Leave it a question; it’s not the answer.
Long before my crisis with Marlene, and then with Emily, I had thought about suicide more than a few times – mostly as an abstract concept: Under what circumstances would it be acceptable to do yourself in? How hopeless must the current situation be, or you thought you were in, to come to the conclusion that offing yourself was the only/right solution? I usually answered that query with, only a terminal and terrifying illness would meet this test. Otherwise, think of the damage you would cause others. Or maybe in the wounded mind, that is the point. Everything else is ego, or a malfunctioning brain that can no longer accurately evaluate hopefulness. But when you are mentally ill with deep depression, you don’t think of others, only of yourself, and maybe not even yourself.
And if I were to do it, what would be the method? Death by carbon monoxide poisoning: sitting in the car in the closed garage, windows down, the engine running. And this became the method I proposed to Marlene when we contemplated assisted dying for her, first in the days before the enabling legislation had been passed, and afterwards because Marlene was no longer mentally competent to qualify for the procedure! I would have to take on this burden myself, and face the legal consequences. But I knew that I couldn’t just leave her alone in the garage waiting to die – imagine, to walk away from her – I knew I would have to go with her. Marlene did not want to live with the loss of dignity, and so taking control of her own life, and death, was the correct thing to do. But Marlene loved life and choosing the correct day to end it was not ever resolved. Even when she was in extremis she was still wanting one more day until finally, as that day had arrived, I was no longer able to lift and carry her to the car in the garage. She lost her right to die with dignity.
After Marlene had died, I slipped into a deep dark hopeless stage. Suicidal ideation came frequently, sometimes unbidden, unconsciously. In Marlene’s case, assisted dying would have been the humane thing to do, and everyone would understand, but if I killed myself, how was this fair to the family, the ones who would have to pick up the pieces; even friends would have to recalibrate the meaning of my life to them – if life is a legacy, what legacy did I leave?
Emily helped push those thoughts to the back of my mind. She was giving me purpose again, and life with Emily felt like a continuation from life with Marlene. But then that dream came crashing down too. All through that spring and over the weeks of the summer I often went to the cemetery to visit Marlene. I would tend to the roses and manicure the little garden in front of her grave. I’d sit on my folding chair and take in the peaceful surroundings of the cemetery. And I’d talk to her. I knew she wasn’t there; I didn’t expect any answers to my questions, and got none. I told her the latest developments with Emily, how I was so disappointed that she might not be the link I hoped for. And I told her that I didn’t see the point of living anymore. I reminded Marlene that I had put my own date of birth beside hers on the tombstone, that all that remained was to carve in the date of death.
In my deepest darkest days I would find myself thinking of driving into the abutments on the Queensway, but this seemed too violent to me, and what if those damned airbags actually worked well enough to save my life?
I only considered hanging after a vivid and disturbing dream I’d had following my first great disappointment with Emily. She was supposed to accompany me to a Christmas memorial service but at the last minute, made excuses and didn’t come with me.
I decided to tell my grief counselor about the dream at our already scheduled Wednesday morning session.
‘I dreamed of hanging myself Tuesday morning, and this morning also.’ I said. ‘It was very disturbing, and yet, somehow, satisfying. I had strung a heavy rope from the banister post of the stairwell and was hanging in the entrance hallway. The front door is in front of me, but my back was to the side door that leads to the garage.’
Then I exclaimed, ‘I see a figure coming in through the back door, but I can’t tell who it is.’
Maryse reacted with some alarm but held her professional demeanour. We had talked about suicide some months previously with Marlene’s last desperate months, and then my own – death by carbon monoxide poisoning. She noted that thoughts of suicide were common for the surviving spouse who feels at that moment that life without one’s spouse is not worth living. But hope and purpose return and the suicidal thoughts recede.
But this dream of hanging myself was a new event.
I had a flash of insight.
‘I know who that shadowy figure is in my dream. It’s Emily coming in the back door and discovering me hanging there! I am punishing her, aren’t I?’
‘Yes, said Maryse, ‘I think so.
‘But is that fair to Emily? Does she really deserve to be hurt in such a devastating way?
‘In your grief and hurt and anger, it’s not surprising that you want to hit back, but this is not a reasonable thing.’
‘Grief has nothing to do with reason,’ I remarked.
She sent me to see my own doctor. ‘You’re depressed Doug. You may have suicidal ideation but you are not suicidal,’ he said, ‘you’re too cognitively aware of your own condition’. My lawyer friend, whose own father shot himself, put it more succinctly, ‘Those who talk about don’t do it.’
After that dream, and all through that awful summer of Emily yo-yo-ing me I had considered hanging myself more than a few times from various staircases, but now, while visiting Marlene, I thought the branch of the tree reaching over her headstone would do nicely. I wondered where I had put my rope.
During one particularly pain-filled week in October I got out my old Boy Scout book of knots and retrieved the nylon rope in the garage. I practiced tying a hangman’s nose, only seven turns, not the requisite and superstitious 13, but was satisfied with my work. I had a correct and sturdy slip knot. And then I read the specifications on the packaging of the rope: Maximum test, 75 kilos. Hmmm, I weighed about 200 pounds. This flimsy excuse of a rope would not hold my weight, probably just stretch until my feet were replanted on the ground, and the only damage would be a strangulated voicebox and skin burn on my neck. I needed a stronger rope. Well, maybe another day.
But that other day came within a week. I needed to wrap my picnic table in a winterized cover and tie it down. I could have used that yellow test rope but I decided I needed something white to match the cover. Off to Home Hardware. I sampled the various ropes (cotton, nylon), checked for tensile strength. And selected a stout one, 100 kilo test. The helpful sales associate thought that was a bit heavy duty for my needs but I said no, it would do nicely.
Over the months ahead as I visited Marlene’s grave, and often in the middle of my wakeful nights, I considered how I would fasten the rope to the tree, i.e., tie in such a way that the tree took most of the load, not just the flimsy branch; I considered the height of the branch and how I would toss the rope over, twice, and then wrap the rope around the trunk, and the length of rope needed to keep me off the ground, the positioning of the folding chair, and how I would kick it over. I even considered that the deed would have to be done at night to avoid interfering witnesses. Pity the early morning visitor who discovered my body and notified the mortician; at least he would be near-by. But the point was, I wanted to be with Marlene when I left this life.
As the darkest months began to pass into sunlight, my suicidal ideation began to wane. Over the winter I would idly ask myself, what had I done with that stout white rope? I would search my house in my head, and even conduct an active search of the closet, the garage and the basement – the obvious places – but I couldn’t find that rope. I began to wonder if my cleaning lady had taken it so I couldn’t use it.
It was not until spring that the mystery of the rope was solved. I was de-winterizing my little backyard garden, returning my potted roses and other pots from the garage to their position in the garden, hauled the glider chair up from the basement, and unwrapped the white cover from the picnic table. Ha! There was the over-gauge white rope. I had used it after all to tie down the cover.