Last week I was out in Magnuson Park for the first time in several years. We drove past the tennis center, past the playgrounds, all the way to the slopes overlooking a sculpture installation of submarine fins arranged to look like a pod of Orca whales. We walked through narrow paths beaten into the dried grasses, gleaning the last of the blackberries, watching the sun begin to slip away behind the mountains. Through the trees I could see the lake beyond, the lake where I used to practice whitewater kayaking when I was in high school, the lake where E. died three months ago. She walked down to the edge of the water early one morning and did not return.
We talk a lot about suicide and mental illness, about depression and demons that shout out in your head, you are not good enough. We talk about how the pain of the world can become so much of a burden that no amount of love can lift this weight. About the chemical imbalances of the brain that send some of us spinning into darkness. These are all things that matter. But for E. the darkness was something else. She had a debilitating brain disorder that took away her ability to speak, that scrambled her thoughts, that was making it hard to control her body. Soon she would have to stop driving. Soon she would need assisted living. Before all autonomy was gone she chose the time and manner of her death, the ultimate freedom.
The month after E. died I went to the reading of a play by Holly Arsenault. The crux of the story is that an older woman is dying, and she wants her younger lover to help her commit suicide. I couldn’t stop thinking about E., about what separates terminal illness from mental illness, except perhaps with the latter there is always the faintest glimmer of hope that something will make life worth living. With terminal illness, your will to live is at the mercy of your body, and they are both running out of time on a stopwatch no one can see. In Arsenault’s THE CUT, the woman has lived, and loved, and has been loved, and does not want to suffer through the painful, inexorable end. Like E. she chose the hour and means of her own end. Then a poem by W. S. Merwin repeated in my head, over and over.
FOR THE ANNIVERSARY OF MY DEATH