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What I Tell Myself After All the Bad Things That Have Happened

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Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

“The body keeps score,” my therapist says, her eyeglasses reflecting the blue light from her laptop as she types, “even if the brain doesn’t know it.”

I squirm uncomfortably on the small, beige couch. In my head, I consider how ironic this is. The way I have conditioned myself to crave the condition and routine of certainties in life at a time when my life has so few — and yet the one the one thing I am more certain about than anything else in this world — I dread.

Every September, without fail, the air gets a little cooler, the Southern weather grows tired of constantly changing its mind and patterns — mostly setting for an even-tempered blue sky. And late in the month, the 23rd to be exact, my father dies. All over again.

“I’m not unhappy. I’m not depressed. I’m just tired. I just get so tired,” I explain. “I feel like I have white-knuckled my way though so many things. And when I get ready to loosen my grip again, something else bad happens. Really bad.”

I study the woman seated across from me. Mental health professionals — I have learned — all seem to share an incredible gift of providing a world class poker face. But I know what she’s thinking: This girl has really been through it.

I don’t feel sorry for myself. I recognize the fact that others do, but I care very little about what outsiders believe about what goes on inside my world. My sister once told me that life is just a series of foreshadowing, though we don’t ever realize it until the plot twist. When shit hits the fan. When we look back and think, how did I not see this coming?

I think back to the Summer of 2018, when my sister told me nonchalantly that she had suddenly started to experience double vision and was going to see an eye doctor.

“I think you have a brain tumor,” I said to her. The eye doctor didn’t think so. In fact, she assured her that she didn’t, but just the same, two years later, the wicker basket she keeps in her bathroom that once housed the quirky collection of jars from candles she had burned through is now full of bright orange pill bottles. Most of which I can’t pronounce the name of, just know they’re the kinds of pills people take in the months after a craniotomy. She had in fact had a brain tumor. A massive one. And although it had been removed almost immediately during a 17 hour procedure, the consequences of that tumor would remain. The body would remember.

Last week I ran my fingers across the piece of paper taped to the inside of her closet door. It was like an eye chart you would see at the doctor — just letters filling the page in no particular order. This seemed ironic too, because my sister, an English teacher and a graduate of Georgia Tech, probably knew her ABCs better than anyone, and yet here was this piece of paper that was supposed to help her brain recognize letters and words and patterns again. She may not remember the 17 hours she spent on an operating table with her skull cut open, but her body did. And that’s the reason she will never hear out of her left ear again, the reason why half of her face is still relearning her to function the way it used to, the reason why the one person in my life who seemed invincible for 24 years, was now just as plainly human as the rest of us.

I wonder what my dad would’ve thought about my sister’s brain tumor. But I find myself wondering what my dad would’ve thought about a lot of things these days. Some big, some small. Do you think Joaquin Phoenix deserved this year’s Academy Award for best actor? How long do you think the real estate boom will last? Is it worth it to be on my own health insurance plan now that I have a real job? If the CDC approves a COVID vaccine — is it a good idea to get it with so little knowledge about the virus itself?

But all these things, all these thoughts and problems exist in a world where my father no longer does. I have the pictures and the memories and the old tapes from his old hand-held camcorder, but I do not have him. Therefore, I do not have his thoughts, his opinions, or his advice.

I do though, have a quote, from a rather obscure movie. A quote that has been living somewhere deep in my hippocampus for years now. The science fiction film Super 8 was released in 2011. I don’t remember when the first time I watched it was, but I will never forget the words of Joe Lamb, the 14 year old protagonist in the movie, as he is scooped up by the alien that has been terrorizing his little corner of America and now has trapped underground, along with all of his other misfit friends. “I know bad things happen,” Joe says, staring into the eyes of the monster, “Bad things happen. But you can still live. You can still live.”

This line would probably come off as cheesy and ill-fitting to the plot of the movie for most, but for me, that line replays again and again in my brain, even now. Sometimes I feel like Joe, reminding myself and others that bad things happen. Very bad things. Sometimes I feel like the monster, who crash-landed onto this Earth, suffering at the hands of unfair happenstance, angry enough to destroy everything in my path because I feel as though I’ve been cheated out of what’s good and easy in life.

But I think most of the time, I find myself somewhere between the two. I thought the bad things were over when my dad took his own life. But I was wrong, because life isn’t all good with just a touch of bad. Fate can be a monster that threatens to knock you to the ground with one swoop. But life is also the glimmer of hope in Joe Lamb’s eyes insisting that you can still live.

I’ll never know if my dad saw the movie Super 8. But I know if he did, he would have enjoyed it — and probably teared up the same way he did every time we watched E.T. But the words of Joe Lamb would not have saved my father’s life. I know this, because as tragic as it is, not even the love of his family could.

But my sister — my sister’s life was spared by that monster. My sister was saved by a team of more than a dozen doctors who worked tirelessly for 17 hours to remove a brain tumor more complicated than anything most of them had ever seen.

My father took his own life. I still suffer the consequences of that choice even though it was not mine to make. My sister’s life will never be the same because of the massive brain tumor she had removed at 24-years-old. This world is a mess. This country is at war with itself.

Bad things happen. Bad. Things. Happen.

But you can still live. You can still live.


Photo credit: kieferpix/Getty Images

Originally published: December 6, 2020
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