#MHYALit: Why I Think I Wrote A Book About Suicide, a guest post by Karen Fortunati
Trigger warning: details of suicide
My mind reeled. Wait. What? She was only thirty something. My cousin’s wife had been through some tough times but this? Suicide? “What happened?” I asked as if her method would somehow provide an explanation I could understand.
Again Rick hesitated. “She…uh…carbon monoxide. In her car. In her garage. At her house.”
It wasn’t sinking in. This slim, attractive woman with long dark hair and huge, brown eyes. Always with the quick, sweet, shy smile. Always so pleasant when I’d talk with her once or twice a year at family gatherings. Lee. Dead. By her own poison. I couldn’t see it. Couldn’t see this lovely woman alone in her garage, prepping for death. Couldn’t imagine the pain she was in, comprehend the brutal loneliness and finality of her act.
The funeral was a surreal horror. Inside the church, I studied my cousin and his parents – their walking, grief-stunned zombie-selves. That they were still standing – actually going through the motions of greeting people, hugging, wiping tears was incomprehensible. Especially as I sat on the hard wooden pew, holding my squirming toddler son, his body warm, heart beating inside the solid weight of him. Especially as my three-year-old daughter gripped her Disney princess books, oblivious, the church lights glinting off her silky dark hair. I kept her close to me. God, I prayed, don’t ever let me be in Lee’s mother’s shoes.
This wasn’t my first exposure to suicide. Years earlier, my former boss had killed himself. He was a flamboyant, pompous yet strangely lovable man who I ate lunch with maybe three times a week for almost two years. At the same pizza place eating the exact same meal every time – two slices of plain. He had gorgeous teeth, these white, perfectly shaped Chiclets that I can still see biting into the mozzarella.
My boss was a very public person, the head prosecutor, who while I was working for him, had been convicted of some white-collar crimes – tax evasion, fraud – I can’t even remember. What I do remember is that pending sentencing, he was placed on house arrest, forced to wear an ankle bracelet that monitored his location. He had fallen mightily in our small community and couldn’t handle the shame of going to prison. He cut off the bracelet, fled New Jersey and was ultimately located in Nevada. But before the deputies could break down the door to his $20 a night hotel room, he shot himself in the head.
I was staggered by his suicide and that gave rise to one of the few regrets I have in my life – that I never reached out to him after his fall from grace. There were rumors flying around then – that the investigation was ongoing and that he was under surveillance. But one day, while I was out of the office with some colleagues, we decided to drive past his house. And my boss was there, standing on his front lawn in the brilliant sunshine, doing something ridiculously innocuous like watering his plants or something. Our car slowed and he started to turn around. I slid lower in the back seat and we kept driving.
I’m ashamed of that. So ashamed. I desperately wish I could do it over. Get out of the car and say hello to him. Let him know…I don’t know. Let him know that it was okay. That this would pass and he’d move on, get over this. Would it have made a difference? Probably not. I was nothing to him in the scheme of things. But…maybe it would have. Maybe it would have.
Last weekend, I volunteered at my first Out of Darkness walk, an event organized by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The event had a raw, stark beauty to it – a resilient community founded on despair. It was a day of transparency, an utter bullshit-free zone. One woman told me of the last conversation she had with her aunt about the existence of God. A volunteer spoke of her teen daughter’s continuing suicide ideation. Another told me that her daughter who had committed suicide was named Karen.
I worked at the registration table, checking off the list of participants, while across from me, volunteers handed out “honor beads” – beaded necklaces in a rainbow of bright colors that spoke of the exact nature of loss – red for a spouse or partner, purple for relative or friend, white for a child and so on. I looked up at some point and directly in front of me was a couple wearing the white beads. They appeared freshly stunned and haggard and looked around as if they had been dumped on a strange planet. That couple has stayed with me as well as the group of high school girls who crowded the registration table with their face paint and blue hair ribbons and matching tee shirts with a photograph of Abby. It was the photograph that I had a hard time pulling my eyes from – this beautiful blond hair, blue eyed young woman smiling at me. Abby. A bright and funny cheerleader who killed herself her sophomore year of high school.
I’ve been asked about the inspiration for The Weight of Zero. I think it comes down to this, two very specific memories – Lee’s funeral and my failure to get out of the car that day – combined with my own anxiety as a parent. Over the years as my children have grown, I’ve become very conscious of a divide, of a blockade I will never be able to cross. My kids have independent lives now, just like I do, and parts of them will remain to me like the bottom of the ocean – unseen and unknown. While that’s exactly as it should be, it still scares me. Because it allows for the possibility of my ignorance of their pain. For the possibility of being in the shoes of Lee’s mother or the white-beaded couple. It has to be the reason why I felt most closely bound to my main character’s mother, why her voice felt like my own. This is what created the engine that drove this story: sorrow, regret, fear and most importantly, hope in that if they/my readers enter a dark place, they’ll be able to find their voice to seek help and hold on through it.
* Names and relationships have been changed.
About THE WEIGHT OF ZERO by Karen Fortunati
Release Date: October 2016
Seventeen-year-old Catherine Pulaski knows Zero is coming for her. Zero, the devastating depression born of Catherine’s bipolar disease, has almost triumphed once, propelling Catherine to her first suicide attempt. With Zero only temporarily restrained by the latest med du jour, time is running out. In an old ballet shoebox, Catherine stockpiles medications, preparing to take her own life before Zero can inflict its own living death on her again.
But Zero’s return is delayed due to unexpected and meaningful relationships that lessen Catherine’s sense of isolation. These relationships along with the care of a gifted psychiatrist alter Catherine’s perception of her diagnosis as a death sentence. This is a story of loss and grief and hope and how some of the many shapes of love – maternal, romantic and platonic – impact a young woman’s struggle with mental illness.
A Summer/Fall 2016 Indies Introduce Selection
Featured in SEVENTEEN MAGAZINE, September 2016
An Apple Best Books of October Selection
About Karen Fortunati
Karen Fortunati is a former attorney who attends graduate school at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and works part-time as a museum educator. She lives in Connecticut with her family and rescue dogs.
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Filed under: #MHYALit
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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