At the end of August 2016, I was convinced that I could still be in contact with Martha four years after her death. But as September began, I had an intimation that I was kidding myself.
Each day in fall 2016, I rolled a die to decide whether I would live or die
At the end of my two-week vacation, on Labor Day, I took a walk to Gould Park, a grassy enclave a few minutes from my house where I often used to bring Martha when she was a small child. I walked around the swings and the curly slide, remembered playing with her there. I sat on a bench and watched other children playing. And I realized that despite all my dreams of being joined to Martha in heaven, she was dead. Her deadness separated her from all the children of today by a wall that no one could scale. She was as separate from me as anything could be separate from another—more separate than fish are from mammals, or desert dwellers from jungle creatures. Nothing linked her to me but memories, and those memories were fading every moment, and with good reason: they were unreal, figments of the mind, not biological facts.
So despite my claims in Cleave Land, while on Earth I could never be in any kind of contact with Martha. She was not available to be contacted. I could remember her and read her writings, but I could no longer communicate with her except in delusions and hallucinations. There was no Martha anymore. I was alone.
With this in mind, I went back to work the next day. On that day, Tuesday, September 6, my mania ended and I crashed into depression. The precipitating cause was having to work again after two weeks of vacation, but, based on my own mental rhythms, I was also about due—my manias hardly ever lasted longer than a few months. And a deeper cause was my rediscovery the day before that Martha was dead and that on this earth I would never see her. I was alone and miserable with nothing to do but work that I hated.
By the end of the first week back at work, I was suicidal again. I wanted to die. That Friday morning, I wouldn’t let myself out of bed unless I promised myself that I would die. The only way I could compel myself to get up and shower and dress was to vow that I would kill myself once I reached work.
When you make a promise like that, you better have a way of keeping it, and I did. At a recent happy hour, a bunch of us MedEquate employees had gathered after work on Forty-Fifth Street at a hotel rooftop bar called VU46. The bar was on the fourteenth floor, which was really the thirteenth floor, the floor Martha had jumped from to fall to her death. Based on Martha’s experience, I knew that that height was lethal, and based on my study of the layout of VU46, I felt confident I could climb the barrier wall to jump to my death. All I had to do was go to work, then walk the block and a half to VU46.
Once I got to work, I checked the bar’s hours and learned they didn’t open until 3:00 p.m. MedEquate was on the eighteenth floor, so in theory I could jump from there, but I checked, and the windows were locked with no key available. If I bashed them but failed to break out before someone caught me, all I would succeed in doing was getting myself committed to a mental hospital and probably fired. VU46 was still my best bet. It was only 9:00 a.m., however, so I had to wait six hours before I could die. Before then, I had a lot of work to do, but I had a dilemma. If I was going to die at 3:00, there was no point in doing the work. I could relax and take it easy until my hour of death. But if I wasn’t going to die, then I did need to do the work to meet my deadlines. I needed to decide if I would live or die.
I couldn’t decide, so I chose to flip a coin. Heads I live; tails I die. I fished in my pocket, pulled out a quarter, flipped it. It came up heads. On that basis, I decided to live the day after all. I kept the quarter on my desk all day to remind me.
The weeks that followed were among the blackest weeks of depression I have ever known. Several times I gambled my life on a coin toss, and every time the coin came up heads—mathematically improbable, but perhaps providential. Part of me wanted to die, so in that sense the results of the coin toss disappointed me, but I was ambivalent too, else I wouldn’t have tossed a coin at all—I would have just jumped. In fact, at a certain point I decided to roll a die instead, with death to follow only if the roll came up six. That lowered the odds of my having to die to one in six instead of one in two.
Just to make sure VU46 really didn’t open till 3:00, I went there one day at lunchtime. I took the elevator to the top, walked to the empty bar, and tested the door. Sure enough, it was locked. If it hadn’t been locked, maybe I would have jumped. But maybe not. I couldn’t make up my mind. The indecision was almost worse than the depression.
Back downstairs in the lobby of the hotel that housed VU46, I did something I’d never done: I called the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Not wanting to get put in a psychiatric ward, I called them on my cell from a public place, so if they called the cops to get me I would have time to see them coming and disappear. But they didn’t call the cops. I told the woman who answered I’d been flipping a coin to decide whether to live or die, and she asked how I’d gotten to that point. I said I didn’t have time to explain; I was on my lunch hour and had to go back to work in five minutes. She suggested I do something to calm down. I said that would be to lie down, but I couldn’t do that at work. She then said I should work out a safety plan with my shrink—a plan of things to do if you’re suicidal. I don’t know what else she might have proposed because lunchtime was over and I hung up.
She was crazy if she thought I would tell my shrink how suicidal I was. My shrink would have me committed, and I preferred to die than go through that again. But I looked up safety plans and made one on my own, which included a list of three friends to call if on the verge of suicide. I also found a book available for free online that helped talk me down a little from the suicidal ledge, Suicide: The Forever Decision by Paul G. Quinnett. I didn’t believe everything it said, but it made some points that made suicide seem less attractive.
Days passed on this rickety bridge between life and death. The issue of whether to stay alive or kill myself preyed on me all the time—while I worked, walked through the midtown crowds at lunch hour, rode the train home, lay awake in bed staring at the darkness. As often at such times, I got philosophical, reflecting on what depression was and my reasons for staying alive. Depression was, at bottom, pain—emotional pain, pain of which life itself was the source. The only way to stop the pain was to end my life. So death made sense. For a long time, I had feared going to hell, but even hell sounded better than what I had now, wavering every moment between living and dying. At least in hell the dilemma would be over—I’d be dead.
Apart from the fear of hell, I knew God wanted me to live and I wanted to please him, but I wasn’t entirely sure he existed, and even if he did he would surely forgive me for wanting to stop the pain I was in. That left only one reason to live: for Melinda’s sake, to spare her the pain of losing me. But then the logical step—one I had entertained a year ago, in the midst of my lithium-induced insanity—was to murder her, so she wouldn’t have to suffer the pain of my loss. Then I could kill myself without qualms.
Though logical, this conclusion disturbed me profoundly. Murder a woman for loving me, so I could indulge my selfish desire to die? If anything would put me in hell, that would. I had to find a reason for living that didn’t depend on Melinda. I had to live for my own sake, not hers. That was the only way to keep her safe from me.
If life was to be worth living for my sake, I had to take pleasure in it. In the past, a few things had given me pleasure—the sight of a pretty woman; pizza; a moment of spiritual bliss. But now life seemed devoid of pleasure, purely painful. How could it be worth living?
In those days, the commuter shuttle bus that usually brought me home from the train station wasn’t running, so I had to walk thirty-five minutes in the twilight to get to my house. On one of those walks, I thought philosophically about the problem of how life could be worth living, drawing on the Thomistic concept of a good, an object of desire. Even in preferring death to life, I was expressing a preference for one good over another. To prefer one good over another presupposes that the search for good, the urge to satisfy desire, is worth pursuing, and that search, that urge, depends on my being alive. If I were dead, I wouldn’t search, wouldn’t feel urges. To be alive is to want to be happy, to wish the best of goods for myself—in a word, to love myself. Only because I love myself do I wish cessation of pain through death rather than continuation of pain through life. But if my desired method for making my pain cease is to kill myself, I am in the strange position of seeking to realize my self-love by destroying myself—by eliminating the very thing I love. It is as if I loved apples and to satisfy that love I burned every last apple tree on Earth.
Clearly, the suicidal impulse was illogical. It made no sense. It was insane, a sickness of the brain. Suicidal depression was a twisting of my self-love to tempt me to do the very opposite of what self-love calls for—the continuation of my life.
The walk home from the train station took me up a long hill with a gentle slope, with cars rushing past. As they passed, I knew that my discovery about the illogic of suicide didn’t take away the pain of depression, the perception of life as pain. But it made me recognize that beyond the pain, or under it, was an unextinguishable, inalienable love of self, which means a love of life and a desire for happiness. Not only could my suicidal wish not eradicate that love, it depended on it. Without that love, I couldn’t wish for an end to pain. Knowing this, I now made the decision to accept my self-love and be true to it by choosing to live, no matter how painful life was.
As my walk ended and I reached my house, I realized it was for my sake that I would fight depression and refuse to kill myself—my sake, not God’s, not Melinda’s. The devil was trying to trick me into thinking my self-destruction was good for me and that life was bad for me. But I’d seen through the trick.
Only one thing nagged at me: if I could see through the trick, why hadn’t Martha? She had been smarter than I, a better writer, and more virtuous. Why did she go to her death thinking that suicide made sense, was even nobler than staying alive in the midst of suffering? Maybe she didn’t have time. It had taken me fifty-five years to reach this conclusion; she died at eighteen. But I had been suicidal in my teens too, and I hadn’t died then. I could only surmise that she suffered more than I did, making suicide more appealing, or that she was crazier than I was, or that there was some protective factor in me that shielded me from the worst of my suicidality but that wasn’t present in her.
My new view of life and suicide gave me material I needed to finish writing Cleave Land, and it made me feel better, but only for a little while. My mood soon became rocky again, and I plunged back into depression. By mid-October, I again gambled for my life, with the coin once again mysteriously coming up heads. It didn’t matter if I knew intellectually that the desire to kill myself was illogical; I felt the desire just the same, and it seemed almost stronger than any other desire. When in the grip of the craving for suicide, it didn’t seem like the craving was secondary to love of self; it seemed primary. I seemed to have no love of self at all, just an all but irresistible lust for death.
I visited my shrink and told her some of what I’d been feeling. As usual, I downplayed the worst of it, lest she call 911 on the spot, but she detected the seriousness of the situation just the same. She laid out the options: take a leave from work, get hospitalized, do a partial hospitalization, or go back on lithium. I refused the first three because I was afraid I would lose my job, and refused the fourth because I might develop toxicity again, plus all the other things I disliked about lithium—the flatness of affect; the tremor. She got mad and indicated I was leaving her no option. But I still couldn’t decide. Suicide seemed the most attractive course.
In desperation, I called my three suicide lifeline friends. The one I reached first, Eddie, urged me to get hospitalized, and sounded like he might call 911 on me himself. He didn’t, hesitating as I had hesitated when Martha had been suicidal on her last night. After the call, I wondered: if I went ahead and killed myself because he hadn’t called 911, would I fuck up his life with guilt as thoroughly as Martha had fucked up mine? It would be an interesting experiment, one of which I, being dead, could never know the outcome.
As it turned out, I didn’t kill myself. I decided to go back on lithium. Despite my distaste for it, the drug worked. Within days, my depression subsided. I wasn’t happy—I had the lithium flatness—but I wasn’t suicidal.
Now that I was feeling better, I wondered what I could do to continue feeling better. It would help if I could move on from being the father of a dead girl. I wished I could have some new purpose in my life, besides just taking care of Melinda and doing my job and preparing for retirement. Maybe that should have been enough, but it wasn’t. Maybe I could get a dog.
I talked to Melinda about my feelings, and learned that I mourned Martha more than she did. In the past four years, Melinda had made peace with Martha’s death. Melinda slotted her mourning for Martha with her mourning for her mother and father, as if they were equivalent, whereas Martha’s death was absolutely different in kind for me from my mother’s death. For me, Martha’s death was the worst catastrophe of my life, utterly dividing the past from the present, removing any sense of purpose from my life. Melinda took more pleasure in life and found more meaning in it. She delighted in the students she taught at Mercy and told me often about her methods for teaching writing, her seminar on The Godfather. She made small talk with strangers, asking a woman on the train about the book she was reading, asking a customer in the diner how the caramel sundae was. She had made a new friend out of her sister-in-law; the two now often spent time together. Melinda’s purpose in life seemed to be helping the people she came across. She had a degenerative disease that was slowly robbing her of the ability to walk, but she was hopeful and happy nonetheless. Martha’s death no longer weighed heavily on her.
Martha had been an expert in grief, and had I looked in her diary I would have seen a framework for understanding the difference between Melinda and me. In a diary entry of February 3, 2011, Martha wrote: “When a person loses someone he loves, grief is a natural reaction. What is not as natural is prolonged, obsessive grief. Such grief stems from deep love and from a melancholy temperament, and it can interfere with the sufferer’s functioning and even his will to live.”
Indeed, what I felt for Martha was a prolonged, obsessive grief, not natural like the grief of Melinda’s that had already come and gone. It stemmed, I thought, from my deep love for Martha and my melancholy temperament, and it was interfering with my functioning and will to live. That I should feel it and not Melinda made sense because, despite the story we told ourselves, I had loved Martha more than she had. I was the one who had wanted a child, pushed for it, took more meaning from it. I had a closer bond with Martha, especially in her last years, when Martha’s madness emerged, becoming like mine, and Melinda and Martha had more of a wall between them. I was willing to go to Martha on her last night but Melinda wasn’t willing to go to her the next day, and Martha died in the gap between our loves for her.
Knowing I cared for Martha’s death more than my wife did made me feel more alone. But it was also fitting. It made me even more of a tragic hero. My grief was unparalleled. Yet that was not quite true. It did have a parallel: Martha’s love for Aleksei. Martha had loved a dead man so much that she had died for him. Now I loved a dead woman so much that I was considering dying for her. In her death, Martha had transferred to me the romantic necrophilia she thought had had only one proponent. In my grief for her I was united to her, and maybe that was why I kept it up: to keep her alive, and keep her life united to mine.
Copyright 2020 George Ochoa.