I have never lost a close loved one who has taken their own life. That form of violence I have never had to recover from. Although, across my friendships are so many deeply broken people that it in some ways looms as a persistent dread.
Death is such a constant demand in our daily living, an insistent mistress, a wicked schoolteacher. One of its critical lessons for me has been the importance of each of us voicing — claiming — our own small stories of the dead, no matter how they compete with others’ narratives.
In a poem, The Plural of Me, I “leave no funereal instructions | to coffin my mourners | permit family friends lovers as they please | inventing memory from desire for my |respectability achievement bodyparts heavenworthiness | i am all their dreams.” “I want to be many things…as limitless as fancy,” the verse opens.
Suicides tear families apart, not just over how to give voice to the many stories of a life, but how to tell the story of the death itself.
And, if nothing else, death is a call to storytelling.
“I fraid you go make a calypso on me,” Sparrow’s love object LuLu voices her apprehension about intimacy with the bard. You must know, too, how I see writers in this very way; as traitors, that we tell unsanctioned — often heterodox — stories. To tell stories is to make trouble. In some stories, the telling is the trouble itself. Sometimes one must look for the trouble in re-telling a too well-told story. But it is more often than not small things that stories disturb.
Four years ago death prompted me to try to tell a small story that wasn’t mine. I had permission. But that story was so small that it stopped short on the page. Much like my column does today. The story was the end of another story. To truly tell it, and to show how I had come to tell it, I needed to tell that other story; and I was told not to.
That prompted me instead to finally tell instead a small story about my mother. A story I had until then been unable to tell. Because it, too, was so short that it just ended. A story about shame.
The story was that my mother had hidden her shame from me. It did not require fancy words or much telling. It was the profound lesson that my mother had felt shame about me while also loving me quite deeply. So deeply that she hid her shame from me. It was this profound, small, insistent lesson that I had learned suddenly, only after her death, and that I did not know how to tell.
The most powerful stories are small. Small stories that are vastly enlarged by their telling.
Today I want to tell that forbidden story from four years ago. It is a story about small words. About another mother. And it is likewise a lesson about shame.
A young man in my life called me this week, gathered with his family and others under the early morning trees on the Mt Hope complex lawn. Weeks after we had first met, four years ago, I had met them under those trees, standing in that same unacceptable local ritual of death, with a handful of other souls and funeral home touts, outside the hospital’s mortuary. Waiting for paperwork. And bodies.
I knew little about his mother than that her life had taken her from high school to marriage. I know little still.
One of the touts among the motley group four years ago struck up an awkward conversation. In it, he boasted of his company’s ethics, how he refrained from soliciting the bereaved. Soon after, he had steered the group conversation to “cause of death.”
I froze. I could think of nothing ruder, more violent to the moment. Yet my outrage remained unvoiced; nor did I muster any brilliant gesture to pivot or demur. I felt the weight and disappointment of my own writerly incapacity, with no words to rescue the family.
I listened anxiously, for what I imagined would be agonising. Belying all stereotypes I held, the widow, without hesitation, responded, with an elegance that failed me: