Essay: My brother’s suicide and my “heart’s howl”

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Essay: My brother’s suicide and my “heart’s howl”

Back in 1960, my brother David was about nine-years-old when he left the Marbro Theatre near Madison Street and Pulaski Road in the middle of whatever movie we were watching and walked home.

He didn’t tell the group of us siblings he was leaving. He just went out the door and walked the two miles west to our home on Leamington.

A couple years later, he was goofing around downtown with his friends, and they ditched him, as boys will do.

He wasn’t worried and got on an el to return to the West Side. But he soon realized he was on the wrong train, so he got off and, having no more money, walked back downtown, and then headed west on Lake Street.

It was a walk of at least seven miles.

Two years ago, on November 21, 2015, a few days before Thanksgiving, David took a last journey on his own.

He walked out the back door of his Oak Lawn home at 3 a.m. into a frigid snow-rain and took his life.

 

My own journey

David was born in 1951, fourteen months after me. Following him were twelve other children, two boys and ten girls. As adults, the fourteen of us were close, all living in and around Chicago and gathering at regular intervals throughout the year for family parties.

David’s suicide was a profound shock to those he left behind — and it wasn’t.

Throughout his sixty-four years, he’d often been troubled, easily angered and uncomfortable in his skin. He’d threatened suicide twenty-five years earlier. In his final ten days, the medicine that had helped keep great arthritis pain at bay suddenly stopped working. His days and nights were filled with agony.

David’s final walk led me on my own journey to understand my brother and me and our relationship and our common history and our disparate life trajectories. It’s an on-going exploration that has involved psychotherapy and a lot of writing.

 

“The heart’s howl”

One result has been a book of poetry Requiem for David, published earlier this year by Silver Birth Press.

Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street, calls Requiem for David “the heart’s howl, a passage through mourning, a lesson ultimately in learning how to walk alongside pain with grace.”

Haki Madhubuti, one of the preeminent African-American poets of today, compares the collection and its wrestling with the meaning of religious faith to the work of poet-priest Daniel Berrigan. And Stuart Dybek writes:

“Detail by razor-sharp detail, perception by vivid perception, recollection by haunting recollection, Patrick T. Reardon’s Requiem for David gathers into the force of a cri de coeur.”

“You rose, a Macy’s float”

Earlier this month, I did a reading from Requiem for David at the Rogers Park branch of the Chicago Public Library at 6907 N. Clark St. During the presentation, I talked about the book with my friend Linda Bubon, the co-founder of the esteemed Women & Children First bookstore in Andersonville.

One of the poems I read was this one,

1952…galvanized

I don’t want to think of you

at 18 months, chewing on

the metal end of a garden

hose with a look of close concentration

while I stand behind you

in a galvanized iron tub,

our swimming pool. You teased

at the puzzles of life and were

teased. You picked at the scab of

pain, ripping it off again and again to

get somewhere you didn’t know and

never reached. It was the way you knew to stay

alive until the raw suffering filled you like

helium and you rose, a Macy’s float, to hang

over your life until you cut the cord

and fell.

“Reach up and out”

During our conversation about my relationship with David, his troubled life, our difficult infancies with parents who weren’t warm and affectionate, Linda read this poem:

Ordinary time

In the sacred church space,

during a Mass in Ordinary Time,

I am visited by a vision, and each

of the stained glass windows

tells the story of my life,

and in each one is a

crucifixion and a

flower pushing up

through soil and up

and out and up to

reach up and out and

open to the battering

wind and the bee and

the blessing of sun

and, then, the

snow.

 

I like “Ordinary Time” a lot because, for me, it seemed to contain the beauty and bleakness of life and, I think, a lot of hope.

 

“My spirit within me”

Near the end of the presentation, in between handling questions and comments from the audience, Linda asked me to read this poem:

 

A lament

Weep, Virgin Mother. Weep, you

other Marys. Weep, John at the

cross foot where the blood and

sweat dripped, where the

muscles of the Man ached,

cramped, tore and, eventually,

sagged the ghost away, the

soul off to open the gates of some

wayside hell between here and the

empty white. The terra cotta

scene by one of the Della Robbias

on the dark wall of the Gardner Museum

shines in the gloom, a “Lamentation.” In His

dying, we are born. We are

seeds, blooming in the

hurricane, and withering

away to soil. My soil magnifies

the Lord, and my spirit within

me shouts against the vast empty

white, like Job, and then I am left,

like Job, in the silence to

endure.

 

Amid the anguish

My book is filled with raw pain, anger and sorrow, and, for me, it is hard work to confront these jagged feelings.

But I continue to do so in my search to better understand myself and my brother, and to honor David.

Because, amid all the anguish, Requiem for David is also a book filled with love.

 

Patrick T. Reardon

11.21.17

 

A somewhat different version of this essay appeared in Streetwise on 11.6.17.

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