Saturday, June 08, 2013

Stations of the Breath - Part Four

Continued from parts One and Two and Three.

Before Antonella's story, another perspective of Zoe. Antonella won't mind.

I received a long Facebook message from a woman who was a brown-eyed, curly-haired music major back in the day. I responded with If you give me permission, I'll quote you. I won't do it without your OK - and I know it sounds weird - but there is a larger point at the end of the piece that's being expanded by what people are telling me.

She gave me permission with one proviso; Don't call me Donna. I hate that name. 

She can be Madeline, then. I was surprised to hear from her in the same way that I hadn't expected to hear from Lloyd. They both arrive in this narrative later, their presence an indelible fact that had almost fallen away until meeting Kelly and finding it all brought into the foreground, again.

What Madeline remembers:

I didn't go to Zoe's funeral, 'cause at the time her parents said it was family-only (until they finally realized how many people wanted to be there and opened it up). I freaked out and locked myself at home for a couple of days, refusing to answer the phone... I have no recollection. I had spent a lot of time with Zoe in New York where Zoe expressed the desire to kill herself and of course l tried to talk her out of it and reassure her that she was loved, etc...and it seemed that was fine. Only it wasn't. Zoe's death affected me deeply, and I don't think I every really understood it.

I never knew this; it's one hell of a thing for Madeline to have carried when she was sixteen. I remember that she looked sad and shaken, not more than others but in a quieter way, something chilling and mournful. This might be my imagination, though; not her feelings, my memory of same. I certainly wasn't keeping tabs on anybody, not consciously. Responses ranged from tears to anger, there wasn't anything that could be called appropriate in that situation and god knows what I looked like to the outside world.

I told Madeline A lot of people are offering me pieces of this story, some things don't fade.

She countered with It does fade, details are patchy.

Both statements are true. Time's funny that way. You can marvel or shrink in horror at the clarity of what remains.

Now, Antonella. Who told me the most terrifying thing I could have heard when I asked if I could write about her part in this story, or more precisely, how I dealt with the story. She said I trust you. Her history is separate from Zoe's, entirely. The only person for whom the stories tie together, a year and a half later, is me.

Things ended better for Antonella, but something dark in her lingered for the longest time. I can't know that it's gone forever; let's call it exorcised for the time being. Winston Churchill's description of depression as a black dog is overused, but it's Antonella's choice of phrase and it still comes up from time to time in an email or Facebook missive. She'll say something like the Black dog's been around, but not too close recently. That's good. It's always a relief to me to hear that from her.

Come back to 1983. Almost. But first let me send a text message in 2013 to James, who also has nothing to do with Zoe and didn’t attend the same high school as she and I. But I've known James forever and it probably makes sense that he is part of a hazy memory of Antonella's trip to the hospital. She was calling herself Toni at the time (had been since Grade Six or so), but a handful of people who knew her since kindergarten were still permitted to call her Antonella.

Hey – this is weird, but I need to talk to you about Antonella’s suicide attempt.

Toni? Say what? Is she okay?

She’s fine. I’m just trying to remember what actually happened.

This was the attempt when we were young, yes? Didn’t know much about it. Family tensions I think.

I thought you had a girlfriend who was involved, she found her sick at school and called an ambulance or something…?

Can’t remember. So long ago. And I wasn’t in that loop at the time.

Nor was I, exactly. Thus the disconnect. There are two versions of it - one that I'd heard from James at the time, which was a decidedly third-person account, and one from Antonella's sister Mary. James' take is far enough away that he remembers nothing but I almost remember him giving me an account of Antonella being found, barely breathing, in a girl's bathroom at their school. Somebody had called an ambulance and she was taken to Mount Sinai for a stomach pump and whatever else is done in those situations. 

I'm mentioning this only for history's sake. Mary's version is much shorter. Somebody (probably James) had told me he'd heard about Antonella's overdose and I called Mary to hear her crying and saying Oh Michael it's horrible she was on the floor with all of these pills around her and she was cold...she was cold and I didn't even know if she was breathing...Michael I'm so scared, do you know what to do?

I don't know why she asked me that. Panic, probably. Everyone must have gotten the same question. I was fourteen years old and in shock and very sure I was the last person to talk to about it.

I'd known Antonella since I was five years old; the idea of her actually killing herself was simply not possible, despite the fact that she'd talked to me about it, had told me she was scared of doing it on a few occasions before assuring me that it wasn't going to happen. A few months before, I had actually 'ratted her out' to my own mother, saying that she had been threatening to kill herself and was actually debating which pills would do the best job, and maybe my Mom could call Antonella's Mom since they'd worked together on a cupcake-baking event back in grade school and were...thus...logically...still in touch...?

This was a horrible way to deal with that situation.

However, it might have helped something - I seem to remember that my mother got in touch with Antonella's family and expressed concern about her mental state. She would have worded it carefully - anything too extreme might have gotten Antonella in trouble (I found out that her mother's temper was an issue for many) but she was blunt enough to suggest there was real danger. I vaguely recall Antonella pointing out her mother's sudden concern for her well-being a few days later (she probably knew I was behind it, but didn't mention it), which was maybe six months before her overdose. Or fewer. Or a year before. It was a long time ago, and even as a spectator, I blocked a lot of it out.

When Mary couldn't talk anymore I remember screaming - one loud yell - then hanging up the phone in my parents' basement. They asked what the hell was going and I told them and they both looked sickened by it. I told them I was going for a walk, and did. It was a foggy night. I walked around the grade school where Antonella and I had met and tried to think of when she wasn't tense/scared/complaining about her family life. Maybe up to Grade Four or so. It got complicated after that.

I went home. My father asked if I wanted to talk about it and I politely declined. Assuming that I was shutting down on the topic, they left me alone. I remember asking when it would be appropriate to ask to visit her in the hospital, my mother told me that somebody would be in touch. I went to my room, sat down and waited. Now that I'm waiting, I thought, it has to happen.

Leave 1983 with me, we'll find 1982. Grade Nine. The last year before High School. Not a high point for anybody in developmental terms. I was at a talent show at my Jr. High waiting for my girlfriend to do a gymnastic routine and hoping that Antonella wasn't going to embarrass herself in singing a song before the entire school.

First qualifier: the term 'girlfriend' is used very loosely here. A cute girl named Jessica decided I was cute as well and had declared we were dating to her friends, who subsequently told me. I wasn't so sure about this - I'd rather hoped I'd have been the first to know - but she was very cute and I felt that the odds of anybody dating me at the time were slim at best, so who was I to argue? She was a gymnast and was doing a routine in a pink leotard and sparkly makeup and her friends were screaming with delight and I was trying to look enthused on her behalf and worried about Antonella.

Second qualifier: Antonella was a gifted pianist (always played better than me) and had a light, sweet singing voice (church choir, I think; maybe she just loved to sing) and there wasn't any reason that it wouldn't go well for her. But I hated the song, which was 'The Rose' which was still popular from the Bette Midler flick at the time. It was the go-to song for people who would say "I don't play piano, but I can play..." and name something that has no more than two or three chords. Later that year, the 'Chariots of Fire' theme supplanted it.

Nobody was mistaking a Jr. High talent show for an episode of 'Fame'. There wasn't going to be a talent scout leaping from the audience at a crucial moment leading some eager soul to stardom. But Jr. High is petty and cuttroat at the best of times and I  knew exactly which of the girls (a few of which were Antonella's so-called friends) would have lashed most deeply into her if she hit a few wrong notes.

Or maybe if she simply sang 'The Rose' which is slow, depressing, dippy, and very easy to get bored of.

I was in the Jr. High sample group at the time. Our usual response to boring events was to talk loudly, throw things towards the stage, and suggest loudly that the talent remove themselves post-haste. I didn't want to see any of this happen to Antonella. She wouldn't deserve it. She was putting herself at risk. It had been a bad few months and she was already hard on herself and I didn't want to see her hurt. I knew what a 'low' looked like and I didn't want to watch it get worse.

Act One: A few 13yr olds do a servicable if oddly fast cover of Eric Clapton's 'Cocaine'. It goes over well and they all get in trouble after the fact for playing a song that promoted drugs. I also think they'd auditioned with what must have been a very abbreviated version of 'Layla', so this was a case of the old switcheroo. Most of the boys in the audience loved it.

Act Two: Three Grade 8 girls in cartoonish pyjamas (I think they were supposed to be at a sleepover) doing an acapella version of 'Easy Street' from 'Annie'. Any girl who did not consider herself a cool girl loved it and cheered.

Act Three: Something classical, performed with the blessing of the strings teacher. I remember a cello and two violins. Nothing else.

Act Four: A slide show. I remember nothing other than seeing a bored teacher putting up and taking down the screen.

Act Five: Jessica in pink leotard and sparkly makeup dancing to 'All Over The World'  by ELO. Very loud, lots of bouncing by a pretty girl. The audience hooted and loved it. A red haired, thick-glassed buddy named Gary elbowed me and said You don't deserve her! Send her to me!

Act Six: Antonella and an un-remembered accompanist, maybe Mary. The opening C major chord went on for 16 instead of 8 bars as the teachers got the room to quiet down. Gary whispered Is it just me, or do you think that this is maybe not the best idea in the world?

As stated previously, I've always hated the song. She sang it slowly. The muttering throughout the audience rose and fell a few times during her performance but two wonderful things happened; firstly, she sang it rather well. Secondly, those who were bored by it ignored it, rather than heckled it. Some girls sang along quietly. It wasn't a long song and it ended sweetly, even if she looked incredibly serious at two of the first lines:

Some say love, it is a hunger
an endless aching need...

or maybe it was just me, projecting. The song ended, the applause was sincere, the show went on and I don't remember a single moment of the rest. All I remember is meeting her afterwards and she was almost smiling, almost proud of herself. I said "You were great!" and she said "I was okay" and I expected no less at the time.

Back to 1983, please. Three weeks after the overdose, I was allowed to visit her at Mount Sinai. I was really hating 'The Rose' by that point., line by line. Hunger and aching need and love is a razor and bleeding and the night is too lonely and the road is too long and I was sure that all of it was the last factor to cause her to commit suicide. Yes, I knew that was perhaps a stretch in psychiatric and logistic terms, but I wanted something to hate and I wasn't going to hate Antonella.

The visit for me was sterile, if comforting. She was in a hospital robe in a locked if comfortable looking ward. She smiled, looked a little manic (which I'd seen before, which I would be nervous about for years afterwards) and told me she was feeling better and wasn't, wasn't, wasn't going to try it again, so I didn't need to ask her runaround questions to find out if it was on her agenda. And I shouldn't worry about her.

But she did want to break a window. She wasn't going to leap through it, or cut herself or anybody else with it, but she was angry at the fact that she had no privacy and not everything she did had to be scary or watched or be something that needed to be fine-tuned, and if she broke one window to prove there were some surprises in her but she had the control not to pull any other stunts like that, well then...

...that'd be great.

I believed her when she said it wouldn't happen again. It looked like something had been stopped within herself - maybe the fear of trying to hurt herself. Maybe trying it once was enough for her to have proved something. I'm hurting. I'm scared. See? and that impulse was chaged into No. It scared me. Not that way. Not again.

That's what it looked like to me. Here's what she's said about that stay, recently:

At the time being in Mount Sinai was about being safe and free from harm both psychological and physical. It was about understanding that the world was a very large place and that the choices were overwhelming although I had longed for them for so long. I didn't realize that physiological emancipation from one's guardians meant that there were choices I was not ready to make. I learned that I was actually attractive and kind. That I was not the disgusting, fat, incredibly lazy waste of oxygen I had been led to believe I was.

There was - and is - a legion of friends to confirm that she is never was any of those things, while we knew she felt it, regardless of anyone's best efforts. In 2013 however, Antonella is alive and well, married, happy, a million miles away despite occasional rumblings from the black dog.

It's fair to say I was not being honest even with myself when I told you a few years ago that there were no lingering issues from my own darkness however we all do whatever we feel is best to continue to heal and grow towards enlightenment. The one thing I know for certain is that we carry every experience of death with us into the next. By the time we're in retirement we may find ourselves inexplicably bursting into tears over Peppy the Goldfish or during the eulogy of a co workers' parent.

Or maybe just somebody playing yet another cover of 'The Rose'.

That's all there is of Antonella's part in this. We don't speak often, but run into each other electronically from time to time. She wrote recently that  I have known you a long time though we are not meshed in each others daily lives I still believe we know each other fairly well and on a certain level are friends.

We are. I can smile at that in the same way that I smiled when I met her a few weeks before my wedding, when we hadn't been in touch for years. I told her that the reception was booked solid but I'd be delighted if she came to the church for the ceremony. She was the only friend there whom I'd I known in Kindergarten. Time matters, sometimes. Positively, even.

After Antonella's incident, I believed that people - especially people my age or close to it - would always find the help they need. Eighteen months later, all things changed. And there was Celeste, another survivor, at once distant from and close to the centre of all this.


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