My daughter is dead.
What else can be said, what else can be told but the story?
She was a writer.
An unsuccessful one, she called herself. Her agent struggled to get her work published – it was dark, morbid, how could the general public bear the blackness that seeped from the pages?
I thought she was successful. Beautiful. Hard working. Loving. I didn’t care that her work wasn’t out there, it was perfect to me.
She would share, so excitedly, some new work – a poem, a story, a monologue. She pushed page after page into my hands, always littered with notes and lines under words, in red Sharpie. Comments to herself that made me laugh or cry, little things that she told herself to do, or not do, or change, or make darker, or kill off.
I should have seen it coming.
When she had no paper, she would write on her arms with the Sharpie. Temporary tattoos of ideas that made sense only to herself – I can only imagine what people walking down the street thought when they saw those doodles all over her right arm.
She had red Sharpie words on her arm when they found her, slumped on a bench, on the edge of the lake, near our home. Words that made sense only to herself; no note, nothing coherent, no explanation.
She died in a beautiful but lonely place – I visited it, after the wake, in the dusk. There was no path to it – I pushed my way through brambles and nettles, tore my black mourning dress, trod in dog shit in my high heels and ducked under looming branches.
But when I reached the clearing, I saw why she chose it.
A bench overlooking the peaceful lake, trees hiding her away, it was so quiet. I could hear every thought in my head, I could see the peaceful ripples on the water, and I felt no-one else would know I was here.
The beautiful spot was only marred by rubbish – it was obviously so overgrown that the litter pickers forgot it was here and there were cigarettes, gum wrappers, cans, all on the ground. When I looked closer I saw, somewhat buried in the dirt, her choice of death – empty packets of pills, paracetamol mainly.
She must have stocked up, visited pharmacy after pharmacy, buying three packets at a time as the law allows.
She must have had time to think about it. To really know what she was doing. To stop herself. To ask for help. To talk to me.
But she didn’t.
She sat alone on the bench, dressed in her favourite outfit, the clothes we buried her in. What was she thinking – it took time, it wasn’t quick, it wasn’t easy. She must have thought something. Anything. She must have hesitated, regretted it, thought of me.
Pill after pill, washed down with Honey Jack Daniels. I didn’t know she could drink whisky; I didn’t realise how bad it all was. I didn’t know until after she died that she drank every day, that she was drunk when she was with me, that every photo of her smiling came with a shot of vodka, or whisky, or rum, or whatever she could afford.
I wonder what her last thought was.
Was it the pain of her liver, as it reacted to the toxins she was pouring into herself? Or the crippling tightening of her kidneys failing? Did she really feel nothing, as the doctors reassured me, and did she think about me? Her nephew, her brother, her sister-in-law, her father, her friends? Or just herself, alone in that hidden place, achieving what she wanted?
Did she regret it?
It was a dog that found her. The path wasn’t clear to humans, but an overexcited dog exploring found it easily. She loved animals; I like to think she wanted a dog to find her first, rather than a human.
She’d just died, they said. Maybe half an hour before the dog owner phoned for an ambulance. She could have been saved, even if her organs were damaged. Too damaged to even donate, too damaged to even save someone else.
We buried her at the church near our house, close enough so I could walk there every day. The funeral was packed – she was truly loved, she had close friends who sobbed openly as they stood and talked about her, laughed at the memories, cried at the fact she was gone. I didn’t speak. I couldn’t speak. The priest spoke on my behalf, and it was strange hearing my thoughts coming from his mouth, coming from a man who didn’t know her.
Her grave was simple. “Memento Mori”, it said, because that’s all that could be read clearly on her arm in red Sharpie at the beauty spot. “Remember you will die” – it seemed fitting. Almost poetic. But the grave itself was nothing special – no angels or frills or crosses.
When the funeral was over, and life was supposed to go back to normal, I couldn’t settle. No-one was surprised, but no-one knew what to say either. What do you say to someone who had lost a child?
So I visited her every day. Once a week I brought flowers; once every other week I brought a copy of her work, and read it out loud, even the notes to herself that made me chuckle. I told her how life was still going on, how her baby nephew was starting to talk, how he could point out his auntie in photos of her. We told him all about her, I said, because she’s still here with us.
Every day, I visited for the first year. Even when life truly went back to normal, and I went back to work, I would visit. Her father visited less often – he seemed to channel his grief into working hard, getting a promotion, proving himself somehow as if that would replace his lost child. I didn’t know how to talk to him about it, so I didn’t. Our marriage became a quiet habit, with an empty space that was impossible to fill.
But then life just continued on. My work got more intense and I needed to work more hours; my grandson was starting preschool and my daughter-in-law needed help taking him back and forth; my back, which had always been bad, started getting worse…
I could make a hundred excuses as to why I didn’t visit her anymore. Straight after the funeral I promised myself, I promised her, I wouldn’t let her grave become like some of the others – knocked over by vandals or sheer bad luck, overgrown with weeds.
She just became a memory, the physical image of her grave faded away as life went on without her. It just did. It seemed impossible when you lost a child that you could continue – but you did.
I remember when it happened.
I was at the table with my grandson, his little legs dangling on the chair that was too big for him. He was telling me excitedly about playing with sand at preschool and I was nodding along, because I couldn’t get a word in edgeways.
There was the rattle of the letterbox.
I thought it strange at first, because it was the afternoon – the postman had been and gone. I dismissed it as junk mail from some takeaway place and went back to listening to my grandson, now talking about when the teacher was telling them about shapes.
I left him drawing shapes and practicing writing his name as I did some chores: Folded clothes, wiped down the kitchen counter, and then headed upstairs to put something away.
This meant going past the front door, so I reminded myself of the junk mail that was surely there, so I could bin it instantly.
I put the clothes basket at the foot of the stairs and went to the mat at the front door.
It wasn’t a leaflet, I realised. It looked more like a note on beige paper. Maybe it was from a neighbour – sometimes they had barbeques in the summer and were polite enough to tell us so we wouldn’t hang out clothes that would come back smelling of smoke.
I bent down to pick it up, and realised the texture was weird – squishy almost, and warm to the touch. My hand came away bloody, and I realised the ‘note’ was covered in fine hairs.
It wasn’t paper.
It was a slip of skin, deep enough to have been cut down to the muscle, thick and heavy and warm. I think the heat bothered me most, with this disembodied piece of flesh.
I closed my eyes tight as the room span, but I clutched the chunk of skin tightly regardless.
Written in red Sharpie, on top of all the fine hair that dusted her arms, were the words –
“You never visit me anymore”.