laura thomas //

Discovering Strength Through Vulnerability

What the Heart Says

by Laura Thomas

 This piece is taken from my unpublished memoir about my brother’s loss to suicide. After Scott died – a painful nine-month process – I faced the stark reality of life without the person upon whom I depended. One month after his death, I left my family and traveled to New Zealand with the question: if Scott was no longer alive, who was I without him?

* - * - * - *

New York

I stood just inside the doorway of Scott’s room, the place I both longed for and dreaded. A stiff blue dressing gown draped over my body and floated around my knees. An exasperated hairnet gave up trying to tame the dark blonde wisps at my temples. It was also blue, not lunch-lady white. My hands were sweating, small pools of moisture collecting inside latex gloves. Blue. The whole display likely resembled a Cookie Monster wearing sneakers.

Shut up, brain.

Machines trumpeted throughout the room, telling stories of Scott’s heart, his blood pressure, his temperature. It was an orchestra weaving melodies of life and death, its sheet music stark white, freshly printed. Destiny’s music. A genre and composer I instantly hated. I tired ignoring the sounds and recoiled when my attention instead fell upon . . .

There, in the middle of the room . . . He’s always in the middle of things. I almost laughed at the thought, so casual. Or vomited. The sensations felt oddly similar. He was in the middle of my life, too, a place only my older brother could claim. My insides churned as I took him in, trying to comprehend what I saw.

Strips of translucent tape covered his eyelids, gripping his paper-thin skin; A clear plastic tube emerged from a puncture at his throat. That soft spot, the one that doesn’t like to be touched; Gymnastics-like equipment pierced and aligned his joints – wires and rods that made me prickle all over.

My mind conjured montages of how he might have landed on the pavement. Arms and head twisted at grotesque angles? Bones broken so thoroughly he lay almost pancake-flat? Never had I longed so fiercely for Scott to wake up and wrap his arms around me, a soft chuckle vibrating in his chest. He would pull me to his side where I fit perfectly, his hipbone my touchstone. My hands shook with desire.

Mom and Dad stood against the wall, allowing me these private moments. If only they knew my private moments were filling with rising panic. When Dad called to tell me Scott jumped off the roof of his 14-story apartment building, he said I couldn’t come to New York. They wanted me to wait in Madison until Scott stabilized. 

I agreed to be isolated for an entire week, away from my family instead of being held by them. What’s worse, I received Mom and Dad’s updates with calm composure, trying to reduce their burden by being invisible. I was masterful at keeping it together. Also known as lying, pretending things were fine.

I could run, I thought, my breath shortening. Actually run. They wouldn’t stop me, my parents, would be too shocked to react. But where would I go? How could I escape this? No, I couldn’t run. My world lay here, silently beckoning me closer. I hardly ever resisted Scott’s call.

I took a slow, silent step, just like I used to when creeping over the floor above his bedroom, a late sleeper. I felt an overwhelming urge to touch him, to feel the texture of his skin. My hands fluttered, afraid to land. I finally settled a pointer finger on the small spot between his eyebrows, unharmed, tracing feathery circles. Just how Mom soothed us as kids.

“Hi, Scott Boy.” My voice croaked. “It’s me, Laura.” I cried quietly. I was finally here. The trouble was, from here, I had no idea where we were going.

* - * - * - *

New Zealand

It was almost a year later. I was living in New Zealand, a town on the north island called Rotorua. It was the only place I could think to go after Scott died, a place where just enough people knew me and most didn’t, a place I had once thought was magical enough to change the course of my life.

I slipped out my family friends’ house and onto the sidewalk. I knew where I wanted to go, but the memory of how to get there, four years prior, was incomplete. Maybe, I thought to myself, a small smile, I was so involved in a conversation with Scott that I wasn’t really paying attention. I wondered what we were talking about. Was that when I asked him to explain how our voices traveled through phones? Something about sound waves become electrical waves, then sound waves again, then picked up by the cilia in our ears and interpreted by our brains . . . Yes, I think that was it.

My feet remembered the way. They led me down contorted residential streets until I came upon the forest entrance with a bridge buried in pine needles. I removed my shoes and carried them, remembering how Scott’s feet turned mahogany from the red-brown earth.

The sun’s strength was reduced, now just a hazy glow illuminating particles floating in the air. The trail abutted a stream singing its arpeggio while birds warbled overhead. I had forgotten the sound of their songs, so different from those in the U.S.

To my left, the path dropped off to a small landing of sand at the river’s edge. It was here, on my walk with Scott and our family friends’ pit bull mix, Lucy, that we stopped. Scott picked up a pinecone and hurled it into the water. Plop! It bobbed on the surface. Lucy sprang after, sending water in all directions as she snatched it and scaled back up the banks, dropping the mauled mass at Scott’s feet. Hours passed.

It was my most cherished memory from our month-long vacation in New Zealand, four years before Scott jumped. He’d been living with his best friend in Auckland. I don’t remember much from that trip, just general shapes and hues. It was one of my defense mechanisms, erasing details.

I remember Mom’s quick descent into depression when she learned Scott was gay. I remember Scott’s anguish, trying to find himself anew, loving his best friend, Sam, while the two of them lived with Sam’s girlfriend. I remember sitting in the back seat of our rental car, glaring at Mom until my forehead ached, scribbling notes to Scott. I can’t stand her. I can’t stand the fact that NO ONE IS TALKING! How could she treat you this way?! Scott wrote back, his face neutral, Maybe you should talk to her. I scoffed, then laid my head on his shoulder, slipping back into opacity.

 But that afternoon by the river with Scott . . . I remember that with sharp clarity. I discovered something that day, a power within myself to make everything better. It was like a wide paintbrush stroked the entire length of my body, coating me with warm understanding. Scott could make me feel that way, too, but this time it was coming from me. As sure as I felt the damp earth beneath me, I suddenly knew I’d been given the power to fix things. I could fix things for Mom, for Scott, for me . . . that’s why I was here, it was so clear now! That’s why I was born into this family! I could fix us with my love, more powerful than theirs; yes, that’s how I felt!

Sitting at the water’s edge four years later, my eyes glazed over with the memory of what that felt like. Having a purpose. A pressure built in my head as tears peaked, spilling over. My body shuddering with sobs I had started to think would never come. They weren’t for Scott, or Mom, both of whom I felt I failed, though I didn’t blame myself for the turns their lives took. They were for me. The grief of knowing I had lied to myself, and I continued lying to myself. And some of my lies . . . well, I still wasn’t ready to let go of them.

Not yet. But soon.

* - * - * - *

New York

In the months leading up to my first year of college, I cried almost daily. Transitions were difficult, but this reaction surprised even me. At school in Madison, Wisconsin, the discomfort continued. I was an anomaly, the Big 10 student who didn’t drink, party, or have sex. I envied my peers, the ones who didn’t study as much, yet surpassed me on exams. They had a carefree nature. They played roles I would never know: prankster, siren, toga-dressed Greek, minor felon. It seemed brave, what they did. They dared to be young.

Senior year, things were finally looking up. I was attracting male attention and went on my first dates. I agreed to be someone’s girlfriend because he was the first to ask, and it felt incredible, being wanted. I published research papers, despite my lifelong belief I wasn’t intelligent. I started a student-run café on campus with two of my peers, quickly becoming a popular lunch destination. The world was finally working in my favor, and, like many other seniors, I was itching to graduate and flex my aptitude.

Then I got the call from Dad.

“Laura,” he said on the other end, his voice breaking, “Scott tried to take his life.”

I was in the grocery store, surrounded by apples and bananas. I didn’t cry right away, though I made some incoherent noises, a vise materializing around my lungs and heart, clamping tight. I was aware of the people around me, what they would have thought if I’d fallen to the floor, wailing.

I swallowed. After Dad shared the minimal details, then told me to wait in Madison, there wasn’t anything else to say. I continued shopping, my vision narrowing as I meticulously wound through each isle. Fine, I said to the cashier when he asked, How’s it goin’?

My backpack banged painfully against my lower back as I ran home along the bike path. I couldn’t help but think of all the times I’d visualized Scott’s death, or Mom’s, or Dad’s, or mine. Behind my Disney-loving façade, something dangerous lurked. My mind was habitually overtaken by dark fantasies. Worse, everyone’s fictional death was told in a way that made me the hero of the story, some sexy, admirable princess.

By the time I arrived at my empty apartment, I was hysterical, sobbing so hard my lungs hurt. I’d never hated myself more than in those moments. You’re despicable! How could you think you fixed things!

I called my boyfriend. “I need you.” It took him a moment to realize I was crying, not laughing. “Please,” I begged. While waiting, I slammed my fists and head against the mattress; I screamed into my pillow; I bit my thumb until I couldn’t rub the teeth marks away. Then I sat at my desk and did a craft. I pasted a picture of Scott and me onto colorful paper and wrote lyrics from one of our favorite songs around the border.

“I have loved you beautifully.”

* - * - * - *

I moved aside for the nurse who entered the room, striding towards Scott’s bed like he was walking down the streets of New York. His smile was too big. I shrank from his cheeriness, his ease. I didn’t take a moment to realize he had to see this every day. Broken people. He’d found ways to survive.

“Scott,” he said loudly, “I’m going to suction the blood from your lungs now, okay?” He inserted a tube through the existing port at Scott’s throat, maneuvering it around while monitoring his progress on a screen. The sound it made was that of a child getting the last drops of milkshake through a straw. “Almost done.” I’d been in the ICU two days and already the sight of Scott’s blood being drawn from his lungs, his body mechanically jerking in response, elicited no emotion.

A doctor entered, followed by a flock of residents just as the nurse wiped the last splatters of red from Scott’s tracheostomy. My parents rose from their favored plastic chairs, eager to listen, Mom with her list of questions. Our days were punctuated by these interactions: highbrow medical terms and memorized shifts of each employee on floor 11, including janitors. I stared out the window, stopping myself when I realized I was counting stories of surrounding buildings. Eleven. I reached eyelevel with a neighboring building. Just shy of 14. It had become a bad habit.

Mom drew a clipboard and pen from her bag, pushing aside her silver bangs. Her face drew in as she listened to the doctor’s ramblings – I guess you could call them reports. I tried ignoring these parts of the day. What I already understood about Scott’s condition was enough. Still, phrases trickled across the room. Kidney failure. Temperature dangerously high. Blood clots in legs. Possible seizure during the night.

Tears pooled against my will, my anger succumbing to the despair I tried masking with any other emotion, fearing I would get lost in its depth. Had Scott not been found on the sidewalk by a passing apartment tenant and rushed into the hands of these skilled, levelheaded angels in scrubs, he would be dead. They were kind, seemed to genuinely care about this patient and his family.

And I never wanted to see them again.

“Is there anything we can do about his temperature?” Dad’s resonate timbre cut through my thoughts. He and Mom huddled with their favorite resident; the one Mom thought was cute and happened to know was single, she told me more than once.

“Not at this point,” the resident said. Seeing their distress, he added, “You can hold a cold compress to his forehead, if you want.” My parent’s nodded seriously, ready to execute their charge better than any cold-compress-holders in the world. The resident looked at me. As soon as our eyes locked, he jolted and broke away. With a hurried nod to my parents, he ducked out after his group.

Mom and Dad set about finding washcloths, running them water, and tending Scott from both sides of his bed. I leaned against the sage green wall, frigid to the touch, and watched as they caressed Scott’s forehead and arms, speaking in singsong voices. Mom leaned in and planted a kiss on Scott’s forehead; that spot between his eyebrows. A hollow pit ached in my stomach and my eyes seared. I gripped my toes and pushed against the wall, daring it to crumble beneath my weight and fling me out into nothingness.

It was my first taste of what it felt like, becoming a child of one where there should have been two.

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Copyright © Laura Thomas 2016

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