Stu Bagby, ed.: Here After (2000)
Before I picked up the receiver, I knew what the phone-call was about.
I’m not saying that it was a genuine premonition, though such things do run in my family. I think it was more of an expectation. The last time I’d spoken to her, on the phone, a few days before, she’d sounded remarkably bright and cheerful – not, in this case, the most encouraging of signs.
“Anne’s dead,” said my mother’s voice. “She killed herself last night, with pills. We found her this morning. We still have got no idea where she got them from.”
I said some things, I suppose. I don’t remember what. The hardest thing was trying to sound surprised, because (after all) I already knew she was dead. My mind seemed to be outside all this, somehow, looking in and judging the correctness of my reactions in a cold, analytical way.
It was a Thursday, I think (in fact, I know it was, because I just looked it up in my diary). Before that, the first thing I wrote was: “It must have been a Friday” – it feels like a Friday, in retrospect.
The funeral, I was told, was already fixed for that weekend, for Saturday (I wrote “Sunday” first, but again my first memory was wrong). Already fixed. I remember that, because it seemed too business-like for the very day of her death. I said that we would fly up for it, probably next day, after my classes were over. It’s funny how obtrusive practical considerations can become at such a time.
Then I put the phone down. What does one do next?
It was mid-morning. I was sitting in my little bare office, in an old pre-fab, away off on the edge of the playing-fields of Massey University at Palmerston North. I had a class later that afternoon, and would have to wait for that.
The first thing I did was go for a walk. There was a wooded area down by the gate, and I strode up and down through it for half an hour or so. From time to time I stopped and scribbled words on a pad: raw, disjointed comments about the tragedy of my sister’s life, her death. She’d told my mother many times that she didn’t want to reach thirty the way she was – and her birthday would have been in a few weeks. For more than ten years she’d been caught in a cycle of clinical depression, agoraphobia, despair shading off into insanity. There was no name for what was wrong with her, so they called it “personality disorder.” My sister was beautiful, brilliant, compassionate; skeletons used to crawl out of her cupboard to tell her she was going to hell.
Cheap, cheap, cheap. You can’t summarise ten years of suffering, of gradually escalating disintegration like that. I’d seen of it only what she wanted me to see. She was an expert at projecting façades. My mother had borne the brunt of it, all those years, long conversations every night, screaming – bouts of literal madness. They’d tried every kind of anti-depressant drug, change of scene, prayer, counselling …
I felt shell-shocked. I wanted to, but wasn’t able to cry. The phrases I was writing began to turn into lines, and I found I was writing a poem. It can be a distraction at such a time, worrying about the placement of words, images. I called it “Elegy for Ames” (her nickname as a child):
Renounce the defective drum,
the curtain of incoherences;
no longer lie alone
and lost, in fear, defenceless.
The heat of the Bay no more
will thunder in from above.
no need to bolt the door
against ineffectual love.
Kind Katies’ bargain sales
no longer will stock your shelves;
no more Koala tales
pursue divergent selves.
I look into the eyes
of the Egyptian girl
hanging upon my wall;
funny, they seem the same:
delicate, poised to fall,
with an eternal gaze.
In my photograph album there are two pictures. One shows the morning of the funeral. I’m standing, dressed in black, with my (then) wife Jackie-Anne. Our faces are drawn and fixed; we stand as stiff as ramrods, staring into the camera. The second shows us walking on Long Bay beach that afternoon, in old jumpers and slacks, hugging each other, comfortable and smiling in the late Autumn sunshine.
So marked is the contrast that they seem almost posed, designed. Looking at them, I glimpse the time between, the funeral – that clumsy, formal, externalised version of our grief.
It began, I remember, with milling around the door of the chapel, getting ready to carry the coffin in. It wasn’t very heavy, but smooth wood: awkward to hold, and hard on the shoulder. It seemed bizarre, unreal – like carrying furniture, or a heavy crate.
My mother had asked her favourite pastor to come and preach, which he agreed to do despite the fact that he couldn’t “sanction” suicide. The rest of us – my father, Jackie-Anne and I (my two brothers were overseas and unable to come) – hadn’t particularly cared who spoke. The sermon, though, was so irrelevant, such a tissue of scriptural references without a single mention of my sister that I felt a surge of rage.
In retrospect, it was a useful distraction. I wasn’t up to speaking myself, but my poem was read out by a booming-voiced churchman who didn’t understand it. The references, it is true, were private: the “koala games” we used to play as children, the “Egyptian girl” symbolic of the many beautiful pastel portraits she drew (and sold: her art was quite professional and finished), but I’d hoped that something in it might come across.
At the end, though, as I filed out with the other people, I suddenly understood that I’d never see my sister again. She was in that box, and I hadn’t really said goodbye, and now we were leaving her behind. That last detail was the catch. I started to cry.
I cried in Jackie-Anne’s arms – loud sobs, no polite sniffling. It was hysterical, uncontrollable. I shook and moaned and hid my face from everyone. My cousin Hugh came over too and put his arms around me. We’ve never spoken of it since, but I’ll always respect him for trying to help me then, however ineffectual it may have seemed.
After a while it stopped. We all drove back to the house. We had to do something, though, to get our minds off it. Hence the walk on Long Bay Beach.
I’d known all along that I had to cry, express my feelings somehow, but that isn’t always so easy. I felt much better for it, though – better for having lost control. It was my sister’s life I felt angry about, not her death. I wonder, even, if we too readily accepted her suicide, understood the reasons that drove her to it?
I was crying for me, though, not for her. I loved her, and I didn’t want to leave her behind in that horrible big empty room. I remember the two of us as children, how protective she had been of me. Once, when we were both very young, in the primers at school, after trying in vain to ascertain why I was so terribly upset, she led me up to one of the more sympathetic teachers, explaining earnestly: “He’s crying, but he doesn’t know why.” She always wanted to help.
We talk about her less and less in my family, but I have three of her pictures on my wall, and a snapshot on my desk. I look at them every day. She’s not dead in my mind, and she never will be.
For years afterwards I would think of things – jokes, comic-book references – which would have made sense only to her. But that started to die down eventually. I’m determined, though, never to allow her to become taboo, unmentionable.
And that’s why I’m writing this, on a windy evening, looking out over the green-grey waves of Okahu Bay. Memories, it is true, can be lost once one sets them down in black and white – it’s something to do with the process of editorialising, tidying them up. But it’s been seven years, and other things have happened in the meantime, and if I want to record it clearly, the time is now.
To be honest, though, I never would have done it if I hadn’t been asked to. The funeral helped me, provoking grief in that painful way. I don’t have any other advice or counsel to give, except to let sorrow come in its own time, and not to worry if your feelings don’t fit what other people describe, or seem to be expecting of you.
The thing that got me most was leaving her behind in that wood box. I wanted her to be able to get up, to come with us. Why should my sister be the only one left there as the rest of us filed out to continue with our day?
Here After. Living with Bereavement: Personal Experiences and Poetry. Edited by Stu Bagby. Auckland: Antediluvian Press, 2000. 35-40.
Stu Bagby, ed.: Here After (2000)