the love that lucy taught me

Twenty-five years ago tomorrow night, on April 5, 1992, I lost my sister Lucy to suicide.  She was 31, I was 28, and I vowed forever after that I would live my life for two.

Twenty-five years ago on Thursday morning, I rose and learned the news. I never knew at what hour, exactly, she’d swallowed a mess of useless psych meds and curled up on her bed with a stuffed bear to wait. Probably it happened before midnight. I had returned late from a few days away, and I was feeling exhausted and nauseated and achy. But the answering machine was blinking that night, so I pressed “play.”

Two messages, both from Lucy. I hadn’t told her I’d be away. Those were the days before cell phones. She had no way of reaching me. No way of even knowing I was out of town.

In the first message, left around 8 p.m., she was desperate. Sobbing. Pleading with me to pick up. Ame Ame Ame Ame. Please. Please be there. Please. Ame Ame Ame.

Oh, my God, I said. Oh my God, oh my God.

And then the second message played. She left it, I think, around 10 p.m., and she sounded perfectly normal. Am fine now, Ame! Don’t worry about me. Everything’s okay. Sorry about the earlier call. No need to phone. Feeling much better. I love you!

So I went to bed. I didn’t try calling her back. Because she was okay, right?

The next morning, the phone rang early. I lay in bed and let the caller leave a message. A few minutes later, I listened to it: an old family friend asking me to call him as soon as I woke. It was important, he said. It had to do with Lucy, he said. Please call, he said.

I knew immediately that she was dead. I called my friend and got his son. “I’m so sorry,” he said. I asked him if Lucy had killed herself. “Yes,” he said. “I’m so sorry.” I told him I was sorry he had to bear the news. I said this because no one should ever have to bear that news. I thanked him, and hung up.

I thought of Lucy’s second message. She’d left it, I was sure, after resolving to die. She’d left it because she didn’t want me to try calling her back and then worry through the night. She wanted me to get a good night’s rest before learning my sister was dead. It was so caring of her. So typical. So Lucy.

I held my husband and called my mother. She told me Lucy had OD’d. And I said, Mama. Mama. Mama.

“Oh, honey,” Mama said. “The poor thing. She’s not suffering any longer.”

No. No, you’re right, Mama. She’s not. That’s true. She’s not.

“Poor, sweet Lucy.”

Poor, sweet Lucy.

She was the sweetest person. The bravest person. The smartest person. The wisest, the goofiest, the most credulous and curious and radiant — a small, beautiful, interesting, interested, fiercely true human being who played Chopin as though she knew him and greeted the world with wonder despite her pain.

Burdened with unyielding psychiatric problems, she had spent too many years of her life bouncing from psych hospital to psych hospital and useless meds to useless meds and wrong diagnosis to wrong diagnosis, settling finally on temporal lobe epilepsy with a complex array of psychological issues on the side. The upshot: She was suicidal. Pretty much all the time, she was suicidal. Even when she put on a sunny face for friends, she was suicidal. Even when she was busy talking me through my latest silly man-woe, she was suicidal. She was almost never not suicidal.

She had tried once before, swallowing earlier fistfuls of those useless meds and awaking from a coma with a renewed appetite for living. I’ve written about that before. I’ve written sundry other blog posts describing our sisterly adventures, like that time I damn-near died hiking with her on Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh and then that time we both damn-near died in a car crash. I also wrote about her in my first memoir, House of Holy Fools; it’s a safe bet I’ll be writing about her again. How can I not?

Even after 25 years, I miss her. I’m spilling a few tears as I write this, proof that you never really “get over” the death of a loved one, you just make your path through life around it. You take all that you learned from your absent treasure —  all that they showed you, all that they shared with you, all of the life and love between you — and you wrap it around your shoulders and chest like a blanket against the cold. That’s my Lucy. She warms me still. She shows me how to live and love and always will.

She lived the way we all should live: without fear, restraint, self-consciousness, selfishness, small-mindedness, duplicity, cruelty or guile. She loved the way we all should love: with her whole being. She faced this world the way we all should face it: squarely. She embraced it in its fullness despite her own mysterious torment, and she lived life as though she meant it, as though it mattered, as though it harbored miracles. It was never easy for her, but she stuck it out as long as she could with as much joy as she could. And when she couldn’t, just before dying, just because she couldn’t take a breath on this earth without loving, she made one last phone call so her kid sister could get some sleep.






we’re not dead yet


Last night, stricken and and sickened by the election results, I stayed up into the wee hours texting and emailing people I love. I just wanted to tell them that they matter to me, that I’m grateful for them, that I’m glad they’re in my life and I love them, I love them, I love them. I blasted off of a few more of these little missives in the morning. Probably I missed a few people, as I was groggy and hurried. If so, I’m sorry. I’m glad you’re in my life. And I love you, I love you, I love you.

Saying this was all that mattered last night and this morning. It’s all that matters any night or morning. But it matters especially in the aftermath of loss, and the events of yesterday surely mark a big one for those of us longing and planning for a different outcome. When I snapped open my eyes today and remembered, I felt cuffed hard by the unreality of it, the injury to the universe and upheaval to the laws that govern it. Oh, shit, I thought. How did this happen? How will we move on?  And as I did, I recalled a similar cosmic bafflement — a sense of a world suddenly re-ordered — each time I woke after the death of a loved one.

Grief isn’t about the distant past. It’s about the absent future, the timeline disrupted, the dreams unrealized and memories not made. To bury a loved one is to bury your hopes and plans and visions. Your relationship. Your own sense of self. Your idea of life, its possibilities, its narrative. And this what 60,000,000 Americans are mourning today: our idea of a country that renounces fear and hatred in one fell swoop on one swell night, then moves boldly on.

That never happened. That future is gone. But we will move on, after a fashion. Another future will take its place, and we can’t stop trying to make it better and bend each sunset into sunrise. Life is hope and hope is work and work means getting up out of bed in the morning, not curling up under the covers and reliving our pain.

As my dad told me the day my husband died, “You’re life isn’t over.” He was right. It wasn’t. But my life had changed irrevocably, and I had to change along with it: I’m not dead yet, I told myself, quoting Monty Python. Neither is this beautiful, resilient, powerfully misguided and deeply divided country of ours. We’re not dead yet. Our life isn’t over. We’ll figure this out. But in the meantime, let’s hold other close and say I love you, I love you, I love you.



This past Monday marked five years since two cops appeared at my door to say that my beautiful, brilliant husband had leapt to his death from a roof near our home. Every year, I try not to dwell on the anniversary of Chris’s suicide. Every year, I fail. chris-in-fedora

At work I hit my deadlines, chit-chatting with colleagues and making my plans for the week, all while carrying the weight of the day inside me. I didn’t want to feel it. Don’t go there, I told myself. I wanted Monday to be normal, the week to be normal, my whole life to be normal.

It isn’t, of course. But whose is? And who doesn’t carry around a pocketful of dates that throb with consequence and pain?

In remembering Chris, I try to focus on the joyous markers and all their many blessings: his birthday, our wedding day, the births of our three children. I try to dwell with gratitude on his life and lingering gifts. I want to remember the light and love in his eyes, the way he laughed and kissed and cracked a grin. The fedoras he used to wear, the bike rides he used to take: I want to remember those, too.

But even when I try hard not to focus on the anniversary of his suicide, it focuses on me.  The 26th of September licks at me like the flickering tongue of a snake.  I think of Chris’s profound sadness, the changes that overtook him in the months before his death and the rupture in the universe — the outrageous, senseless, gaping violation of it –that sucked him away. I think of the long day that followed. An endless day. A day that still feels like yesterday. A day that always will.

And yet a lot has happened in the five years since he died. More life, more love, more loss. I’ve traveled to Ecuador, Edinburgh, Jamaica, Yosemite. Watched one daughter graduate high school, another graduate college. Marveled at a son who turned 16, filled with strength and kindness. Wrote a book about grief. Told a story for “The Moth.” Did a Tedx talk. Buried my second mother and my best friend. Held my baby grandniece — Chris’s baby grandniece, the most perfect creature you’ve ever seen, born to parents who wed on Chris’s birthday. Laughed.

I got laid off from one paper and hired back by another. Started this crazy blog. Took up jazz fiddle. Shoved the piano into the living room (alone). Contemplated getting a tattoo (still contemplating). Adopted two kittens. Made new friends. Turned 49, then 50, then 51, then 52, then 53.

So here I am, a little older and grayer, a little creakier, a little more arthritic in my knees and lower back, but not yet as old or gray or creaky or arthritic as I’ll be tomorrow. In another two years I’ll be 55, Chris’s age when he died. Yet more life will have passed, then more life, then more.

I believe in the eternity of the human soul. I believe in the solidity of human love. I believe that souls are love, and eternity is solid, and no one who spends his life embracing and lifting others is ever truly gone. I’ll see Chris again, of that I’m sure. But not right now. Not right here. My job is to be in this world, going about the business of living with whatever faith and relish I can muster.

So, no, I didn’t want to dwell on the anniversary of his death. But dwell indeed I did, all through Monday and the week that followed, thinking about the permanence of a moment and the transience of a life. Five years are forever. Five years are gone. How strange, that I lived five years without him.

the gifts that live

Today would have been our silver. Twenty-five years ago, Chris and I got hitched at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Washington, Conn., a pretty stone church that my mother liked to call Our Lady of Perpetual Motion.

Three priests presided. Music was provided by one violinist (my mom), one trumpet player, two organists and a gospel choir. A friend snapped photos. My brother-in-law ferried us in Chris’s old Corolla to the reception, which was held in a church basement down the road that we rented for 60 bucks. The meal was pot luck. I’m not kidding. Pot luck. For entertainment, a buddy of ours played guitar. Stout-hearted friends took control of the kitchen, and washed, and washed, and washed.

I think of that day and wonder how we did it. How we managed to fall in love so wildly, so quickly, with such conviction. Four months after our first date, we got engaged. Again I’m not kidding. Four months. Six months after that, we were married. Who does that? How did we know it would stick?

I think of that day and marvel that Chris and I were ever so young. That so many now gone were still alive: my parents, Chris’s parents, my sister Lucy, my best friend Pam. And Chris! How alive he was. How his heart rumbled inside his chest. The man stood so straight he almost fell backward. He hugged me so hard I almost cracked. He smiled with his mouth, his eyes, his whole sturdy person, rocking on his heels with the rhythm of delight.

I think of that day and swell with gratitude. Chris gave me so much. He gives me so much still, his gifts growing with love long past his death. He gave me our three beautiful children. His dear, kind sisters and brothers, their husbands and wives. My three fine nephews. My new great-niece, an angel born three weeks ago.

Chris gave me my home: Had I not married a reporter for the Times Union, I wouldn’t have moved to Albany. He gave me all of my life here. All of my friends and coworkers. All of my neighbors. He gave me the Adirondacks. Camping. Stewart’s Ice Cream. Downhill skiing, which I would never have tried without him.

He gave me the lingering effects of his green thumb. The apple tree at the front of my house. The gardens, front and back. The spider plants, upstairs and down.FullSizeRender

Most of all, he gave me his love and all its light. That lingers, too. He gave me faith in the long-term bond between two people. He gave me an understanding of love as a deep, enduring and sacramental fact, as a truth forged together but greater than the both of us, as something worth fighting for every minute — because the minutes, if we honored them properly, could amass into decades.

And so they did. Twenty years I had with my good, strong, loving, constant husband, a brilliant man whose giant heart roared with the joy of living. He died, but his gift goes on forever.

how suicide feels to the living

A morning-after addendum:

I want to make clear one point. I believe that that the act of suicide, carried out in a final, distended moment of incomprehensible darkness, is not a choice. In that final moment, people are altered by pain and incapable of rational decision-making. They are other than themselves. But this is exactly why an open conversation needs to happen now: Because we need to reach people before they’re other, before they’re altered, before they’re incapable of hearing a story or having an insight that might, someday, prevent them from hitting that final moment.
I often think about the things I might have said to stay my sister’s hand, as it clutched those pills that night, or to stop my husband from jumping on that sad, sunny morning. It’s too late now. Probably it would have been too late then. But perhaps I can say something today that might help someone else tomorrow — so they never reach the airless, senseless dark of their last act.

Original post:

You’ve probably read about the latest research showing a steady and alarming uptick in American suicides. I saw the headline this morning, took a deep breath and dove in, recalling a friend’s remark after my sister killed herself. “I know what it means to be shocked but not surprised,” she wrote in her condolence letter. And I thought: That’s exactly right. Only someone already familiar with suicide would describe it that way.

My sister had been far too sick for far too long, and suicide always loomed. My husband’s descent was faster, steeper and more abrupt, but suicide still loomed. In both cases, the difference between the looming and the loss was the difference between the fear of being punched and a right cross to the head; it’s a blow you want to duck, believe me. You don’t want to know how it feels to lose a loved one to suicide. And yet you should know. You need to know. If more of us knew how it felt, maybe fewer of us would wreak that terrible pain on others.sunset pic

Suicide is less rare than it was, but it’s still uncommon enough – and not discussed enough – to feel like an aberration from the norm and an outrage against life itself. So it is. But the outrage won’t abate, the epidemic won’t recede, unless and until we can discuss it in a public forum that includes not just grieving survivors, not just people struggling with suicidality themselves, but everyone. Everyone! This is a struggle that needs to be acknowledged, owned and addressed by all, even the people who are not directly affected and (God willing) never will be. Men wear pink ribbons for breast cancer research, don’t they?

So here’s what I’m going to do right now. I’m going to start by describing exactly how it feels to lose a loved one to suicide – the shock that’s not a surprise.


  1. It makes no sense.
  2. It makes you question the mercy of God and the laws of the universe, even if you believe in both.


  1. It makes no sense.
  2. It makes you question the mercy of God and the laws of the universe, even if you believe in both.
  3. It’s all you can think about, even when you’re thinking about something else.
  4. You feel guilty.
  5. You cry until your nasal cavity collapses and your eyeballs melt.
  6. You feel shredded to pieces of confetti thinness.
  7. You wonder if you’ll ever feel normal again.


  1. It still makes no sense.
  2. It still makes you question the mercy of God and the laws of the universe, even if you believe in both.
  3. It’s still all you can think about, even when you’re thinking about something else, and even when the outside world wishes, for your sake, that you could think about something else.
  4. You still feel guilty, even when you know you shouldn’t.
  5. You still cry until your nasal cavity collapses and your eyeballs melt, just a little less often.
  6. You still feel shredded to pieces of confetti thinness.
  7. You still wonder if you’ll ever feel normal again, even as you wear your Hello, I Am Officially Normal! face for the outside world.
  8. You wonder whether everyone else you love will leave you, too.
  9. You feel as though there must be something wrong with you.


  1. It still makes no sense. No way around it.
  2. By now, enough joy and beauty have dropped into your life that you’re able to see the mercy of God, if God is something you believe in. You still question the laws of the universe, though.
  3. You can now think about other things, but here’s the catch: The loss lingers as white noise, humming under everything. It’s always there. It defines you.
  4. No way around the guilt, either. It’s part of the white noise.
  5. The further removed you become from the loss, the less you cry. But the loss is as huge as it ever was. And when you do cry, your nasal cavity still collapses and your eyeballs still melt.
  6. Same goes for the confetti. You’ll never feel entirely whole and healed, even as you wear your Look At Me, Peeps, I’m Good As New! face for the outside world.
  7. And you’ll never feel entirely normal again, either. You begin to realize that only a thin line separates the abnormal from the normal, the insane from the sane, those who kill themselves from those who grieve in the aftermath.
  8. Sometimes the people you love do leave you, via death or other avenues. And each successive loss digs up the stinking muck of all the others, making you even more frightened of yet more loss. Forever after, you’ll question the permanence and solidity of everything and everyone around you.
  9. You’re now absolutely convinced that there’s something wrong with you, especially when someone in the outside world implies you ought to be over it by now. But you know you’ll never be over it. There is no getting over it. There’s only going through it, again and again and again, with faith in love and a stubborn hope that life, no matter how often it’s hurt you, will lead you to joy in the end.


living and dying both

lake pic
Just a few days ago, I felt the old urge to call my husband. The fact that he died four and a half years ago didn’t factor in, and why should it? I wanted to talk to him, dammit! See, I had a bunch of nifty-cool ideas for book projects that I was considering, and I needed his advice. For a nanosecond I wanted to ring him up. For a nanosecond I thought I could. Then came the realization: BLOODY HELL! CHRIS IS DEAD!

This used to happen more often –a few times a week, then a few times month, then a few times a year. I don’t expect it will ever fade entirely, as I still bat off the occasional urge to call my sister Lucy, and she left us in 1992. Old habits die harder than people, apparently.

But this is how it works, right? If you know loss, and who doesn’t, you know that the dead never truly leave. I suppose this might classify as “denial” in the so-called stages of grief, which are, of course, a crock; anyone who believes that the bereaved can just cycle neatly and quietly through discrete chapters of mourning until they reach the all-powerful ACCEPTANCE has obviously never gone through the process themselves. Because it isn’t actually a process. It’s more of an H-bomb, and there is no acceptance. There’s only resignation. While I’m resigned to the fact that my husband is gone, I don’t accept it any more than I accept the deaths of the rest of my friends and family in the next world. They should be here! They should. They are. Don’t you dare tell me they aren’t.

Everyone I’ve ever lost is still here with me, and I don’t mean that in a supernatural sense. I don’t mean some woooey-boooey conference of souls is hanging out in my attic, rattling chains. I mean that the dead are no less real to me now, no less present in this world, than they were when they were systematically sucking and expelling air. I see Chris everywhere in Albany. When I go to Boston, I see Lucy emerging from the mouth of the T.

Last weekend, on a visit to Connecticut, I saw her stretched and slathered in the sun near the lake where we grew up. I saw my father chatting with neighbors. I saw my pink-faced mother with a pair of garden shears. Later, venturing into the church where I was married, I walked up the aisle and saw them all: my parents, my sister, my husband, his parents, my best friend, my second mother. All of them gone, and all of them there. They were real. I felt their realness. And as I felt it, I gasped and fell to my knees, pressed by the weight of their presence and the burden of their deaths. In that moment, they were alive and dead, and alive and dead, and alive, alive, alive.

So yesterday was Good Friday, when Jesus was placed in the tomb. Tomorrow is Easter, when he rises again. Today is Holy Saturday, the Holy Limbo, the between-time that bends from darkness into light. At Easter Vigil Mass in just a few hours, Jesus will rise. He’ll live again, and I and my fellow Christians will rejoice.

We face this paradox all the time. Jesus dies, and then he rises again, and then he dies, and then he rises again – he’s always dying, always rising, always in the grief of the tomb and the joy of resurrection. It’s all happening at once, Good Friday and Easter both.

So it is with those we love: Always dying, always living. No one is ever truly gone. The past is present, and so are they. They’re with me right now. I’m sure of it. If only we could talk.

the long arms of a story

The other day, I learned that a story I told for “The Moth Radio Hour” — “The Weight of a Ring,” describing the aftermath of my husband’s suicide — will be included a collection to be published next year by Crown. I was, of course, blown away.

But I wasn’t just blown away by the glad tidings or what they might bring in the future. What clobbered me sideways was the reminder, yet again, that good can come of ill, that a happy revelation can emerge from a horror — not negating it, not diminishing it, but reaping from it some unforeseen and startling grace that prods us gently forward.

I was also struck, yet again, by the long arms of a story. Not just my story. Any story. Its reach goes on and on.

A day before I learned about “The Moth” collection, I received a tweet from a man in the UK who had just heard my tale on the BBC: “Thank you,” he zapped through the ether. “Of much help to a new and puzzled widower.” I’ve received other such responses, to both my story and my book, and each time I’ve come away with a heightened sense of gratitude and awe at the power of narrative.

It’s a strange thing, sharing so much of myself and my grief with the world — my darkest self, my deepest grief. When I dreamed of becoming a writer, I didn’t dream of this. I didn’t dream of a life writing memoirs of death. I didn’t dream I’d be torn to bits by loss and loss and more loss and then knit myself together, or try to, by braiding words into story and then bringing that story to others. But the urge to tell overtook me.

Telling didn’t make me seamless. It didn’t make me whole. I am as much a wreck as I ever was, in some ways more so. But telling heals, and not just me. I’m not sure I mean me at all. I’m not sure me matters, once a story is told. The author is just the helper, the conduit, the vessel that carries the elixir of narrative to those who need it most.

So if that widower in Britain feels a little less alone, then my grief has served some purpose. It almost doesn’t matter if I heal. I’ve helped him heal — and that, to me, is the miracle of a story. It just keeps moving, just keeps telling, just keeps pulling light out of darkness and good out of ill. Somehow, it grows. Its embrace moves ever outward.

life’s rich pageant

Remember that time the temperature plunged to -1,000,000 and my pipes froze and sprang a leak and I swore and swore and swore? I remember that, too. It happened — ooooh, let’s see, now — less than two weeks ago. The leak’s been fixed. Yay Hurray! Happy ending!

BUT GUESS WHAT.  Today I’ve been dealing with a flooded toilet AND a flooded basement, and when I say “flooded basement” I mean up to my floppy soppy ankles. As I type this, The Mighty Sump Dump is doing its job while bowls and buckets and laundry baskets and other plasticky vessels and shit are floating around my cellar like abandoned dreams in a sad Scandinavian arthouse movie. plunger

But I’m not complaining. No way! I’ve only sworn once so far! I know how lucky I am to own this house o’ mine, just as I know how lucky I am to traverse a life that’s been chock full of oh-so-interesting triumphs and disasters. This is all part of the daily thrill of being alive. Just the other day I was thinking, “Wow, I’m only 52, and already I’ve done a lot of living!” It hit me: If I died tomorrow, and I so hope I don’t, I’ll have led a rich and interesting life.

And I have. I’ve loved like crazy, given birth three times, watched my children grow, traveled bunches, read books, written three, played soccer, played Dvorak, sung Bach, worked as a journalist for 34 years (holy old farts!), MET SIR ANTHONY HOPKINS, been assaulted by turkeys and assorted South American creaturesfallen hard, gotten up, felt the sublime, laughed like hell AND undergone minimally invasive cardiac surgery for a wacky heart condition that I’ll write about some other time, but don’t worry, I’m fine. Plus! I got to have a colonoscopy when I turned 50, which is something my dear late sister Lucy never got to experience. That was quite a trip. Everything was.

Even the painful stuff has been a blessing, in its way. Even the failures, the flooded basements, the floating receptacles of crap. Even the broken bits inside me, the wild furies of fear and human weakness. Even the losses — everything that cracks me open and lets in the light and warmth. I feel. I live. Can’t do one without the other.

A coworker reminded me, today, of that bit in “A Shot in the Dark” where Clouseau falls into the fountain and emerges sopping wet. The sexpot maid played by Elke Sommer tells him he should change his clothes or catch his death of pneumonia. He replies: “Yes, I probably will. But it’s all part of life’s rich pageant, you know?”

As I drove home to deal with the basement, I thought about this. And I realized: My life is a “Pink Panther” movie! AND I AM JACQUES CLOUSEAU! Minus the accent and the mustache. He was the embodiment of slapstick catastrophe, whether smashing a priceless Steinway (“not anymore”) or vacuuming a woman’s boobs. And he coped. He fumbled forward and figured shit out.

So here I am. My basement is flooded. My bathroom’s a mess, or it was until I mopped it with bleach. My whole damn house is a mess. My whole damn self is a mess.

But I’ll live, I guess. I have already.

i shred, therefore I am

My first great achievement this past weekend: moving the piano. YES, PEOPLE. I MOVED THE PIANO. ALL BY MYSELF. I figured that shit out, friends! True, it wasn’t a concert grand or anything, just a snappy Japanese upright. But it was A PIANO. And I MOVED IT. All the way from the back room of the house into the dining room — through three whole doors! That sound you hear is me patting myself on the back while yelping sadly in pain. My muscles aren’t what they used to be. But still. They managed.shreds

My second great achievement this weekend: shredding the old bills and crap larding up my file cabinets in the aforementioned back room of the house. This I had been avoiding assiduously and, dare I say, passionately in the four years since my husband died.

At first, my logic in avoiding it was: Well, I’ll need those old bills and crap at some point, because Chris just died, and you never know. A year later the logic had morphed to: Well, those old bills and crap can wait, and anyway, Chris just died, and you still never know. Two years later the logic had morphed to: Well, Chris just died, and the old bills and crap are taking up all the room in the file cabinet, but they can wait, and I’ll just put the new bills and crap in crazy stacks and drawers all over the house. Three years later the logic had morphed to: I have no time for this shit, but I’d better buy a shredder, anyway. Finally, four years into it, with the shredder waiting patiently in a box beside the file cabinet, the logic had morphed to: BLOODY HELL! I HAVE NO ROOM LEFT ANYWHERE FOR ALL THE NEW BILLS AND CRAP COMING INTO THE HOUSE! PASS THE SHREDDER!

And so, dear friends, I found myself shredding ALL sorts of nifty-keen utility bills and telephone bills and bank statements and health-insurance receipts and ancient orthodontic reports and flimsy yellow repair records — for cars I no longer own — and similar such ephemera, some of it dating back to the mid-2000s. I shredded and shredded and shredded. I felt like I was cleaning out not just the files but my own psychic space.

And as I did, I found myself in the grip of all sorts of competing emotions: relief that I’d finally gotten around to this onerous, long-delayed task; amazement at the fettuccine-like ribbons of paper amassing in box after box; exhaustion, and a touch of fear, at the thought of ever letting the files get this bad again; sadness at the realization that I was shredding little pieces of my years with Chris, no matter how mundane; hope for the future; and happiness at the room I was making in the files, my house, my life.

With all of these emotions whirring and grinding around (really, they made more noise than the shredder), I began to cry. Just a bit. Not mucus and saline everywhere, just a few easily expunged dribbles. But grief is weird. Even when you know full well that you aren’t over it, that you’ll never be over it, that the whole IDEA of being over it is a total crock, that all you can ever manage is to keep living, keep loving, stay grateful and shred as necessary — even then, it’ll catch you by surprise.

I didn’t know I had it in me to weep over office equipment. But I did know enough to know that pain and hope can co-exist in the same heart at the same time, and that the holy mess of our little human undertakings can lead to a kind of awe. What a shredded tangle I am half the time! And yet I’m still here. That’s not nothing. That, AND I MOVED THE PIANO. ALL BY MYSELF.

my sister’s voice

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You never really lose the people you love. When my sister Lucy killed herself in a psych-med overdose at the age of 31 in 1992, I feared forgetting her. I needn’t have worried. She was unforgettable, the most complete human being I’ve ever known: her kindness matched her brilliance matched her humor. She was my big sister. I was the “twerp,” her kid sister Aiminolde, the less-gifted one, the klutzier one, the one always struggling to find her place in that family of geniuses. She understood my many foibles, and she never treated me with anything but enveloping compassion and hilarious wit. Despite her intellect, which whizzed her through tests and off to Harvard, I never felt stupid around her. I only felt loved.

I knew I would never stop missing Lucy or sensing her near me. I knew I would always know her and call her my sister. But I also knew I had limits, that I couldn’t bring myself to pore over all the sheafs of notes she’d left behind detailing years and years of depression, hallucinations, suicidality, hospitalizations (13 or 14), medications (dozens) and misdiagnoses (countless) that led, finally, to the correct one: Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, a complex neurological disorder compounded by severe psychological fallout.

Lucy was always writing — hypergraphia often goes hand-in-hand with TLE — and churned out poetry, timelines, essays and meticulous accounts of her life and illness. I was aware she’d been working on an autobiography when she died, but I had no urge to track it down and read that or anything else she’d written. The thought of diving headfirst into her pain terrified me as much as the reality of living without her. Someday, maybe, I’d be strong enough and removed enough to go there. Just not yet. Not when my own pain was fresh.

Twenty-three years later, I felt ready. Why did it take me so long? Grief is strange. My own became stranger when I lost my father two months after losing Lucy, when I lost my mother two years after that. Then life took over; there were babies to raise, jobs to do, my own books to write. Near the end of that stretch I lost my husband, my second mother and my best friend, and each loss dredged up the pain of old ones.

My sister was present in these cyclical bouts of grieving, just as she was present in every moment of joy after her death: the births of my children were attended by their Aunt Lucy, whose love resides in my heart and warms theirs, too. They know her through me. They know my parents through me, the ad hoc preserver and channeler of memory. That’s what the Albany Med chaplain promised me, that day when Mama lay dying and I sat in the chapel weeping.

I wrote my first memoir for just that reason.  Still, even as I wrote it, I could not bring myself to dig deep into Lucy’s papers. I got as far as a list of her medications and a description of her seizure-induced hallucinations, and that was it.

Then, a few weeks ago, I started reorganizing the attic storage space, and I found a big cardboard box of Lucy-centric materials. Since then I’ve been poking through it, gingerly at first, more boldly as I dipped in and read and found myself crying, yes, but also grateful to reconnect with this beautiful, tortured, impossibly good creature that I was blessed to call my sister.

The first major piece of writing that startled and moved me was a handwritten autobiography that she produced during one of her numerous, unsuccessful stays at McLean, the leafy and collegiate-looking psych hospital outside Boston. The second discovery, which I happened across just yesterday, is the first few typewritten chapters of her book. She opens with a poem (“. . . this twisted life / why has it been given to me”) and then moves on to describe, with breathtaking honesty and insight, her emergence from a coma after her first suicide attempt in 1990:

I don’t remember going into it; the last thing I remember is Mama screaming to the woman, “No, she’s blacking out already; don’t you see it’s too late for her to vomit?”

I had never read this before. On delving further into Chapter 1, I learned other things that Lucy and Mama had never told me: that she exhibited little neural activity; that the doctors predicted she’d be brain-dead; that she announced mid-coma, “I have asthma” and “I have to pee”; that she’d forgotten she’d tried to kill herself but felt, drifting in and out of nightmares, that she had made a wrong choice.

I cried and read and cried and read and cried and cried and cried. Of course I wondered, as I read, whether Lucy felt this same, floating regret in her last moments in a fetal position two years later. Of course I wondered, as I always do, whether my husband had split-second flashes of remorse on his descent from a roof in 2011. I know my father regretted his suicide attempt in 1974; I found evidence of that in another attic find, though I haven’t found a firsthand account of his own coma.

But mainly, I read Lucy’s narrative with relief, rejoicing to hear again the quirky, radiant soprano that always spoke so gracefully of wanting to live while wanting to die. No one tried harder to make it through this mortal life. She documented that struggle with a transparency, a crystalline brightness, that makes me love and miss her even more.lucy

It’s all so Lucy. She’s all so there. She’s doing what she always did, saying truths that I need to hear, however belatedly, with uncompromising candor and love. And patience: She waited all this time to tell me. For more than two decades, her voice sat mute in a box in my attic, biding time while that fumbling twerp of a sister finally got around to listening.

I’m going to do something with this. I have no idea what. I have no idea where the other chapters are, or if there even are others; probably there were, at one point, but they’re long gone now thanks to my own negligence and fear.

But I’ll keep looking. I’ll keep reading. Lucy’s voice has a story to tell, and I plan to listen, preserve and channel.