I thought of the card his parents sent me, which in its first two words seemed to say it all: "Oh Kathy."
I suggested to Roger that an expression like "I'm so sorry, I don't know what to say" would have been welcomed, but that I understood. All death is difficult, suicide even more so. The suicide of someone you knew and liked calls into question everything you think you knew about life.
I'm glad Roger and I were able to have that conversation; in a few short years he would be dead at the age of 46 from multiple myeloma, a cancer rarely treatable. Experience had taught me not to put off my expressions of concern for his difficult situation. I kept up contact, and drove to see him at the beautiful home he'd designed and built for his family. When I got there he was lying on the bed in his room. He had tumors the size of walnuts on his cheek and chest. He was hurting; he and his wife were weighing the struggle of getting him down the stairs against the hope that more radiation therapy might shrink the ever-growing tumors enough to relieve some pain. I was able to reach over his bed and hold him in my arms and press my hand to his bald head just days before his passing. I'll never forget what he whispered in my ear: "Oh Kathy."
To date I have never known a writer to be struck dumb by tragedy. I think all writers have an appreciation for tough life situations, because they are the stuff of great story. I sensed this at the recent Philadelphia Writers' Conference, which offered a class on memoir. As fellow attendees asked questions, bits and pieces of our stories leaked out, creating a pool of compassion that connected us as a community. Stories of growing up poor in tough neighborhoods, of child sexual abuse, of difficult health challenges—we had all been dealt tough circumstances, faced them down, and carried on. After hearing that my boys and I had lived through a full day standoff at our farm the day Ron killed himself, more than one approached to say, "I can't imagine what you went through."
No one can imagine what we went through. That's why I'm setting down my story. Others imagine the horrors, but I can help them move beyond them—the way we did. We survived and are striving to create meaning and are reaching for glory. I believe in memoir because we create community by witnessing pain, but also because our healing journeys should be shared.
I can't imagine what the others in that memoir class went through, either—and I can't wait to read about it. In sharing our stories, we feel less profoundly alone.