Surviving The Deep End of Grief
As a toddler I once climbed into an elevator of the apartment building where we lived in Honduras. I imagine my mother’s distress at my disappearance, and then the relief of finding me after a long period of search. She said I wasn’t a fussy baby — never crying or refusing to nap unlike the other toddlers my age. At barely one year, she took me to a doctor about this lack of calling out.
“What do you want? A crying child all the time?” He proceeded to slap my wrist for reaction, but, as my mother tells it, all I managed to produce was a slow hiss and a scrunch of nose. No cry.
This lack of crying held up at age nine when I nearly drowned, tumbling into a lake in Guatemala. The water was surprisingly quiet and dark, and I didn’t call out. I wagged my arms and legs but didn’t wail, “Help!” like I should have. Instead, I beat the water with my hands — attempting to save my own life. The silver rim of the lake pulled on my suede sandals, weighing me down before the owner of the speedboat I stumbled from dove into the murky water and pulled me back out. On ground, my legs trembled weakly but I remained startled, wordless.
At twenty, these unused tears excavated a deep well that burst forth after my brother’s suicide. My voice belted out the plethora of cries I had saved up all those years before — suctioning at the air like sand before coughing it back out. This time there was no speedboat owner to act as savior. No life vest tossed into the bitter sea I’d been thrown in.
Still, I didn’t call out for help.
Even when I slipped into the sweet reliance of sleeping pills — or when the weight of loss permeated my bones. In the shower, clumps of dark hair floundered in the stall, as I stood motionless — water and snot kissing my thighs, as I’d grip my knees against the wall until my legs caved.
Over a year before, I had left my then boyfriend of nearly three years back in Atlanta, moving thousands of miles away with one suitcase in hand. The catch was I didn’t tell him I was breaking up with him until already in El Salvador. A phone conversation that ended in heated accusations and tearful apologies. Now in the stall, I scraped my frayed nails over wet arms over and over again — grating my skin raw with penance. I knew the loss of my brother was tax for this abandon.
Back in my room I pulled up jeans that later fell to my ankles and floated around my feet — clothes taunting my lost flesh as I rummaged hands over pointed hips. Just a few weeks back, my pants zipped tightly over generous thighs. As a pudgy child, my mother used to cup my protruding belly and squeeze — a sign of approval that now dissipated into memory.
Alone at night, I heard Xanax whisper to me through mahogany drawers, its lurid voice sensuous in the dark as I lay flat faced, unable to speak. I heard it murmur promises of escape — of silence. Through my adolescence, Paxil had been the one to keep me company during my parents’ divorce, my three overdoses, and subsequent social phobia. Now it remained tucked away in its container, both foreign and distant to my tongue, unable to procure relief.
Virginia Woolf once wrote, “It is strange how the dead leap out on us at street corners, or in dreams.” I avidly pursued the dead at night. Oversleeping until the reruns of memories woke me with their violence — clawing at the room until my arms gave out. In one recurrent dream my brother’s death was a harsh misunderstanding, each night he appeared to me in movie theaters, cathedrals, and funeral homes — alive. I walked over rubble and waste, near high towers, finding him hiding, laughing, playing a game we both couldn’t win. These images were amplified by sudden bouts of sweat that came without warning — the pit of my stomach burning like a fist.
A month after flying back from his funeral, I saw my brother’s head of curls on a homeless man downtown. He had squinty eyes and wore crutches near the supermarket with a small bucket where people left money — wearing this large smile across his face. He often limped on the sidewalk in stained t-shirts, back hunched over, asking for centavos. People passed him quickly without glancing, or smirked at his plentiful tattoos. The unwanteds were familiar to me, with their grim joy and scent of rejection. On the curb I asked him questions about his life, where was his family? Homeless man let me know that he was in fact ex gangster — ex crack addict. He had no one left.
Se aprende a vivir con ello.
You learn to live with it.
In the span of months I learned to forget with deft accuracy. To gather the shards of memory into confines where their pieces didn’t ache, where the brittle parts didn’t tear away at skin and bone — symmetric to my brother’s remains.
A year after his death we took a trip to the ocean.
We neared the jagged edge of sand and water. The sun glinting hints of gold that would bend beneath waves and resurface — over and over again — furious and hungry. I peeled off shirt and pants and sandals, dove waist deep into the ocean’s mouth. Letting the hard pit of my belly sink into its ravenous waves. Swallow me.
In salty water I cried out.
My words drifted across the hum of wind and waves. Until my voice spread out like a siren’s message — a trance. Raising my fists to the tide and slamming them back down again. I did this repeatedly — with all the force I could muster — until the red of my fist matched the hue of the sky.
Cindy Lamothe is a writer and essayist whose work has appeared in: Guernica Magazine, The Weeklings, The Manifest-Station, Mimosa Lotus, Inspiration for Mind Body, Sweatpants & Coffee, among others. Find her via Twitter @CRLamothe or here: www.cindylamothe.com