Ten years ago today I crossed the final item off my bucket list of things to do before I turned 50: I went sky-diving. The event was both terrifying (the 20 minute climb to the proper altitude during which my heart nearly leapt out of my chest as I thought, “what in the hell are you doing? You’re going to fall from a plane?!?!?) and exhilarating (the 30 second, one mile free fall before the cord was pulled in which I realized I literally have no control over anything in my life, so I might as well enjoy the ride.) Following the parachute being released, I simply wafted down, taking five minutes to descend the final mile, marveling at the beauty of the earth, the mystery of floating in space, and gratitude for my life.
What I remember most about it today, is that it was a gift I was able to give to my brother, Erik. The whole thing was a family affair; the entire family had gathered in Colorado Springs to celebrate the Golden Birthday of my son, Sam, who would turn 16 on September 16. Five of us had signed up to skydive: three nieces, my brother, and me. Spontaneously, I had told Erik, it would be my treat.
We went up in three separate planes; Erik and I in one, and my nieces in the other two. It was a tandem jump, so we were each strapped to a professional instructor. That meant that in the plane we were literally sitting on the sky-diver’s lap. Erik’s instructor said, jokingly, he bet it was the first time Erik had ever sat on another man’s lap. I retorted it was the first time for me, too. We all laughed, even as my blood pressure was rising and my heart threatened to pound its way out of my chest.
I went first, and after a successful landing, watched my brother drift down from the sky. It was a wonderful shared experience then, and it’s more meaningful now. I didn’t realize on that sunny, cool day that my time with my brother was limited.
On August 16, two years later, my brother completed suicide. I knew he had turned some dark corner several years earlier and he seemed unable to find his way home again. The last time I saw him was when all five of us siblings had gotten together in Kansas to celebrate his 55th birthday by seeing Fleetwood Mac in concert.
Losing someone to suicide is a grief unlike any other; it’s sharper, it cuts deeper, it can trigger PTSD, it is utterly and profoundly devastating. I mention my brother on the anniversary of our sky-diving because September is Suicide Awareness month. As the website for the National Alliance on Mental Illness states: it is “a time to raise awareness on this stigmatized, and often taboo, topic. Besides shifting public perception, we use this month to spread hope and vital information to people affected by suicide. Our goal is ensuring that individuals, friends and families have access to the resources they need to discuss suicide prevention and to seek help.”
Because suicide is so stigmatized, many people expressing suicidal ideation don’t seek help. In reality there are so many resources that can help people climb out of the valley of the shadow of death and find joy and purpose in life, again.
If you or someone you know is dealing with depression or suicidal ideation, please call the suicide hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255), or text the word HOME to 741741. There is help, there is hope.
In closing, I’d like to share a poem I wrote for my brother, Erik.
Things I Want to Ask You
(In the Maze of the Minotaur)
Because who knows what happens
when we die?
I have always prided myself
on my unknowing–
my claim that we are made of energy which
goes on spiraling out into the vast universe;
as far away as the most distant star
as close as the breath I just took in
and when I think of that
and imagine you here with me
swirling around in
dust motes of regret
I want to ask you
was it worth it?
Are you satisfied with the outcome?
Are you at peace?
(this is the only question where I believe I know the answer
and for that, anyway,
I am grateful.)
There are questions that haunt me
In the darkest hours of night
when I awake
And cannot sleep again
So I lie in bed,
As tears stream down my face
and I ask you these simple things:
Are you happy?
Can you see the bigger picture now?
How much love this world held for you?
How much your presence meant?
Do you see
from your broader perspective
that there were resources you could have used
that there was a way out of the minotaur’s labyrinth
string to hold you fast to the light;
do you see all these things now?
And will you promise me
promise me with all your shattered heart
that the next time you visit
in whatever form you take
that you will remember the thread
the sword to kill the monsters in your soul
and return safely again
to the arms of those
who love you?