After my last official day at MediStory on September 13, 2013, I stuck around two weeks to fill in for the vacationing copy chief for hourly wages in the copy-editing department. People looked at me like a ghost then, as someone who no longer worked at the company but was somehow still eerily visible. After that, I stayed home, so as not to scare anyone.
The laptop from which I freelanced as an unemployed writer, 2013-2014
Unemployed writers are never unemployed; they just become freelancers. That was what happened to me. Right before Martha had died, Melinda had bought a new laptop that we had never used because we were so occupied with tending to our dead child. This laptop now became my home office computer. I set it up in the upstairs office that used to be the headquarters of Corey & Ochoa. There I did freelance writing and editing assignments, most of them from , others from other contacts I had developed in the medical publishing and medical education industries.
Despite putting on the brave face of a freelancer, the truth was that I was unemployed, with all the shame and financial stress that that implies in a capitalist society. My income was only about sixty percent of what I had been making in my full-time job, so I needed to find a permanent staff writing gig to stay solvent. If that didn’t happen, we would have to sell our expensive house, move somewhere cheap, and otherwise lower our standard of living. In my first week of freelancing I sent out twenty-four resumes, which yielded one job interview and no jobs.
I also worked on trying to get The Kids from Queens published. In the first week, I sent out query letters to five agents. I didn’t expect to make much money from the novel, but if I could sell it I would finally be a published novelist, and that raises a writer’s status, even if the writer is unemployed. I also felt that it would be a way of telling Martha’s story to the world, something I wanted to do for her sake and mine.
I didn’t mourn for Stevie—she became part of the past as soon as she quit . Intense as my desire for her had been, it had always been superficial, easily erased by not having her in front of me. By contrast, I kept mourning for Martha. I thought of her every day, which usually made me sad, but sometimes I felt glad to have known her at all. The pain of losing her seemed worth it for the love she had brought into my life, a love that would never end.
I thought about God and Martha again, remembering something she had said in her diary—that she would believe in God if only he would kill her. Maybe that was why he had killed her, to get her to believe in him. Or maybe he had killed her to save her from a lifetime of brutal misery from depression. Maybe it had been a mercy killing.
I decided that God shared my grief because he too lost his only child to death. Jesus was resurrected in three days, but to God three days are like three thousand years, just as a thousand years is like a day. The intensity of his grief during that time was infinitely greater than mine now. This theory of mine contradicted the teaching of my favorite theologian, Saint Thomas Aquinas, that God can’t feel sorrow, that he lives in pure and eternal bliss. But I decided Thomas was wrong. Years later I would develop a Trinitarian theology to back me up, but at the moment I just put up a little wooden cross in my office. The cross reminded me of God’s suffering over the loss of his son, and that comforted me.
While I theologized, freelanced, pitched my novel, and looked for work, Melinda worried about what was going to become of us financially. Freelancing didn’t bring in enough money to pay all the bills, so as during our previous freelancing experiences, we had to go into debt and take money from the account her father had left us. I was no longer saving money in my 401(k) retirement account, so our retirement future came into doubt. I was still on health insurance, but, according to the law known as COBRA, that would run out in eighteen months, and meanwhile it was very expensive. We switched to an Obamacare plan that was cheaper but still too pricey for the lousy benefits it offered.
Meanwhile, Melinda’s health continued to deteriorate. For years, she had gone into Manhattan once every six weeks to get her hair cut at her favorite salon, Bumble & Bumble on East Fifty-Sixth Street, but now her walking ability had declined to the point that she could no longer manage the trip unaided. So, in 2014, I started escorting her, letting her hold my arm while we walked to the salon from Grand Central Station. In April, despite holding onto me for balance, she fell. I tried to stop her fall, but succeeded only in losing my own balance and falling too. We lay on the sidewalk looking foolish while New Yorkers surrounded us with concerned expressions and offers of help. And it seemed we were about at bottom—an old couple who had lost their only child, were in financial trouble because of the husband’s unemployment, and couldn’t even stay on their feet.
I cheered up a little when I dropped Melinda off at Bumble & Bumble and went to a nearby Starbucks to wait for her. In one of the annual signs that spring has come to New York, young women in short shorts and miniskirts walked in and out the door and sashayed along the street. The sight of pretty women has always gladdened me.
Since becoming unemployed, I had sent out a hundred resumes and gone on five interviews, none of which had led to a job offer. I was always broke and often depressed because of the lack of Martha and a job. No agents had agreed to take on The Kids from Queens and I myself continued unsatisfied with it, still tinkering with the manuscript to try to improve it. But I hadn’t given up. I was still freelancing, searching for work, pitching my novel.
A few days later, I almost gave up. My stingy Obamacare health plan required me to fill my prescriptions by mail order, and the order got delayed so that I ran out of pills for two or three days. That was enough to send me into withdrawal, with feverish chills and tremors, insomnia, and deep depression. The layer of pharmacologic defense that had kept me from the worst of my grief disintegrated, and I felt Martha’s loss with full force all over again. For the first time since she died, I lay on her bed with two of her stuffed animals, Caroline the seahorse and Buggs Bunny (so spelled by Martha to distinguish him from the Warner Bros. version), smelling her scent of herbs and breast milk and flowers on the bedclothes. I bawled and sobbed as I hadn’t since her death, blowing my nose and shouting, “I lost her!” and “I wish I had died instead of you!” Melinda stood nearby, witnessing my breakdown into full-blown mourning, as powerless to stop it as I had been powerless to stop her fall.
My pills came in the mail later that day. They stabilized my mood and got me back to what passed for normal in those days. But the bitter substratum under my normality had been exposed. Deep down, my grief was as awful as it had been when Martha died. Twenty months after her death, I was still a human wreck.
Well, I kept working and struggling. What else can a man do? I wrote more med ed materials, sent out more resumes, went on more interviews. Every day I got sad thinking of Martha, but most days I wasn’t deep in grief, and I avoided thoughts of suicide because I didn’t want to get hospitalized again or miss my shot at being in heaven with Martha. At night, after taking out the garbage, I looked up at the stars and said my two ritual prayers to God: “God, please make sure Martha is happy forever in heaven with you. Please let me see her again someday.” God seemed to smile down at me from beyond the stars, assuring me that Martha was safe and happy and that I would see her again.
Seeing her again was all that mattered to me; for that alone I was tolerating the harsh conditions of my unemployed life. This was consistent with a long tradition in Christian piety, the idea of Earth as a “vale of tears” through which one passes on the way to the heavenly kingdom. You weep and sigh and wail in the vale of tears, withstanding it patiently not because it has anything of value but because you can only reach the thing of value by withstanding it.
I didn’t notice it then, but this view of life is similar to suicidality in its opinion that earthly life is undesirable. If earthly life were worth living for its own sake, it wouldn’t be a vale of tears and suicide wouldn’t seem attractive. As much as I tried to avoid thinking suicidal thoughts, I wasn’t far away from them; I had just theologized them.
Since I was trying to get into heaven, I tried as hard as I could to be good, including being loving and faithful to Melinda. Our relationship improved now that we spent more time together and I was no longer distracted by Stevie. Staying faithful was easy, since I wasn’t meeting any new women at work, and I was hardly ever seeing old ones. My social life pretty much vanished in those days; I was too ashamed at being unemployed to want to have friends see me this way. I made an exception to pay a visit to Sarah at her apartment in Brooklyn. She was short and ill-tempered with me the whole time, blaming my lack of success in finding a job on my poor interviewing techniques. I realized she was still mad about that short story I wrote about her. Years passed before I tried visiting her again.
For business reasons, I also had lunch with a client of mine, Becca, whom I had known for years but hadn’t seen since before Martha died. She hadn’t heard about Martha and was literally speechless when I told her. She seemed shocked, as if I had uttered some great vulgarity. I had forgotten what a horrible story it was. People don’t know what to say when you say your child committed suicide. It doesn’t fit the normal flow of chitchat; it introduces hard realities into the fantasy world most people live in most of the time. It stops conversations. From such experiences, I started avoiding mentioning to new acquaintances that I was ever a father, because inevitably they would ask what my child was doing now, and I would have to say, “She’s not doing anything; she’s dead.” This increased the sense of isolation that comes with any deep grief, especially grief for a suicide.
Just as conversation about a child’s suicide tends to drive people away, books about it seem to drive publishers away. I kept pitching my novel to agents, and all of them rejected it. One, an agent I had known for years, had the courtesy to tell me why: he said it was too “dark” for the market. After he said this, I revised my pitch letter to argue for why dark novels could be big successes, such as the young adult novels The Fault in Our Stars and Thirteen Reasons Why. (I never totally made up my mind if my novel was adult or young adult, which was one of the reasons I had a hard time selling it.) But my revised pitch letter was no more successful than the earlier version. I think the agent was right. No one wanted to read a teen love story that ends with the insane girl killing herself.
I never stopped trying to get a full-time job, and in November I succeeded. An acquaintance of mine, Chuck, had founded a med ed company in Hoboken called . I connected with him on LinkedIn and did some freelance work for him, and he hired me full time. The job was not great—it paid less than I had been making at , and the commute was two hours long. But I was glad to get it. After fourteen months of unemployment, I started on staff at on November 12, 2014.
was a small company, with three partners and fewer than ten employees. At I had had a cubicle, but at I had barely a desk. The workers who surrounded me all knew each other and chatted over me throughout the day, leaving me out. There were no women who greatly attracted me, which made me grateful, because I wanted to stay faithful to Melinda. The work was as uninteresting as all my med ed work—things like writing a needs assessment on asthma and COPD, or reviewing a video roundtable discussion on lipodystrophy—and allowed me to continue living out life in this dreary world until I could go to heaven and see Martha. I turned fifty-four in my first month at , and by my reckoning I wouldn’t live more than fifty years, possibly less. The fewer years the better.
Expressing thoughts like that might make me sound depressed, but I didn’t think I was depressed, just realistic about what life had to offer. It had little to offer. Nothing much better than what I had was likely to come my way. No replacement for the child I lost would ever come. Suicide was forbidden by God, and might put me in hell where I could never see Martha. So I wasn’t contemplating suicide. But I took solace in knowing life would be over someday.
I was still shaky in my faith, and considered it possible that there was no heaven and no Martha waiting for me there. But that was okay. As a former Epicurean, I knew death by annihilation held no terrors. If, when I died, I dissolved into nothingness, I would never know it, and at least my suffering would be over. If, when I died, I went to heaven and saw Martha, that would be fine too. Either way death was something to look forward to. It was the only compensation I wanted for the loss I suffered when I lost Martha.
Despite this calm outlook, sometimes I did get depressed. In January 2015, for example, I had a week or so when I felt the loss of Martha all over again, stabbing into me with fresh cruelty as if two and a half years hadn’t passed since her suicide. I told myself her life had been a gift, but I was angry at the injustice of not having the gift outlast me, the way it did in most families. I doubted that there was a heaven and that Martha was waiting for me there. My life was a pointless spectacle, like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade of sorrow.
On top of that, I was mad that my novel about Martha wasn’t selling. One agent who ran a professional editing service on the side told me that I should hire a professional editing service to help me rework it. I didn’t use the agent’s service, but I did hire an outside editor, who made a number of editorial changes that cheapened and deadened the novel. It was never great, but it got worse when the editor got through with it. All of that would have been fine if the agent had then accepted it, but after months of making me wait for a decision she finally turned it down.
As for Magnificum, it provided me a paycheck and little else. The employees were mostly men with whom I shared few interests in common. One day one of the partners turned his big-screen TV on full volume so everyone could hear a news conference about the Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady and some ridiculous scandal involving deflated footballs. I have never had any interest in sports or their scandals, but everyone else at Magnificum seemed to think the company could not function unless we all stopped and listened to this news.
I did make one friend at Magnificum: a married, forty-year-old video director named Veronica. I never fell in love with her, but I have always preferred the company of women to men, particularly literary and artistic women like Veronica. One Saturday in May I got together in Central Park with Veronica and her toddler daughter Maud for an afternoon of conversation and playing in the sandbox. I told Veronica about the loss of my daughter, and about my being bipolar, and the conversation didn’t stop, the way it did when I talked about such things with other people. After that we had regular lunches at work.
As spring yielded to summer, I realized that at some point I might see Martha’s life and death differently. Already her life seemed long ago, something that happened at a distant place and time. Maybe it would keep receding, and the wound that was still open would close and heal. In 2030, I would have lived as many years since Martha died as was her age that year. I’d be seventy then, if I lived that long. Maybe then I would understand the meaning of her existing at all for that brief flowering. Even if I didn’t, maybe it would hurt less. Maybe at last I would be at peace about Martha.
In the meantime, I had a job and was in good health.
I was about to lose both.
Copyright 2020 George Ochoa.