It was the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. I was 5 years old, almost 6. I remember being led to the sofa in my grandparents’ living room. My father sat on my left, my grandmother on my right. I remember the sense of other people in or near the room, but I don’t remember faces. My grandmother looked me square in the eyes, maybe took my hands in hers.
A pause. I can feel the thickness of it.
“…went up to heaven…”
And from that point, I know and can actually remember that much more was said, yet I have a simultaneous image of running from the room screaming and hurling myself onto a different couch in the family room. I remember being taken out of the house two nights before, blue lights flashing and, half asleep, thinking it had something to do with Christmas trees. Somehow, these two memories have never felt connected.
I finished the last week of kindergarten. No one – adults especially – seemed to know what to say to me. Then summer vacation. One afternoon I came inside from playing with neighbor kids, interrupting the adult discussion to ask: “did my mommy kill herself?”
Not knowing what else to say, I’m sure, my father said, “yes.”
“Oh,” I said, and went back out to play.
A few minutes later, back in: “did my mommy commit a suicide?”
And back out again.
You see, my neighborhood friends had taken it upon themselves to explain the situation to me. In their action-packed version of events, my mother had been standing up in the back seat of our car with the motor running, when it started moving, accelerating down the driveway out of control, resulting in a catastrophic fall. In reality, my mother had put me to bed, turned on the car motor in our closed garage, wrapped herself in her grandmother’s afghan, laid down on the front seat and gone to sleep.
Much later, in 2013, a few months after my grandmother passed away, my aunt – my mother’s younger sister – made appointments for us to visit a medium, someone who communicates with the spirits of the departed. It was one of those psychic experiences you go into with a lot of hope and some skepticism. Right off the bat, she said, “I’m seeing a deer, a male deer, with big antlers – a buck?” “BUCK!” I said. “That’s my name! My last name is BUCK!!!” Then I thought, “well, DUH – she got my name when we made the appointment.” Carnival trick.
But we settled in, she explained how the process worked, and we got started. “Mmm…there’s someone here who’s really excited to see you. In fact, I have to tell her to calm down. She’s very young. She left this world way before her time. You have the same face.”
She said a lot over the next hour – some things felt more real than others. What stuck with me most, though, was when she said, “your mom wants to thank you for never being angry with her.” I had to think about that. It reminded me of other people who had asked, “have you been able to forgive your mother for what she did?” I immediately recalled the petulant moments – especially in the teen years. “How could you LEAVE ME???” – or, more specifically, “how could you leave me with THESE PEOPLE!?!?” But there was never any deep anger, although I understand that that is a common response.
What I felt instead was a really strong need to understand. What did that FEEL like – to be so sad or angry or frightened that death feels like your best option? Unfortunately, wanting so much to identify with these feelings led to a few attempts of my own – clumsy attempts, thankfully. A disposable razor really does nothing – it’s like a bad paper cut – at least the kind they had back then. There was also, as a very kind therapist helped me see years later, a subliminal feeling that I somehow wasn’t enough for my own mother to want to see me grow up. So there was struggle. But I went through high school and college and my 20s – living different places, burying memories, avoiding feelings, acting out in unhealthy ways – all while maintaining the persona of an eager young professional. Then a great job offer brought me back to Chicago, where everything crashed. I would cry for days. I could not stop. If I was not working, I was crying. In public. Anywhere. Couldn’t even tell you why. And then, one night, while I was waiting out a thunderstorm in my car, it hit me. It wasn’t a usual sadness or anger or fright that led people to take their own lives. It was this feeling of being tired, tired down to your soul – this heaviness that just outweighed and squashed anything pleasant or exciting. “OK, I get it,” I said, out loud, to myself. “I really get it.” And, I thought, my mom was 29, I’d be 29 in a few months – maybe this was it.
Then, out of nowhere came this voice (I have voices in my head – maybe you do too). It was an old woman’s voice. I pictured her as that old lady from the Shoebox greeting cards – and she said, “what is it you have to do that’s so important that you can’t stick around to see how all this turns out?”
And that did it.
It was like the rain stopped, clouds parted, stars came out and I never had another suicidal thought, but it helped, in a way, to be able to relate to that impulse.
The other significant happening of that year was being introduced to a wonderful spiritual teacher – William Brugh Joy. Brugh would host retreats in a resort he had built in remote Arizona – usually about 25 people, two weeks of yoga, mountain hikes, no TV, no phone, great food – spectacular. Much of the time we spent talking in a circle, working through whatever was causing a struggle – either using images that had come to us in dreams or just telling stories. Brugh liked to say that his job was to help us untie the knots in our souls. He said two things – well, many more than two, but two big things – that helped with this particular knot.
Very often, the stories were of people trying to make sense of something terrible that had happened. One woman – a beautiful musician from Hawaii – told about a baby she’d had, a baby she’d really wanted, who had only lived for 40 minutes. “Why?” she asked. Brugh, in his gentle way, said, “40 minutes…is an eternity to a child,” as if to say that, for that little soul, 40 minutes was enough.
Now, contrast that with the way we go through life. Our culture expects us to push to live to our maximum life expectancy – even prolonging life with medicine past the point of any quality. If a life is “cut short,” it’s viewed as tragic. But, as Brugh would say, some souls are just not equipped for the later stages of life. Some souls have no interest in the intensities or complexities of even young adult life. “Whatever happens,” he would say, “however it makes you feel, take the tragedy label off of it and trust that it was exactly what was needed for that individual soul’s unfolding.” And (I’m paraphrasing), if you are touched by such an event, trust that it was exactly what you needed for yours.
Sounds kind of radical, but that’s faith, isn’t it? People of faith believe that God has a design for everyone and everything. Sometimes we look at an event and say, “well, THAT plan SUCKS!” But our faith lets us feel that somehow there’s a rightness to it, even if it’s past what we can comprehend.
The other thing Brugh said that was so transformative was about forgiveness. He wrote (again, I’m paraphrasing) that, essentially, there’s no such thing. It’s unnecessary. Think about the way we treat forgiveness – how often is it a gentle form of judgment? “I free you from your guilt. I blame you no more. Go in peace.” Who are we kidding? That’s not our job! But we can try to understand this thing or this person we want to forgive– we probably won’t understand, but we can try and we should – because the trying can get us to a point of acceptance. Not acceptance as in “I accept what you did because I need to move on with my life” – NO. Genuine acceptance without judgment; acknowledgement, consent even – which may include accepting that there will always be difficult feelings, accepting that there may always be a strong, persistent wish that things could be different, accepting that we may never understand how something that messed us up so badly was exactly the right thing.
Reaching this state of acceptance may give us our best chance at allowing the anger – or self-righteousness or whatever it is that compels us to forgive or not forgive – to dissolve into compassion, to bring us to that even deeper place where we truly recognize that there was never anything to forgive in the first place.
© Kim Buck 2016