One week before my 39th birthday in September 2005, I drove myself to a local hospital emergency room. Fingers gripping the wheel, white-knuckled pale, I focused on the white and yellow lines on each side of me. As I held on to the wheel, I also held a picture of my four children in one hand. Their cherubic faces smiled back at me from an Easter morning just a few years before, holding baskets of bunnies and candies, eyes squinting from the sun.
For about a week before this drive I had been holed up in my tiny apartment. I could not move, speak or cry.
Circumstances in life had led me to this small place, in this small town, many of which could have been avoided if I had made better choices—many of which were completely out of my hands. Survival had been my constant driving force for several years, culminating in this moment. All I could see when I looked in the mirror was a tired, old woman sagging beneath the weight of grief and shame.
For hours the TV flickered as I stared obliquely at the screen, tears flowing steadily as I traveled back to the time when I was a happier woman. The theater of my mind played images of morning rituals, breakfasts, arguments, homework, tickle fights and laughter with my children. Scattered to the winds, I could only bring us together in this place. I kept glancing at the picture of my children as I sobbed, forcing myself to continue to look at them through streams of tears, like looking through a windowpane on a rainy day. Their faces would blur, then clear, then blur again.
Tissues littered the floor where my dog Killian slept near me. In my other hand I held a bottle of pills. I gripped it so tightly my hand ached, but I could not let go. For weeks I had been afraid to get behind the wheel of my car because the only thing I could envision was ramming it as hard and as fast as I could into a tree, telephone pole, or river. There were lots of those where I lived.
Just a couple of years prior I had worked with individuals with developmental disabilities in Oklahoma. Many of those I served had lived in squalor and abusive conditions in institutional settings because they were placed there, abandoned by families who either could not, or would not, attend to their special needs. One of the providers that served this population in our area had a sign on their front door which read, “Never deprive someone of hope; it might be all they have.” (H Jackson Brown Jr.)
I took pride in helping the underdog; the person who under most circumstances would be denied a place in society to work and live with dignity and respect. Their limitations did not have to define their abilities. I was honored that I could help an individual hope for more out of life.
As I sat in my tiny cave of a room, I tried to picture some of those people—some of whom had passed on—and I could no longer picture their faces. All I could see was a haze of memories and hear a faint echo of familiar voices as I gripped the bottle and the picture of my children. Sitting in that room where I felt pinned down, afraid to move but despairing of having to stay there, I could imagine the pain my clients had felt so long ago. When they were institutionalized, they sat alone in a bed or a room, where they missed the only family they had known. They had no idea how to express their grief or how to get back to the people they loved.
I had written all of my children a letter. I folded them neatly and, nestled in envelopes, placed them on the nightstand next to me. Small sentimental items were placed with each envelope. A freehand drawing of Calvin and Hobbes was next to my oldest child’s letter. It was his own creation, one he had given to me years before. For my second oldest son, I placed a sterling silver ring with a bear claw of turquoise engraved on the face. It was his birthday gift to me that he had picked up from an Indian Summer Powwow in Bartlesville, OK when he was in middle school. My children and I used to enjoy going there together to listen to the drums and singing and watch the native dances of several tribes. Next to my daughter’s letter I placed a small box she had made for me in first grade. I put my jewelry in this box. She had painted on top of it I love Mom and I treasured it more than any gold or silver. Finally, next to my youngest child’s letter I placed a small piece of turquoise shaped like a bear, a gift from him for Mother’s Day only a couple of years before.
Each item signified our respective relationships. This is what I would leave to them, I had decided, along with my words expressing my love and longing for them, and my apologies and regret for not being strong enough to push through.
A bottle of water remained unopened next to me and I reached for it without letting go of either the picture or the pills. I stared at the bottle for several minutes and then I looked back at my children’s’ smiling faces.
Where was my hope? I had no money, no job, and no way to get back to my children. I had one in Oklahoma, one in Florida and two in California. If by some miracle I could make it to one or all of them, where would I go when I got there? I would be homeless yet again. My options were few or next to nothing, and I could only stare at those two bottles and imagine that the only happiness I would ever find was in the abyss of oblivion. There was no putting my family back together, no…not like it was before. The pain of this reality was too great for me to bear.
Just then a public service announcement blared from the television for a suicide hotline. I gazed at the phone number on the screen, transfixed by the soothing voice of the woman who read off the numbers. Petrified, I put down the pill bottle and picked up the phone to dial the number. Tears fell in continuous streams down my face as I listened to it ring. Just as I considered hanging up, a man’s voice answered. I stumbled for a moment and then told him I needed help. We talked for over two hours.
I don’t remember that man’s name, but he saved my life. At the end of that conversation I had the strength to leave my hiding place and get in my car to drive myself to the hospital, all the while still clenching the picture of my children in my hands as I grasped the wheel of my car, keeping it steady and straight on the road. Once in the gentle and loving care of the hospital staff, I was able to begin a healing process that eventually led me back to my children, albeit slowly, one by one. This was not an easy journey but in the end, it was a journey that restored hope for life and love, strength and endurance, and happiness.
Five years ago on this date, my sister’s husband took his own life. As I grieve for him and for my sister and her family, I remember that hell of hopelessness all too well. My grief extends beyond that place to the futile efforts to understand—to wrap my mind around the fact that this man of apparent strength had such a personal hell of his own which led to that tragic moment. Why? What was it that made him reach for the abyss instead of the phone, or for his wife or children?
My heart breaks in tiny pieces as I try to comprehend, but knowing all too well the answer: the hell of hopelessness is seductive and holds the illusion of comfort. And though some of these questions will never be answered or fully explained to anyone’s satisfaction, I know all too well where my brother-in-law was in that last second of his life, in that temporary residence I myself occupied for several hours amid that tiny little apartment. Taking his life did not make sense to anyone else around me, but I understood.
The effect of his choice still lingers today. My sister is just a shadow of the person she once was, after having been the one who found him only moments after he completed the suicide.
I looked at the date today and remembered Robert, my brother-in-law, the man I met when I was fifteen. He was part of our family for nearly thirty years when he left us. Though the pain is not as sharp, I mourned him today. Good or bad, when you lose a family member by death the sorrow is like an unending mountain stream. When you lose someone you love by their own hand, the sorrow runs in torrents with anger at times as well.
Despite my grief for his loss and my longing for him to come back and make a different choice, I know in that millisecond of time he chose release rather than struggle. His hope was gone.
He chose to exit his hell and enter into nothingness.
Only, he left the rest of us to feel the residual flames of his hell for the rest of our lives.
Kim Bailey Deal
December 10, 2015
In Memoriam for Robert Anthony Rago 11/30/55-12/10/10
Originally written December 24, 2010; revised and edited December 10, 2015