While reading Jessie Cole’s Staying: A Memoir, I found myself stuck, fish-hooked by one particular sentence. I’d picked it up at my local bookstore knowing it would likely stir something up in me. This sentence held within it something a little bit catastrophic. Catastrophic as in involving a sudden and large-scale alteration in state, as in furiously underlining three lines of page 113 and waiting a while.
And ever so slowly Zoe—the actual person—disappeared from our lives, drifting around in the depths of withered memories until she became an event, instead of a person.
‘An event,’ Cole writes. A thing that happens, that takes place. (In her case, a suicide.)
Scouring through an exhaustive catalogue of memorable events, I am able to recover
I) Bec; and
II) Theo*, and
III) Things towering and monumental. E.g., 9/11, a quiet graduation, heartbreak, elation, my mother’s face in 2006—flaying and bruised and bleeding and desperate—when she fell into a bed of tarnished nails, soil and rocks.
I and II are individuals. People with passports and allergies and fears and at least one pair of shoes that don’t fit right. In Staying, Cole spotted this and dissected it: ‘this’ being what happens when death and dying and abuse and upheaval spread out like woollen clouds and form silhouettes in the shapes of people we once knew, once loved, before encasing them entirely. Zoe, her sister, a teenager with ‘momentous feeling’, ‘nearly grown’, swinging between ‘elation and despair.’
I want to tell Cole that she isn’t the only one who hasn’t discovered the answer while unraveling a young family member’s suicide. I want to tell her that Staying was, in many ways, part of the answer I was looking for in 2014, after Bec’s suicide note was lost, and I wholeheartedly believed that Bec, a 17-year-old, had all of the explanations, the knowledge I craved. The genius of her own undoing.
‘Bec’ (the event) looks like:
- Amber walls, where the shadows of brown women carrying trays of sambal smother and climb each other after the ‘act’.
- Where Aunty Heather and I slink our small bodies into a back alley, puffing furiously on a shared cigarette, the smoulder of tobacco fighting the expanse of grief and shock where our lungs should be (once were), metres from the garage where Bec’s body was found.
- A funeral service where school girls frame the perimeter of the church and I am swallowed whole by an unholy curiosity that I just can’t shake: How many here—quiet and impatient and jolted from each of their respective adolescences—bullied my dead cousin?
I followed Cole as she grappled with her own selfhood while growing up in the shadow of her sister’s death; it felt like an eerie reflection of my own youth. I too felt swallowed up by something akin to grief, but not quite. There was always a quiet niggling terror that followed me in and out of university classrooms, of nightmares where I remember the way skin changes hue from the inside out, where I run from a purple loathing lodged deep within a sad teenager’s pores, desperate to seep out.
And then there is Theo (the event), which looks like:
- The dull pulse of an airplane as it leaves him—my cruel once-upon-a-time lover—behind in London.
- Him, being: unrelenting anger, angry breath in my face, ‘you’re a dumb c***, a weird b****, I’d rather kill myself than be with you’, etc. (He is not sorry.)
- This same airplane pulse! It burrows unapologetically into the ear canals of nervous infants as we leave the ground, on our way back home (I know this because they are screaming, and so am I)
- And I am skinny—sad, and skinny—and it is Christmas time, and the stranger next to me says ‘everything will be okay’ and I almost believe her for a moment before the sorrow swallows me whole and the air hostess hops eagerly toward me, holding a delicious gallon of fresh oxygen between her sweaty palms. She feeds me straight from the tank, nursing me back, and I shuffle awkwardly in my seat under the hot gazes of a hoard of judgemental babies. (I am one of them, now.)
I will meet others, I’m sure, in much the same way that Cole inevitably did. Events, with limbs, and bruises and perhaps even a morning rasp wedged deep in their throats. It would be arrogant to assume myself delegated to the realms of personhood, the exclusivity of it, because—one day—I may be somebody else’s event. Or perhaps I already am. Perhaps, when Theo sleeps, he sees me as fluorescent lights in a cloudy, London sky. Warning signs, swelling and contracting in the darkness. A torturous trip to an escape room with no obvious doors. Wall paint the colour of my tongue. Poorly framed posters that read, THE SUBJECT IS ONLY ALLOWED TO GET AWAY ONCE HE ASSUMES ACCOUNTABILITY, AND APOLOGISES.
It seems incorrect—or stronger again, wrong—to equate the aftermath of a family member’s suicide with the aftermath of leaving my own abusive relationship. But that is not what I’m doing, and I think Cole would understand this. What I’m doing is instead acknowledging that Bec and Theo have assumed different shapes in my mind now, my memory. Thanks to Cole, they are now things that happened; events able to transcend the boundaries of what it is to be a person, or rather what it is to be remembered as such. Sometimes, I even wonder if they were ever really people at all, but disorderly parties that throb and leak in my mind while I sleep—grating and loud and nocturnal, banging furiously on a sticky bathroom door in a language only I know, somewhere in the back of my consciousness, or vomiting into a family of drying hibiscus; the smell familiar and sickening. A version of me (smaller, sadder) barges in and asks where Bec is, where Theo is, and a woman with wiry hair inhales slowly on the same cigarette Bec smoked before tethering together her nylon weapon and tying it to the rafters. She tells me that I’m sitting in the belly of them, that this is how it is now.
I wake, hungover from grief or fear, or something else entirely.
Madison Griffiths, a writer, artist and poet whose work has been published in The Guardian, VICE, Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, Overland, The Lifted Brow and more.
* This person’s name has been changed.