By Kelley Clink
It’s two in the morning. My vision blurs from lack of sleep. The lamp in the corner washes the room in soft, amber light. It shimmers in my son’s wide-open eyes, which gaze up at me. His small, hot hand curls against my chest. We rock in the glider. We rock and rock. He is quiet, full and heavy, warm in my arms.
Is this real? I ask myself. It’s taken so long to get here that I still can’t quite believe it.
I never thought much about having children before I got married. I sort of assumed it was something I’d do, eventually, but I wasn’t one of those women who felt like I was meant to be a mother. I didn’t even particularly like kids. But I loved my husband deeply, and thought it might be kind of fun to make a person with him.
To be fair, I was 21 years old at the time.
About three years into our marriage, when I was 24 and my husband was 26, we started to consider the prospect more seriously. I’d just finished graduate school. There was plenty of time for multiple pregnancies before I turned 30 (my definition of “old” at the time). It all worked out in theory. And that’s all it was: theory. I never once tried to imagine what it would be like to hold my child in my arms. How it would feel to see him smile. It was just the next logical step in a mapped out, middle-class, American adulthood.
Then my brother hanged himself, and the map went up in flames.
Matt, my only sibling, was three years younger than I. When we were growing up he was alternately a responsibility, a playmate, and a pain in the ass, and I loved him as if he were a part of me. In a way, he was. He was the only other person on the planet made from the same two people. From the same past.
I was diagnosed with depression at the age of 16. Matt was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 15. We both attempted suicide by overdose as teenagers. We both survived. We both seemed to even out afterwards, thanks to medications and therapy. We both graduated high school with honors and did well in college. Matt was three weeks away from graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Rutgers when he died. I’d spoken to him earlier in the week. He’d given no indication that anything was wrong.
The suddenness and violence of his exit gutted me. There was anger, anxiety, exhaustion, depression, sadness, fear, guilt. Usually all at the same time. I folded in on myself. Stopped working. Cut off friends. Rarely left the house. Grief was a tarpit and I was a prehistoric animal. I slowly sank, watched life go by, and waited for the tarpit to magically drain or swallow me whole.
But somehow, at the same time I felt removed from life, I was consumed by a desire to create it. The longing was so deep it was painful—an ache for gain that throbbed alongside my loss.
I wasn’t completely naÃ¯ve. I knew that a child wouldn’t fill the void left by my brother. I knew that nothing would. And anyway, the desire—deep as it was—was nothing but a blip of an atom in a blackhole of fear.
I was terrified that the same pain that had plagued my brother would descend on me. At the time of Matt’s death I’d been on antidepressants for nearly a decade. They’d helped me—but for a while they’d helped him, too. Who was to say they wouldn’t stop working? What if our genes were a crooked double helix, bent on self-destruction? What if my children were like me?
What if they were like him?
Each night the “what ifs” piled up in the dark around me while I lay awake, my eyes sticky-dry, my husband’s even breathing like water torture.
This went on for years.
In the meantime, of course, friends and family members got pregnant. They had their children. They got pregnant again. Every ultrasound photo on Facebook, every card in the mail with a pair of empty baby shoes, waiting, punched all the air from my lungs.
I was stuck in the tarpit. But even though my life wasn’t moving forward in the way I’d thought it would, the way everyone else’s was, I was busy. I was doing the work of grieving. For me that work took the form of writing a book about Matt. Every day I sifted through the blog posts, emails, and stories he’d left behind. Every day I plunged back into my memory. I filled blank page after blank page, trying to make sense of what had happened to him. It was raw and painful, like digging glass splinters out of my heart with my fingers. Two years passed. Three. Four. I turned the dreaded 30 and then some. Finally I finished the book and came up for air. I was done grieving. The tarpit was gone.
But the fear remained.
What exactly was I afraid of? In the first years after Matt’s death I’d thought it was suicide. I’d worried that it was out there, waiting for me—a land mine wired by genes and grief.
It took years (and several therapists), but eventually I understood that despite our shared histories and DNA, my brother’s life had not been my life, and his death didn’t have to be my death.
Once I finished grieving Matt, and trusted my desire to live, I began to see that the fear was rooted in something else. Something deeper. I wasn’t so much afraid of death as I was afraid of love.
Here’s the thing: to open yourself to love, you have to be willing to accept loss. Gut-wrenching, bone-crushing, soul-obliterating loss. After my brother died my mom said things like, “I’d do it all over again, even if I knew how it would turn out. I wouldn’t trade a single second.” Deep in the tarpit, struggling to keep from going completely under, I hadn’t understood. If I had the choice, I’d thought, I would rather have been an only child. Even years later, after I had grieved my brother, after I had accepted his death, the mere possibility of experiencing that kind of pain again tightened my throat.
The heart, though metaphorical, is like any other muscle. Once wounded, it takes time to heal. Once healed, it takes time to rehabilitate.
My heart took her time.
It happened slowly, so slowly, each day a single grain of sand dropping from one side of an hourglass to the other: fear giving way to desire. Other things happened in the meantime. Life. I danced with my friends. I sang karaoke (badly). I saw oceans and countries that my brother would never see. But I began to realize that I carried him with me everywhere I went—knowing him, being a sister to him, had made me who I was, and his death had brought me more than grief. I cried for the years I’d lost, I cried for the uncertainty of it all, but eventually I looked back at the ashes of the map and realized that Matt had given me the gift of deliberateness. I was no longer making choices based on expectations. I was approaching life with open eyes. He’d also given me compassion: for myself and my depression, as well as for others. I was approaching life with a scarred, but open, heart. I realized I would have been a sister to him all over again, even if I knew how it was going to turn out.
Ten years, five months, and seven days after my brother died, my son was born.
My son’s eyelids flutter closed. Gradually I slow the glider to a stop, carry him across the room, and lay him gently in his crib.
I see my brother in his face. I see myself, too. But I also see his father, his grandparents, his aunts, uncles, and cousins. Most of the time I don’t see anyone but my son. Just him.
I don’t know who my son will be, what kind of challenges he will face. I do know that he will hear stories about his Uncle Matt’s kindness and humor, his intelligence and passion. He will know that Matt’s illness was a part of who he was, but only part. He will know that my illness is a part of who I am, too. My son will learn that life is hard and beautiful. That love and grief are two sides of the same coin.
I worried for years that my children would be like my brother and me. I want to say that I don’t anymore, but I can’t. No matter the wisdom or joy that has come from my experience, I don’t want my son to suffer. Still, whether or not it involves mental illness, I know he will. He has to. That’s life. I suppose the best thing I can do, the only thing I can do, is to let it happen. To stand by his side, hold his hand when he will let me, and trust that our hearts will heal.
Author’s Note: Next month we will celebrate my son’s first birthday. Parenthood has conjured a host of new fears in addition to the old, but each one is matched by an equal measure of joy. My husband and I hope to be lucky enough to add more children to our family in the near future.
Kelley Clink is a suicide prevention and mental health advocate, and author of the memoir A Different Kind of Same. She lives near Chicago with her husband and son. You can find out more about her at www.kelleyclink.com.
BOOKSPARKS SPEAKS OUT: Join Kelley Clink on World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10. For all sales made on Kelley’s book, A Different Kind of Same on September 10, Kelley will donate 30% of proceeds to the Alliance of Hope for Suicide Loss Survivors. Learn more on how to get involved here.