Knew He’d Be Next
I knew he’d be the next person in our family to kill himself. I know…there’s so much wrong with those thirteen words for a sixteen-year-old, but I can’t even go there right now.
Five minutes ago, my mom was doing her Saturday manic rant when we aren’t filling every second with something productive. “Tell me you’re not on that damn computer again, Lauren. We’re leaving for your brother’s game in less than ten minutes and no one has their crap together, so as usual…” I tuned her out. Her octave grew higher, higher, higher; her neck muscles (I can only imagine) growing tighter, tighter, tighter; the prominent vein in her forehead (my older brother Aaron and I nicknamed it Fred) threatening to burst right into the living room. Splat!
“Watch out,” Aaron said, barging in to my room. I minimized my Facebook screen. “Fred’s about to blow!”
“Uh, hello. Privacy, please,” I said with a grimace, catching a glimpse of him in his blue #11 varsity basketball jersey. “Be there in five.” I updated my status, and typed in, ‘Tired and bored.’ Luckily, I could go back and delete words that would sound so cold, disinterested, and callous to my relatives across the country who at that very moment were getting ready to pick up the phone. To tell us. Who died.
Here’s what everyone can see about us, the Cassidy family: big, white, straight-toothed smiles. A two story-house, very, very tidy, on an ultra-manicured, well-maintained 1.5 acre parcel with views of the Sierras. We’re always hugging. Aaron, 6’4″, never without a basketball or a pack of guys sweating up our car. Dad reaching for his checkbook to help others faster than a cowboy can reach for the gun at his side. Mom barking commands, laughing a high-pitched laugh, leading a fund-raiser for the school, organizing meals for someone down with chemo. Oh…and my dad at the high school working as the school counselor. So, we talk about everything. Literally. How we’re feeling. How we’re affected by the recent devastating quake in Japan. What it’s like to live in a culture of “Friends with Benefits” and the risk of contracting STI’s (I have to correct him when he uses the 80′s term STD’s.) Do we feel overly extended playing year-round sports and taking AP classes? Do we spend enough “down-time” together as a family? And most important: Given our family history, should we ever feel depressed, please talk about it, and if not to him and Mom, then to someone we trust. More on that later.
If you noticed that I didn’t include me in the description above then you are on to something. If you didn’t, then you are like most people; I’m easily missed. I’m the one beside my father; the one without the big personality, waiting for the next catastrophe.
“I’m telling you, if we don’t leave in exactly three minutes, we will be late and it will be your faults.” Mom’s high-heeled boot footsteps ricocheted up and down the halls, click, click, click as she thrust clean laundry at our doors. “I was up at 6:00am to walk your dog, make a healthy breakfast, wash your jersey, young man that you left on your floor from last Thursday.” She stopped ranting as the phone rang. It rang and rang. Everyone ignored it. “Is someone going to pick that up or do I have to do that, too? Pete? Please, could you pick that up?”
The ringing stopped.
“Brad?” I heard my father as he answered the phone.
My ears perked up; my favorite uncle in New Jersey.
Sobs followed his screams. My brother, mother, and I rushed from our rooms to find my father slumped against the wall in the hallway. He pulled at his hair, and wailed, repeating the words, “No, no, no.”
“What? What, Pete? Oh my God!” my mother cried.
She knew. We’d seen this one coming for so long.
“I … I, uh. Oh, God Brad, I’m so sorry,” his words coming out in a rush of whispers. “I should be supportive and…and consoling, but I…I can’t…I have to hang up. I just can’t talk.” He turned to my mother with the eyes of a frightened child. She nodded and took the phone.
“Oh, Brad, I’m so sorry. How’s Tanya. I can’t believe this really happened,” she said, her voice trailing off as she left us alone with our father and his mountainous grief.
Now here we are. My father’s gulping for air. His eyes are bloodshot and tears roll down his pale cheeks while his Adam’s apple bobs up and down. He opens his mouth, but no words come out. I look at my brother, feeling six-years-old again; wasn’t that the first time I ever heard about suicide? How can I remember that far back, you might ask? The more appropriate question is: how can I ever forget?
My brother rips off his jersey, throws it across the hallway. He makes his way to his room and slams his door so hard that a picture frame of our family hanging in the hallway falls to the ground with a crash. It serves as the catalyst to break my father’s silence.
“Teddy. He…they found him. They were waiting for a call back from that hospital…”
Something akin to the sound of a wounded animal comes from my brother’s room. I want to comfort my brother. I want my father to tell me it’s all right. None of these things are going to happen. I slip away to my room and click on Teddy’s Facebook page. We’d just messaged each other four days ago. He had plans to go to a Drake concert. What the hell?
I have a red message alert in the upper left hand screen I haven’t answered. What if it’s from him? Omigod. I sit looking at his picture: his overly bright smile, Yankees cap slightly askew, hands making gang signs acting like a poser. Tears blur my vision and sprinkle my keyboard. Finally, I click the unread message.
“Sale at Hollister. Let’s check it out!” ~Bri”
I slam down the lid of my Apple.
It’s Monday. One and a half days have passed like a whisper. Crying, phone calls, “so sorry’s”, people bringing food, cups of tea. Did Teddy time his death so that we’d have the week off school for Thanksgiving? It would be so “Teddy” not wanting to put anyone out. I mean, other than the fact that he just hung himself in his garage. I guess we’ll never take that trip to Ireland we’ve been planning for like, what, seven years. Shit.
We fly out to Jersey tomorrow. Today we have a job to do: page through gazillions of Mom’s Creative Memories scrapbooks. Usually when she pulls out her treasured books, the ritual involves lots of “oohs,” and “Look at yous,” and laughter echoes off the marble floors and Italian vases. Today the quiet hurts my ears; our house is not a house, but a mausoleum. Each photo lifted from the acid free paper, guaranteed to preserve the picture for life, causes a sniff, a wince, an, “Oh God…” Teddy’s pictures, thanks to Creative Memories technology, will live on for generations; he didn’t even make it to twenty-two.
We scan and e-mail the photos to my Aunt Tanya and Uncle Brad back east. Dad says they’re In Shock; that Doing Things like we are Doing Things is helping them Survive. I think I’d want to curl up and die if that was my child, but I don’t say that out loud. That’s a deal breaker in our family: no one is
allowed to feel suicidal. We are NOT to hurt ourselves. Right? Okay! “Yes, Dad. We know…”
Albums cover the entire living room floor, dining room, and antique buffet tables. Things are Out of Order. Things are A Mess. I study pictures from when Teddy came out a couple of summers back. He looked so good on paper: put-together, wearing brand names, smelled good, didn’t do drugs…much, anyway (not that I’d ever rat him out.) The reality was that Teddy was always a mess; I just didn’t know it until I was around eight or so.
Teddy’s suicide is like a jigsaw puzzle that I can’t put together because a piece is missing, so I toss aside that album and pick up another entitled: Long Beach Island, 2003. My mother referred to it as the trip from hell, vowing we’d never return. I open it and on the second page, the photo of me riding piggy-back on Teddy rips my breath away. He was sixteen–muscley, a thin mustache above his lip, thick eyebrows raised high, his hair a tangle of curls from the sea air. I stare at the photo closer, looking at what I couldn’t have seen as a little girl. What was it my father used to say? The tortured soul? His eyes look like they are about to pop right out of the picture and into the room.
“Daddy?” I call out.
He kneels down beside me on the ground and leans over my shoulder. A wince escapes him.
“What?” I ask, looking up, examining his screwed up expression.
“He was off his meds on that trip.”
I flip through the rest of the album. There are no more photos of Teddy in the Creative Memories Long Beach Island, 2003.
“Where’d he go, Dad?” I ask.
“That’s what we always asked,” he says, tearing up and pulling my head near to his heart.
My head wobbles from the shaking of his chest. If it weren’t for his audible cries, I’d hear the beat of his heart; or is it racing now, in time with mine?
There’ve been a lot of those “holding” moments; more than usual. It’s kind of like we’ve stepped back into the grade school years before boobs and periods and how weird it feels to have your dad pull you into that tight hug. He never quite got that…how I couldn’t hug him the same. He took it so personal. Now that’s all so unimportant. Now Teddy’s in a casket. Now his mother will never hold him again.
I’m looking for just the right picture of the two of us when I stumble across a picture of Aunt Madge. Something funny flips inside my stomach and I want to undo my expression, but it’s too late; my father has honed in on my frozen features. We lock eyes.
“Aunt Madge,” I whisper.
“Jesus,” Aaron says, his voice layered with irritation.
I scoff. “It’s not like I made this happen.” I mean the picture but everyone stares at me, as if we’re back in a family therapy session and I’ve just uncovered My Hidden Truth. “Oh, gimme a frickin’ break, I didn’t mean that.” Then, turning to find my anchor. “Dad?”
Mom throws Aaron a daggered look then slams her album shut. “I’m tired. I need a break from all this.”
Her knees crack and she moans as she stands to make her way to the kitchen, presumably for another cup of tea, or maybe a shot of Sambuka, that awful, black licorice liquor. I count the seconds it takes my father to get up and come back over. One, two, three, four, five. I get to ten and look around. Huh. He’s not coming. It’s like he’s cemented to the marble floor. Is this relief or abandonment that is causing me to break out in a sweat? Here’s the memory that’s sucking me in:
I’m six years old and am sitting with my brother on his red, racing car bed. We’d been having a snowball fight just minutes ago –it hardly ever snows where we live! I made my first snow angel and Aaron rolled me the biggest snowman. I sent him inside to get a carrot for the nose so he’d look like Frosty. That’s when everything went bad.
“Come inside,” he’d yelled with a very mad face like I was in trouble.
“Where’s the carrot?”
“Just come in.” Bigger mad face.
“No. I want to make Frosty.”
My brother’s marching toward me. He knocks Frosty’s head to the ground and grabs me around my arm really hard. I’m crying. Snot’s dripping from my nose.
“Stop it! Why’d you do that? I hate you,” I shout, trying to break free from where he’s gripping my arm too tight.
Now we’re changed. Dry. On the bed. My father and mother have very red eyes. They are holding hands. Daddy’s hands are shaking a little bit. Mommy is rubbing his back in small circles the way she does when I have a bad dream.
“Lauren, Aaron,” my mother starts, “we have to tell you something. Something very sad. There’s been an accident. Someone has died.”
Her breath smells like black licorice; I wonder where they’ve been hiding it.
“Who?” my brother asks.
“Aunt Madge,” my mom says. My dad begins to cry really hard and she gives him a really big hug.
“I have to tell them the truth, Karen.”
They say some words, but I don’t remember what they are saying, only that they are sort of arguing and crying and hugging and now my brother is crying because he knows Aunt Madge better than me and I’ve only met her once because they live far away, but now I’m crying because I should be because everyone else is.
“Your Aunt Madge killed herself,” my dad says, in a voice that is quivery, like after I’ve fallen down real hard. “She killed herself by using a gun and shooting herself and then she died.”
“Shut up!” my brother shouted.
“I know this is confusing,” my dad said.
“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” my brother screams, covering his ears with his hands, swinging his head side to side. His face is so red that it looks like a tomato.
“I told you this was too much, Pete,” my mother screamed.
And here’s what I thought, although everyone kept telling me I was too young to remember the details of that day: 1. people kill themselves? 2. I will never forget this day.
My dad told us that it was okay to talk about it. So I talked. I told my best friend, Katelyn, that my Aunt shot herself in the head and that she died. Then the principle called my dad and somebody other than a teacher called me in and I sort of felt in trouble and Dad told me to only talk about it at home. Then I was kind of mixed up. Two more suicides later, I stopped talking about it all together. It was nobody’s business, really.
In a family therapy session after Aunt Madge completed suicide (we don’t say commit; it’s not the correct term, as my father will explain at some length, because that term refers to suicide being a crime that was committed), my mother described the effects of suicide on me metaphorically: “It was as if she was this beautiful, blue antique candy dish that got bumped and broke into three pieces then glued back together. Still beautiful, still complete, still a candy dish, but if you looked closely, you can see the cracks.”
My dad squeezed her hand, arched his eyebrows, and merely said, “Karen.” I guess she Broke the Rules. Maybe she wasn’t supposed to say that in front of me. It begged the question, did the rest of the world see the cracks? Was I too going to “crack-up”? How damaged was I?
Aaron told me that we were off the hook; that Teddy just took our odds.
“It’s like getting ready to fly and you’re all worried that your plane is gonna plunge into the Pacific, then whamo,” he said, smacking his hands together,” a plane goes down. That flight just took our odds of going down. We’re safe.”
But flight-crash odds and suicide odds, well, I’m pretty sure they aren’t at all the same.
Our suitcases nearly exceed the weight limit. Packing for winter in New Jersey versus summer sucks. Coats instead of bikinis. Sweaters instead of shorts. Uggs instead of sandals
Everything’s different. We’re renting a car. Usually a handful of our cousins come to the airport, leaving behind a dozen who are pissed back at my Uncle’s house. How they decide who gets to come to the airport and who stays I’ve never figured out. Teddy always came; except that year. And this year. The airport is so confusing. We get off the plane and the four of us turn around, looking dazed as though we’re in a foreign country and don’t know the language, culture, customs. We don’t. We are orphans.
When we finally get our Hertz rental car an hour later, Dad starts the engine and then slumps over the steering wheel. His shoulders shake up and down. Mom unbuckles, walks around the back of the car. Aaron and I exchange worried glances. She opens my dad’s door, unbuckles him, helps him out, they hug, he walks around the back of the car, and climbs into the passenger seat, and my mother drives us out and across and onto the familiar New Jersey turnpikes. At least something is familiar.
When “they”, whoever “they” are, say that death ages people, “they” are right, because my father is becoming older by the second. He’s slumped against the door of our smoke-infused Pontiac G6 as we pass the smoke stacks of Newark and the projects of Patterson, glad to leave it behind for the lush green of Jersey that Californian teens are too dumb to know about. We whiz through Wayne and Totowa, home to Aunt Deb & Uncle Larry and Aunt Patty & Uncle Stew…places where Teddy taught me to catch fireflies in a jar. He told me that they were Tinkerbelle’s helpers, so I had to be sure and let them out before I went to bed at night. My forehead presses against the cold window, imagining their fenceless yards where we would have baseball games with two teams and extra players, all made up of cousins, aunts, and uncles.
“You always wanted to come to New England in the fall, babe,” my father whispers to my mother. “I’m sorry it has to be like this.”
“Shh,” she whispers. “We’ll come back someday. Another day.”
When we get off the Garden State Parkway for Long Beach Island, something goes haywire inside me. It’s like I need to jump out of the car and run alongside of it. My pulse beats in my temples so hard my head might burst. No one’s playing mini-golf at the putt-putt golf courses. The rides are shut down. The screams silenced. It’s too damn quiet.
Our days down at the beach, no that’s not right, the shore, we made tunnels and castles with moats and seawalls to protect the princess in her tower, Teddy so intensely focused, that our backs got blistered from the sun. Then, days later, late at night, the dozens of cousins in sleeping bags all in a line across the bone-aching floor of the beach house, we’d see who could peel the longest sheet of skin off each other’s back.
He had a mole on his shoulder with two freckles above it that looked like a smiley face. I’ll never touch that shoulder again.
Everyone is here. Our cars take up two blocks. It feels like a party. Part of me wants to run out and hug everyone and scream, “Oh my God, I miss you so much!” Part of me doesn’t want to get out of the car.
“You gettin’ out, or what?”
My brother already sounds like he’s been here a week.
I nod and grab my pillow with the Joe Jonas (inside joke between Teddy and me) that goes everywhere with me. I’m not gonna cry. I’m not gonna cry. I’m not gonna cry. Dad raps his knuckles on his brother’s front door, then walks in. I love this house. It’s all wood, beachy, musty, nautical, don’t worry if you’re sandy, type of house. I’ve been coming here my whole life; it’s practically my second home. Now, it’s all screwed up. Thirty pairs of eyes turn to see us, but all I see is the one pair that is missing and that breaks the deal and I’m bawling. I’m rushed by a dozen cousins, all of them holding me.
“Oh my God, we’re so glad you’re here.”
“He loved you so much.”
And on…and on…and on…and on…
And here’s the thing. It was a really sad week. And it was a really happy week, which really kind of screwed with my mind. We ate, we played games, we laughed, we ate more, we cried…a lot. All of us gained at least ten pounds in one week. I swear, every time someone laughed, I would get so nutted up that the guilt felt like broken glass rattling around in my stomach carving little etchings in the lining; too bad it wasn’t carving away at all the new fat deposits. Dad caught the shift in my eyes and would give a little shake of his head and purse his lips, whispering, “It’s okay.” I don’t know if it’s okay, but I sure miss Teddy and I don’t think he should have killed himself. I keep wondering if he suffered. How long did it take before he died. Nobody really talked about that. I bet if he’d called me or texted me or something, I could’ve walked him through it. Dad says he would’ve just done it another day. Maybe. Maybe not. The funeral was unbearable. I was in a lot of the pictures of the power-point or slideshow, but other than that, I remember almost nothing, other than the priest saying he’d never seen such a packed funeral. See Teddy. See what you’re missing. We wanted to hang out with you.
Dad made all us cousins promise that Teddy is the last; that his death isn’t in vain. We promised. Probably Dad’ll order some corny, Lance Armstrong-type colorful wrist bands with Teddy’s name and a cause written on it. Actually, that’d be pretty cool. I don’t know. I’d like to believe we’ll all keep that promise, but life is pretty tiring and very, very sad sometimes.
I go back to school today. Mom and Dad said I could take some extra time off, but I need to think about other stuff. I decided I wouldn’t drive for the first week back, though. I thought for sure my dad would use some mental health days, but he only smiled and said, “My students need me.” Maybe he needs to take his mind off things, too.
“So,” he starts, as he buckles up and sips his coffee as we back down the driveway, “did you decide what you’re going to tell your friends?”
In just the short week that we’ve been gone, our fall has arrived. Most of the leaves have changed into deeper reds, oranges and yellows. So much happens when you’re away for just a week. Imagine what Teddy is missing…
“Yeah, I have.”
He cocks his head.
“The truth. That my favorite cousin killed himself.”
“Wow. That’s pretty bold of you.”
“And I guess to help my friends understand, because I know they won’t, I’m going to ask them to tell me what their most favorite thing in the whole entire world is. Like for Brittney, I know it’s going to Baskin Robbins and having a caramel sundae after basketball practice on Tuesdays. I’ll tell her, ‘Well, Brittney, the caramel sundaes just left the planet and they are never coming back…ever. That’s just a fraction of what I’m feeling.’”
My dad puts his hand on my knee and gives it a squeeze. “We talk in this family.”
I nod. “We talk in this family.”