Wishful Dying

I wouldn’t say I was a sheltered child, per se. I was, however, regularly threatened prior to social engagements to be on my best behavior or else I would be beaten/ have something taken away/ left somewhere. Only one of those three things ever happened.
It was a weird dynamic growing up in a home with a chain smoking, functioning alcoholic, successful real estate broker and an emotional eating, workaholic, manic depressive father. My parents lacked consistency in regards to their raising techniques; they loved my brother and me, no doubt, but their words of encouragement were generally masked with negative reinforcement and body image put-downs as a motivator to want to be the best we could be. Modern child psychology would argue that telling your overweight child she is a pig and looks like a sausage in her pajamas has the opposite desired effect of being a weight loss inspiration.
Although the under-the-roof pep talks were seething with backhanded compliments and flat out insults, my parents were known to defend me to the death in public settings, especially in regards to my intelligence. When I was in the second grade, my teacher had me placed in remedial math under the impression that I was, in some way, developmentally disabled. Hindsight being 20/20, I don’t entirely blame her. Almost every morning I hid underneath her desk and scared her when she sat down. I challenged kids to water chugging contests in between lessons. I was horrible at math, and I wrote with my book on an almost vertical angle. I did, however, excel in art and writing.
I spent days and days in the library of the elementary school with other autistic children, utilizing coloring books and bright worksheets, listening to stories, and frequently occupying space in the form of circles. I thought I was having a good time, that is to say until my mom received a progress letter in the mail praising how much I excelled in the remedial class that the school transferred me into.
This was the first time I heard my mom use the word “fuck” in all its forms.
“How could you fucking… why the fuck… put Mike on the fucking phone…” Mike was the principal. Mike was also my mom’s boss at one point. Before she made it as a real estate broker, my mom was a waitress, a stay at home mom, and a secretary in the special education department at the school. Even though the door to the kitchen was closed, I watched in awe as she reamed into this man about me, my education, my abilities, and the lack of faith the school had in my performance simply because I was a little eccentric as a young child; I couldn’t act out at home, I never acted out in church – where was I supposed to truly express myself? Where else, other than school, was I going to play pranks on my educators and challenge students to chugging contests that would be the precursor to my college chugging abilities?
Once the conversation ended, by my mother’s own discretion, I was promptly removed from the special education class and put back into the “normal” class, where I resumed my learning sans pranks – by fear of death by parent. I couldn’t help myself at times, though, wanting to be smart and wanting to be funny. Nothing ever added up in my home, so why did it have to add up in my head? I spent the entirety of the second grade with a backpack full of beanie babies and a pink shoe box in my cubby filled with classic rock tapes I stole from my mom’s car. I had Zeppelin, AC/DC, David Bowie, Aerosmith, and Pink Floyd to name a few blasting through my headphones each morning before we sat down to practice cursive; I knew the words to “Another Brick in the Wall” before I knew how to write my own name in the allotted cursive guidelines. My parents didn’t want to limit my experience in life, but there were certainly points where they shielded my experiences with death.
I grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere on Long Island. We always had animals coming in and out of the house that my dad would save – baby birds, rabbits that the cats tried to eat, an adult quail. My brother and I had pets as well that were full-time, not just save, rehabilitate, and release. We had a large mutt, and two outdoor cats. The cats always got into trouble with other wild animals around the property. They would chase moles, bunnies, stalk birds, or even harass our dog when we took him outside for a walk. The interaction with the animals was never really a concern, until one afternoon my mom spotted a raccoon outside in the backyard.
“That’s weird, it’s the middle of the day; raccoons don’t come out until nighttime.” We sat in the bay window of the kitchen and studied the animal, weeble wobbling from side to side as it wandered closer through the high grass towards our house.
“I think it has rabies.”
“What’s rabies?” I was standing behind my mom, trying to peer out the window with her and observe the animal.
“That means it’s sick. If it’s sick, it could get the cats sick. If the cats get sick, we have a problem.”
“Oh.” Seven year old me didn’t quite understand the complexity of the situation. I thought of rabies as some kind of cold, like what kids got, except only animals could get it. My mom picked up the phone.
“Who are you calling?”
“The police station. We can’t have a sick and wild animal on the property.”
“Are they gonna take it to the hospital?”
“Probably not.”
Within a few minutes a cop showed up to the house and met my mom in the driveway. Cops were only needed for bad situations, I thought. When we watched the show Cops as a family, it was always a bad guy trying to run away. I wondered what the raccoon did to be so bad that the cops had to come. It was only sick, right? Sick people go to the hospital to get better.
My mom walked back down the driveway to the bay window where I was standing, but not before I noticed the cop reach around to his waist belt, slowly approaching the animal. She tapped at the window, “Close the blinds. Don’t look.”
“Why?”
“Kaitlin close the blinds or so help me…”
Anything ending in the words “or so help me” never needed to be finished. I knew what she meant. I closed the blinds and waited for an eternity.
A gunshot is a lot scarier when you don’t see where it’s coming from. My ears rang for a second as I stared long at the cloth curtains of the bay window, little birdhouses lining the trim. I thought it I looked hard enough I’d be able to see through them like magic, but even at seven years old I knew what I’d see. I’d see a cop, standing over a dead raccoon, or my dead mother, with his gun drawn.
When my mom walked back inside I let out a sigh of relief knowing that she didn’t do anything to get herself killed by the cop.
“Where’s the raccoon?”
“The raccoon is dead.”
“Can I open the curtains yet?”
My mom looked over the top of the curtains, past my line of sight, “No.”
“Why did he have to kill it, though?”
“Because it was sick and suffering. And sometimes when animals are sick and suffering, it’s better to put them out of their misery.”
I didn’t want the raccoon to feel misery, but I didn’t think it was fair at the time for it to die. As a child, I lived almost zero; I experienced almost nothing. I knew I wanted to do things, I knew I had dreams. I thought the raccoon, too, had a full life left to live, I didn’t want it to die because it was sick. I wanted it to keep living.
It wasn’t until I was 20 years old, sitting in the bed next to my mom, watching an oxygen mask push air into her otherwise lifeless body that I prayed to whatever god I didn’t know to just take her out of this world. I was exhausted and my head was pounding, and she just lay there, most likely unaware of my presence in any form, her body so frail I could see her carotid artery pulsing in the side of her neck. I counted her breaths, wrote her eulogy, and cried until my head hurt so bad I had to consciously prevent myself from crying. All that existed in those moments was the suffering of life; the lack of living, the suspension of consciousness where I had zero control and just wished for her to stop breathing. I didn’t want her to die, but I knew she would never live again.

Reflections on Grief

It’s all utterly hopeless. All I could hear was breathing and if I listened harder I thought I could hear other people’s thoughts. My mind was looking for an escape route, because the images and scenes playing over inside of me left no room for thoughts. It was like my eyelids were stapled open and I was being forced to watch a terrible movie over and over again. I wanted to scream but I cried instead. But really, how many people can you cry to until you get sick of listening to yourself?
Eventually I realized that tears wouldn’t save someone who didn’t want saving, and obviously didn’t, and frankly I was sick of getting headaches. I felt like by this point I was digging around in my tear ducts for whatever they would give up, like I was addicted to the salted droplets streaming down my face. I exhausted my abilities and natural rights, even, to continue sitting in the dark and crying over someone who would never come back to me in physical form. I tried to see my friends and be social, but there were still so many days when I would sit in my cotton cave of blankets, perched in the corner where my bedpost met the wall, watching Netflix and hiding in the dark. I would lay under my down comforter and hold it like a baby’s safety blanket, thriving off of the warmth that it provided to the cold hollow self I had become over the course of those few months.

After the first month mark of my mom dying I called my social worker, Lisa. She told me to reach out to her immediately following everything but I couldn’t bring myself to extend my hands to anyone, considering I missed a week of school and had to get my academic life back on track before anything else. I was so incredibly distracted in what was going on that I forgot who Lisa was, I forgot that I spent the past few weekends moving out of the house I grew up in, and I forgot that my mother was gone. Then one random day, I picked up my cell phone, and I called Lisa.

How are you feeling?

Surprisingly, I’m feeling OK.

That’s impressive, but you know, it’s just beginning.

Yeah, I’ll be fine.

We spent almost an hour talking to each other and I couldn’t figure out why. Then I realized, moments after I hung up with Lisa, that I wasn’t fine. I became very reclusive over the next few days, and I began to sink into this dark pit within the pit of my apartment. Nothing sunk in, and the emotional gunshot wound I received was becoming tangible at last. I was assessing the damage of what happened to me over the past month and I realized that I wasn’t going to die, but it sure hurt like hell, and that made me wish I were just out of my misery.
You get a purple heart for injuries protecting others and sacrificing your body. But when the person you’re trying to protect doesn’t want help, and they hurt you emotionally, that just gives you a stone heart, weighing your chest down and pushing you back into bed when it’s time to get up. The stone heart makes you teeter and totter on the edge of your emotional stability. You shakily walk a tightrope, hoping you don’t slip and hit rock bottom. I kept my chin up and kept looking forward, disregarding the danger and blatant signs of depression around me. But, like walking a tight rope, there’s no telling what would put me over that edge… until it happens.

I was sitting in the back of my sociology class, minding my own business and clearly not taking notes like the professor advised. I wasn’t in the right mind that day, and I knew it. My rope was feeling a bit on the unstable side but I went to class anyway. My teacher put up the same drab PowerPoint slides except, today, it was about death and taking care of the last wishes of your family.

How many of you have lost a parent?

I was the only person who raised my hand. Oh you’ve got to be kidding me. Her eyes darted straight in my direction and with that a cue was given to every other of the twenty-eight or so students to look behind at me.

Anybody else? No? Alright, then.

The first thing I thought was how could this woman do that to me? Just earlier that week I was sitting in her office, telling her about the pains I was going through and discussing the work I was going to make up, and she takes such a bold poll question like that. I blamed her for making me raise my hand like that, and then I thought again to myself. A probing, horrible digging inside of me like the dirty fingernail of guilt forced me to begin blaming myself for all of the horrors that happened to my mother. There was no preparation for the death of her, like the professor said, however the death that she faced was so seemingly preventable. I began to cry silent tears down an unquivering face that went unnoticed by the room of people who were staring at me shortly before. I buried my face into my scarf while the slides clicked one after another, methodically reminding us of how to prepare for death when I was already beyond that point. She emphasized on comfort and insurance and not blaming ourselves. I couldn’t stand the thought of preparing for anything other than the unknown yet ever-impending torment and fears that would return to me regardless of how prepared I was for it.
I glared down at the chicken scratch notes on the poor-smelling paper and began to question everything. What was I even doing here at school? All of my friends were right, saying what they did when they saw me. Maybe I wasn’t as strong as I thought.

Oh my god it’s so good to see you back. I can’t believe you came back; I would’ve never come back.