I got in trouble yesterday for a comment I left on my sister’s blog about her soon-to-be ex-husband. My sister is extremely circumspect, and, while she is open with our family and her friends, she isn’t one to badmouth or vilify or be vindictive. In other words, she acts in a saint-like manner where I would be slashing and burning, verbally, if not with sharp knives and blowtorches.
I just finished reading Joan Wickersham’s The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order. It is fantastically well-written, and, like the best writing, both original and yet completely inevitable. I felt that the “index” organizing scheme wasn’t entirely successful, but I appreciated the metaphor of not being able to organize thoughts on something as traumatic as suicide in any totally coherent manner.
Wickersham, with Mozart-perfect prose, discovers her father has shot himself and then circles back and back, like the ripples from a pebble, trying to understand the why. But I had a why of my own.
Why should I care? Somewhere between 30,000 and 60,000 people commit suicide in the United States every year. It seems self-indulgent and morbid for a brilliant writer to spend seventeen years obsessing over her father’s. And why should I, a reader who likes a good dollop of romantic escapism in her free time, spend 316 pages reading the (no matter how exquisitely-rendered) stark, painful accounts of a brutal childhood, a financially-failing adulthood, and, finally, the suicide of someone so removed from my own life?
Though I resisted caring, it was compelling, and so I recommend The Suicide Index without reservation. It’s a stunning piece of writing, and, to anyone who has ever known a suicide (noun, verb, adjective) or who has ever felt like a failure, it offers, if not soothing comfort, a wealth of understanding and not-aloneness.
Still: Why? My second reaction is Why not? Should not every life be examined in such great detail? On the one hand we can shrug and dismiss this particular suicide in light of all the others and all the other tragedies, petty and catastrophic, that occur everyday in every country. Or, we can hope and demand that each life, each choice means something, matters. Wickersham succeeds in making me care about her pathetic father and selfish mother, her supportive husband and her inconsolable self. I don’t ask more from a novel.
I did get one more thing, though. I finally figured out why it is so hard for my sister (and me) to come to terms with her coming divorce. Wickersham says of suicide: “When you kill yourself, you kill every memory everyone has of you. You’re saying ‘I’m gone and you can’t even be sure who it is that’s gone, because you never knew me.'” When you leave your spouse out of the blue, you kill every memory everyone has of you. You say ‘I want a divorce’ and we will never be sure who you were, because, obviously, we never really knew you. Even if we are not as surprised as we should be.
On the very last page, Wickersham remembers what she first thought on hearing that her father had shot himself, and it is exactly what I thought myself on the 16th of March, a Sunday morning four and a half months ago:
“Oh no,” and “Of course.”
Divorce, it seems, is not so different from suicide. It is the killing of one’s marriage instead of one’s self. And if that marriage was an intrinsic component of one’s self, one’s perception of one’s self, it is almost worse than death.
And so, even though I thought the “index” organizational scheme wasn’t perfect, it’s a helpful way to catalogue my sister’s husband’s leaving:
The Divorce Index
necessary “strong language”
We are rushing to get ready for church. My mother calls. She knows when our church is, and I imagine she suspects how frantic we are at fifteen minutes to nine. She tells me she and my father are at my sister’s house, and that my sister’s husband has left her. I say, “That f—— b——.”
to my sister
I would prefer a big fight at the end. My sister does not get that. One day he loves her and the next he is gone.
I cannot imagine Dick leaving me, but if he did, I know it would hurt less if he died, “loving me.”
The only thing my sister ever wanted is to be a wife and mother.
factors contributing to
?. If I understood, I would probably be able to make small talk with him again.
feelings of disgust and
The day before he leaves, Saturday, my sister and I dress our younger sister up and take pictures of her with our six children. He is working, and then he comes home for dinner. My parents are there. We eat lemon chicken lasagna my sister has made. I sit next to him, on his right. I drink one of the special Barrel Brothers vanilla rootbeers he stocks especially for his guests, for me. We talk running strategy. He runs marathons; I’ve just finished my first 15k. He is charming, friendly. I worry sometimes that my sister is unhappy, but I think he will never leave her. He loves his cars and his iPhone, but he is not a bad person.
impact on my children and
My 3-year old daughter asks if she will be getting a new daddy soon. My girls wonder why their aunt is crying all the time. My 7-year old asks, when Dick and I argue, if we are going to get a divorce now, too.
state of my sister’s heart and
state of their family and
timing of recovery and
Like any mourner, my sister has good days, accepting days, and she has days when she thinks she will never laugh, never relax, never be happy, never understand. She will probably write 316 pages in her journal before she is done.
And I think, “Oh no,” and “Of course.”
I have changed this post as much as I can to respect my sister’s privacy. One thing about this whole situation is that I have hurt worse over this than I did over my miscarriage. The miscarriage made sense. The baby was a mistake, God didn’t intend for me to have that baby. Divorce, in this case, still doesn’t make sense to me, and it hurts, because I liked and trusted him, too.