Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death

My friend’s daughter killed herself last Sunday. She was 19. She was also strikingly beautiful but that doesn’t matter. Why write it then? Maybe because my previous post was about youth, beauty and potential then came this brutal, tragic coincidence.

Within hours of the towers coming down on September 11th, The New Yorker’s Jane Kramer was asked to write a 900-word essay on Manhattan’s immediate response.  She said no, calling it an obscenity to turn something that stunningly horrific into a couple of pages of words. “But we focus through language,” she reflected, ten years later. “We focus through words and filter our confusion through words as best we can.”

Writing about this young woman’s suicide is my attempt to do the same: to focus with hopes I’ll ease up on the confusion. Some details of her brief life and tragic death are fabricated in order to protect her family. I’ve given her a false name.

At first, I couldn’t write about Lena’s death. I couldn’t even vaguely link her suicide with the frivolity of ‘blogging.’ But I don’t write frivolously. I write in here because I need to fill the cracks with words, cracks that appear for me each time I tip into the roughness of death, that blatant, cruel, lonely abyss; the place where I land each time I begin a file on a newly missed long-time-loved family member or colleague, a life that made a difference to lives.

But those lives weren’t suicides. Those lives weren’t teenagers.

I write in order to—not to understand, because I don’t think that’s possible, but to struggle with it differently. To experience it in less isolation, maybe, and that’s weird since I am always alone while I write. And yet not. Writers tend to be ventriloquists: we listen to our reader’s voices as we write.

Lena’s death is far too real. The weight of tragedy and grief nearly overwhelms me. I remember the magnolia tree my friend planted on her front lawn in Victoria when Lena was born, this tree that has been a backdrop to her as she grew. I remember her mother’s pregnant belly, because my belly swelled then too.

March 8, 1992: Sherri and I were at an International Women’s Day march, both of us was pregnant. The previous night, another friend of mine had painted a bowl of fruit on my stomach: melons, grapes, bananas, dripping red cherries tucked into my chubby navel. At the rally I lifted my shirt to show it off and a week later was delivered of my son. His was a Caesarian birth; the doctor sliced into my bowl and out Toto slid.

After learning of Lena’s suicide I called my son to tell him, and to tell him again and again I love you. “Oh how sad,” he said.  “Are her parents okay?” Ah, such innocence. He didn’t know Lena; since his birth we’ve lived in Ontario and they are in B.C.

It’s a beautiful Ontario day and as I write this I’m sitting on a beer patio waiting for my lover. Drinking a glass of Heineken, coaxing these words. Every very often, though, a jolt passes through me and it comes with remembering Lena’s death. Thinking about the unfathomable shock her family and friends are feeling–wanting, at the same time, for the shock to hang on because what replaces it is a lifetime of grief.

A beautiful afternoon in Toronto and so, attempting to escape my feelings, I went for a walk along the Don River valley. Lovely, very lovely, until I came near to an imposing bridge stretching across the valley and found a 3-year old shrine about 80 feet below it, a display of plastic flowers marking the suicide of a nineteen-year-old man.

I bent down to examine this young man’s photograph, preserved behind plexiglass, then I peered up at the bridge, traffic screaming along mindlessly with the familiar non-emotion of aluminium body panels and steel chassis, and I finally wept.


About Nor

I'm a creative non-fiction writer, with a special interest in memoirs and obituaries--life stories, local histories with flesh & blood anecdotal details. I'm also beginning to create podcasts of people's stories and expanding their audiences. I'm a diarist, an editor, and a political activist. I live in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and spend days tapping keys or staining my fingers in ink.
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2 Responses to Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death

  1. Stephanie says:

    Noreen, I’m so terribly sorry to hear about Lena’s suicide, and my heart goes out to her mother, and to you. You have written a beautiful piece here, and I hope the act of writing has helped you to some extent.

  2. There’s something so unbearable about suicide, I can barely talk about it, let alone write about it. But you’ve done it so movingly. I hope Lena’s mom has other children….

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