eventually lead here. Tidal shirts are just that – shifts. And while the ones in my life may have brought challenges, they were hardly negative. They were, and continue to be, life-giving and life-affirming.
But a tsunami? A tsunami doesn’t just rearrange or set a different course. It devastates, plunders, and creates wastelands of refuse and nothingness.
Suicide is a tsunami.
The aftermath of such destruction has a strange connection to place. We’ve all seen the haunting images of people combing through impossible mounds of rubble looking for remnants of place – of homes that no longer exist. Disaster discombobulates, so even a shard of china or a mangled toy is somehow able to encapsulate a whole house full of belongings, a whole lifetime of memories.
And so I, too, have wandered across a landscape razed by the effects of suicide, clinging to bits and pieces, shards of place that connect me to a life.
Some of the places I find are vividly intact.
▪️The corner of the kitchen where I answered the phone and his voice informed me (us) that he had attempted to take his life. A surreal panicky-calm answer-providing-question-raising never-to-be-forgotten conversation.
▪️The stark, institutionally-worn, suffocating room in the psych ward where we first visited him, the weight of our fears and our love pushing hard on our hearts and voices. None of us belonged in this place of purple pants and shoes with no laces and nurses with quiet, knowing voices.
▪️The old pink upholstered chair upstairs where he would sit for hours of months, physically and emotionally immobilized by an internal battle between life and death. The chair became a painful reminder that I later carted away. Sometimes even the most intact things we pull from the rubble are the least helpful to retain.
▪️The spot along Highway 97 where I was cycling when he phoned and I heard his voice for the last time. I stopped and stood overlooking a rusty jumble of seemingly derelict mining equipment – a perpetual boneyard that we had driven past countless times over numerous years.
I snapped this picture as we drove past it once again this past summer, with the smoky haze of devastating wildfires shrouding the distance and the fresh poignancy of my father-in-law’s funeral lingering from the previous day. Is it weird that I needed a picture of the spot where I leaned against my bike and chatted with my son about cabbages and broccoli from the garden?
I’m still clinging to the shards.
We returned home not long after that roadside conversation to discover our son’s body in a place it was never meant to be. Discover is an odd word to use as it generally carries the connotation of something positive and even exciting – a discovery! No, discover is not only an odd word here, it is the wrong one. Do we even have a word in English that correctly describes finding your child’s body?
So the car canopy/shelter became another place to reckon with. We originally bought it to shelter my car from snow in winter and that bit of usefulness and our strong bent toward all things practical made us keep it intact for a season. But because it also harboured the most vivid, gut-wrenching, heart-breaking memory of our lives, we eventually took it apart and threw it away. If only the memory that it housed could be dismantled and discarded as easily.
Other places reside somewhere in the one-and-a-half years between the phone in the corner of the kitchen and the canopy in the driveway. They remain a blurry, incoherent jumble, like so much of any space that has had a close-up encounter with a tsunami. A cramped doctor’s office, a stale courtroom, a sleek bankruptcy lawyer’s office, a railway track, a bench outside a grocery store, a jeep in an impound lot, a rest stop south of somewhere, an emergency room late at night, a drawer with a knife missing, the back door where I looked for a pair of white DC shoes every day when I came home from work and breathed a broken hallelujah when their presence meant my son was still home. Still alive for that day.
So many places out of all the places he lived and breathed and laughed and joked and worked and made music and stories and friends and memories during the 25 years before the tsunami hit.
When I took this picture of the place where I last heard my son’s voice, I felt my heart beat hard with all the emotions of that time and the events and years since. Was this really something I needed a tangible reminder of? It is hardly a scenic place – nothing remotely comforting about an industrial junkyard of unidentifiable equipment. But I snapped it quickly out the window as we drove by, timing it as close to the exact spot as I could. Then tucked my phone away. Done.
Now, as I look at it, I see something that my memory of that earlier time and place did not register. It is a junkyard, to be sure, but there is an orderliness there I overlooked. All of those rusty bits and pieces have been somewhere, done something, and now sit in tidy readiness for use again – either as they were originally intended, or perhaps to be repurposed as something else equally as useful. They aren’t discards after all.
Perhaps in the aftermath of the tsunami that hit our lives, in the 6 years, 3 months, and 3 days of sorting through the rubble, finding the memories we will always cling to and discarding the less helpful ones, I am finally seeing and feeling a sense of order. The objects that only made the wounds fester have been jettisoned. The accusing words from others that only tore wounds deeper and wider have been forgiven and put in a place belonging to all such untruths. Other places and memories have best been treated by letting them form scabs and then scars. They won’t ever go away, but they don’t have to carry so much pain anymore.
There are other places now.
There is a grave with a bronze marker cast with a precious name and a stand of trees and some inadequate words of love . The marker is set in a cement base crafted by the capable hands of a grieving father who continues to find meaning in the making of things. The flowers aren’t ‘real’, but they are replaced regularly as weather fades and tatters the old ones. Solar lights remind us that darkness is never impenetrable, and six small stones of remembrance form the beginnings of a border. I’ll find the seventh stone on a mountaintop somewhere next year and add it in August. And then an eighth one the year after. And so on.
It is a useful and quiet place of remembrance, but the place that means the most to me is the place my son, the place that ALL of my children, holds in my heart. It is a heart where, in spite of a gaping hole where grief continues to crawl from its bottomless pit, there is fullness and there is gratitude. And there is a growing sense that all of this – the bits and pieces left in our hands and hearts- they have been somewhere and now sit in readiness for use, transformed by grace for a greater purpose.