From April to August 2016, I was manic. I didn’t know I was manic then but it made sense that I would be, because there was no lithium controlling my moods, just a little risperidone, and it wasn’t enough to cap the insistent climbing of euphoria. And the thing is, mania feels good, better than anything, and when you feel good you don’t think you’re sick.
A book by Julian of Norwich that I found in Martha's room, 2016
The mania began because Martha was starting to slip away from me, becoming ancient history, and I wasn’t ready for that. On Saturday, April 16, 2016, I visited her room looking for books to read, books that might help me connect with her more. I prowled around her bookshelves, reached over the rocking horse she had had there since toddlerhood. I came across Revelations of Divine Love by the fourteenth-century English mystic Julian of Norwich. I didn’t know if Martha had ever read it—she had never talked about it—but when I started reading it the book changed my life the way books sometimes do, especially when I’m manic.
Beginning that day, I was lifted into a new religiosity founded on Julian. Based on her writing, I created a new prayer, “Let it be as you will,” that I said many times a day, dedicating myself to the idea that everything that happens in the universe is God’s will, and that God’s will is always good, so everything is done well. I had had this idea the day I learned about Martha’s death—that she had died through God’s will—but now it felt good. I could think back even on Martha’s death and feel, in a way, glad that it happened because it was God’s will.
Religion had always been tied up for me with mania, so you might think I would have recognized this was my bipolar disorder talking. But manic people have a way of not questioning their strange thoughts. All I knew was that thinking this way made me feel close to Martha. I felt assured she was safe in heaven, and that I could feel her presence. Instead of praying petitions for Martha’s happiness in heaven and for being able to see her again, I now prayed statements: “Martha is safe” and “I will see her again.”
I even began to hallucinate. In those days I used to lie on the bed in the dark after work, waiting for Melinda to call me to dinner, dozing. Lying in bed after work one such evening, I seemed to feel Martha’s finger physically in my left hand. Martha had once said touch is the greatest sense, and now I touched her finger, felt the thickness of it, her skin. Her finger seemed large, the way my own finger was to her when she wrapped her fist around it as an infant. I recognized that this might be a hallucination, the way Martha had once hallucinated Aleksei’s touch. But I wanted to believe in the hallucination. It seemed by coming closer to God, I was coming closer to Martha, because Martha was with God.
For the first time since Martha died, I went out onto the deck and into the backyard where Martha used to play and have her birthday parties. The area was neglected. The deck was rotting, banisters loosening, steps warped. A tree had fallen; the swing set was rusting. Years of bark had grown over a blue thread from a piñata that had once hung from a tree. I was saddened to see the desolation that had befallen the area, but also glad to be in a place where Martha had once been. I sat on a boulder there and meditated on my lost child.
On a table in our home office was a tall stack of writings Martha had left behind, a white pillar of paper. Always before, it had been too painful to look at them. Now I wanted to, because I wanted to be close to her. Systematically, over the course of weeks, I read every page in the stack. There were a lot of fragments of her Logia cycle of novels, many lists of characters, lists of her favorite things—books, movies. There were poems, essays, beginnings of essays, even complete essays, like this:
Why I Write
I write because I must. If I have been away from a keyboard or a notebook for days, or sometimes even for an hour, I feel compelled to return just as a person swimming underwater would feel compelled to return to the surface for air.
Squeezed between the pages was something more—the occasional long, brown strand of Martha’s hair, left between the white pages like a memento.
During the weeks when I read Martha’s stack of writings, I felt elevated in mood, joyous about God’s presence. I continued to pray “Let it be as you will.” I developed another prayer, “Help me to love,” which aided me in doing what I needed to carry out his will—love the people around me, my coworkers, people on the street, Melinda. That helped me to go about my daily activities, but also gave me something more—a sense of connectedness, as if all other humans and I were part of one vast web of good feeling. To meditate on God, I closed my eyes and prayed a centering prayer, “Behold.” Sitting on the blue cushions of the commuter train rumbling home, that prayer—“Behold”—allowed me to see into God’s infinite essence. Visually, I saw nothing but grayness, but intellectually and emotionally, I saw God himself, felt the pure joy of immersion in God. I seemed to have reached the exalted state of the Beatific Vision that is said to await the blessed in heaven.
From my state of joyful enlightenment, I developed theological and philosophical insights, such as the unity of love and suffering—love entails suffering, I discovered; suffering is the measure of love. Therefore, since God is love, God in his essence must suffer. I decided that what the mental health community called “mindfulness” was really just loving the will of God as it plays out from moment to moment. Devotion to the will of God made theological sense of mindfulness, grounded what was otherwise ungrounded.
I was in a state of theological rapture and creative thought I had not experienced since before I went on lithium twelve years earlier. Even as I delved into the heavenly heights, I knew why I was feeling this way: because I was no longer on lithium, and I was probably manic. But I didn’t want to stop. It felt too good, better than anything, better than sex. So I hid from my psychiatrist how good I was feeling, lest she try to medicate it out of me.
Besides, it was a benign mania. It wasn’t hurting my functionality. I continued to excel at my job, pleasing my superiors. In May, the president asked me to think of a new title for myself that would express everything I was doing better than senior writer did. I came up with head writer, a title I had always wanted since Rob Petrie had it on The Dick Van Dyke Show.
I still wasn’t feeling entirely happy. The thought came to me that while some people love life, I didn’t. On Facebook, I asked my friends if they loved life, and most of them said yes. When I said no, they tried to talk me out of it. But failure to love life was one of the things I shared with Martha, and since I wanted to be close to Martha, I didn’t want to let it go.
I finished reading Martha’s writings and turned to listening to her iPod, getting to know the songs she had loved. Her mix of classical and popular tunes, Bach and Berlioz and Bob Dylan and Evanescence, resounded in my ears every night when I commuted home. One night in June I couldn’t sleep because the idea came to me of creating a memorial website to honor her and to house selections from her writings. Like Martha, I was a writer, so I knew that all writers want to be famous, if not while they are alive then afterward. I could give Martha that chance.
I got out of bed and stayed up late finding a web hosting service to build Martha’s website and, once I found the right service, starting to build the site. Over the next three weeks I rummaged through Martha’s laptop—the one I had retrieved from the police—for electronic versions of her writings, and I typed in writings that weren’t in electronic form. I filled the website with selections from her poems, essays, journals, and fiction, along with a gallery of photos and a blog with my own writings about her. On July 2, 2016, marthacorey-ochoa.com went live. I publicized it on social media, in alumni magazines, and wherever else I could find an audience—a guest blog post on a suicide survivors website; a radio interview. As of this writing, the site is still live and has attracted thousands of visitors.
Right after I launched Martha’s website, I felt let down. It was as if I had hoped I could resurrect her through the website, and of course I couldn’t. She was still dead. Dead, yes, on Earth—but alive in heaven. I had already felt her finger in my hand. Was it possible that we on Earth could communicate with those in heaven?
On the night of August 10, I had a dream that made me think more about heaven. In the dream, my mother visited from heaven. She sat in the breakfast nook of her old kitchen and told me I could call her any time at 1-800-CLEVELAND. When I woke, the number puzzled me—it was so specific, yet not immediately meaningful. I didn’t know anyone in Cleveland. I tried dialing the number. It didn’t lead anywhere—just to a recording trying to sell vanity phone numbers. But I discovered that, when the number is dialed, only the first seven digits are needed to make the connection—CLEVELA, or 2538352. That number is a palindrome, the same read backward and forward. That seemed to me too miraculous to be a coincidence. My mother must have actually visited me in my dream to tell me this. She wanted me to know that Earth and heaven are a palindrome—the same on both sides. The two sides are separate but stuck together, just as the word cleave has the double meaning of splitting apart and sticking together.
I wondered if I was going insane, finding this kind of significance in my dreams, imagining that I was hearing from my dead mother. I started having more hallucinations—sitting in bed or in the park—that my mother sat on my left and Martha on my right, invisible but present, comforting me. My mood climbed again. I was penetrating the secrets of the afterlife, and its connection to earthly life. And, like a writer, I decided all this would make a good book.
During the rest of August, while on a two-week vacation from work, I wrote most of a theological treatise called Cleave Land: A New Look at Heaven from a Father Who Lost a Child. I laid out my theories about love and suffering, heaven and Earth, the clues given by my 1-800-CLEVELAND dream. I confirmed some doctrines of the Catholic church, disputed others. I affirmed that those on Earth can communicate with those in heaven—indeed, I could communicate with Martha and my mother. It was the second book inspired by Martha since her death. The first, the novel The Kids from Queens, I had given up marketing, but I vaguely hoped I could find a publisher for Cleave Land once I finished it.
A central point of Cleave Land was that love entails suffering. You can’t love and avoid suffering. Since love entails suffering, there will be suffering in heaven too. Wherever there is love there must be suffering, so the purity of love in heaven will necessitate it. The suffering will be eased because it will be understood in the context of love, but it will still be there. So I was wrong in thinking earthly life was a vale of tears to be contrasted with heavenly bliss. It was the same food on both sides: love, which means both joy and sorrow mingled together.
I wrote part of Cleave Land on the fourth anniversary of Martha’s death, August 27. I was still sad for her death, but felt mostly healed. Based on my new theory of heaven, I knew Martha was with me always, invisible but close, and that we would never be parted.
My theory was based on a dream, and as always happens with dreams, I was about to wake up.
Copyright 2020 George Ochoa.