On September 27, one month after Martha’s death, Melinda and I saw a bereavement counselor for the first time. A small, curly-haired woman named Betty, she worked in an office building in the Lord & Taylor parking lot in Scarsdale.
Hurricane Sandy knocks out power in New York shortly after Martha's death, October 2012
We consulted her because we were still grieving and thought we might feel better if we talked to someone about it. We also wanted to know if our level of grief was normal and whether there was some way to do it better.
Our first visit went well enough. As often with therapy, the greatest relief is saying what you feel in an extended way without fearing you’ll drive off the listener, because the listener is getting paid. On the other hand, just because the listener is getting paid, she can’t provide the solace that a friend does, who listens for free out of pure love for you.
My friend Mary Ann from Seattle provided pure love the next day, Friday. On the east coast to see family, she made a special trip to New York to stay with us for the weekend. My romantic passion for her was all gone, and none of us to it. We had Martha to talk about. Even when we didn’t talk about her, as when we visited the Museum of Modern Art together that weekend, Martha was not far away. My grief for Martha dominated my life even more than my desire for Mary Ann used to.
Melinda and I kept seeing Betty the bereavement counselor, but after a few weeks Melinda declared she’d had enough. Melinda has a stable temperament, and she could see that she would get through her bereavement perfectly well without a counselor, who wasn’t telling Melinda anything she didn’t know. I, however, did want to keep seeing Betty—not as a grief counselor, but as a therapist. I didn’t want to talk about my grief but about something else that was preying on me—Stevie.
Once again, I was becoming obsessed with Stevie, just as I had been before Martha died. Again, I was rating days by how much contact I had with Stevie. I desired her tremendously. One night in October, when I visited a bar after work with her and a few of her friends, I went to an extreme length to be close to her. Stevie went outside the bar to smoke a cigarette, and I went outside to smoke with her. I hadn’t smoked in twenty-four years, but I bummed a Marlboro Light from her just so we could commune in our nicotine. The two of us stood out on the sidewalk at night, inhaling, exhaling. I mentioned that a girlfriend of hers at the happy hour was interesting, and she asked, “Am I interesting?”
“ you’re interesting,” I asked. “Why do you think I hang around with you?”
She smiled, pleased. She wanted me to find her interesting, and I was happy to oblige. Sex is interesting, and she was fantastically sexy. She made me stop thinking about Martha and think instead about having an extramarital affair. It was as if Stevie was life and I was returning to life. Maybe sex was the answer to grief. One weekend, my friend Sarah brought her baby over for a visit, and I desired Sarah too. The next day Melinda and I had sex for the first time since Martha died.
Nevertheless, part of me longed to be free of Stevie. I was tired of these romantic obsessions of mine. That was why I enlisted Betty and my psychiatrist, Dr. Sanders, to help put her down. Betty and Dr. Sanders both thought I was delusional about Stevie. Betty said I’d cathected on her. Dr. Sanders raised my dose of the antipsychotic Abilify from 10 mg to 15 mg to try to reduce my thoughts of her. It didn’t help. I thought of Stevie all the time—long-haired, big-breasted, popular, cool, young, cocoa-skinned. I ached to see her naked, to have her under me in bed.
It got so I was thinking more of Stevie than Martha. Martha was losing the unattainable brunette war with Stevie.
But I didn’t forget altogether about Martha. On Sunday, October 28, Melinda and I did an Out of the Darkness walk to raise money for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. In honor of Martha, we raised about $4,000 to help prevent suicide. The fundraising made it seem like I was building up to something, but the walk itself was anticlimactic, without even any closing ceremonies to mark its end. Whatever conclusion might have been planned was chased away by Hurricane Sandy, scheduled to arrive in New York City the next day and already causing blustery conditions.
The route for the Out of the Darkness walk led from Battery Park through Battery Park City, but Melinda’s MS prevented her from completing the journey. It was the first time I noticed how much the disease had already impaired her walking ability. She couldn’t walk fast, and she had to rest for a while, so I went on and picked her up later. My high school friend Joe was there—first time I’d seen him in twenty-five years—and he waited with Melinda until I returned. He’d lost a girlfriend to suicide. Most of the people in the crowd had lost someone to suicide.
Hurricane Sandy knocked out our power for two days and closed the office, so I didn’t make it in until Wednesday. Stevie was nice to me that day—I was ecstatic at how nice she was, sharing hurricane stories with me, hanging around with me. But in the next few days she kept me at a distance, making me feel dejected, trying to figure out whether she liked me or not.
On November 17, I turned fifty-two, and to celebrate Melinda and I went to an International Survivors of Suicide Day gathering at -Presbyterian Hospital in White Plains. A somber video was followed by a suicide survivors support group, which was —mostly a few old friends who knew each other and had not much interest in newcomers like Melinda and me. We never went to a support group again. Afterward Melinda and I went to the mall and bought ourselves our first iPhones.
I never thought I’d outlive Martha, and now with every passing birthday I’d outlive her longer. That night, for the first time in my diary since Martha died, I wrote, “It would be better not to be alive.” I had already been thinking that I wanted to die so I could see Martha again, but now I didn’t even make that proviso—I just didn’t want to live. The thought of suicide seemed appealing, but I couldn’t kill myself for fear of going to hell and losing all chance of being reunited with her. Of course, she had killed herself, so maybe hell was the surest place to run into her. But I remembered what Father Jim had said—that God had excused her from hell because her mental illness killed her, not her choice. If that was true, and I did choose suicide rationally, I would go to hell and never see her again. I had to keep trying to live, though death would be better.
What with my obsession with Stevie and my having to work every day at activities I disliked, I could sometimes forget about But then, while taking a walk at lunchtime or gazing at the cubicle wall, it sometimes hit me all over that Martha was here once and now she was not; I would never see her again, talk with her again. This thought staggered me, made me sick, as if I were staring into a deep chasm. Then the feeling went and I went back to normal life, as if Martha never existed. This went on until the chasm opened again, and the cycle repeated.
To try to distract myself, I started writing a novel, The Kids from Queens. It began as a mostly autobiographical account of my high school years in Queens in the 1970s, in which I called myself Joe, but it quickly acquired a new character, Meg, a love interest for Joe. Meg was based on Martha. She looked like Martha, played the violin, was in love with the dead Russian prince Aleksei. Joe and Meg were friends who were attracted to each other but stayed apart because she needed to be faithful to Aleksei. Then, just before they started college, they stayed out all night and had sex on the Brooklyn Bridge at dawn. On the first day of college orientation, he at Columbia, she at Barnard (girls weren’t admitted to Columbia in the seventies), she threw herself out her fourteenth-story dorm window. He spent the next four years at Columbia in mourning for her, until he finally decided he had to be free of her and start a new life.
It was an amazing novel to be writing. By casting my own daughter in the part of my high school love interest, and writing a sex scene with her, I was as much as saying that I had desired my daughter sexually. But at the time I denied this conclusion. Novelists are always taking liberties with the truth to make the story better, and I just thought Martha’s story would be better if I told it this way. It didn’t say anything about me, just about what makes for a good narrative. Anyway, I couldn’t seem to write a story at this point without injecting Martha into it. She was too much on my mind.
Other people seemed to be having an easier time forgetting about Martha. After my mother’s death, my father moved to an assisted living facility in another part of Florida, Fort Myers, where he had a nephew. Melinda and I visited him there over the Christmas holiday, as we would every Christmas since. At a Christmas Eve dinner party, my father proposed a toast to his late wife, and everyone drank. I was outraged that he had not bothered to include his late granddaughter in the toast. It was as if in his mind only one death in the family had happened that year. I proposed the next toast to Martha, and people drank hurriedly, embarrassed to have left her out. No one cared about her the way Melinda and I did, not even her grandfather. It was as if she had plummeted into the sea, briefly creating a hole, but now the waves were closing the hole, making it seem like she had never hit the sea at all.
On Facebook on New Year’s Day 2013, I wrote:
This is the first day after the worst year of my life. I will never forget you, Martha, but by an accident of time I am still and you are not. I keep living, whatever that might bring, in the hope that I will see you again when this is all over.
This summed up the way I thought of life then. I had to stay alive not because life was sweet but because I was forbidden to kill myself for fear of never seeing Martha again. Life was a living death to me; the life I sought with Martha could only be reached through death. Curiously, the structure of this view was exactly parallel to Martha’s view, with the difference that the life after death she had sought was with Aleksei. Through her death, she had taught me how to think about life.
On Tuesday, March 12, I went quietly nuts at work. No one saw or detected it, but I knew. I had the usual amount of repellent work to do, and I looked at Martha’s picture in my drawer, and she seemed to be showing me the way, calling me, beckoning me on. I should kill myself. I should follow Martha into suicide. The roof. The roof on the twelfth floor, a little below Martha’s fourteenth floor, but close enough to kill.
I sat at my desk, contemplating suicide. The only thing that held me back was the thought that Melinda would be left alone. First lose her only child, then her husband, both through suicide. It was too cruel. The crisis passed, and I knew I wouldn’t die that day. But why not tomorrow, or the next day?
To test the practicality of my method, I walked up the stairs to the twelfth floor, the roof. The door was unlocked. It was pouring outside. I wanted to walk to the edge, to make sure no barrier would stop me, but the rain was so heavy my shirt would get soaked, and I didn’t want people to ask questions. I went back downstairs. My method seemed practical enough. I could die whenever I chose.
The next night I saw Betty and told her my plan. She looked alarmed. I called my idea that Martha was beckoning me into suicide “aesthetic but she called it “bullshit.” Therapists always curse when they’re trying to talk you out of suicide. Afraid that I might really do it, she urged me to call my psychiatrist and tell him what I was thinking. The next day at work, I did. He recommended that I be hospitalized.
In all my years of madness, no one had ever taken me seriously enough to recommend my hospitalization. I was almost touched. And despite my knowledge of how little hospitalization had done to save Martha, I decided I had nothing to lose. I was on the brink of killing myself. I had reached the bottom of the chasm of grief and knew no way to climb out. I told one of my bosses I had to leave to get hospitalized and didn’t know when I’d be back. He understood and told me not to worry about work.
Melinda and I determined on Phelps Memorial Hospital Center in Sleepy Hollow, mostly because it was close and easy for Melinda to visit. They evaluated me in the emergency room, then admitted me to the psychiatric ward around 11:00 p.m. Fittingly, it was about the hour Martha had died.
Copyright 2020 George Ochoa.