Despite the title of the last chapter, my grief over Martha is not entirely gone, nor is my mourning. But compared to how they used to dominate me, they are much more tolerable. I still think of Martha every day, and miss her. But I understand that the direction of my life doesn’t point to her anymore. It points to life.
The sun over Fifth Avenue in Manhattan in 2018
Martha loved life in her own way. But she thought she could only have the full life with Aleksei that she desired by dying, or perhaps that death was the only way to end the threat that normal society posed to her life with Aleksei. I hope God credited her for the love of life she had and not for the strange way she showed it. If God can forgive sins, he can surely forgive strangeness.
I used to think any explanation of ultimate purpose had to be explicitly religious. And I am still Catholic and believe in God. But in Catholicism, God can be viewed as both transcendent (surpassing earthly experience) and immanent (dwelling in earthly experience). For most of my religious life, I have focused on God as transcendent, but right now it’s sometimes useful for me to focus on his immanence. God is hidden every day in earthly life. So to see, at times, earthly life as my purpose is not to deny God, just to worship him in his hidden form. There’s a straight line from loving earthly life to loving God, the source of life.
I haven’t forgotten about beauty either. For a while, beauty was my purpose, and in a way it still is, but it’s been subsumed by life. Beauty is just what you see when you apprehend life and the apprehension gives you pleasure. It’s as if I were in a dark room, and a ray of light came in and I made the pursuit of that ray my goal. But now I’ve pursued it into the open sunshine, and seeing the sun I know that that’s my goal. Beauty was the ray, and life is the sun.
When you love life as your purpose, you are always fulfilling your purpose, because throughout your life you are always living. Thomas Aquinas believed that happiness was resting in your end or purpose, so in theory, if you love life, you should always be happy, because you are always resting in your end. This might be true if thoughts like “I love life” alone could improve your mood, but despite CBT, which acts as if thoughts have this power, they don’t always. So I’ve had times of depression, anxiety, and suicidality since I embraced life as my purpose, and probably will again, because I’m bipolar and those dark states always come back. Just thinking I love life or I’m happy I’m alive doesn’t make them go away. But the converse is also true: being suicidal doesn’t make my will to live go away. On the contrary, that’s when my will is put to the test, when love of life—conceived not as a feeling but a choice—becomes a struggle. In those times, I still seek to stay alive as my purpose. That purpose gives me no pleasure then, but it does when I emerge from the struggle still alive.
People have asked me since Martha’s death for my advice on preventing suicide, and I never know what to say. I lost a daughter to suicide; that’s proof of my ignorance, not my knowledge. I can identify mistakes I made, things I wish I’d done differently, but for each one I have my doubts that acting differently would ultimately have saved Martha’s life.
I wish I hadn’t been so quick to put her under psychiatric treatment with medication, and had allowed her to love Aleksei without opposition. Maybe it was her despair that she would lose Aleksei that killed her, rather than her love for him. But as someone who still takes medications because they help me, I can’t swear that they do no good. And if your child is suicidal, you want to do something, even if there’s only a chance it will help. And maybe if I had not opposed her love for Aleksei, he still would have led her to death. So I don’t know.
I wish I hadn’t abandoned religious faith during Martha’s childhood. That may have influenced her to search for an alternative to God, who turned out to be Aleksei, and it led her into an atheism that was painful to her until she followed my example and converted back to the faith. In my own case at least, the belief that God might damn me to hell if I commit suicide—a belief I’m not sure I ever clearly taught Martha—has helped keep me alive in my worst hours. But in her diaries she spoke of her willingness to defy God and be damned, so I’m not sure fear of damnation would have kept her from suicide. And it’s possible she would have found Aleksei whether or not I was reinforcing God’s supremacy.
I wish I hadn’t hidden her mental illness from Columbia. If they’d known, they might have accommodated her better, at least by putting her on a lower floor. But Martha had a deep craving for death, a belief system built on death, that might have driven her to kill herself no matter how accommodating the people around her were.
My biggest regret is that I didn’t intervene to save her life on her last night, whether by going to her, calling 911, or some other action. If I had, I might have saved her life that night. But Martha was chronically suicidal, and it would have been difficult to keep locking her up in the psych ward every time she expressed suicidal thoughts. Eventually she might have figured out not to tell me her thoughts, for fear I’d lock her up. And then she might have killed herself just the same.
So I don’t know for sure if anything I did differently would have saved her life. If I could go back and make changes, I would try the changes I just described, but I’m not confident she would have lived longer, or much longer, as a result. I also doubt very much that just telling Martha to embrace life as her purpose and be happy to be alive would have done any good. Martha would have regarded the attempt to impose a “purpose” on her as one more act of the thought police in the service of Big Brother. And telling a depressed person to try to be happy (as a priest once did to me in the confessional) is worse than useless. It’s insulting, a misunderstanding of the involuntary nature of depression. It’s likely to make the depressed person feel more isolated, and make suicide more attractive.
It happens that in one case, during my second stay in One South, I had a chance to give advice to a young, suicidal man who looked like a bearded Superman. My advice was, “Stay alive.” If Martha were with me now, I would give her that same advice. Stay alive as long as you can. It hurts, it sucks, it seems pointless, it makes no sense. But stay alive as long as you can. If you want a reason, do it for your own sake, to get whatever it is you want. Because whatever you want, even if it’s death, you won’t have once you’re dead. The dead don’t even have death; they have nothing. Only the living have things. If that doesn’t help, then stay alive for no reason at all. Stay alive as long as you can. Do whatever you have to to stay alive.
Maybe even that wouldn’t have helped. There is no certain antidote to suicidality, no magic bullet that will keep you from ever wanting to kill yourself. But because love of life is a choice, I believe that even in the greatest darkness I can still aim for life, struggle for life, not because it always makes me feel better but because it is better. Life is better and I can hold fast to it with my will for as long as I can. That’s what it means to love life as my purpose—not always to feel good about life, but always to choose life. To die having held fast to life for as long as I can is to have a happy ending. In that sense even Martha had a happy ending. I think she fought for life as she understood it—a full, free, happy life, even if she thought of its perfect fulfillment as eternity in death with Aleksei. She fought for it as long as she could, and, in the end, she sought it beyond the boundaries of Earth.
In the novel The Godfather, Don Vito Corleone dies with the last words, “Life is so beautiful.” Those are good last words. When I die, I’d like to say something like that. But in real life people often don’t get to choose their last words, or their last thoughts or moods. Yet it will
be a happy ending if I do my best to hold onto life until I can’t hold onto it any longer. Now that I’m not following Martha into death, my aim is to fight for life.
Copyright 2020 George Ochoa.
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Marie (Friday, 23 July 2021 02:24)
Thank you for sharing Martha's story with us. I too grew up like Martha, being more intellectually and spiritually advanced to others (including the adults in my life then) and having no friends. It wasn't until I was 24 that I had my first real friend, who could understand my thoughts and feelings. I became a Catholic shortly after meeting this friend, and what has helped me a lot is meditating on Christ's love and sufferings, as well as on the redemptive nature of suffering. Even after I became a Catholic, got published, and got my MTS degree from a top school, I still had very few friends (mostly caused by my Asian background and the deeply polarized nature of many religious communities in the States). But meditating on the Lord's loneliness in His life, on JP II's Salvifici Doloris (his letter on the salvific nature of suffering) and on St. Therese de Lisieux's short life (filled with great love, but also loneliness, misunderstanding and much pain) made me realize that loneliness and suffering are precious in the Lord's sight, and that He will put them to good use, for His glory and the good of all creation. It is usually loneliness and a lack of purpose that drive people to despair, and the Lord's friendship and love are potent antidotes to this. I am sure that Martha is at peace and in a better place. Her life and story are still blessing the world after she's gone, which is a great comfort to all. And I don't know if you mean it figuratively, but the dead don't "have nothing", they have the fulfillment/consummation of what they have in this world. That is why our earthly life is just a journey, which will reach its final destination after our earthly death. Human souls are created to be immortal, as many religions and belief systems also attest, for God has put eternity in our hearts (Ecc 3:11). May the Lord continue to give you hope and purpose as you continue on your earthly pilgrimage. Take care!
George Ochoa (Friday, 23 July 2021)
Marie: Thank you for your comment. I have developed a deeper Catholic faith since I wrote this memoir, so I appreciate your thoughts and agree with them. Best wishes to you.